A Luddite Takes the Plunge…

I toyed with the notion of starting a blog. I procrastinated. I was encouraged to just do it. With my thanks to those who said, “We could have set you up with WordPress in the time it has taken to have this conversation!”, I hereby take the leap but at this very early stage, without a great deal of faith…

The inspiration to want to launch this blog has come from reading posts written by various people associated with the progressive rock band Big Big Train. They are a passionate lot, collectively known as Passengers and I am honoured to count myself amongst them.

A Grand Day Out

Grand Tour Review            Released 17/05/2019

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  1. Novum Organum:

At once both ancient and modern sounds greet my ears; keyboards evoking a combination of hammered rhythm and interstellar signal that immediately encapsulates the intent of breadth of this, the grandest of Grand Tours. David’s vocal enters after 8 seconds of the opening hypnotic repeated phrase and even before the first minute has elapsed, some deeply affecting lyrics follow.

“With the sounds of distant earth”, a nod to the novel by Arthur C Clarke and the 1994 album The Sounds of Distant Earth inspired by the same by Mike Oldfield; “She has gone now into empty skies, she has flown out to the space between the stars…”

David’s ultimate, “at least we tried” sounds to these ears to be delivered in a world-weary resignation of mankind’s impending doom. A lump in my throat already and there’s another 74 minutes of this journey still to run… it’s a terrific curtain raiser!

 

  1. Alive:

The release of this song as a single ahead of the album release has seen it already settled comfortably into my subconscious as a right rollicking crie de coeur about grabbing life by the scruff of its neck and living it to the fullest – we might yet avert the doom implied at the close of the opening song if we but channel our energies, our passions, our love and respect and resign greed, intolerance and destruction to the past.

There was a novelty to the perhaps comparable Make Some Noise, the nostalgia of which I fully embraced but with Alive, the message is serious despite the lively, upbeat delivery  – it’s a rallying call and I can hear now the response to this gorgeous slab of drum and keyboard-driven joy if aired in a live context. The air instrument-playing further evidence if needed of this serious group’s occasional humour – it took me quite some time to note their debt of gratitude in the booklet to Dr Geoff Parks for his “expert proofe reeding”!

It’s perhaps the first indication, too, of the increasing role of backing vocals, which, bearing in mind the wealth of voice talent available in the band ought not be unexpected. It’s a surprising delight to hear snatched vocal lines pop up from Rachel, Nick and Rikard all through Grand Tour.

 

  1. The Florentine:

The joyous memories of my family’s 2017 Italian trip are brought flooding back by the bright sun-evoking acoustic guitar opening conjures the inimitable images and colours of Tuscany. It struck me that acoustic guitar, along with piano, is often used to sketch the outline of a song as its composition begins to take shape; here it speaks to me of Da Vinci’s sketches and notebook annotations in the way the vocal seems to be delivered in short, almost bullet point fashion like notes in his codices.

When the acoustic guitar is joined by the electric there’s an almost jaunty, country feel before a cymbal wash and a bass pedal reminds me that (with all due respect) Slim Dusty is most certainly not represented in my record collection.

Wonderful, too, is the Big Big Train predilection for paraphrasing snippets of lyrics employed in earlier works, their familiarity and continued relevance weaving their way through songs and reminding us, as if needed, of the rich threads already laid into this marvelous tapestry of song-smithing… “See further…”, “Fine lines…” and “Drawings and designs…”

Brief solos at 2’30” (violin), 4’30” (keyboard) and 5’26” (guitar) each lift the song on ethereal wings to the skies as if borne by one of Da Vinci’s flying machines.

It’s interesting to hear of the polymath being referred to as a star – he certainly was a star although unlikely to be called such in the vernacular of the time, but it’s a nice touch, if it was intentional, to allude to the heavenly bodies he studied. Towards the end, there’s a suggested stately, Italianate court theme

A simply gorgeous song from start to finish. “Diving for pearls”, indeed…

 

  1. Roman Stone:

Acoustic guitar, violin and bass piano notes are joined by the lead vocal and then, once again, male and female backing harmonies. At 1’ 20” brass comes in perhaps as a reminder of the expansion of the Roman Empire into England; later there’s flute and a sense of the bucolic “co-existence” of the English rural and the might of the invading Eagle-led centurions. I love these “Hovis moments” that the Brass Ensemble brings to so many of the bands’ songs.

In Part Four: Fall, a terrific instrumental break with horns and flute and the quick-fire rim-shot and hi-hat appearing to chip-chip away evoking the hand dressing of stone and the carving of statues. The pace then quickens with added snare, toms and guitar before falling away to a sedate saunter with plaintive violin and yearning vocals as we reflect on what the Romans diddo for us. I noted in London Plane that the breakneck speed segment therein suggested an aural technique employed to convey the passage of a lengthy period of time. If correct, it is used here again to similarly stunning effect.

Towards the end of Part Five: Legacy is a triumphant synth-led passage that provides the necessary pomp to match the achievements of the Roman culture over centuries. The song ends as it began; quietly. The Rise and Fall in less than 14 minutes? Yes, and both lyrically and musically the band pull it off. Effortlessly.

 

  1. Pantheon:

A big slab of an instrumental written by drummer Nick D’Virgilio that takes the band through jazz-rock, big band territory and then throws in some KC and Jean-Luc Ponty-stylings for good measure. The weight of the piece more than conveys the extraordinary bulk of this concrete construction that Greg Spawton’s liner notes describes as a “squat, almost Brutalist” exterior that, when entered, leads to a “place of wonder” interior. Having travelled to Rome for the first time in 2017 and visited this architectural treasure, I imagine my next visit when I will have this instrumental in my ears as I sit and soak in the atmosphere…

 

  1. Theodora in Green and Gold:

Rikard appears to have added to his arsenal of keyboard sounds and effects!  Yay! – this is Prog after all…

The opening is all tinkling, chiming tones reminiscent of chandeliers or candelabra

Here another figure from history is given new life in this homage in the form of song. Theodora begins life as a slave before becoming co-ruler with Justinian the First and a woman of some considerable influence. She reminds me of Hildegard of Bingen, a personal heroine of mine, in that she was prepared to stand her ground and expound her beliefs in the face of male religious or military opposition.

It is, first and foremost, a love song and it is blessed with a most beautiful and rousing chorus – there are so many references to light and its reflection on the colour and gold embellishments, a favourite motif in Greg’s lyrics, so here reflecting off the mosaic as candlelight reflecting and refracting on and through the crystal pendalogue and bead chains of a chandelier.

As co-writer with David, Nick delivers five lines of lead vocal that shine like the afore-mentioned light – a band overflowing with such vocal riches and when they combine and blend as they do on so many occasions on this record, it is a thing of joy!

 

  1. Ariel:

I found this the most challenging track on the album but as David evidently found it challenging to research, write and compose, I didn’t feel so bad. It is the most audacious and complex of concepts and I remain almost at a loss for words at this imagined weaving of connection between the Gothic trio of Percy and Mary Shelley and Lord Byron, Shakespeare’s characters Ariel (whom we are urged to believe was real) and Prospero and set against the background of The Bard’s The Tempest… you get the gist, right?

David’s opening dark and brooding dirge-vocal evokes the similarly funeral tones of The Passing Widow from The Second Brightest Star complete with muffled drum.

In Part Three again violin and massed backing vocals attain new heights of beauty and in Part Four suitably squalling guitars amidst the rolling clouds and stormy seas, all the while orchestral strings filling out the sound even further to cinematic effect.

