Barring a cameo appearance from Lord Robert of Catley at Firefest, 2013 was my first Magnum-less year since arriving in the UK - and it's strange how quickly withdrawal symptoms can kick in! Thankfully 2014 has seen them back with yet another brand-new (and brilliant) album in the form of Escape from the Shadow Garden, and an obligatory accompanying tour. The UK leg concluded with last night's gig at London's Islington Assembly Hall - fast becoming one of my favourite venues, especially when downstairs is left (as downstairs should always be if you ask me!) as a standing area and the best possible use can be made of the somewhat bouncy floor.
Despite being in the middle of a Bank Holiday weekend the venue was almost full to capacity - as full as I've seen it, in fact - and with the exception of poor old (yet mercifully ejected - twice) WAT-FORD!!!! (you had to be there...) up for it in the way that you can always rely on a Magnum audience to be.
Of course it never hurts to be touring in support of an instant classic and Shadow Garden, which saw the band earn their first UK top 40 album in two decades and, for me, ranks alongside Princess Alice and The Visitation as the very best of their post-reformation albums (and indeed sits comfortably alongside those, Chase the Dragon, Storyteller and Wings of Heaven as one of the best albums in their entire discography), has certainly been embraced as such by the fanbase.
The fact that the catalogue is stuffed with such an embarrassment of riches meant that, despite being weighted very slightly towards recent material over the old favourites, there was only room in the set for 4 songs from the new album (so no Crying in the Rain - boo!), kicking off with album and show opener Live 'Til You Die, with Unwritten Sacrifice and Falling for the Big Plan also featuring in the main set. Elsewhere, the early part of the show saw a welcome return to the set of two of the best Visitation tracks - Black Skies and Freedom Day - and a couple from previous album On the 13th Day. This included the fabulous Dance of the Black Tattoo, which has now had an extra layer of grit applied to it that has seen it come into its own on stage, after being the mildest of mild disappointments last tour.
As the evening went on the old favourites (The Spirit, All England's Eyes and Vigilante amongst them) started to appear with increasing regularity, beginning with an even more extended than usual How Far Jerusalem, as Bob used his usual mid-set loo/tea break to sort out the problems he was having with his battery pack. Being the pro he is whatever the issue was it didn't affect his performance, which was as powerful and imbued with emotion as ever, but he did look a touch happier and more relaxed once it was sorted.
Also appearing, as it has in every Magnum gig I've been to, was possibly the greatest song ever written - Les Morts Dansant. This song, which deals with the policy of executing first World War deserters and other 'cowards', should be on the national curriculum as far as I'm concerned. Certainly nothing the BBC can or will come up with in their in-depth WWI commemoration programming will match this 6-minute song for emotion, depth or craft and I will never ever tire of hearing it (or manage to get through it with both eyes remaining dry, for that matter!).
The encores brought us back to the new album with the rocking Too Many Clowns (with red noses appearing in bulk down the front, and not due to an excess of alcohol consumption during the show!) before setting off some air-keyboarding in the crowd as Mark Stanway began the majestic intro to Sacred Hour, another of the all-time Magnum classics, but one I hadn't heard live before this tour. And well worth the wait it was too - an absolutely perfect end to a perfect gig.
The band never seem to have an off-night and they were firing on all cylinders throughout. A special mention for Tony Clarkin who's playing was the best I've heard from him. He's never been the rock posturing guitar hero sort, he just gets on with the job and does it beautifully. Sometimes I think he's even more underrated as a guitarist than he is as a songwriter, and that's saying something!
I'll leave it to those who were lucky enough to see the 85-95 line-up to decide whether the band as we have it now are, as claimed by some, the best they've ever been, though that's got to be a close call. To be honest it doesn't even matter; they're certainly as good as the current incarnation of any other band you'd care to name - of any vintage - and should be more widely heralded as one of Britain's greatest bands.
In support were the best opening act I've seen with Magnum - Neonfly. Their brand of catchy, yet substantial, melodic rock swiftly had an appreciative crowd in party mode. Lead vocalist Willy Norton particularly impressed with his powerful tenor voice and stage presence. The rest of the band were also very tight, as you might expect given that they've been playing these songs for years, but they also previewed two songs from their (hopefully) forthcoming second album and these sounded just as polished.
They fit in nicely stylistically with the headliners and there were more (if superficial!) comparisons you could easily draw between the two, not least having a guitarist (Frederick Thunder in this case) writing the bulk of the material or an image 'problem' (which I've always taken to be media speak for 'they don't all wear the same clothes and have fancy haircuts'). Whatever, it's the music that matters and I've had The Enemy buzzing incessantly inside my head all day. Definitely a band to watch (starting with the below 'musical video' - Norton's suggested use of any downtime at work...for those who have such a thing!) and a nice bunch of guys, only too happy to sign the healthy number of CDs they were shifting after the gig.