Thursday, 31 March 2011

A Hundred Nights of Fun and Games, a Thousand Empty Glasses…

Holidays in Zélande: Marillion Weekend 25-28 March 2011, Part 1...


Imagine an entire holiday park being taken over for a weekend by fans of your favourite band, drawn from more nations than you can name off the top of your head. Now say you can watch said band on the telly in your chalets, hear their every song being piped through the walls as you enjoy your breakfast/booze/lunch/booze/dinner/booze, and even bump into the band members as you (and they) go about their business, with no security necessary.

Add to that a special museum devoted to the band, racks of merchandise to blow your hard-earned Euros on, a wide range of activities (including a  couple that aren’t even directly band-related, just to prove it can be done) and some great support bands for the gigs. Yes, of course there’d be gigs in this dream scenario – let’s say one per night, perhaps the first could see the band perform one of their classic albums in it’s entirety, possibly throwing in some non-album b-sides for good measure…for the other two, well, how about a mix of classics, fan favourites and maybe a handful of tracks that have rarely – or never - been performed live before?

If you’re a Marillion fan you don’t have to imagine – you just have to find the cash to get yourself to their biannual convention in Port Zélande, Holland, where all of this (and more!) takes place. The latest has just been (and gone, sadly) and for the first - but definitely NOT the last time - I was in attendance – and revelling in my own personal Heaven. Over the course of the next blog or three I’ll be documenting the event, only partially with a view to making anyone who wasn’t there insanely jealous, but also to reveal to those who aren’t already ‘in the know’ just how special this band (and their fans) are…

Part one (that’s this one folks!) will cover initial thoughts upon arrival, and the Friday night gig, part two the various support acts and other activities and part three the mammoth Saturday and Sunday gigs, so let’s begin…


Following a few lovely days in Amsterdam with ‘a friend’ (sorry, private joke…) we parted ways around lunchtime on Friday – I headed straight back to Schipol Airport. Finding Andy from the Web UK (UK fan club) was nice and easy, and he pointed me in the direction of the coach service that was transporting coachload after coachload of fans to the event – it didn’t take long to fill the coach and we were on our way, on the very scenic 90-minute journey to Centre Parcs, Port Zélande. I had half-expected to be stuck in a coach full of madmen tunelessly rehearsing the vocal hook from Cover My Eyes, but thankfully (or do I mean sadly? Can’t decide…) that wasn’t the case.

Upon arrival at Centre Parcs the staff (who somehow remained immensely friendly and helpful throughout the entire weekend) provided us with our welcome packs and directions to our chalets – I arrived at mine (the very handily-located 181) to find my sharing buddies were already well-ensconced and ready for action. Unfortunately one of our expected roomies was unable to make it, due to family illness, but this did mean that I got a room to myself (and one with it’s own sink at that - convention veterans Phil and Gerald had passed on the sink in order to take the room where they could actually move the beds more than two inches apart from each other – fair enough!).

I quickly made up my bed and had a quick glance through the programme of events for the weekend which, amongst other things, revealed the themes for the Saturday and Sunday gigs (The enticing A-Z and the intriguing The Glow Must Go On, respectively; we had known for months that the Friday night set would be based on 1991’s Holidays in Eden album, but the rest was a mystery) before heading back down the slightly treacherous spiral staircase to join Phil, Gerald and Pete (like me, a convention first-timer) for the first drink of the weekend and engage in some Marillion-related chat with like-minded fans (a pleasure that never manages to wear off!)

Phil wisely suggested an early visit to the Merch stand, and was seen over an hour later returning with bags of goodies and a hole in his wallet where there had previously been 200+ Euros! Pete and I limited ourselves to an official weekend t-shirt each, with a Holidays in Eden album cover-inspired design, complete with the title of this blog entry as the very apt lyrical quote on the back. (By Sunday morning – probably earlier – the only sizes still in stock were small and XXL, so thanks Phil for preventing any threat of procrastination on my part!). Like the Centre Parcs staff the merch team were delightful despite being completely rushed off their feet and having to constantly apologise for the fact that the M-Tube DVD sampler had somehow not managed to arrive in Holland! With this important ritual out of the way there now wasn’t long before the band would be hitting the stage for the first time and the Holiday would really begin…

Gig 1: Holidays in Eden

The Holidays album has its detractors (admittedly not many of them, but as with detractors of anything they do like to go on about it just that bit too loudly/often!) and has always had the unenviable tag of being Marillion’s ‘pop’ album, but no one can (Yep, pun intended…) deny the power of opening track Splintering Heart and it is one of the most perfect gig-openers imaginable. Due to it’s extended sequenced intro H (as lead vocalist Steve Hogarth is affectionately known) is usually on stage alone for the first two minutes or so, but this time he was above the stage, the curtains opening to reveal him perched on a lighting rig, which was gradually lowered as the song went on, before he finally reached the stage with the rest of the band. The final line of the sequenced part of the song, ‘But not as much as this!’ was roared by the crowd who then went – entirely expectedly – absolutely mental as the band kicked in and Rothers/God (as guitarist Steve Rothery is accurately known…) delivered the first of his 50+ mind-blowing solos of the weekend.

The predictability of a set centred around a single album can take away some of the magic of a gig (not a problem for the other two nights) but the band provided a cracking reading of a great album, and even managed to add a tiny bit of unpredictability by playing Waiting to Happen early. Given that this happened straight after h mentioned they were playing the album in order (and knew what that order was because they’d ‘looked it up’) it’s hard to know if this was a wind-up or evidence that somebody had tinkered with the relevant Wikipedia page – either way it did make me worry (briefly) that they were going to skip two songs completely!