The fact that I am not commenting or appear to be fleeting in my remarks on every part of this lengthy song-cycle is not so suggest they are not integral to the telling of this remarkable tale. It is more the case that I still need further hearings to have the whole composition crystalise. Part Six resonates deeply for me in that it highlights that blur that we may all have experienced at certain times in our lives where what happened and what we remember happened often presents two quite different views on the same event

And Part Seven reaches dizzying heights simply through the repeated “Singing O, blow the winds O” line against increasingly frenetic drums and a final crashing gong before the waters are calmed once again and the song – and what a song – ends with Part Eight and the sound of waves, another recurring theme in the Big Big Train canon. Stunning…

 

  1. Voyager:

 

… And when I believe I have heard the song that will top the lot of this latest offering, along comes the penultimate track to have me reconsider.

Another song about an inanimate object, albeit imbued with the same spirit of those who conceived, designed, built and programmed it, (in the case of Mallard, designer Sir Nigel Gresley, his assistant Oliver Bulleid, fireman Tommy Bray and driver Joe Duddington amongst others), ultimately giving the locomotive a life of its own.

This song profoundly affected me on first listening and had me dabbing at my eyes and catching my breath as East Coast Racer had done (and continues to do) in 2013. With my having nominated the latter as the finest progressive rock song thus far written, could this be the song that now claims the mantle in 2019? For the moment, Mallard is holding firm but Voyager is right up there.

 

A string of familiar motifs come thick and fast… “Sketches made in fading light”…, “Ten miles a second”… and “Set a course for the brightest world” as I try to conceive of the enormity of the journey that this piece of high-tech (at the time) machinery has undertaken, travelling to where nothing has gone before and even beyond that. It’s too much for me to comprehend and makes me feel smaller than usual especially when David’s echoing vocal trails into the void of infinite space.

 

At 6’53” comes my first “wow” moment! I am sitting with headphones on alienated from everything around me and my mouth falls open. Rolling drums Mellotron, bass pedals and piano hold sway for just twenty-eight seconds but had this been the only such “all hands on deck” moment of the song I’d have been delighted. But no, at the 9’35” mark of Part Six we hear other-worldly guitar strains, bass pedals, spacey keyboard effects and orchestra and at 12’ 20” another crescendo to outdo the first  – again wow, I was not expecting that!

 

Voyager’s failing signal slows and stutters to…

 

  1. Homesong:

There is no time to recover from Voyager as we are teleported back from interstellar space and are rematerialised on the banks of the River Stour in Dorset, England. Here I am reminded of long hill walks I took as a child with my father towards the end of which the thought of the sanctuary of home with a hot bath and change of clothes, a hot chocolate by the open fire was sufficient to brace me for the final couple of miles. Then followed the joy of recounting the best parts of our latest adventure, what birds and wildlife we had encountered and what different weather patterns we had experienced. A return to the familiar.

A babbling brook and birdsong bring us to the end of this epic Grand Tour, a concept album, if you will, due to the overarching theme. But it is so much more than that with echoes of Upton Heath, Brooklands, Hedgerow and Uncle Jack and so many of those previously mentioned lingering lyrics and phrases that have coloured the bands’ releases and remind us of their journey.

I have read comments suggesting that Grand Tour is a step too far along the same route that Big Big Train have forged since The Underfall Yard. I do not subscribe to this. Not only has the band produced six albums, three EPs, the expanded English Electric Full Power, the Stone and Steel Blu-ray and two live albums since that 2009 masterpiece but each subsequent release has delivered in spades. It has reached a pinnacle with Grand Tour where it has more fully embraced its multitude of talents to extend composing beyond the Spawton/Longdon combination and allowed greater exposure of an embarrassment of vocal riches to create an unparalleled lushness.

The band has suggested that this cycle of releases, so focused on Great Britain, its history and some of its unsung heroes and characters, is now at an end. I have heard more than enough progression since 2009 to await with bated breath any new direction the band wish to take.

Until we embark aboard the next Big Big Train production, adieu and thank you to all those musicians and contributors listed in the CD booklet…

The Rescue Dog – A Staffordshire Earthenware Group & Its Possible Original Source

 

Fig.1                                                  Fig.2

Admittedly, the photograph above left was not taken yesterday (it’s c.1998) but it is still considerably more recent than the Staffordshire pottery figure group in my hands and which is shown in more detail to the right. The article that follows was originally published in The Northern Ceramics Society Newsletter No. 103, September 1996 after I had been encouraged both to join and submit my work by Pat Halfpenny, then Keeper of Ceramics at the City Museum and Art Gallery in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent (Fig.3).

Halfpenny Letter

                                                                                                           Fig.3

The article was prepared at  the time I was Founding Curator of the Johnston Collection, a private house museum established following the passing of William Robert Johnston (b.1911-d.1986) and a treasure-trove of 18th and 19th century fine and decorative arts. Between 1990 and 1998 I researched and catalogued much of the collection, specialising in the English porcelain and pottery about which I wrote and lectured extensively in Melbourne, regionally and interstate.

The article was published again in The Australian Antique Collector the following year before I re-worked and expanded the article and presented it to a Sydney ceramics dealer who kindly published what I consider to be the definitive version to date. It is this version which follows…

The spill vase figure group dates to c1850-1855 and features in Rear Admiral P.D.G.Pugh’s classic tome(1) in the Miscellaneous Section (Section 1) on pages 524 (Plate 18, Fig.47) and 526. It is a typical Victorian expression of both heroism and  sentimentality with other known variations showing dogs protecting children from eagles and snakes. Whilst no firm source appears yet to have been found for this particular group, the following is my suggestion that may warrant consideration.

In fact, two possible sources have been found. Firstly, a publication translated from the original German(2) includes a silhouette depicting a Newfoundland pulling a child from a river or pond. It accompanies a verse titled The Grateful Dog, one of a series of verses contained therein illustrated with elaborate hand-cut silhouettes (Fig.4). The dog concerned is not identified but it is surely just  one of many typically faithful and heroic Victorian canines.

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Fig.4

The second and more likely source, in my opinion, is a painting titled The Rescue by Miss M.A Barker. My discovery of a lithograph engraved by R. Forse at Werribee Park Mansion, Victoria, Australia in 1994 led to the possible existence of an original, albeit seemingly lost, oil painting. I found and purchased another example of this lithograph a couple of years later in rural Victoria (Fig.5)

The print shows a Newfoundland in the act of pulling a child by its clothing from the water of a river or pond. A partly submerged toy sailing boat can be seen at the lower right. There is no indication of the location of the scene.

Marianne A. Barker (b.1802-d.1888) was the daughter of Benjamin Barker (b1776-id1838), one of four sons of Benjamin Barker Snr. (b. c1720-d.1793). The family of painters became known collectively as The Barkers of Bath(3). Most produced landscapes in the manner of Gainsborough, who had resided in Bath for some fifteen years, although Benjamin Jnr. has been referred to as “the English Poussin” and Thomas Jones Barker (b.1813-d.1888) was a celebrated portraitist and painter of historical scenes. Marianne married naval officer Captain George Wallace in 1826 and is known to have exhibited a total of fourteen works at, amongst other, the Royal Academy and the British Institution between 1820 and 1848.

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The one exhibit at the Royal Academy recorded in the list below was titled “85 Composition”(4). Those exhibited at the British Institution were landscapes titled variously “Near Box, Wilts” (x 2), “Near Bath” and “Scene from nature”(5) (Fig.6). At he time these works were submitted, Marianne resided with her parents Benjamin and Jane at Smallcombe Villa on the south-east outskirts of the city of Bath. Benjamin built the house shortly after 1814 when he purchased the land with his brother-in-law James Hewlett the flower painter. It was a plain house “perfectly square in plan with an M-shaped roof and rendered in Roman cement”(6). The seven acres of picturesque-manner garden was not only well-established by 1817 but also sufficiently well known to attract a visit by Queen Charlotte in that year.

