Published on 19th August 2015
Big Big Train
Kings Place, London
14th August 2015
[No photos of the band in action, by request of both band and venue, so many thanks to Tony “Quick Draw” Colvill for his on-the-hoof sketch, and thanks to BBT for signing it! Band photo with many thanks to Chris Mcginn]
The TPA Massive were out in force for this highly anticipated event so we thought we’d do something a little different. Rather than a normal gig review we’d just each add to a collection of personal thoughts and observations from a particularly enjoyable evening.
So here it is. After such a long wait for this to actually happen, with much discussion about the ‘hows’ and ‘wheres’, here we are at the wonderful Kings Place in London (no apostrophe, apparently – please check the website before writing in!), fittingly just next door to King’s Cross railway station. Due to a dismal journey and frenetic chase around London I got into the hall at 7:27 – phew! (Apologies for the disruption to the couple on the end of Row G!)
Just in time as at 7:30 the band drift onto the stage, which is unsurprisingly pretty cramped, to a rapturous reception, the room full to the roof with love and appreciation for what these guys and gal do. Anticipation is almost bursting the place. The band kicked into the appropriate opener that is Make Some Noise which settled them in nicely and probably took the edge off some of the nerves, and then we’re off into a wonderful first set.
From such a large catalogue of great material the setlist was always going to leave out some favourites and the celebratory element of the evening probably suggested some of the selections. From personal preference there seemed to be a slight overbalance towards numbers that encouraged audience participation. I enjoyed everything played and am not yet such a curmudgeonly old git that I don’t want people to have a good time but I don’t enjoy or feel comfortable with such things. It is the band’s performance that I enjoy; taking it all in, watching the moves and absorbing the music. But each to his or her own and there was certainly something akin to a party atmosphere with much willingness for joining in.
Of the rest of the first set, the pair of tracks from The Underfall Yard were just wonderful, particularly the magnificent Victorian Brickwork that ended the first set. Hairs on the back of the neck standing to attention at the climax of that. The brass section, hidden in the balcony and all but invisible from my seat, just magically appeared during these tracks, the job they did all evening perfectly capturing the nuances and emotion of the material. They did a brilliant job and were wonderfully integrated despite their isolated position. The sound levels were good from where I was, not too loud and very clear although David Longdon’s voice appeared slightly swamped at times, but given the amount of instrumentation to cater for that’s not overly surprising.
All of the band performances were noteworthy and the whole beautifully incorporated the unique musical voices of Dave Gregory, Rikard Sjöblom and Nick D’Virgilio. NDV drives everything along with a sharpness and vigour that other notable drummers could learn much from whilst Dave’s contributions (including the pithy “I’m working” when asked to say hello whilst tuning!) cut through to dynamically evidence what a wonderful player he is. And Rikard, when given free reign (as any Beardfish fans will know) is a force of nature, his additions of keyboard and guitar, including some soloing in his own inimitable style, were the icing on a very rich cake – and I know a thing or two about cake. The balance with the more acoustic elements from Andy Poole’s 12-string, Danny Manners’ occasional upright bass and Rachel Hall’s violin was superb, cap that off with a beautifully understated performance from Greg Spawton, whose Rickenbacker and bass pedals hit all the right notes, and this music fan was well happy!
As for the vocals, the 6-part harmonising was at times extraordinary – it could have been 7-part as an un-miked Manners sang along throughout! At the core David Longdon, a great frontman and a superb voice, hitting every note flawlessly. His flute work was excellent and the inclusion of Uncle Jack also gave him the opportunity to whip out his banjo. A brilliant performance and very theatrical, couple that with the occasional images that graced the wide screen behind the stage and it became a stunning visual as well as musical feast
The second set started with Kingmaker with which I wasn’t familiar as I have the original version of Far Skies Deep Time, but I liked what I heard and will check that out. The focus then shifted to the English Electric albums and included my two favourite tracks, Judas Unrepentant and a stunning East Coast Racer which is one of the most evocative pieces I’ve ever heard, the band completely nailing it with great contributions from Manners and the brass section. Summoned By Bells was also fantastic and I enjoyed Curator Of Butterflies much more live than on record.
So there it was. A brilliant evening that exceeded expectations in many ways and was a quite extraordinary event of fun and friendship. A huge thanks to the band for managing to pull it off so spectacularly well and to the audience for making for such a wonderfully supportive atmosphere. These are songs that deserve to be heard and it was an honour to be present for their first public airing on stage. In venues such as this with the necessary attention to detail in the delivery it all works fantastically well. A superb evening.
We’ll have to do this again sometime, soon I hope.
