Holidays in Zélande: Marillion Weekend 25-28 March 2011 Part 3: Saturday and Sunday night gigs.
As you will have noted from the previous instalments, pretty much everything that takes place at a Marillion Weekend is special and enjoyable. Nevertheless the main attraction will always remain the gigs themselves. The band have made a habit of outdoing themselves time after time (a trajectory which surely must be near its end now? People have been saying this for years it seems…) and this weekend was no exception. The 2009 sets were impressive – the first celebrated h’s 20 years with the band (Yep, as his signature t-shirt from a few years back highlighted, he’s been the ‘new lead singer since 1989’…) by playing a song that represented each of those years (and ended with a couple of Fish-era goodies for the fun of it), while the Sunday night consisted solely of the band’s epics (and epic by Marillion standards means anything from 10-18 minutes in length). In previous years the themes have been announced (not necessarily officially!) in advance, but this year they were closely-guarded secrets…until we arrived on Friday we had no inkling of what lay ahead. Truth be told, even with the themes announced in the programme….we had no inkling of what lay ahead…
Saturday night: A-Z
This certainly caused a buzz with wild speculation as to what would be involved. A lot of people doubted that the band would really play 26 songs at all (and to be fair, they were right – just!) – after all, apart from it being a mammoth undertaking, what would they do about X and Z? Somebody suggested that the theme wasn’t literal, and that they’d do one song per album – someone else that the letters wouldn’t be represented by song titles (e.g. B could mean Bluebird, which would see Out of This World played – well, it was a nice idea…).
As it turned out, it was the obvious route that was taken (albeit with a small amount of ‘cheating’) but, with a few exceptions, this is not to imply that the set list was in any way predictable! Indeed, after opener Asylum Satellite #1 h confirmed the theme, then added something along the lines of a self-deprecating, ‘To get the energy levels up….we’re going to play something even slower than the last one’. So, first I thought, ah, Between You and Me! Then, ooh, Brave! But it was, in fact, none of the above. From that moment I realised trying to predict what was coming was a futile exercise and it was best to just go along for the ride and allow the surprises to unfold in real time. Not that you couldn’t make educated guesses at times, based on what guitar God was being handed, or if h was making a move to sit at his keyboard – and sometimes the screens would display the relevant letter alongside artwork from the song’s parent album before h got around to introducing the next song, but for the most part h caused cheers of excitement and surprise with his announcements as the night progressed.
I won’t go over the full 25-song set in detail (yes, ‘only’ 25 songs – and if you’d care to guess which letter was skipped…well, I can pretty much guarantee that you’d be wrong…) but among the highlights for me were two tracks from The Hard Shoulder being given their first live airings – Especially True is a favourite of mine, while Half the World shone in a live setting. Sticking to the more recent material played we also heard a good chunk of 2007’s vastly underrated Somewhere Else album. Well, I thought it was underrated, but judging from the cheers for the likes of The Wound and The Last Century For Man (which, if you believe everything you read on the MOLF – that’s the Marillion online forum, for the uninitiated – is pretty much the worst song ever) I’m far from the only one to appreciate it!
While the set was largely made up of the lesser-heard tracks (as has become a tradition for Saturday sets at conventions), a few fan favourites were also thrown into the mix – two obvious examples being Fantastic Place and King – the latter’s ever-building-crescendo of a climax seeming to go on somewhat longer than Rothers and Mark were expecting, judging by their glances in Ian Mosley’s direction, as they awaited his cue to ‘end the noise’ (indeed, being close enough to see the interplay between the band members during moments like this, was a right treat for me, these bits rarely make their way onto DVDs!)