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                                                                                                                                        Fig.6

Marianne’s mother died in 1825. Following her marriage a year later, Marianne moved to Totnes in Devon where Benjamin joined the couple in 1833.

In an interesting ceramics twist, Marianne’s uncle Thomas (b.1767-d.1847) had a number of his most successful images (including The Old Woodman and Old Tom“copied upon almost every available material which would admit of decoration: Staffordshire pottery, Worcester china, Manchester cottons and Glasgow linens.” (7). One can see the former image painted on one of a pair of Flight, Barr and Barr spill vases of c1825-1830 (8). There appears to be no connection, however, between the Barkers under discussion here and the John Barker who excelled at shell painting at Flight’s between about 1819 and 1840.

I around 1845 John and Rebecca Lloyd of Shelton produced a pair of figures one of which was modeled on Barker’s Woodman. It was a far from successful transition, however, with the figure profusely gilded and Barker’s ferocious lurcher dog transformed into a toy poodle! (9)

Returning to the Rescue Dog figure, the version illustrated in Figs.1&2 in  the author’s collection measures 20.5cm the same height as the example in Pugh’s book. Two further examples I worked with at the Johnston Collection measured 20.5cm and 19.5cm giving a maximum comparative variation of a centimetre. They have each exhibited the minor variations in painted and applied decoration that one would expect from such mass-produced figures.

The main body of the figure was produced in a traditional two-part press mould with seperate moulds being employed to produce the dog’s head and the figure of the child.

At the child’s feet can be seen the moulded representation off the stonework arch of a bridge while at the head is a short flight of steps*. The common use of applied shredded clay has been used at various point on the tree trunk and across the front of the group. This is commonly referred to as “moss” or “parsley”. Nice, soft gilding (Best Gold) has been applied to the mouth of the spill vase, the tree trunk, around the neck of the child’s garment and across the front of the base. This particular example displays fairly minimal colouring; others show more extensive brown enamels applied to the tree trunk.

The placement of the child’s arms at either side of the dog’s head in this particular example clearly corresponds with the positioning in the lithographic image. The placement of the arms in three other examples sighted have all extended alongside the body and/or crossed at the waist. Another example of the Rescue Dog appears in a publication (10) in which, unfortunately, Marianne’s surname is misspelled. However, in this example the child’s arms are also raised either side of the dog’s head.

Additionally, all of the examples I have seen are designed to face left but it seems likely that such spill vases, made to sit either end of a mantlepiece, are made as pairs and that an example facing to the right exists somewhere. Spills were tightly rolled lengths of paper, the tops of which were sometimes dipped in wax and used to take a light from an open fire to light a pipe or candle.

I have more recently located another lithograph that would appear to lend my suggested source further support. Fig.7 shows a printed image titled Lost and Saved (published by McGready, Thomson & Niven, Glasgow) after an original in oils by Thomas Jones Barker (b.1813-d.1888). Thomas was a first cousin to Marianne. This latter work is very reminiscent of Sir Edwin Henry Landseer’s (b.1803-d.1873) work Saved. Nevertheless, it shows an interesting thematic predilection for at least two members of the Barker family and a theme that was to continue to be popular for many more years both with painters and exhibition-goers.

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                                                                                                                                        Fig.7

Finally, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh has provided me with a remarkably similar image on the lithophane shade of a candleholder. The shade is formed from biscuit porcelain and the candleholder and ornate stand are of cast iron. It is thought to be of either German or Austrian manufacture and to date to c.1835-1844. Unfortunately, I am unable to reproduce the image here but it was one of some two hundred and fifty objects included in an exhibition called Light! The Industrial Age 1750-1900, Arts and Science, Technology and Society in 2001 (11).

The dating of the lithophane is interesting. If Marianne Barker’s painting The Rescue is, indeed, the source for this Staffordshire figure group, the dating of the latter may need to be adjusted by a few years to, say, c.1845-1850. The lithophane image could also suggest another source altogether but, whilst I am open-minded, I am more comfortable with an English painting being the source for what is, after all, a quintessentially English ceramic art form.

*These moulded details can be found on many Staffordshire figures but were also integral to the picturesque ornamentation incorporated into the gardens at Smallcombe Villa – “These (water features) are linked by cascades and rockeries, spanned by stone bridges and surrounded by gravel paths and flights of stone steps” (12). A flight of fancy found me imagining discussions between modeller and painter resulting in these details, with which Marianne would have been so familiar at her family home, being included.

© Harry F. Blackburn 2005 (2018)

1 P.D. Gordon Pugh, “Staffordshire Portrait Figures of the Victorian Era”, Antique Collectors Club, 1987

2 “Karl Fröhliches Frolicks With Scissors and Pen”, Joseph, Myers and Co., London, 1860, (translated by Madame de Chatelaine)

3 Philippa Bishop and Victoria Burnell, “The Barkers of Bath”, Bath Museums Service, Bath City Council, 1986

4 Personal correspondence, Royal Academy, London, 08/11/1995

5 Algernon Graves, “The British Institution 1806-1867”, George Bell and Sons, London, 1908

6 Dr Michael Forsyth, “Looking Forwards: The Conservation of a Regency Italianate Villa and Landscape Garden”, Conference Paper, 1999

7 Christopher Wood, “Dictionary of Victorian Painters”, Antique Collectors Club, 1978

8 Henry Sandon, “Flight and Barr Worcester Porcelain, 1783-1840”, Antique Collectors Club, 1992 (Plate 171, page 179)

9 Anthony Oliver, “Staffordshire Pottery The Tribal Art of England”, Oliver-Sutton Antiques, 1989 (Plates 157&158, page 119)

10 Adele Kenny/Veronica Moriarty, “Staffordshire Figures History in Earthenware 1740-1900” Schiffer Publishing, 2004 (pages 182-184)

11 “Veranda” May-June 2001 issue (page 82)

12 Forsyth, ibid

 

The “Edited “At Ed at Etihad” Edition”

I was a very fortunate man in 2017. It was a year redolent of those heady days of the mid-to-late 1970s when my favourite prog bands toured quite frequently. It was not uncommon to find Genesis, Peter Gabriel and Steve Hackett playing in Edinburgh within months of one another and if they all happened to be back in the studio working on new material, then Camel, Mike Oldfield, Tangerine Dream, The Enid, Weather Report or Yes would step into the spotlight.

So for me to see and meet Steve Hackett not once, but twice in as many days in Melbourne in August and see and meet Big Big Train over three concerts a month or so later in London made 2017 a year to remember*. More than this was the fact that my wife and daughter accompanied me to three of these five gigs – and they enjoyed them. My daughter stood and applauded Big Big Train, joined in the communal singalongs as best she could, wanted to meet the band – especially Rachel as she, too, plays the violin – and wanted to buy a Grimspound tee shirt; she recognised some of the Genesis/Hackett songs and delighted in my own exuberant excitement.

As it should be, it has been a reciprocal arrangement over the years despite my wife not being as avid an attendee of live concerts as me. A few years ago we went to see The Models, one of her bands of choice from the 80s. She sang, she danced, she was transported and I was in heaven watching her. My daughter’s first live concert experience was Tubular Bells for Two in an intimate setting and the next, Icehouse – not a bad start.

Last night, I gratefully took the opportunity to accompany my daughter to HER first real concert to see and hear a REALLY famous performer, Ed Sheeran. I wanted to be very much in the moment and remember what it was like attending my first rock concert. So I documented the experience with images taken at home before we left – my daughter looking very rock and roll – and more taken on the tram to the venue and in front of the first thing we saw with Ed Sheeran’s name emblazoned on it. On entering the venue and approaching the stadium seating I was able to see over the top of perimeter fencing and catch glimpses of just a section of the crowd. OMG. I looked at my daughter with wide eyes, mouthing “Wow!” and she looked at me quizzically, unable to see what I was seeing. I don’t attend sporting events and rarely go to stadium concerts so I had forgotten the vibe and energy a big crowd event generates. When my daughter turned into the aisle she turned to me with wide eyes and mouthed, “Wow!” My last shows on this scale were Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel.

