The Crooked Billet, Henley on Thames, Oxfordshire
Monday, 2nd October 2023
In the summer of 1989, a young unknown singer had joined Marillion and they were recording an album at Hook End Manor in Oxfordshire. When they weren’t recording – or sun bathing, or improvising hot air balloons, or humorously accepting legal documents from their former frontman – they occasionally frequented a local pub called The Crooked Billet. So the story goes, one night keyboardist Mark Kelly returned to the Manor from the pub and rather sheepishly declared that he may have committed the band to playing live at the pub, much to the horror of the band, particularly their new singer. Soon afterwards, ‘The Low Fat Yogurts’ (as they called themselves) played to an absolutely rammed pub with hundreds of Marillion fans outside… and a legend was born.
Fast forward 34 years and that ‘new’ vocalist, Steve Hogarth, returns to The Crooked Billet for the first time since for a very special series of gigs. Some things have changed: the local country pub is now a rather salubrious ‘gastro pub’ and instead of the small front room (into which the band had to crawl through the windows, such was the crush in the building) Steve Hogarth is now playing in a rather lovely decorated tent out the back. However, some things have not changed. The fans are here in droves again, although in rather more organized and comfortable fashion, and Hogarth once again gloriously entertains the audience, this time with a mixture of his own songs, Marillion and some great cover versions.
‘h’ walks in rather nonchalantly and sits himself down at the modest little keyboard before launching into the title tune of that first album he recorded with Marillion, Seasons End… however, it does not quite go to plan and he admits that he had not really rehearsed it and only thought about playing it as he came into the venue! He then tells the story of that first gig with Marillion, and also how these solo gigs originally came about – he had a tax bill and asked Marillion’s manager what he should do and was advised to go and play some solo gigs. He confesses amazement that anyone would want to just come and spend some time with him in a room! It is this disarming charm and humour which wins over fans, and there is a real warmth toward him. He then masters Seasons End with passion, and the crowd love it.
The set’s opening section mixes some expected classics with some much appreciated ‘deeper cuts’. Amidst Hogarth’s sometimes comical between song comments, there is a real intensity in how he delivers songs such as Real Tears for Sale and the gorgeous Fantastic Place (a particular favourite of my wife, sat beside me). As he finishes, I exclaim ‘Beautiful…’ and it may just have been coincidence, but Hogarth immediately segues into Beautiful from Afraid of Sunlight, suitably autumnal in feel on this early October evening. ‘h’ then goes on to explain the next song, stating that about twenty in the room will go ‘Wow!’ whilst the rest may just shrug and go ‘Uh!’. The heartbreaking explanation Hogarth gives for White Paper, from F.E.A.R., is that it’s about a father realising that the person they most love is now partly lost to them forever, which I interpreted as a mother being now more focused on their newborn child. You got the sense that this was clearly based on experience as Hogarth sings a spell-binding version of the song. I will confess to being rather ‘agnostic’ about this song previously, but Hogarth’s mesmerising and emotional performance totally transformed my understanding and feelings about it, which I think definitely benefited from the much starker, stripped down version.
As if to balance out the sadness in that song, ‘h’ then plays a delightful No-One Can. The first cover of the night is Nine Inch Nails’ bleak Hurt, which Johnny Cash so memorably covered and more or less owned it as the definitive version (in a similar way to Jimi Hendrix’s brilliant appropriation of All Along the Watchtower). Hogarth more than justified his own visceral cover of this searing song of self-revelation.
In a rather lighter moment, Steve then interrupts the evening to shake my hand and rather comically give me his birthday wishes (courtesy of my wife Bronwen’s prompting)… we possibly needed some light relief after the intensity of Hurt! The first set then finished with an assertive version of Sounds That Can’t Be Made, which for me definitely gained from this more acoustic setting.
The second set is introduced with ‘h’ claiming that for this set he would try to focus on songs he actually knows (!), and he commences with another from Sounds That Can’t be Made, Lucky Man. He pauses to tell the audience about how he came late to Leonard Cohen, after his love of The Beatles, The Stones, Joni Mitchell, Genesis and Yes. He shares that he heard this song one night on the radio and was so affected that he had to sit down on the floor, and proceeds to enchant the crowd with a great version of Famous Blue Raincoat which Cohen would have been proud to hear. There can only be one song to follow that beauty, and indeed Hogarth sings his own classic song about Cohen, The Crow and the Nightingale – possibly one of his finest ever songs. Another wonderful cover follows with Rare Bird’s Sympathy, which Marillion covered in 1992 (although their beautiful acoustic version is far preferable to their rather leaden rock version).
The evening then goes in a slightly different direction as Steve turns to a song from his 1997 solo album, Ice Cream Genius, which he plays along with some programming to great effect. Cage really comes to life in this format and reminds us it is not all about Marillion for Hogarth. To fit in with the rather ‘left field’ feel of the set, at this point he commences the often maligned House, and yet again this simple, sparse, passionate rendition reveals its intensity and emotional honesty – he really does bare his heart in his songs.
The end of the evening is hoving into sight rather too quickly (and it becomes evident that the curfew for this gig was rather earlier than he was expecting) so ‘h’ sings the intro to Talking Heads’ Once in a Lifetime before segueing into a rather spiky version of his own solo song Really Like, again with effects. Hogarth achieves some remarkable high notes on Don’t Hurt Yourself from Marbles and response to requests he then embarks upon Cloudbusting by Kate Bush, which he does with real vigour.
The gig concludes with one of Hogarth’s greatest ever songs (and possibly my fave ‘h’ song) as he bewitches the audience with a delicate, crystalline version of Afraid of Sunlight. Needless to say, the audience loved this gig and feel lucky to have been there the night this particular ‘Low Fat Yogurt’ returned to this now iconic pub for Marillion fans. There is an atmosphere of camaraderie in the venue as old friends reunite and new friendships are born over the dinner tables. On the other hand, for me there was a pensive, almost melancholic feel about Hogarth tonight with a set of mostly very intense songs sung with a fragile, emotional openness. There was no sense of a triumphant returning hero tonight – that’s really not ‘h’s style. He just goes out and sings how he feels with honesty, and the crowd love it… maybe that’s why he’s still there 34 years after his knee-trembling live debut, literally inches away and nose to nose with a packed pub full of Marillion fans in 1989. He won them over then, and he continues to make us smile, and yet somehow simultaneously breaks our hearts all these years later.
Well, whatever, it certainly made my birthday!
Real Tears for Sale
Hurt (Nine Inch Nails / Johnny Cash cover)
Sounds That Can’t Be Made
Famous Blue Raincoat (Leonard Cohen cover)
The Crow and the Nightingale
Sympathy (Rare Bird cover)
Once In A Lifetime (Intro) (Talking Heads cover)
Don’t Hurt Yourself
Cloudbusting (Kate Bush cover)
Afraid of Sunlight
Steve Hogarth – Keyboard, Vocals