Friday, 21 September 2012

Gig Reviews - Marillion's 'Sounds That Can't Be Made' Tour

Having had a recent bout of the ‘not really from these parts’ disease, where you get all nostalgic for things you’d never known or done in the first place (in this case GCSEs, which have been big news in Blighty recently) I set myself the below challenging essay topic (I hope I pass!):

Compare and contrast the following gigs:

1)    Marillion in Cardiff, Sunday 09 September
2)    Marillion in Sheffield, Friday 14 September
3)    Marillion in London, Sunday 16 September

It had looked for a while that I might not be up to travelling for this tour, then that I mightn’t be able to go even to the local London gig, but the evil NHS doctors who’d threatened further surgery in September were vanquished by the good NHS doctors who prevented the need for it, leaving me free to take in the first tour in support of a new album the band had undertaken since my arrival in the UK in 2010.

That album – the magnificent Sounds That Can’t Be Made – wasn’t to be released officially until the final day of the tour (the 17th), but most fans in attendance had pre-ordered direct from the band (a system Marillion effectively invented) well in advance and those copies were despatched from Marillion HQ (just!) in time for the majority to have received them by the time the tour kicked off in Cardiff. The choice of material from the new album was impeccable, with the four tracks that currently make up my favourite half of the album (Gaza, Power (listen below), The Sky Above the Rain and the sublime title track) being showcased. If that doesn’t sound like a lot of time being devoted to new material remember that this is Marillion, so  two epics and two shorter, more instantly accessible songs (still over six minutes each themselves) constituted around a third of the gig.

Marillion are noted for putting their audience (and themselves!) through the emotional wringer and both Gaza and The Sky Above the Rain continue this tradition, though in very different ways. Gaza is a 17-minute+ visceral plea for an end to the cycle of violence begetting violence in the district, told from the point of view of a Palestinian child, and featuring some of the heaviest musical sections the band have ever unleashed. The Sky Above the Rain, meanwhile, finds the band in more familiar territory lyrically, detailing a relationship seemingly beyond the point of no return, but with a more optimistic outlook emerging at its climax than many past songs have featured -  possibly a result of frontman Steve ‘h’ Hogarth’s change in outlook in recent years (see also the entire Essence volume of 2008’s Happiness is the Road). This doesn’t stop it joining the long list of Marillion songs capable of making grown men get a bit teary in public...(of course I don’t mean me...erm...). 

Both were even more powerful in a live setting, although the ‘false start’ with Splintering Heart’s programmed intro being played only for the stage to be ‘bombed’ seemed a little too gimmicky to me to really work as the intro to as hard-hitting a song as Gaza; certainly the pyrotechnic-free Sheffield version worked better in my book, though that was a decision clearly made for health and safety reasons (tiny stage in a potential death-trap of a venue) rather than artistic ones!
The rest of the setlist focussed heavily on their more recent output (2004 on), which, for a band that is touring behind their 17th album and peaked commercially with their 3rd, might seem odd to the casual observer, as might the fact that they only played two of their 20+ top 40 singles. Few attending a Marillion gig these days would expect (or want) it any other way and all three audiences showed suitable appreciation to every classic (of any vintage) that came their way. While there was a time the band avoided performing any Fish-era material, perennial favourite Sugar Mice got an airing in the encores, although the split between how much h sang himself and how much of a crowd-only singalong it became varied from night to night. 

It’s impossible to name highlights without listing the whole set, so I’ll only say that it was wonderful to have Real Tears for Sale representing the Happiness album and while some fans have suggested that the likes of Neverland and Fantastic Place have been overplayed in recent years (an assessment it’s actually quite easy to agree with when looking at past setlists), for me at least, any thoughts of wanting them rested evaporate instantly upon hearing the opening notes. That said, these were only my 9th, 10th and 11th Marillion gigs (yep, they’ve finally left Toto in the dust!), so I may yet do a coalition-style u-turn on this issue in the future! 

With keyboardist Mark Kelly’s recent hearing problems (which he detailed in his blog HERE), the stage positions of the band members have changed this year, with guitarist Steve Rothery and bassist Pete ‘Tremendous’ Trewavas swapping sides to get Rother’s amps as far away as possible. Kelly, who has been side-on to the audience for years is now facing us directly (which must have been a shock to the system!) but it’s great to be able to see all the facial expressions and exchanged glances going on between the band, from one position (just left of centre is the ideal spot for me – closest to h, but with the ability to watch Rothers work his magic during his solos and more), although Ian Mosley sadly remains as hidden as ever behind his drum kit!