I let the euphoria of the 60,000 people in Etihad Stadium wash over me hoping it would find in me some of the same range of emotions (except those ones) of his devotees. In time, I found I wanted to engage in a bit of daddy dancing/clapping/ (in the thankfully low-level lighting). Ed wanted us all during one song to raise one arm and let it fall on the down beat because he said it looked great from the stage. Everyone granted his request and it did look great and why would I want to deny him this piece of magic, this memory, this right to connect with his audience by not raising and lowering my arm in time? Turn on your mobile phone torches, it looks fantastic. Okay…

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Ed (see, we’re on first name terms already) mentioned that 1% of the audience were boyfriends who didn’t want to be there; another 1% were Super-Dads who were there to chaperone their daughters and sons. He had his audience in the palm of his hand the moment he took to the stage and shouted, “Melbourne!” The boy next door made good. He could do no wrong and in my eyes, he did no wrong. One man and an acoustic guitar on stage in front of 60,000 cleverly using a loop recorder to overlay his own backing vocals, hand-generated beats and effects to produce a layered sound that at times reached a level of intensity I would not have thought possible.

In our prog circles we often talk openly about grown men being moved to tears by certain songs or musical passages. So what happens when I reveal here that I experienced something similar at an Ed Sheeran concert? Listening to his song Thinking Out Loud and watching a video playing out on the screen behind him, I saw my wife and I as sketched animated figures. I saw us meeting, I saw me getting down on one knee, I saw us embrace and I saw my wife bearing our child. I then turned and watched my daughter singing every word and beaming like she was going to burst. Did I have something in my eye? You better believe I did…

At the end of his nearly two-hour concert, I was euphoric because my daughter was euphoric. As he left his seat with his son, I fist-bumped a fellow Super-Dad and he nodded as males of a certain age do and conveyed much through that simple action. She was walking on air as we made our way back into the city to catch a tram and I so vividly recalled those same feelings of some forty-odd years ago. Drums in my ears, lights in my eyes, songs in my head and heart. On the return journey I revealed my favourite three songs of the night. Bloodstream, Thinking Out Loud and Perfect. They aligned perfectly with hers.

So, a sporting venue requires a sporting analogy:

Can I play guitar? No. Ed – 1 v Harry – 0

Can I sing? Mmm, a little – my equalising goal is disallowed, it remains 1-0 to Ed

Did I ever attract 60,000+ to one of my lectures? No, 80-100 at best.

Ed – 2 v Harry – 0

Was I engaged and entertained? Yes.

Ed – 3 v Harry – 0

Did Ed deliver in spades my daughter’s expectations. Unequivocally, YES!

Ed – 4 v Harry – 0

Will I buy Ed Sheeran’s CD Divide ÷? No.

Late free kick into the top right hand corner… Ed – 4 v Harry – 1

That’s a convincing away victory to the wee man from Halifax, Yorkshire… well done, sir.

  • There was also The Adrian Belew Power Trio and The Pink Floyd Experience

Seven Songs in Seven Days…

A couple of years ago folks were having such a good time posting their Seven Songs in Seven Days on social media that I wanted to join in with the nostalgia of it all. For that is what it is, a trip down memory lane and by the end of the journey one has arrived at their destination; the result of all the coins in jukeboxes, the hours of late-night-transistor-radio-under-the-pillow-listening and going through your sibling’s records to settle on one’s own chosen music.

If you click on the links beneath each entry it will take you to my original Facebook posts and a video for each of the songs.

Day One…

“Thunderbirds Are GO!” by Cliff Richard and The Shadows 1966:

I was besotted with Thunderbirds as a boy (there were no strings, just the suspension of my disbelief!), leaving my fellow football-playing friends (win, lose or draw) at the same time every Friday evening to rush home to watch International Rescue’s adventures on TV. On my eighth birthday I received my first vinyl record in the form of this 7” single. Having already seen the film, I immediately related to the picture sleeve and was thrilled… but it was not the original Barry Gray orchestral version that I always listened out for on a Saturday morning radio request show through my transistor radio beneath my pillow. “Puff the Magic Dragon” was another favourite.
But this early exposure to the instruments of a pop group spawned my later interest in popular music. It may also have influenced my taste for instrumental compositions. However, in the next couple of years my listening was eclectic, taking in anything from Holst’s Planets Suite, The Black Dyke Mills Band, the soundtracks to Born Free, Grand Prix and Dr Zhivago and Simon and Garfunkel. My purchase of the latter, though, was in error, having not realised that it was a “Strings for Pleasure Play…” release.
So here, for your delectation, is my rough–around-the-edges video to accompany Cliff and his mates.

2:14

Day Two…

“Back Home” by The England World Cup Squad 1970:

This was the first 7” vinyl record I purchased and with my own pocket money. I had started to take a real interest in football following our return to the UK in 1967 after a little over two years in Singapore. Settling back in Edinburgh there were two options open to me; Heart of (Mid)lothian or Hibernian, Tynecastle Park or (Easter) Road. There’s an early nod to the progressive rock that would provide my future musical milestones right there with two Marillion references…

I opted for Hearts and have worn mine on my sleeve ever since. I only saw the Jam Tarts play at home a handful of times but watched Scotsport with Arthur Montford and Sportscene with Archie McPherson to get my weekly fix of Donald Ford, Jim Cruickshank, Allan Anderson, the exotic René Møller et al. Watching with dad one Saturday night he lamented the poor coverage of action from south of the border. This prompted me to ask him whom he had supported as a lad. Leeds United was the response. I counted four Leeds players in the England Squad heading Mexico way. They must be quite good, I thought and I continue to follow The Peacocks through thick and thin to this day…

I only saw Leeds United play once on August 4th, 1971 when they travelled north to play Morton at Cappielow Park in a testimonial match for former Leeds great Bobby Collins. In Edinburgh it was fair stoatin’ doon (it was raining) and on my dad’s return from work he said that we would not be going. I may have had a tantrum. The next thing I knew, we were on a train and as we approached Morton’s ground, out came the sun. Leeds brought a full strength team and I witnessed my hero Allan “Sniffer” Clarke score the last Leeds goal in its 1-4 win. I understand it was a spiteful game but the only incident I recall with any clarity was when Clarke was fouled and a very concerned Les Cocker and Don Revie raced on to the pitch to check on his welfare.
But to the music – a brass section, a cracking snare drum, quality harmonies, Gelderd End-like clap-alongs and crowd noise, all a full seven years before Genesis released “Match of the Day” – and the nostalgia. What’s not to like? Check out the B-side “Cinnamon Stick”, too.

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Day Three…

“It’s Too Late” by Carole King 1971:


I went to the pictures to see Puppet on a Chain, Alistair McLean being my favourite novelist at the time. I loved the book, I loved the film and for some strange reason I cannot watch the film without thinking of this Carole King song, “It’s Too Late”. Similarly, I hear the song and I see the boat chase through the canals of Amsterdam or the scene with amplified clock-ticking and chimes. Both were released in 1971 so it’s clear I was either reading and listening or watching and listening. And daydreaming…
Female singers have never really featured in my record collection other than the inimitable Ms. Bush (oh, and Karen Carpenter. And Toni Basil is represented because I liked “Mickey” and a good while later, The Poozies) but Carole’s voice was sublime and honest and real. A little known fact, she was actually breaking up with me; this lanky introvert was not confident around girls, yet here I was breaking up with an international superstar. The short guitar solo that segues in to a shorter sax solo and Carole’s by turns pounding and tinkling ivories, the fondant icing holding the whole three minute and fifty-four second bittersweet confection together.