The epic This Town trilogy that closes the album was an undisputed highlight of the weekend (see the 100 Nights section above) and the band closed the set with b-side How Can it Hurt – not a classic by any means, but great to hear nonetheless. It wasn’t long before they returned for the encore, comprising second Holidays b-side A Collection and non-related track Man of a Thousand Faces, the implied link here being that, like A Collection, Man was an acoustic-based song with a John Helmer lyric (Helmer contributed lyrics to most albums for the first ten years of h’s tenure with the band). The song had the audience singing along to the ‘Hey, yeah yeah yeah’ section at the end, and we weren’t going to stop singing for a daft little reason such as, oooh, the band leaving the stage, so kept it going for a good few minutes after they’d gone.

The band returned once more – sans H – with keyboardist Mark Kelly apologising for the comparative brevity of the set but assuring us that they’d be making up for it over the next two nights (and truer words were never spoken!). The absence of h was soon explained as the opening notes of (probably) my favourite song of all – The Invisible Man – sent the crowd back into frenzy mode and h reappeared in his ‘old man with cane’ guise (sorry, this isn’t easy to explain, so I’m not even going to try…) to begin this 13-minute epic, and delivering as fine a rendition as I’ve yet to hear. As ever the climax (which in written form looks something like:  ‘I will scream again – I am perfectly sane! I am PERFECTLY SANE!!!! But I ammmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm the invisible maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan…’) made my head want to explode at this depiction of utter helplessness - gets me every time I tell ya…shortly after this the first gig really was over…and yet the weekend had barely begun…


Friday, 11 March 2011

TV Review: Gordon Lightfoot in Concert

Last year BBC4 ran a series called Singer-Songwriters at the BBC, compilations of…well, what you’d expect really, given the title, but specifically focussing on the early 70s. This was a goldmine for fans of the era and one of the highlights was Canadian legend Gordon Lightfoot performing his signature song (well, one of them anyway), If You Could Read My Mind. The Beeb have gone one better this week and re-broadcast the full concert this was lifted from (originally broadcast in two parts in early 1972) and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen on the telly.
Filmed in front of a small studio audience (due to the technical limitations of the day most of the audience are seated behind the performers) and capturing Lightfoot at the beginning of his international success, but before Sundown catapulted him to superstardom, the concert mainly focuses on his first two albums for Reprise – If You Could Read My Mind (or Sit Down Young Stranger as it was originally titled before the single took off unexpectedly) and the then-forthcoming Summer Side of Life (Gord notes, ‘This album isn’t out yet’ before launching into Summer Side’s opener Ten Degrees and Getting Colder).
It was still a few years before Lightfoot would add a drummer to his live band (and even longer before a keyboardist joined the fray), so this is real folk trio stuff, with just Lightfoot on 6 and 12 string guitars, Rick Haynes on bass (who remains Lightfoot’s bassist to this day) and the late Red Shea on lead guitar. Sadly very little of Shea’s fretwork is captured for the camera, but the sound is very good and his playing is as impeccable as his reputation. Initially there is little conversing with the audience, but Gord gets progressively chattier as the show goes on, revealing an endearing, if unsophisticated sense of humour (for example announcing that Rick’s wife has just had a baby and wanting to be the first to congratulate the new father…shakes Red’s hand. Not exactly comedy gold, but it fits the tone of the whole thing).
For reasons unknown Lightfoot never managed more than a few moderate hits in the UK, but the audience is enthralled and appreciative throughout. Other than IYCRMM (at that time his only UK hit) only Early Morning Rain and For Lovin’ Me (the latter paired with Did She Mention My Name in the medley version I’d always assumed originated in 1975 when it was recorded for Gord’s Gold – shows what I know!) are greeted with ‘recognition applause’, presumably from Peter, Paul and Mary’s versions.  
Aside from the cover of Me and Bobby McGee, which I’ve never really warmed to, the set is a winner from start to finish, with highlights for me including Affair on 8th Avenue, Miguel, Nous Vivons Ensemble and epic closer Canadian Railroad Trilogy, still possibly the best Lightfoot song ever. As Lightfoot rarely tours outside of North America these days (and given that he’s now 72 that is unlikely to change at this late stage) it seems unlikely I’ll ever bea bel to cross him off my must-see-live list, but this is a rare treat that goes some small way in making up for that.
If you’re in the UK you can still view on iplayer until (very early) Monday morning here:; otherwise it has now made it’s way to YouTube (see below) but be quick to be on the safe side, as the Beeb may not allow it to remain there for long...and now all I need to make me even happier is to see the full show they found the Harry Chapin clip from for last year's doco on Elektra Records...

Gordon Lightfoot beginner's guide:
My personal top 5:
Did She Mention My Name? (1968)
Summer Side of Life (1971)
Don Quixote (1972)
Sundown (1973)
Shadows (1982)
Missing from my own collection: Still have four studio albums to get, most notably well-received latter-day effort A Painter Passing Through (1998).
Compilations: The Complete Greatest Hits does what it says on the tin, containing all of his best-known tracks in one place (sadly too many of his best tracks do not also come under the category of ‘best-known’), the two Gord’s Gold releases are a mix of remakes of earlier recordings (generally works well for the first volume, but not so much for the second) and originals, while The United Artists Collection helpfully contains his first four studio albums in their entirety, so is a must-have if you don’t already own them in another form.
Avoid: Gord’s Gold Vol II – the remakes sound like they were recorded underwater, and it’s never been clear why this set of songs needed to be remade in the first place.