It was the time of the gathering. Six TPA reviewers together in one place to battle for the prize. As it turned out all gained some reward. It has been a long time since a gig has created such a frisson of anticipation. For weeks the band’s Facebook forum has been building an atmosphere, and in the end it did not disappoint.
Kings Place is a purpose built auditorium, sadly for jazz and classical, and the sound did suffer a little bit, but Rob Aubrey did an admirable job of producing something if not perfect, at least effective. But enough, too much milk has been spilt over the sound.
From the initial meetings in various hostelries nearby, to the closing notes, little joys were accumulated. For me, the meeting of passengers (the collective noun for fans of BBT) in the Rotunda Bar for a pre-gig beer (Theakstons £3.95, not bad for London prices – thanks Gary!), and listening to an excellent impromptu performance from Peter “Tiger Moth Tales” Jones, playing a combination of Genesis and his own songs (go on, buy his albums, you know you want to) accompanied on suspect backing vocals by a variety of passengers. An engine shed of untrained choristers.
Let’s be honest, it felt like a family meeting, and this only added to the intimacy of the gig. Taking our seats the display screen warned us against the use of mobile phones, cowbells and sprouts. No need for a wind section then? The band took the stage, greetings exchanged, and we were requested to make some noise.
The auditorium was designed with classical and jazz performances in mind, and unlike its northern sister (Hall One, The Sage) unable to adapt to the music produced by a rock band, having said that it coped. This was the first live performance from BBT in 17 years and the first live rendition of many of these songs – it was worth the wait. Introductions made, banter established, the first of the longs, The First Rebreather. A history lesson, and for all those that say that BBT are Genesis copyist this is the only song where I can identify a Genesis keyboard riff.
The first bars of The Underfall Yard brought the room to a rapt silence. It set the evening’s theme, respectful appreciation of the commensurate skills of the band, against invited whooping, hollering, clapping and banter.
The song also introduced the brass section, invisible, sound from the minstrel’s gallery, and beautifully clear, perhaps highlighting the halls true sonic construction.
David Longdon now in his stride introduced his Uncle Jack, to my mind a whimsical piece but balancing the long and shorts, and into Victorian Brickwork.
A performance of two halves, first night nerves, who can say, and to be honest I cared little, such was the emotional experience. Perhaps the sound improved in part deux, but the overall sensation of being there curtailed my tendency for over analysis.
The interval. The Merch Desk again snowed under with punters, a period for chats and introductions to internet friends, a trip to the loo perhaps before retaking our seats.
Kingmaker, a track I have enjoyed but until the combination of music, lyrics and imagery, one that has not enlightened. So thanks for that, I feel suitably educated.
Then the precursor to Folklore, next year’s album, Wassail. I loved this when first heard, more so now, and should it do so, a worthy winner of the Prog Anthems award. David donning a Green Man mask, slightly similar to Peter Gabriel’s old man mask of yore, solos from Rachel Hall on violin, and Mr Longdon on flute. In fact every solo throughout the evening felt integral, not a single indulgence, not even the soon to be heard drum solo. But first, we were Summoned By Bells. I really do find such joy in the music of this band; yes, I have my favourites, but revisits lead me to new nuanced pastures.
So the aforementioned drum solo; a brief respite to allow the others to set up their instruments for Judas Unrepentant, a song with many changes, complicated signatures and little vignettes. “All rise!” We did. Again the visuals helping the song along…it ended, we all rose again as one, a deserved standing ovation.
Then down to earth, Curator of Butterflies, a tune tinged with sadness and beauty, and not a single box of BBT tissues on Nellie Pitts’ Merch Desk. Some openly cried, others did that swallow and hard face, but almost everyone was emotionally moved.
And finally, for some the band’s signature piece, East Coast Racer, a Mallard tale. It has always had life for me, probably because I can remember seeing the engine as a small boy at Reading, wrapped in a winter coat, holding the hand of my uncle on a train spotting trip, as the engine built up a head of steam, London bound. Driving, passion, visuals that remind us of the glory. Film and music and a live rendition, making it something else, beyond its recorded representation. She flies!
They left, they came back. Encore, and Hedgerow, next to Upton Heath, my favourite earworm (if I have to choose). There was such a feeling of mutual love and respect in tonight’s performance. Many highs, the sound was not perfect, despite Rob’s hard work. Live it rarely is, but as a shared experience it rates as one of the best of my life.
So from pre-gig passenger meets, deep and meaningful conversations, frivolous nonsense to catching the last train back to the accommodation (just, oops!). Thank you, Andy, Danny, Nick, Greg, Dave, David, Rikard and Rach. Oh and the hard working Rob (sound) and Nellie on the Merch Desk.