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Day Four…

“Daniel” by Elton John 1973:


A couple of years later progressive rock again tried to gain custody of my ears. I was in Bill’s Olympia Café, Penicuik (Google it – The Hill of The Cuckoo and The Paper Making Town) where an older friend used to hang out. Unusually, I was there with him one day. My clothing and my hair parting were sufficient for him to want to disown me as a friend. I drank a lime spider. He got up to select a song in the jukebox and returned asking me if I had heard this really weird song about a guy who thought he was a lawnmower. I had not, because I did not yet know that I liked what was in that particular wardrobe.

However, I had started to enjoy a bit of the ubiquitous glam rock. Top of the Pops provided the usual weekly line –up of suspects – The Sweet, Mud, Gary Glitter, T-Rex and the rest but it was Elton John that attracted my interest. I simply loved the melody of Daniel and at the time knew nothing of Taupin’s inspiration for the lyric. It was just a sweet song and in time it would lead me to “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and the revelation that was/is “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding”. It was prog but I still didn’t know it. They were a writing team blessed to have found one another. Another revelation – I preferred higher quality and longer form composition and more meaningful lyrics than “Tiger Feet” or “I’m the Leader of the Gang (I am)” provided.

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Day Five…

“Goodbye to Love” by The Carpenters 1972:

Let’s get this straight – I liked this song and several others by The Carpenters at the time “The Singles 1969-1973” was released. I am not one of those cool folks who, thirty-odd years later, cite Richard and Karen as inspirational influences. Everyone knows that Karen was blessed with the voice of an angel. And as for that guitar solo! I admit to having been slow on the uptake. I recall vividly listening to Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” with a friend and really loving the opening minute before the song really kicked in. I probably ruined his copy of the single by repeatedly raising and lowering the needle to hear just those first sixty seconds or so. To my ears, The Carpenters won that duel despite being played on a Dansette-type portable player.

Elton John beat Cream; Mike Oldfield, when the time came, single-handedly routed Led Zeppelin; Tangerine Dream similarly defeated Black Sabbath and Deep Purple wilted under the onslaught that was Genesis – all of this was due to happen in the ensuing three years. But at this point in time, that heavenly voice, that great guitar solo and those wonderful closing vocal harmonies together with the guitar reprise meant the world to me…

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Day Six…

“Tubular Bells” by Mike Oldfield 1973:

Now I’m starting to find my preferred music despite the word “progressive” not having yet been uttered. This was the release that switched on my ears and gave my imagination free reign. Had Mike’s debut solo been released while I still lived in Penicuik or, as it was, after my family had moved 200 miles further north to Fochabers, is of no consequence. Both townships offered rural settings and pursuits perfectly in harmony with the composition. This was to continue with Hergest Ridge and Ommadawn.

TB was like nothing I had heard before and it was the first recording I heard in stereo. Neighbours had gone on holiday and left their home under our watchful eyes. They had a stereo system. Each night I went to check the house. Each night that strange album cover with waves breaking on a shore littered with bones and fur or feathers was tucked under my arm. The cover images in my head evoked the Piltdown Man and feelings of loneliness, fear and an inability to communicate effectively to convey emotions.

It pretty much summed me up at age fifteen.

A friend, Val, cut out little photos of Mike from the music press, as I did not know what he looked like. He looked like the archetypal rock musician. I still have those little photos stapled to a Scottish Arts Council With Compliments slip…
I loved the album from start to finish, the loud parts and the soft, the stately and the ludicrous, the violent and the romantic. I have the original on vinyl, the orchestral, the remixed Boxed, the picture disc, several live, TB2, and surround sound versions.

It was one of my all time favourite records as it struck a chord and set me on a course for Planet Prog. It reminds me of sun through trees; water coursing over rocks, birdsong and the smell of grass and earth. I have no sense of unease as I have never watched The Exorcist.

Thank you, Mike.

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Day Seven…

Ripples by Genesis 1976:

Mission accomplished – watching The Old Grey Whistle Test one evening I see a video of Genesis performing Ripples. In one neat package I hear and see all that I had been searching for in the preceding three years encapsulated in one song, by one band. The intertwining twelve string guitars, a lovely voice, enigmatic lyric, a lengthy instrumental section and a rousing, emotional chorus. Even the way the studio lights played on Phil’s hair and beard… (I’m a red-blooded male and the book said I could not fail).

My dear mum went on a day trip to Aberdeen not long after I heard this song and I asked her to find a record shop and, not having heard the title of the song, ask for this latest release called “Sail Away”. She returned with an album called A Trick of the Tail and, on looking at the track listing, I believed she had bought the wrong album. It was only after I had searched through the lyrics and come upon the words “Sail away, away, ripples never come back…” that I knew my mum had struck gold on my behalf.

I played and played and played this treasure trove of songs endlessly, intrigued by the lyrics and the characters of the songs depicted on the cover. I wished I could sing like Phil. I started to grow a beard. Eventually I became curious about their earlier recordings, knowing nothing about Peter having so recently left the band. I bought a copy of Foxtrot. I didn’t get it, thought the keyboard, bass and drums call-and-answer section of Watcher of the Skies was awful. Genesis Live was next and my admiration for this music grew keener…

Genesis, with or without Peter Gabriel, with or without Steve Hackett (but perhaps not without Phil Collins) – my all-time favourite band.

Mum, this one’s for you x

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Meet-ti-i-ing… Big Big Curry 29/09/2017, Big Big Breakfast 30/09/2017, Big Big Farewell 01/10/2017

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Kwality Indian Restaurant, South Kensington.

Besides the music that we had all gathered to hear in London courtesy of Big Big Train, another highlight was the coming together of Passengers, those tasteful folk who follow the band and enjoy progressive rock music (in fact, enjoy most music). The chance to meet, in person, many of the Facebook Forum community I had come to know on-line over the past seven years was a tantalising prospect. There’s always, of course, that niggling feeling that folk won’t take to you…

No need to have worried, though. As we walked into the Kwality Indian Restaurant in South Kensington, looks of recognition darted this way and that across the room and moments later those looks were translated into handshakes, hugs and hearty how-do-you-do’s as the room quickly filled with a camaraderie I have seldom, if ever, witnessed.

There was Anne from the Gold Coast, almost certainly THE most travelled amongst us as she follows her passion for prog to all four corners of the globe. Seeing her in London was quite surreal having met her two or three times in Melbourne for the likes of Porcupine Tree, Steven Wilson and Steve Hackett. So, too, seeing John from Melbourne contributed to making the world seem a much smaller place. My wife and daughter and I also will never forget being Paolo’d for the first time – Paolo, your middle name is surely gioia della vita!

In many ways, the stars of this particular show were the owners, chefs and staff of the restaurant who opened their doors especially for our group of sixty-odd (some might say very odd) people who hailed from all over the world, some from countries as exotic as that of our hosts. They did not miss a beat all afternoon, ensuring dishes were matched to those who had pre-ordered them and keeping the beer flowing. They were polite, courteous and wore smiles in the face of an endless cacophony of exuberant chatter with people criss-crossing the room to visit other tables (on reflection it must have come across as a crazy form of speed-dating!) and must have been wondering who King Crimson was and when he’d come to the throne, why we were so obsessed with intelligence quotients and so excited about a very large locomotive engine.  There were so many people I wanted to meet and introduce my wife and daughter to and yet so little time to have anything like the meaningful conversations I would have liked to have had.