To keep the set length below four hours a few odd choices had to be included, most noticeably the inclusion of one of the -2 minutes Marbles vignettes to represent ‘M’ (the sheer audacity of doing this made me chuckle, I have to say) and Misplaced Childhood’s two minute intro Pseudo Silk Kimono being performed by h for the very first time (with lasers! Actually the lasers popped up here and there across the Saturday and Sunday nights, but PSK is the only song I can definitely remember them being used for). The biggest cheat though came when, instead of doing Incommunicado or I Will Walk on Water (to name but two possibilities) ‘I’ became time for an ‘Intermission’ (actually the sheer audacity of doing this made me chuckle, I have to say – oh wait, have I already said that about something else?! Better not mention h's pirate joke then...). The intermission was short-lived (which caught out some folk out who’d popped off for a smoke – that’ll learn ‘em…) as the band came back without h (who needed a longer break than the rest of them, we were told) to perform Jigsaw – another track that had not been performed live since the 80s. The idea here was that the audience would do the singing, but sadly this didn’t quite come off as a) nobody was sure where to come in and b) it turned out we didn’t know the words quite as well as we should have. Whoops!
Thankfully we redeemed ourselves with a proper Fish-era singalong later on in the set (‘S is for…Steve Rothery’ h declared, as God played one of his signature guitar licks and we went a bit mental). The applause at the end was phenomenal – and it’s not as if it had been muted up to that point! This led very quickly to another key audience moment as during Three Minute Boy 3000 screaming lunatics ROARED (for about…yeah, three minutes!) at the relevant point during the line, ‘Now they scream as they run after him’. The band didn’t know what had hit them…I’m sure at least one band member was in danger of wetting themselves with laughter by the end of it…but we let them carry on with the song eventually…
Actually, there’s no getting away from the fact that the S/T section was the absolute highlight of the night, but the end of the show almost matched it, as XYZ were dealt with in different ways. Following the precedent set by the intermission I fully expected the band to turn into Snagglepuss and ‘eXit stage left’ for X, but instead they brought on Dave Gregory (ex–XTC, former h-band member and current Tin Spirits guitarist) as a special guest and performed XTC’s Senses Working Overtime. Okay, so the song title didn’t begin with an ‘X’ but who cares? Y wasn’t a problem, with You’re Gone making a welcome return to the set, but as we reached the final number of the evening the band admitted that they’d struggled with coming up with anything for Z – even considering writing something especially for it. In the end by combining their own Separated Out with Led Zep classics Rock N Roll and Kashmir we got Zeparated Out, which proved the perfect end to an epic night. If you didn’t have a wide grin enveloping your entire head at the end of that there was something wrong with you, that’s for sure...
Sunday night: The Glow Must Go On
There was far less pre-gig speculation for Sunday night, mainly because nobody really had a clue as to what the theme could refer to. Shortly after the Tin Spirits had finished their opening set for the Sunday, Lucy came on stage to announce that glowsticks were going to be handed out to us all, and demonstrated the ‘snap and shake’ method required to ‘activate the glow’ (Hmmm, sounds like something out of Star Trek. Urgh!) Basically what we had to do was snap the stick….then shake the stick. Snap. And shake. Suffice to say, we all seemed to manage it (that girl could teach elephants to skateboard, I tells ya!) But we still didn’t know why we needed them…although the reason would soon become clear.
After opening with one of the all-time classics from their catalogue, Afraid of Sunlight h revealed that (with a few exceptions) we’d be voting on the setlist for the night. The band are clearly Tories, as we only had two songs to choose from each time, with the song receiving the most shouting and waving of glow sticks being ‘elected’ first-past-the-post style and performed. (Just as well really, if they’d given us 6 choices and trialled the AV voting system things could have dragged on a bit…) I don’t deliberately set out to be contrary, but I did seem to be voting against the grain of popular opinion for most of the night – this hardly mattered as whatever the band ended up playing was more than acceptable (well, okay, I admit I had a bit of a snooze during Brave, which works perfectly well in the context of the album, but in isolation is…well, not my favourite, it seems).
A combination of getting used to the voting system and technical problems (h’s in-ear monitors were playing up for starters, which meant he had to keep dashing off stage after each song to try and get them fixed) made the pacing a bit shambolic to begin with (albeit in a fun way) but once that side of things were sorted the stage was set for one of the best gigs in Marillion history.