While the set only varied slightly between performances, taking in multiple gigs in this way proved beyond a doubt that no two shows are the same. While the band had publicly stated that they’d be opening with Gaza the rest of the set was anyone’s guess in Cardiff, which is always a thrilling situation to be in, not least when you’re hearing songs being performed live for the very first time. That said, there were a few technical gremlins (as h said, ‘It’s great to be at the first night of the can say “I was there when that went wrong, and that went wrong and that went wrong...”!) most notably the sudden absence of keyboards during most of the This Town trilogy. Despite this throwing everybody off just a tad (‘He’s lost’ said h, at one point as Ian played one prominent fill a good few bars early) they managed to keep the damage to nose-to-tail minor rather than full-blown train wreck – and the crowd loved it. It was also the only night I heard h use what has almost become a catchphrase at his solo gigs...’Shall we have a chat?’ (although the answer was we didn’t really have time, ‘cause he’d gone all Stevie Nicks on us earlier in the night and faffed about with at least one pointless costume change too many!).

By Sheffield – the fifth night of the tour – the new songs had bedded in, and were already sounding like old favourites, the technical hitches (and costume change issues) were largely resolved and the band were basking in the rapturous reception the new album had been receiving. h, who is what you might call eccentric at the best of times, was absolutely, delightfully, mad as a box of frogs on this occasion. From his between song banter (including his birthday wishes to fans ‘on behalf of the beat combo’), to whatever it was he was trying to do to Mark (who discovered that it’s not possible to play keyboards and run away from the band’s token lunatic at the same time!) at the beginning of Neverland he was more entertaining than ever – though some were a little disconcerted by his behaviour. After making no sense whatsoever in his spoken introduction of The Other Half he stopped to ask if he sounded drunk, to which a resounding cry of ‘YESSSSSSSS!’ was the crowd’s response.  I don’t reckon he was though (and I’ll leave it at that...) and his emotional engagement and vocal delivery throughout the songs was as consistently excellent as ever.

Sadly, as mentioned above, the venue was (to be kind to it) a bit of a hole and the audience were split into those at the front who had a great time, and those at the back who couldn’t hear the talking (sadly this included at least one of those birthday celebrators) or the quieter musical passages and couldn’t see much of the stage at all. Luckily I was towards the front, and I would rate this show my favourite of the three – apologies to those who suffered a less pleasant experience – I don’t mean to rub salt into the wound!

h in London

I’ve read a lot over the years about how London audiences are subdued and unforgiving compared to those in the rest of the UK, but the Forum gig proved this to be utter poppycock – it was one of the most buoyant audiences I’ve ever had the pleasure of being amongst (well, apart from the 16-year old girl who sat on the floor throughout....what was that about??) – and on a Sunday night too! Neither h’s vocals or the sound generally seemed quite as sharp as the other nights to my ears, but nor was there anything wrong with them. The band certainly seemed to be enjoying having space to move around in again after the cramped set-up of Sheffield and might well have played all night had they not been recording a live album on the night (ready for punters to collect as they left, if they so desired), which meant a strict limit to two hours and sixteen minutes. I’m still not sure how I’ve so far managed to convince myself that I don’t really need to buy it (but if you’re not as daft as me you can order it HERE for a limited time only!). Ending with Estonia (dedicated to Neil and the rest of the Marillion-loving Armstrong family) was a slightly downbeat finish to my week on the road, but proved my emotional buttons were still being pressed right up to the very end.

Along with seeing three gigs and going to a couple of places I’d never been before, one of the deciding factors in precisely which gigs to attend was the chance to see three different support bands. The Reasoning, Mr. So and So and DeeExpus all put in fine performances, and while there wasn’t much between them, it was The Reasoning who impressed the most – despite my general and irrational dislike of female-fronted rock/prog/music of any genre. It was sufficient to prompt me to preorder their forthcoming Adventures in Neverland album in any case, and showed them to be in fine form after a difficult year (this was the first gig for their new guitarist, brought in to replace a predecessor who hasn’t been seen since March). None of the bands were a match for the headliners though, who reminded me during each song, just why they are my favourite band, and the fellow fans I met along the way (turns out I have another fan living about half a street away from me!) only added to the experience. Therefore all three gigs can be rated no less than varying  shades of 10/10.


You’re Gone*
This Town/The Rake’s Progress/100 Nights*
Sounds That Can’t Be Made
The Other Half#
A Voice From the Past
Fantastic Place
Real Tears for Sale
The Sky Above the Rain
The Great Escape
A Few Words for the Dead
Sugar Mice
*positions swapped after Cardiff
#Not played in London

Extra tracks closed two of the shows, with Between You and Me and Estonia featured in Cardiff and London, respectively.

PS I’m well aware that Marillion are not everyone’s cup of tea, and I have no bones with that (I just pity them what don’t get ‘em!), so in the name of balance here is a (thoughtful) largely negative review of their Wolves gig.