I will not hide the fact that I am a big fan of Big Big Train (BBT). That doesn’t prevent me from being critical; for example I was not really pleased with their performance at the Cadogan Hall in London in 2017. Also, upon the arrival of the latest studio album, Welcome to the Planet, I had some serious criticism. But overall, the quality of the collective’s music is of the highest standard. Especially live, the band is a feast for both eyes and ears. I know so because I have already witnessed them perform live four times, with the recent memorable show at De Boerderij in Holland, in a largely new line-up, still fresh in my memory.
However, unfortunately I had to miss out on the major highlight in the live career of these gentlemen and one lady: the performance at Night of the Progin Loreley in 2018, now risen to legendary proportions. The holiday had been planned for a long time and could no longer be postponed. Instead I witnessed the special ‘send-off’ show in Basingstoke, two days before Loreley. But in the end I had to accept my fate: I would miss out on the first gig in years outside their homeland of England. I knew that the crew of the experienced John Vis (Mystery, Neal Morse, Lazuli) were supposed to make video recordings in Germany, but whether these would ever see the light of day remained very much doubtful.
Over the years, the hope that this material would be released vanished, until the band announced that the recordings were to be promoted to a genuine Blu-ray and two audio CDs. The deeply regretted death of frontman/singer David Longdon at the end of last year may have had something to do with it, because if this show makes anything clear it is what Longdon did for Big Big Train – he was invaluable, with his charismatic performance on the banks of the Rhine in Germany as the absolute highlight. The Blu-ray is therefore primarily a document of Longdon’s period within BBT, and as such a tribute to the man who joined the band more than a decade ago and constantly kept the momentum going.
So here it is before me, aptly entitled Summer Shall Not Fade – Live At Loreley, a Blu-ray and double-CD set of the band’s legendary gig as headliner at the Night of the Prog festival on 13th July 2018. The thirteen-track set lasts over two hours. It includes classic material from studio albums English Electric, Folklore and Grimspound, and favourite deep cuts Kingmaker, Summer’s Lease and especially The Permanent Way. The performance features the full Big Big Train live band, including the late David Longdon, plus a five-piece horn section. It’s made even more remarkable by the fact that it was only the band’s eighth live show in this particular line-up.
The various band members also look back with pleasure and awe on their performance at the time. Greg Spawton et al talk about a ‘coming of age’, a ‘magical evening’ and a ‘brilliant performance’. All praise Longdon’s part in the show: an absolute star, an extraordinary achievement, a highlight of our collaboration. The audio for the new live album was mixed in both 5.1 surround and stereo by Rob Aubrey, Big Big Train’s resident sound engineer. I have rarely heard such a good live sound as on this new album.
The video starts in an ingenious way: a kind of TV broadcast with interference. The show kicks off in semi darkness, resulting in a pink glow over the faces, especially Longdon, it gradually gets better as it gets darker. Like so many shows that are not specifically illuminated for video recordings, the camera crew also suffered from insufficient lighting. They struggled admirably through this and produce an excellent result, thanks to the brilliant editing of Geert Jan Schoonbeek.
The choice for multiple frames (split screen) seems like a good idea: so much is happening on stage at the same time that it is difficult to follow everything at once. The Blu-ray also contains the small stories/introductions that are not on the audio CDs. Beautiful close-ups and a multitude of cameras complete the sensation. And finally justice is done: Dave Gregory gets the full spotlight on his superb guitar playing, fully deserved.
The band opens with the classic The First Rebreather and maintains the high level of this first song up to and including encore Wassail. There are also a number of real outliers, especially A Mead Hall in Winter and personal favourite Brave Captain. The Transit of Venus Across the Sun and the iconic East Coast Racer also serve as highlights of the performance, especially the latter (my personal all-time favourite) which is well worth watching and listening to, not least because of the visual aspect: the video images on the big screen. Each member of the extensive band is given ample time and space to shine, the various tempo and mood changes making this almost seventeen-minute long epic song the best the band has to offer.
A phenomenal vocal performance from David Longdon, the high notes bring out the best in the man who had been looking forward so much to this particular show. During the previously mentioned dress rehearsal/send-off show, he wondered how the story about the British RAF hero would go down in a German environment. The answer: no different than in its country of origin, the largely international audience going completely crazy. Encore Wassail may be a bit of an anticlimax, but something of a party at the same time, with loudly sung along chorus and a jubilant atmosphere. It’s excellently photographed and edited by Vis and his team, for which we pay tribute. Fortunately, Big Big Train has recognised the importance of this show: better (four years) late than never. Maybe I should plan my vacation more careful next time.
01. The First Rebreather (10:12)
02. Folklore (8:22)
03. A Mead Hall in Winter (15:45)
04. Kingmaker (10:24)
05. Summer’s Lease (5:29)
06. Brave Captain (12:40)
Time – 62:52
01. Prelude & Fugue (3:01)
02. Judas Unrepentant (7:34)
03. The Transit of Venus Across the Sun (7:58)
04. The Permanent Way (8:13)
05. East Coast Racer (16:37)
06. Drums & Brass (3:47)
07. Wassail (8:17)
Time – 55:27
Total Time – 118:19
David Longdon – Vocals, Flute
Greg Spawton – Bass Guitar, Pedals
Dave Gregory – Guitars
Nick D’Virgilio – Drums, Vocals
Rikard Sjöblom – Keyboards, Guitars, Vocals
Rachel Hall – Violin, Vocals
Danny Manners – Keyboards
Robin Armstrong – Keyboards, Acoustic Guitar, Vocals
Dave Desmond – Trombone
Ben Godfrey – Trumpet
Nick Stones – French Horn
Grant Jameson – Euphonium
Jon Truscott: Tuba
Record Label: English Electric Records
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 14th October 2022
– Summer Shall Not Fade – Live at Loreley (BR) (2022)
– Welcome to the Planet (2022)
– Common Ground (2021)
– Empire [Blu-ray] (2020)
– Summer’s Lease (2020)
– Reflectors of Light [Blu-ray] (2019)
– Grand Tour (2019)
– Merchants of Light (2018)
– Grimspound (2017)
– A Stone’s Throw from the Line (2016)
– Folklore (2016)
– From Stone and Steel (2016)
– Wassail [EP] (2015)
– Make Some Noise [EP] (2013)
– English Electric: Full Power (2013)
– English Electric, Part Two (2013)
– English Electric, Part One (2012)
– Far Skies Deep Time [EP] (2010)
– The Underfall Yard (2009)
– The Difference Machine (2007)
– Gathering Speed (2004)
– Bard (2002)
– English Boy Wonders (1997)
– Goodbye to the Age of Steam (1994)