The band clearly had an idea of what was going to be chosen at times, to the extent that when Made Again convincingly beat Beyond You they had to admit they had been so certain we wouldn’t want Made Again that they hadn’t rehearsed it – so played Beyond You. Made Again IS great, but who were the fools passing up an opportunity to hear Beyond You in the first place?! In the end they played the first section twice, being rudely interrupted by, well, the section of the audience that I was in, the first time as we gestured frantically for them to stop and send the medics over! (A few rows behind me a chap had fallen over – initially that was all there was too it, but it soon became clear that he’d fainted and wasn’t waking up…and then he started vomiting – mercifully I didn’t know the last part until a few days later, but I believe he was fine in the end – eeek!) Afterwards Mark actually asked the others a couple of times if they were going to start again from the beginning, as though picking up where they’d left off was a viable option!
Other match-ups were clearly rigged, with fan-favourites being pitted against the likes of Most Toys and Hope For the Future (i.e. the complete opposite of fan favourites) and while I would genuinely have liked to hear HFTF even I wouldn’t have voted against Neverland for it!
By the same token there were others that went down to the wire, in fact when given the choice between Easter and The Great Escape it became obvious there was no clear winner, so a chant of ‘BOTH! BOTH! BOTH! BOTH!’ quickly grew in volume, in the end h decided that we should sing Easter to him (which meant I got to see Rothers perform THAT solo from just a few metres away – thanks h!). But that wasn’t the end of the story, as a new chant came for ‘GREAT ESCAPE!’ ‘GREAT ESCAPE!’ – the band had no option in the end but to give into public demand, although they didn’t let us get away with it again (as Pete said at one point, ‘If we keep doing both we’ll be here until Wednesday – that’s NOT a choice, by the way…’!) meaning we narrowly missed out on Estonia in favour of Out of This World and were treated to This Strange Engine as the final number at the expense of Ocean Cloud (which of course, led to the now infamous ‘cricket bat incident’, which I’d love to tell you all about, but can’t, as it’d mean having to explain far too much for the benefit of those who don’t know why h has a cricket bat in the first place…you’ll just have to hope it makes the DVD…)
Of course that wasn’t precisely that, and a final encore for the weekend was demanded. The printed setlist would later reveal that this was originally intended to be one final choice for us, but Mark announced that it had been a terrible idea giving us the vote and they were going back to being a dictatorship. I suspect a vote would have made little difference in any case, but the musical side of the weekend ended with Happiness is the Road, an obvious choice in many ways (but it was probably time for something obvious by this point!). With confetti cannons filling the venue with gold (a visual metaphor for the music played on the weekend.you might say..) and one last audience singalong the band had completed their marathon 3 day, 55+ song setlist.
Of course there were still parties (and too many farewells) to be had post-show, and then the agony of leaving our perfect bubble known as Marillion-World and returning to 'real' life (by which time another Holidays in Eden lyric had become apt: 'And I'm paying in pain...but it's the cost of the high') but we all knew we had witnessed something truly special and were blessed to have found our way into the cult of Marillion - I mean, really, what other band would ever attempt something like this? Let alone continue to improve on it every two years. If yourdoubt your favourite band would do this there is one easy solution - listen to Marillion and make them your new favourite band...they'll even help you start out for free with a sampler CD you can request here: http://www.marillion.com/listen/index.htm (if only I'd known about this I would have become a fan a good few years earlier myself, but never mind, I'm here now...) They're not for everyone, I'll grant you that, but that's only because not everyone has taste.
And the convention story isn't over completely, even for 2011 - while the taking over a holiday park aspect of it cannnot be recreated outside of Holland, the gigs are being performed, literally as I type, in Montreal, and then again in a month's time in the UK (see you there!) With the exception of Mark again organising a fun run (on his 50th birthday no less...Mark...cripes, whatever is wrong with you....etc!) in Montreal the events side of things is barren (but you try and prevent Marillion fans from taking over a bar or three and making their own fun) but as ever it's the music that matters the most. And there'll be plenty of that!