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…
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…
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…
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.
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…
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!
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.
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…
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*
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?
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!*
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