“Light bleeds from the world
Starcross, the Underfall Yard
the iron and the stone is broken
the dream of the Western mind
searching for reason is gone now“
It seems a lifetime since these words have been etched into my mind. Countless runs on the moors and trails of our Pennine hills amongst old quarries, broken shepherds rests, along sheep trods to old mining tracks, rusting old machinery dramatically lit by shafts of sunlight amongst stark moorland beauty ….. the words silently going round in my mind as I run blissfully up the hills.
Yet, somehow, it is but a few years since the Underfall Yard came into my life.
Never has music resonated and connected with me so strongly to the extent that it has almost become my theme tune for running, for life even …
So here we are, in a rainy and warm London, having a pre-show pint with some wonderful friends about to witness this magnificent piece of music performed live for the very first time. In my mind there was somehow a nagging doubt that it was all some huge spoof, a wind up, and we would get to the venue to find it had all been a dream and that the concerts were in fact just us fans wishing beyond dreams that BBT would perform live.
The venue could not have been any better, a mini Bridgewater Hall lookalike with perfect views wherever. Small, modern and intimate – perfect.
There was palpable tension in the air and, as alluded by Nick on a previous post, a slight worry that the sound might not be right, the tracks may not lend themselves to live performance, could the group cut it ….. ?!
The lights went down. The band walked out. The audience was hushed.
Then David Longdon said “Hello ..shall we make some noise ?”, in a cheery voice and you could almost feel everyone relax.
And it started ….
Two and a half hours of the most sublime, moving and emotionally charged music I have had the pleasure to witness – ever.
Although they started with my least favourite track of the evening, it was a joy to see these people who I have listened to for so long, actually there on stage, performing with such energy and fun. My eyes were casting back and forward, yes, there’s Dave Gregory, that’s Greg Spawton tucked away at the back on the right, just next to Nick D’Virgilio … wow.
Once the little opening track had allowed them to loosen up, we moved into a powerful section with ‘The First Rebreather’ providing drama and the first opportunity for David Longdon to really open up that fantastic voice :
‘Searching for hope at the ninth hour …..’
What I wasn’t expecting was the 24 minute epic ‘The Underfall’ Yard to be so early in the running order but boy, did this deliver. From those first opening chords to the magnificent section with the lyrics above, this was a stunning tour de force : powerful, precise, tight, dripping with emotion and passion for the subject matter ….. wonderful.
I never thought I would get to see this track performed live and it really did feel like I had died and gone to heaven.
As a bit of light relief we then had ‘Uncle Jack’ which has always struck me as a quirky track with an awkward but charming feel to it. Maybe it’s the use of the banjo or it’s structure, but it was a delight to listen to live despite a couple of timing issues, not to be unexpected I guess in a first live performance !
So far we’ve not mentioned the brass band, or more correctly the brass section. At first I was a bit non-plussed as I could hear them but there was no sign on stage. Then I noticed they were sitting in the balcony just above the band. This was good timing as another track from ‘The Underfall Yard’ was next – ‘Victorian Brickwork’.
If you know this track, you will be aware of the power of the closing section with it’s huge build up of brass, guitar and keyboard. If you don’t, you need to rectify that situation with immediate effect. The track itself is wonderful, a haunting lament that rolls along as the waves and sea it describes envelope us to finish off with the beautiful brass-infused wall of sound finale.
The hairs on my arms were tingling at this point, particularly when the trumpet (or cornet ?) soared so clear and emotionally over the crescendo coming for the stage below ……
Time was going so quickly, as I knew it would. I couldn’t stop time, despite wanting to.
A 20 minute interval allowed everyone to regather themselves, take in what they had just witnessed and try and absorb what had just been.
An interesting choice to start the second part of the performance was ‘Kingmaker’ which, for me, is an often overlooked track sitting as it does somewhat between albums. The live performance was captivating and had me quickly checking my iPod on the journey home to give it the attention it deserves.
One feature of the performance was the energy of David Longdon. He was superb : lively and energetic. He added pathos and drama and at one stage even donned a subtle face mask during ‘Wassail’ that, along with his flute waving, was completely in keeping with the track. He really connected with the audience and delivered a virtuoso vocal performance that was stunning to see at such close quarters.
‘Summoned by Bells’ followed and was played with sumptuous ease, and again, we were treated to a wonderful brass section that could have frankly gone on for several hours and I think we would have all been very happy ….
Now, as a rule I hate drum solo’s with a passion, so was a bit taken aback as Nick D’Virgilio suddenly started thrashing around in a very accomplished drummer sort of way but then suddenly – bang ! – we are into ‘Judas Unrepentant’ as quickly as you like. A stunning way to open this track actually. Again, if you know this track you will be realise it’s quite a complex little fellow with odd phrasing, clever structure and a wonderfully chaotic feel to it. Somehow, this was performed with hardly a missed beat, at least I didn’t notice one, and this was a complete hoot to see live. Loud, energetic, fun and impeccable played.
The mood changed dramatically for the next track – ‘Curator of Butterflies’ from English Electric 2. Danny Manners’ cultured keyboard playing provided a beautiful backing for Longdon’s vocals to soar powerfully. This wonderful track has, for me, always evoked feelings of loss, gentleness, delicacy and compassion and to hear it so beautifully played was mesmerising.
Grown men were weeping at this point it must be said ….
This utterly captivating performance was coming to a close, it had to, it couldn’t go on for ever. There was a sad inevitability that this was a moment in time that was going to be over too soon.
Anyhow, enough reverie. There was some serious business to complete in the form of ‘East Coast Racer’ a track which I have enjoyed immensely from the very first listen but is fast becoming my second favourite track of all time. There is something about its movement and rhythm, the way it mirrors the Mallard steaming along the rails at 120+mph, the elbows jutting from the cab and caps worn in racing style – everything about the lyrics, the history and the industry combine to stunning effect.
The performance of this track was simply astonishing.
During the mid-section the power of the brass section, the drum work of D’Virgilio and the build up of layer on layer of keyboards was spellbinding and when Longdon gets to the final lyric and belts out over all this …..
she flies ………’
Goodness me ….. I’m not sure I’ve seen any live music as compelling as this and yes, I’m a fanboy and know the music inside out, so perhaps my views are a little biased but there was something out of this world about this performance.
To expect any great encore was maybe pushing it but we were treated to a lovely rendition of ‘Hedgerow’ which included sublime violin work from Rachel Hall. In fact, this seemed to captivate Dave Gregory so much he didn’t seem quite ready for his guitar part, as though he was lost in the music and enjoying it as much as us .. a lovely moment !
So, that was it. It was over.
A performance I feel privileged to have seen and one I hope will be repeated should the band feel it was a success.
I sincerely hope they do because from a fan’s perspective it was everything I had dreamt and more …….
Thank you to all the Big Big Train band and the brass band guys for a truly memorable evening.
Come on Make Some Noise
The First Rebreather
The Underfall yard
—- interval —–
Summoned by Bells
Curator of Butterflies
East Coast Racer