But the room was bursting with all the qualities I had told my wife and daughter they would experience; love, warmth, humour, intelligence, humility – humanity! It felt like bucket list stuff, the fact that I could now say I had attended a BBT-related curry event…

I enjoyed my Lamb Rogan Josh and Kingfisher beers. I enjoyed the just-getting to-know-you banter around our table that was peopled with amongst others, Andrew and Janet from British Columbia and Buster from Virginia (forgive me for there were at least another three ladies at the table whose names escape me). At an adjacent table for a short while was Tobbe and his son Arvid before they were swept up by the many who wanted to meet these most welcome of Vikings. We got the chance to talk later, again not at great length unfortunately, but enough to spark something in me…

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Thank you to the Passenger who took this photograph  – Andrew should be well-pleased being in the picture three times!

It was also a pleasure to meet Roy Hunter for the first time here and to share a taxi with him afterwards, giving us a few extra minutes to talk and find out a bit more about one another – but still not even enough time to discuss Tangerine Dream! Next time, Roy, right now we’ve got a concert event to get to!

The following day got off to another cracking start with a Big Big Breakfast at The Minories and we were able to navigate our way there with the minimum of fuss. Again we were greeted by Passengers with familiar faces and others we had not met the previous day… and the full English breakfasts and the Guinness went down very well indeed.

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The Minories, quiet at the front, but it’s all happening down back as Passengers convene to talk about their impressions of the first of the Big Big Train concerts the previous evening. The conversations are bright and breezy considering most were late to bed and our heads are full of sounds and images and memories still being processed and there’s the need to take on sustenance because most of us are heading back for a second helping of Train fare in a few hours time…

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Sitting or standing, Spike I believe we are always going to see eye to eye about many things!

Breaking fast with more new-found friends of the highest order…

IMG_9574 Stephen Bowden, Paolo, Tobbe, Arvid and Graham

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Will and Roy…

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My girls Antonina and Carla with Spike, Glenn and Miles (I’m pretty sure that’s you, Miles?)

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Carol and Mike from Virginia – being quite reserved, I took this quick snap and ran off but thought to myself what an interesting-looking couple.  I got to know you a little better a couple of nights later…

Rachels’ stunning opening to the concert, the set list, the telescope, All Rise, the brass section, the venue, the merchandise, East Coast Racer, the film projections, the tears, the Interval meetings, the passion in the room, the band returning to the stage for the encore from the back of the hall and each wearing a mask, Tony Banks in the House… so much to digest!

Random meetings in the street, sightings of folk in Big Big Train apparel on the Tube, a first time meeting at the Their Mortal Remains Exhibition at the V&A based on recognition of a Facebook profile picture, breakfasts with fellow Passengers in the Côte Brasserie adjacent to our hotel – London quickly became a significantly smaller city.

My wife’s insistence after  the second concert that I get to the Box Office quick-smart to get myself a single ticket to the third and final show on the Sunday was eagerly accepted. At the time, there were two tickets remaining, diametrically across the floor and offering either a seat right at the rear on Dave’s side of the stage, or a seat at the front directly above the brass section and Andy. After some deliberation I chose the latter, taking the opportunity of seeing a band performing from a vantage point I had not previously experienced. It was a great decision, the view giving me a much better understanding of the interplay between Andy and Danny and seeing how the entire band worked together as a unit.IMG_9716

But, as always, things have to come to an end and this extraordinary weekend was no exception. Following the final concert it was inevitable that there had to be a wake of sorts and so… it was off to reconvene once again at The Antelope. And what an evening we had – there were more illuminating conversations, laughter and tears, lessons in the appreciation of whisky and the pronunciation of Glenfiddich, roast dinners and, sadly, partings until another time. One of my most profound experiences was my final farewell to Tobbe. A look and then an embrace which, try as I might I was reluctant to release myself from, firmly believing in that instant that I had known this man before in another time long ago.

Thank you to Big Big Train and thank you to EVERYONE that we met over the course of this most memorable of weekends. The memories will sustain me for life as will the friendships that previously existed virtually but now flourish as fully-fledged relationships. We will meet again. Until then, continue to treat your ears, hearts and minds to the best of what the arts have to offer…

Slàinte mhath.

 

The Transit of Passengers Across the Globe… Big Big Train in Concert, Cadogan Hall, London 29/09/2017

I first came across the band Big Big Train via a Classic Rock Presents CD (Prog Spawn) issued in 2008 that featured the song, Summer’s Lease… I was instantly hooked but, strangely, did nothing to further my knowledge of their work until the following year and the release of The Underfall Yard. This was a game-changing release that leap-frogged classic period progressive rock albums that I had for decades deemed immoveable from the top of my personal pile of all-time favourites. Therein lies another story…

This story is about the first time I witnessed a live performance, nay, three live performances by Big Big Train…

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The Underfall Yard (EERCD005)

 Artwork: Jim Trainer

I was unable to attend the Big Big Train Kings Place concerts of 2015, the bands’ first live outing in 17 years and the first employing the then recently recruited additional personnel. The time may not have been right for me but it was certainly right for the band. As an avid listener and follower since the release of the above album in 2009 (and the nine releases since) I was quietly despondent. The subsequent release of Stone and Steel went some way towards diluting that despondency, documenting as it did the ambitious process of live rehearsals at Realworld to bring their full sound to the stage as opposed to a leaner version, and including some live songs from the Kings Place concerts. The continuing buoyancy provided by the Passengers (and band members) in the Facebook Forum also contributed to alleviating my feelings of having missed out on an occasion of some magnitude… it remains a beautiful place to be and to date the only reason I maintain a Facebook account.

Fast forward to September 2016 and news of the band’s intention to return to the stage the following year. Seeing my reaction led my wife to ask a question not dissimilar in gravity to the one I put to her when I requested her hand in marriage twenty-nine years ago – “How badly do you want to see this band?”

So, the tickets were booked with itchy fingers and sweaty palms and saw me punching the air in celebration at the fact that we had secured seats (any seats) to the Friday and Saturday night concerts and that my girls were to attend with me. My wife and daughter generally view my predilection for progressive rock music with little more than gentle humour and general disdain, referring to it by a term I have grown accustomed to despite my initial aversion to it (I clearly harbour some residue of my pretentious 21-year-old ownership of this oft-maligned genre). On any occasion when they are leaving the house together and I am remaining indoors they will invariably encourage me to listen to some of my “bangy-bangy music” while they are out. Anyhoo, more of this later…

The deal was that if we attended the Big Big Train concerts I would take my girls to Italy. Win-win, I thought! We had a memorable time in Rome, Florence and Venice and I did a pretty good job of concentrating on where I was and what I was doing at any given time rather than daydreaming about what was to come in London. But when we did land in London something extraordinary and quite surreal began to happen almost immediately. As we made our way from Heathrow to our hotel, my phone threatened go into to meltdown as post after post hit Facebook – “I’ve arrived!”, “We’re here!”, “We’ve just landed!”, “I’m at Heathrow!” and it suddenly struck me that I was truly part of a phenomenon as Passengers began invading London from all corners of the world – Australia, Sweden, USA, Italy, Canada and more. For me, the heightened emotions began right then and there – goosebumps before a note had been played. I had laughed, cried, shared views on music, cats, curry, books, cinema, chocolate, Brussels Sprouts, dad jokes, beer, wine and whisky with many of these people since 2010 and they quickly took on the mantle of close friends. I was very much looking forward to the prospect of meeting as many of them as I could and creating real friendships from virtual ones…

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“We’re here!”

