Marillion at 20 Monroe Live, Grand Rapids, Michigan, February 18, 2018.
Waiting for Marillion to take the stage, my thoughts drifted to the rest of those gathering in this well-appointed concert club. Why were they here?
Doubtless, there were locals who, when they heard Marillion was returning to Grand Rapids after 20+ years, anticipated pure nostalgia — “Kayleigh,” “Incommunicado,” “Hooks In You,” “No One Can,” fixtures of local rock radio in the early 1990s. After all, why else would a band with no more than a cult following tour the States, if not to play the hits?
Then there were the hardcore fans, the ones I’d hung with in Facebook groups for a couple of years now. People from GR, Kalamazoo, and Detroit who’ve traveled nationally and internationally to see the band since their last Michigan stops — some 30, 40 or more times. The folks who converged on this mid-size Midwestern city from (for example): Bangor, Maine; Hillsboro, Oregon; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Baja, Mexico; and Stoke-on-Trent, England, telling stories of their first Marillion experiences, sometimes stretching back more than four decades. Not to mention “The Nine,” as they named themselves, who’ve seen every show on the current US tour. They all have their favorite songs — but they knew that much more was coming than a rote run-through of career high points.
And then there was me — a Marillion fan since Seasons End, but only on my fourth show (still way behind King Crimson and Rush), bringing my wife and two friends for their first experience of the band, ten minutes away from my house. I couldn’t help but wonder: what connects us? Why this band? What’s at the heart of this experience?
Then the lights dimmed, and FEAR’s opening epic, “El Dorado” emerged from silence — sampled natural sounds, Steve Rothery’s fingerpicked guitar, Steve Hogarth’s muted vocal eloquence, Mark Kelly’s rich sonic backdrops, locking in with Pete Trewavas and Ian Mosley’s refined rhythmic muscle. Over 17 minutes, Marillion built from the self-satisfied, affluent peace of “Long-Shadowed Sun” to the twitchy paranoia of “FEAR,” with H and the band stewing in the pressure cooker of an over-connected, unsettled world. “The Grandchildren of Apes'” woozily hopeful conclusion faded away — and after another rapt silence, the audience erupted.
This is what Marillion is about onstage — sweeping musical and lyrical journeys from five men together for nearly 30 years, still creating powerful art out of collective inspiration. The music is organic yet sophisticated, reveling in smash-cut contrasts as much as in classic prog and rock moves. Mosley and Trewavas lay down a sturdy foundation for Kelly’s ethereal textures, and when Rothery takes a solo or Hogarth hits a vocal climax, they wring out every possible ounce of emotion. Onstage, the flow is enhanced by immersive visuals that reinforce the lyrical themes, without literalism or overt preachiness.
But while Marillion make music for themselves first, they’re also about their fans — and the Grand Rapids concert was no exception. Hitting a flexible part of the setlist, H promptly screwed up the dedication of the first audience request, “Fantastic Place” — then profusely, profanely apologized to the couple after the song, when Kelly pointed it out. “No One Can,” one of those GR-area hits, followed swiftly as another dedication — though according to Trewavas after the show, the band hadn’t played it in years! Throughout, there was affection, implied and open, coming off the stage to a core fanbase doggedly built through pioneering web forums, crowdfunded tours and albums, international Weekends, and even drop-ins to pre-show fan meet-ups.
And what else do Marillion’s fans get from all this? Beyond their obvious musical prowess and the excitement of a first-class show, I saw at least two gifts from them to us at the heart of the matter.
First, Marillion’s lyrical subjects have never fit prog stereotypes — woolly-headed fantasy landscapes, gritty sci-fi dystopias, bloodless romances. Instead, Hogarth burrows into the hearts and minds of his protagonists, unpacking the thousand tiny struggles of everyday life, revealing his own vulnerability to a sometimes uncomfortable degree. This raw honesty was all over the Grand Rapids set: the collective folly of humanity spotlit in “El Dorado” and “Seasons End;” survivors struggling with damage by others and personal demons in “Afraid of Sunlight” and the excerpts from Brave; the slippery slope from success through stagnation to death of “King;” even the inconsolable grief of “The Invisible Man’s” bereft lover. H brings not just a showman’s stage presence, but unflinching empathy and solidarity with humanity to the stage. It’s easy to feel, “he’s been there. They know what it’s like. I’m not in this alone.”
And beyond empathy, Marillion’s epics of the everyday point to something bigger. Like all good mystics, Hogarth sees past flat, meat-based materialism, to the magic in the spaces between atoms, embodied in the band’s gossamer constructions. His life itself, and the family that brought him into being, is the focus of “This Strange Engine’s” sprawling pain, delight, wonder and gratitude. Even more, the mystery is laid bare to — and embodied in — the makeshift community that gathers around the band from album to video, from town to town. And so it’s the final section of “The Leavers,” unfolding live like an inevitable rite of passage, that ultimately reveals the heart of Marillion:
The Remainers are leaving their homely places
With excited faces, drawn to the night
Preparing their minds for a break from the sensible life
As the Leavers bring with them their noise and light, their wild wonder cure-all of crazy religion
In one sacred ritual
Unmasked and undressed
We all come together
We’re all one tonight.
- El Dorado
- Fantastic Place (“for Kathryn from
- Seasons End
- No One Can (“for John from his bride of 25 years”)
- Afraid of Sunlight
- The Leavers
- The Great Escape/The Last of You/Falling from the Moon
- The Invisible Man
- This Strange Engine
Check out the venue’s photo gallery from the start of the show:
Finally, catch the latest info about upcoming Marillion releases here.
— Rick Krueger