Thank you fellow passengers.
I had a great evening…thanks…until next time.
Now made available by the band on YouTube, here’s the performance of Victorian Brickwork from the show on Sunday 16th:-
First, cards on the table – Where BBT are concerned I am a neutral. I really liked EE1 and to a lesser extent EE2, but that’s about as far as it goes. However, I love the band’s Facebook page, a rare place on ye interweb that is troll-free. Much time is wasted exchanging daft banter with like-minded fools! It seemed that a majority of Friday’s audience were members of that page, making the occasion more of a fan club convention than a normal gig. This is perhaps why I felt somewhat removed from the highly emotionally charged atmosphere, a sort of controlled middle aged version of teenage hysteria!
So…on to the gig. With a brass section, largely hidden from where I was sitting, and the eight band members on stage it must have been a logistic nightmare arranging full rehearsals, and the soundchecks cannot have been easy. These unavoidable restrictions showed a tad in the first ten minutes or so, probably exacerbated by nerves brought on no doubt in part by the massive weight of expectation that has been building for weeks over on the FB page.
The lads and lass soon got over the slightly bumpy start, and the first part of the set was mostly given over to older numbers I was not that familiar with. They were well played, and ecstatically received, but a bit too in thrall to their influences for me. That they chose to include the very Trick Of The Tail First Rebreather in the first set was telling, if probably unintentional. Not that my opinion has any bearing in the grand scheme of things.
All consummate players, the band are led by singer and front man David Longdon, who did his best to turn the event into a party, not that it needed prodding in that direction, by attempting to get the crowd to clap along at every occasion, sometimes in the oddest of places, which left a lot of the audience struggling. I am convinced he started clapping along in 13/8 at one point! Prog is music to sit down and listen to, not dance to in impossible time signatures, and perhaps trying to make Big Big Train songs into party music is not going to work…there are a couple of exceptions to this, of course!
I much preferred the second set, taken from the more recent releases I am familiar with. These songs, with their poignant lyrics and pastoral vibe are the sound of Big Big Train and no-one else, and show how, with their recent works, they have found their own style, rising above their earlier obvious influences and fixations.
One of the two “party” songs is of course Wassail, and it was exactly the kind of roof-raising shout-along it was always going to be. The Big Big Train sound is epitomised by Summoned by Bells and Curator of Butterflies, which were both simply gorgeous, the obscured brass section up in the balcony adding a large helping of emotional heft.
The ovation when the band closed the evening with the lyrically fitting Hedgerow was thunderous and long, and the band looked genuinely overwhelmed by the reception from their fiercely loyal fanbase. Operating outside of the strictures and demands of the music business is a good place to be and other fanbase-driven bands can look to Big Big Train for inspiration in how to run a small independent mobile unit, to paraphrase Mr Fripp. The staggering amount of organisation that went into these three gigs, from the rehearsals to the stage set up to the merch desk is quite amazing and considering they did it all without the support of a record label, it is worthy of much praise.
One of the benefits of a fan club convention…sorry…gig like this is putting faces to names in FB threads, and meeting fellow TPA scribe Phil L in a rather wet London Town was great, as well as seeing some more familiar faces in a nearby pub and at the venue, and this was the real reason I was there. Although I enjoyed the gig, you see this was most decidedly prog, and I’m not really a prog fan, as if you hadn’t already guessed!
What was witnessed at Kings Place over the weekend?
A superb rock concert by an 8 piece band, supported by a 5 piece brass section would be one answer, but it is clear that this does not do justice to what occurred at the Big Big Train gigs.
By their nature reviews of albums or gigs are subjective exercises, expressing the reactions of one individual, but they are often presented as attempts to be objective. I will not even attempt to convey my thoughts as ‘objective’ – this was a gig that was way more than just a gig and my subjective personal participation in this event affected my whole experience and coloured my memories of this wonderful occasion. There was a sense of community and expectation that has been fuelled by the remarkable social media community that has arisen around and been encouraged by this remarkable band.
In years past many of us would attend a gig and may know a handful of people with whom we went and then just go home – but for many people at the weekend that was not the case as Big Big Train fans converged from around the world to finally meet ‘friends that they had never met’ – strange but true, and whilst this may sound peculiar to outsiders it was oddly euphoric and positive. This atmosphere imbued the whole event with a sense of friendliness and camaraderie very rarely seen at gigs.