The first of the three concerts was scheduled for Friday 29 September and a Big Big Curry had been set up prior to this gig. I admit to having a sense of trepidation at the prospect of walking into Kwality Indian Restaurant in South Kensington; the thought of opening the door and finding fifty or so Passengers was quite daunting. A couple of them I had met previously (Anne Corris from the Gold Coast and Glenn Codere from The Pot Still) but most others I hoped I would recognise from Facebook photographs. Of course, it proved to be anything but daunting as hugs and handshakes were exchanged between  those I recognised and those who recognised me – introductions to my wife and daughter followed and we were all immediately at our ease. We shared a table with Andrew Norton (British Columbia) and Buster Harvey (Virginia) and their partners. Orders were placed, food was served, beer was drunk and conversations started. There were occasional raucous cheers as later arrivals entered the restaurant, the loudest cheers I recall were for Tobbe and Arvid Janson and Roy Hunter and I was beginning to see the “inner circle” of Passengers starting to assemble…

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Our pre-ordered meals

I am sure I was not the only person keeping an eye on the time. We were having such good fun but it was 7:00pm we were all thinking about and the start of the concert. There was a hearty round of applause for the owner and staff of the restaurant that had opened especially for our gathering before we left – the food and service was great! There was time to freshen up back at our hotel at Sloane Square which also happened to be a stone’s throw (!) from The Antelope, our watering hole meeting place of choice… the tension was mounting.

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My email confirmation translated into a physical ticket – an ephemerist’s delight!

As we prepared for our first evening at Cadogan Hall my daughter turned to me every so often to ask if I was excited and I would respond in the affirmative, all the while trying to keep that excitement under control. I vividly recall being given a spare ticket by a friend to see Genesis at Edinburgh Odeon in 1980 having been unsuccessful in my own ticket application (but successful for Glasgow Apollo) – I vomited then out of pure excitement. I had not experienced such levels of excitement in many years until this moment so I was desperate not to repeat such a physical response minutes before leaving for the venue. Hat off to my wife for her choice of hotel, specifically chosen due to its proximity to Cadogan Hall and, as previously mentioned, to The Antelope…

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Hardly outside, we turned to our right and looking down the length of Sedding Street saw lots of early activity out front of the venue. It was tempting to make straight for the hall but a small libation was called for and we made for The Antelope in Eaton Terrace, a block further on, where we knew there would be an equally buzzing atmosphere and a strong gathering of Passengers – it certainly was buzzing and the air was laden with a heightened air of heavy expectation, my nerves jangling. I wondered what the band were doing at that same moment. There were more enthusiastic meetings and more surreal moments as a who’s who of prog tee-shirts passed us by on the street or made their entrance into the pub. Pint glass drained it was time to head for the venue…

Throngs of folk attended the bar at one end of what I take was the Green Room while at the other end was set up… The Merch Desk, where I was eager to purchase a programme but also to meet the inimitable proprietor, Nellie Pitts. There would be time afterwards to buy a tee-shirt and the copy of The Second Brightest Star that I had put off purchasing until I could buy it directly from Nellie herself – talk about delayed gratification!

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The inimitable Paolo dispensing the love…

Once in the auditorium there were further vocal greetings across the Stalls or between the Stalls and the Circle or a mad dash between Rows if an embrace simply could not be put on hold. And then that moment when the Crow & Telescope sign gave way to a video of Grimspound in the swaying branches of a tree, feathers ruffled by a breeze.

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The Blackburn Family from Melbourne, Australia lending support to the finest band in the world… Big Big Train

Any phones or cameras that had been being used to take stage and audience shots were stashed away by a group of people with the utmost respect for the band and their request. Not for the first time during what was to follow, one could hear a pin drop.

Grimspound then in turn froze in black silhouette to become the iconic Sarah Ewing image we had grown to love. A layer of luscious keyboards was laid down before the central rear door opened and the lone figure of Rachel Hall took to the stage to whoops and cheers and proceeded to hold us enraptured with an extended violin prelude to the opening song Folklore. What an extraordinarily unexpected way to launch into the set – poignant, emotive, a real “welcome back to Big Big Train live, Rachel, where your sound and vision is absolutely central now to what we do…” The goosebumps came early and it did not take long for the eyes to prickle just a tad.

The remainder of the band and the five-piece brass section then took to the stage to equally raucous applause and it was chocks away with Folklore, a great opener with the brass fanfare lending a sense of ceremony to proceedings. A momentary pause follows a tinkling piano (Danny Manners) before drums (Nick D’Virgilio) and violin bed down a folky motif before, in turn, bidding entry to one of the finest voices currently in rock music, that of David Longdon. The lyrics tell of the art of storytelling; tales of heroes, legends and beliefs passed on and re-told from generation to generation. Music of this quality is assured of the same fate.
A chugging guitar (Dave Gregory) plays alongside its buzz-saw companion (Rikard Sjöblom); it’s all quite jolly and chirpy but some good old organ chords (Andy Poole) inject something a little darker to the mix. Sackcloth, pagan fear…  At the fade, David’s pagan-infused wicked laugh seals the deal*.

The room rose as one at the conclusion, the first of many full standing ovations during the night and our first opportunity to let the band know we were all thrilled to be there with them; as was reported at the King’s Place gigs of 2015 the band at times apparently appeared to be overawed at the audience response. It appeared to happen again as the ovation persisted and the love in the space was palpable. I have never witnessed anything remotely like it but certainly hope to again.

*some of these words are lifted from my review of Folklore posted on Amazon

Most would have been imagining their dream setlist over the last twelve months so as each song was announced (or launched into with little or no fanfare) it was met with ecstatic cheers, evidence of the rich repository of work now at the band’s disposal and the fact that there is not a poor song to be had.

Next up was Brave Captain, a very proggy song and a good one to get your teeth into so early on in the set. I am not going to enter into a blow-by-blow account of the songs played – this will be more of a cinematic overview with my own special memories of what took place brought to the fore. These songs, many of which are inspired by real life people, often ordinary, but in this case and others extraordinary, never fail to inspire and lift one’s soul skywards. For anyone yearning for the days of prog theatricality, David’s donning of pilot’s goggles and use of a device to give his voice a sound of radio yesteryear would have got the thumbs-up. Didn’t we all do this as kids? Jumpers for goalposts, fingers for goggles…

The announcement of the next song was a real surprise  – Mr Delia and his Last Train from The Underfall Yard. A beautiful rendition ensued, replete with lovely acoustic guitars and for me the wonderful harmonies during the “Gone… gone… gone” sections were sumptuous. David’s hitting of those high notes was pure perfection; The accompanying films and photographs at the rear of the stage were also most evocative…

London Plane was presented to us next following a brief explanation of the subject matter and that the story unfolded through the memory of an age-old tree synonymous with the city of London. Gentle piano and flute welcome the listener in but there’s a quick entry to the vocal here, a sense of urgency, perhaps, due to the extended timeline of our arboreal host’s recollections over the course of some four hundred years. The first four and a half minutes are cushioned on lush strings before one is jolted out of one’s daydreams by a frenetic passage. Skittering keys, bass, drums, guitars and flute create, for me, a quite brilliant “fast-forward” technique to 1951 following previous references to the site of the signing of The Magna Carta, The Great Fire, the 19th century painter JMW Turner and the tragedy of the sinking of the Princess Alice following a collision with the Bonetta.
The song concludes with a section that evokes a doleful yearning, beautifully conveyed via that sustained guitar note, a vocal pleading for the last light of day and a final plaintive violin… quite beautiful*

Meadowland followed, a succinct song that I found so very attractive at first hearing on CD that I had to play it again and again because it was such a satisfying listen. Achingly beautiful acoustic guitar interplay the perfect foil for the band’s dedication of this composition to the late John Wetton and a reminder, if it was needed, of all that was so good about progressive rock from the 1970s. No sooner had the song begun, it was over but it left as indelible a mark in a live context as it had in the confines of my living room. Most have likened the mood in the venue to The Mead Hall but for me it was Meadowland, enjoying the same depth of camaraderie… but en plein air!

