[Earlier this year, Professor Geoff Parks very kindly asked me to contribute to the BBT Concert Book, introducing and celebrating the band live for three dates this past weekend. As any progressive rock lover knows, this happened and, surprising to no one except the members of the band, BBT performed with absolute and utter brilliance. From my perspective, praise of BBT is praise of integrity itself. Below is what appeared in the concert program. I am deeply honored to have been a part of this event, even if armed only with a keyboard and separated by 3,500 miles–Brad]
Over time, most bands fade, while some others merely linger. A few, however, grow, evolve, develop, broaden, deepen, and reach. Toward what? Toward excellence, toward true community, toward art, toward creativity, and toward beauty.
Big Big Train is such a band. More importantly, it is an artistic community, in and of itself.
Founded in the early 1990s when progressive rock had become not just “weird” but almost anathema for most folks, Big Big Train stood for something solid and good even when the footing was unsure. Writing dramatic and cinematic pieces—complete with false starts and re-dos and some clumsy grasps (one album from 2002 is even a four-letter word)—Greg Spawton and Andy Poole pursued their dreams of making their own music. Though they correctly offered pieties to the past of Genesis and Yes, they wanted to be their own touchstone.
Then, something happened. Gathering Speed. At once an homage to the brave who defended the motherland against the rapacious fascists of central Europe, Gathering Speed proved to offer a distinctive sound, a “Big Big Train” sound. Drama, time shifts, jarring passages becoming melodic and melodic becoming ethereal, and truly fine lyric writing made this album a gem.
Then, something happened. Again. The Difference Machine. Astonishingly, even better than Gathering Speed, The Difference Machine told the haunting story of the stars and the souls, and the souls and the stars. At what point do the two become one? Chaos, order, sacrifice, dreams, death, loss. Everything that matters in life (and death) is here, in every lyric and every note.
Then, something happened. Again. The Underfall Yard. Oh, the majesty of that new voice, that voice that so perfectly captures Spawton’s and Poole’s music. That voice doesn’t just define the sound that the two remaining founders of the band had so long pursued, it gives it harmony in a perfect, Platonic sense. The listener begins the album, lulled by that voice. Toward the middle, we don’t know if we’re in Hell, Purgatory, or Holy Mass. By the end of the album, we care desperately that an electrical storm has moved out to sea.
Then, something happened. Again and again and again. English Electric One, English Electric Two, English Electric Full Power. A two cd set with a glorious booklet. And, now, we see what Spawton and Poole had seen for twenty-three years: an idyllic English landscape, marred by human error and the will to destroy. But, also leavened with the will to love, to discover, and to create. English Electric, despite the power implied, is the delicate holding of a soul, a soul that can choose the good or the ill, the true or the terrifying, and the beautiful or the horrific.
And, now, a toast of Wassail to three live dates in London, 2015. There, in the heart of English liberty, the heart of English commerce, and the heart of English dignity. For there, behind wind-swept pioneers, Spitfires, divers and architects, station masters, fallen kings, intriguing uncles, decrepit athletes, shipping manifests, curators, and loyal dogs, lies . . . something.
There, just behind the hedgerow. If you look and listen with attention and care, you’ll find the keepers of all things good, true, and beautiful. They call themselves Big Big Train.