The performance by the whole band was excellent. The vocals on Friday were initially low in the mix and they were understandably a little nervous at the start, but that didn’t matter as this was a crowd intensely willing their musical heroes on to success with a sense of joy and relief that they were finally ‘out there’ making live music. The hallmarks of Big Big Train are ‘Quality without compromise’, as seen in the music and presentation of their albums. These hallmarks were stamped into the excellence of their merchandise and chosen venue to support their first foray into live music in this incarnation. The music was played with passion, precision and skill. The crowd knew they were capable of this and lapped it up enthusiastically, responding with heartfelt applause and repeated standing ovations. The tumultuous standing ovation after a remarkable Judas Unrepentant clearly staggered the band who had to just stop and take in what a magnificent impact they were having on the audience.
The connection between band and crowd was palpable and was expressed individually when they dedicated the delightful Uncle Jack to my wife and I for our anniversary – a cheeky request, but typically the band were human and approachable enough to include a special moment for a couple in their audience, typifying their sense of community. They also dedicated a song to a sick Andy Tillison of The Tangent who has worked with them previously. Even in one of their greatest moments they had the class to think of others.
Highlights? Everyone has different highlights depending on their subjective positions. The finale to the first half of the concert Victorian Brickwork met with enormous universal acclaim and a prolonged standing ovation. It also engendered personal tears as I recalled this song was written for Greg Spawton’s deceased father, and my thoughts turned to my late father. This song never sounded so good, and came to emotional life in a live context. I was not alone in shedding a tear at this point.
I could go on and on, and many have done so effusively on social media. This concert will live long in the memory as one of the great nights of my life. Sitting next to Peter Jones of Tiger Moth Tales occasionally involved impromptu vocal harmonizing as we joyfully sang along at times, right to the end as the whole audience was on its feet singing along to Hedgerows.
You won’t find me being objective or reserved or analytical about this gig – it means too much to me and to so many more. This went beyond a gig and transformed into a communal act of affirmation and joy. Encore!
Tonight for me was full of anticipation, a feeling that I am sure was shared by most if not all of the audience. Big Big Train took the stage to loud cheers and applause, delivering a varied set in a tight and masterful way, showing that they can transfer their recorded output to the live arena.
The set list contained a few songs which gave the opportunity for audience participation, not personally my favourite activity but I acknowledge that some do enjoy this. For me personally the highlight must be the songs from The Underfall Yard, in particular Victorian Brickwork where the live brass towards the end of the song was so emotional, summing up for me what Big Big Train do so well.
No real disappointments for me, only the absence of my favourite track Master James of St.George, but that is only a small point. Overall, a very enjoyable event and I hope that they don’t wait too long to do this again. Further live exploration of their extensive back catalogue is needed.
I do so like a band that can deliver high quality music, played expertly in a live setting in a venue that can do them justice.
Kings Place is the perfect size. Large enough for a sense of occasion and yet not too large that this took away the sense of exclusivity and fraternity that the fans brought to the venue.
There was more to this gig than meets the eye. Not only was this the well rehearsed performance of eight band members but a small brass section was tucked away in the balcony. When they played out the haunting Summoned By Bells my thought was that this performance had captured the essence of Big Big Train.
David Longdon is a great front man. He interacted with the audience between songs and showed amazing patience even when this bordered on intrusion. He exhibited a larger-than-life stage presence and commanded the stage, his vocals subtle yet powerful on-demand and pitch perfect throughout.
The backing vocals and harmonies provided by NDV, Rachel Hall, Greg Spawton, Andy Poole and Rikard Sjöblom were excellent. Rachel’s violin was outstanding; pitch perfect and complementary. I’ve seen much higher profile bands whose cellists or violinists have spoiled an otherwise excellent live sound.
One tiny criticism: I’d like to have heard David Longdon’s vocal higher in the mix. However, this night was the litmus test for the band. You could tell that for the first couple of tracks they were settling in, but when they settled, my word! For the second show they were no doubt already settled and can’t have failed to put in an even better performance!
Make Some Noise
The First Rebreather
The Underfall Yard
Summoned by Bells
Curator of Butterflies
East Coast Racer
Andy Poole – 12-string Guitar, Keyboards, Vocals
Danny Manners – Keyboards, Double Bass
David Longdon – Vocals, Flute, Banjo
Rikard Sjöblom – Guitar, Keyboards, Vocals
Nick D’Virgilio – Drums, Vocals
Dave Gregory – Guitar
Rachel Hall – Violin, Vocals
Greg Spawton – Bass, Vocals
Dave Desmond – Trombone, Arrangements
Ben Godfrey – Cornet, Trumpet
John Storey – Euphonium
Nick Stones – French Horn
Mike Poyser – Tuba