Which leads me into… A Mead Hall in Winter. Another wonderful song, indicative of the wide-ranging reading matter that the various band members dive headlong into for inspiration for their songs. The song has a real warmth to it, redolent of open fires, candlelight and of evenings spent with good friends, good food and good wine or whisky. I will never forget joining the whole Hall in singing the alternate lines of the chorus with the band. A unifying and joyful experience with love behind every word. As a former curator of nineteenth century English ceramics I am drawn to this song and its images of books, libraries, research, writing, lecturing and the sharing of knowledge.

It was at this point that some audience members made it known that they were not happy with the sound, particularly on the upper side gallery. More than enough has been said about this but I do wish to say that whilst I thought David’s vocals were overpowered by the lower frequencies I was so excited to actually be in attendance that this was not overly distracting me. There was so much to engage one’s attention with thirteen performers on the stage I was mesmerised at all times. I had also heard far worse sound at a concert. But when the issues eventually became apparent to the band, an incredibly perfectionist bunch at the best of times, my heart went out to them and Rob Aubrey. Their immediate disappointment and concern was very apparent and all it made me want to do was cheer even more enthusiastically when the Interval came and when they returned to the stage…

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Didn’t miss a beat, even at Interval…

 

Interval allowed a sharp intake of breath and a few minutes to digest what had been a formidable first course… and then headlong into Experimental Gentlemen, David replete with a dandy cane and a very expensive prop telescope positioned on a dais at the rear of the stage behind Andy and Danny. Unbeknownst to the audience at the time, David was supposed to interact with the prop but on the first night he was “so into the music that he forgot all about it. Oh, the wonder of it all… it introduced some light relief and a bit of slapstick chatter between David and Greg which went a long way to relax the tensions that had surfaced just prior to the Interval.

David then tells us about his family’s links to shipbuilding and one yard in particular, The Neptune Yard and the Swan Hunter company and away we go with the gorgeous Swan Hunter. I had longed to hear the words “Gleaming vessels, filling up the sky…” sung live and, of course, I got my wish. More than that, just before David hit the high note with “the Tyne” I turned to my daughter and pointed upwards with my index finger excitedly. She turned to me and said in my ear that there was no need for autocue devices when  a band consisted of such talented musicians. At least I believe that is what she said or it might have been a reference to those voice manipulator things – either way it was a compliment and it was clear she was enjoying the concert.

Judas Unrepentant was up next and it was one of those songs I had secretly hoped would be included in the set. It’s such an exciting song that fairly rattles along and yet has complex lyrics, a veritable tongue-twister and that manic instrumental closing section – in many ways it typifies progressive music for me. Intelligent, daring storytelling… and Dave tricked us! Waiting for those  words that would bring us all to our feet… “Rachel Hall!” What? Hang on, I should sit down again… “All rise!” oh, okay up I went again, laughing at the participatory childishness of it all. Panto is alive and well!

Eye prickling time again as the brass launch into the beautiful Transit of Venus Across the Sun, an homage to the single love of Sir Patrick Moore’s extraordinary life. The fact that my father loved brass bands, the fact that I had watched many episodes of Sir Patrick’s The Sky at Night and the back story to this song all combined to have me in a bit of an emotional mess. The piéce de resistance comes so early in the song – a xylophone sounding just as Dragons start to take flight. This is not so much a stroke of genius as it is a thing of unadulterated logic on the part of thinking musicians so in touch with every aspect of their craft. Had Sir Patrick not passed away in 2012 he may well have been asked to guest on his chosen instrument on this song.
Then again, had things been different, this song may not have been written. We would not have heard the glorious chorus with words that inspire and relate to many people we hold as heroes and visionaries, people who literally changed the world we live in. It’s so uplifting it makes one want to punch the air and shout, “Yes!” It takes on an added intellectual air with the inclusion of a Latin chant as the names of some of the surface areas and topographic features on Venus are listed and then the repeated lines “So many words left unsaid…” the final rendition of which sees the return of the brass and things fly off into Kleenex tissue territory again before a very sci-fi synthesizer note is sounded, the xylophone appears briefly again, a reprise of the chorus and a lovely little guitar solo alongside more brass, then just brass and finally another outer space-sounding chime sends the whole thing off in to the ether. Glorious*

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David advises us that the band are about to take things down a step, suggesting things are going to get chilled and mellow. So when East Coast Racer is announced all I can do is throw my arms up in the air, celebrate inwardly with a “Yes!” and bite down on my lip. This is the one song that I hands down prayed that the band would play and my wish (and that of many others) was to be granted… there is no more that can be said about this song that has not already been said or written. Suffice to say that it physically moves me every time I listen to it and, as such leads me to proclaim again that in my humble opinion it is the finest progressive rock song. Ever. And tonight it is played magnificently.

The next song, Telling the Bees, in a manner, does take things down a step. It’s a classy, folky, country tune with the lyrics again singing of the passage of time, the passing of loved ones and the continuing of the line but told in a wonderfully uplifting song that decrees, “The joy is in the telling”. There’s a real lightness of hand to the quieter sections with lovely organ, acoustic and electric guitars before the infectious chorus has everyone buzzing again as in Uncle Jack.
There’s a heavenly choir when we’re told to let the tears flow, a final rendition of the chorus and a handful of sing-a-long “Nah-nah-na-na-na-na-na” lines before we are released from its spell*. Anyone else hanging out for the BluRay surround sound release to hear the fruits of our communal buzzing?

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Not Victorian Brickwork, Venice September 2017

Not yet fully recovered from the emotional impact of East Coast Racer, the next song, Victorian Brickwork is going to sorely test my ability to maintain my composure whilst in the company of 900 fellow Passengers. Another composition of extreme beauty utilising a stunning vocal against the inspired combination of brass, drums, bass, guitar and bass pedals – this is a band at the top of their game. The shared sense of euphoria at the climax of the song is a thing of absolute wonder and again the band appear stunned by the reception, another full house standing ovation. It is a thrilling conclusion to the main set and I feel exhausted, totally drained but spiritually raised beyond my wildest dreams. Following group bows, waves, shared congratulatory glances and the photographs taken from the rear of the stage that we have already enjoyed picking ourselves out from, the band are gone…

But after endless cheers and whoops and applause, the drum kit is illuminated and Nick returns to perform an extraordinary drum solo of such power and artistry and inventiveness. Then a surprise as the remainder of the band take to the stage  through the auditorium and all wearing a variety of weird and wonderful masks. Yes, the encore is Wassail and I am wishing I hadn’t roared my appreciation quite so enthusiastically as this is going to involve singing duties and already my voice is shot! The crowd are singing “Wassail!” for one another as much as for the band, the word long having been adopted as the word of welcome of choice… Flute, mandolin, guitar and cymbal-splashes open the doors to perhaps the folkiest song, even more so when the violin joins the fray. An early Bible class refresher reminds us of the perils of temptation before we launch full steam ahead into the Pagan Wassail ritual and the revelry that accompanies it. Just when you think you are hearing the chorus for the first time, there’s just time for a deep breath (and a swig of cider) before the real chorus hits hard and what a thing of unrestrained joy it is… another veritable BBT wall of sound around the single word Wassail with a backdrop of some pretty heavy guitar, bass, synth and drums. David dons a Green Man mask and this infuses the song with increased drama and a sense of unease, of other-worldliness. The song finishes with a jaunty violin before the crack of a gun sends startled crows into the sky – Blessèd be!*

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Curtain calls

Had I not also been attending the Saturday and Sunday shows I would have shared some of the Passengers’ feelings of sadness that the concert had come to an end. And yet there was still the fun of meeting the band and more Passengers in the Green Room to come…

The concert event of my life.

I would like to dedicate this article to the memory of Stewart Crowther (1959-2016) a beautiful soul who is sadly missed