Artist: Big Big Train
Venue: Cadogan Hall
Date: 30 September 2017
At the end of July, I received a message out of the blue from a certain Greg Spawton. “Hi Matt, Just finalising guest lists for the Big Big Train shows. We have you down for a seat on Saturday 30th September. Are you still available to attend?”
I think it took me about three-and-a-half seconds to compose my reply. From memory, I might have got a little carried away, suggesting that wild zombie horses couldn’t stop me from attending. But in my defence, I was very excited at the prospect of hearing Big Big Train in concert for the first time. I thought I might have scared Greg off and made him change his mind, but remarkably, my attendance was confirmed just a week or two before the show via another message that sent tingles down my spine in anticipation.
For those intrigued as to why someone with the moniker of ‘Man of Much Metal’ was so excited about seeing a pastoral progressive rock band on stage, it is because Big Big Train have rapidly become a hugely important band in my life. As I have got older, I have become more receptive to other less heavy genres of music and when I heard ‘English Electric Part 1’ after some steady pressure from some quarters on social media, I began to realise just how special this band is. The love affair has only strengthened as the years have gone by. I am now at the point where, brass and all, Big Big Train and I are emotionally linked; their music moves me like few others and I adore the storytelling within each and every track.
I felt a bit of a fraud travelling from Suffolk to the Big Smoke by car on the day in question. I should have journeyed by rail, preferably steam, but then I’d never have been able to stay until the very end. So I put ‘Folklore’ into the stereo and braved the misery of the notorious A12 and M25 main roads.
Not even the incompetence of Travel for London and their ‘unique’ system of acquiring a travel ticket for the casual London visitor could dampen my spirits as I headed closer to the venue, the famous Cadogan Hall for the evening’s revelries. As I alighted the tube and walked the 100 paces to the venue, I couldn’t help but note the differences between the clientele outside this venue and the clientele with which I was generally more familiar at live music events. Not a Goth or a blasphemous t-shirt in sight, and no strange looks from passers-by for a start.
Inside the venue, with guest ticket in hand, it felt more like a West End Show or theatre performance than a rock concert. Wine by the glass, clean toilets and sensibly-priced merchandise assaulted my senses. I bought a t-shirt to mark the occasion and then, after a short wait, made my way to my seat in the gallery. Seated in the second row near the centre, I had a great view but, having read the comments about the sound quality in the gallery from the previous night, my excitement was tempered ever-so-slightly, by apprehension.
Nevertheless, as the venue filled around me with a surprisingly diverse audience from far and wide, you could feel the anticipation in the air. As the big screen came silently to life via a raven sitting contentedly in a treetop, the atmosphere was crackling. I, like many ‘passengers’ around me, found myself involuntarily leaning forward in my seat, impatiently awaiting the arrival of the band on the ample Cadogan Hall stage.
We didn’t have to wait long before the lights dimmed and out came the first of the octet, violinist Rachel Hall to raise the curtain with a compelling solo performance. It eventually segued into a rousing rendition of ‘Folklore’ once the remaining seven members of Big Big Train had joined Hall on stage to thunderous applause, alongside a brass quintet to stage left.
Sound issues? What sound issues? From where I was sitting, I could hear just about every detail of the rich, multi-layered and detailed music and the relief I felt was palpable – not just from a selfish point of view, but for the band who had clearly suffered the night before. The inward smile was broad as I joined what appeared to be a near sell-out audience in applauding a superb opening salvo. Heck, I even embraced the brass ensemble who added their unique flavour to the song.
My applause was even greater at the close of ‘Brave Captain’. A moving composition at the best of times, I suddenly felt so thoroughly overwhelmed by everything that I felt myself well up. Several conflicting emotions collided headlong from sheer amazement in terms of what I was hearing and witnessing, to strong melancholy brought on by the emotive stills that were projected onto the giant screen of the young pilot, Captain Albert Ball at the centre of this story. I don’t mind admitting that I was a bit of a mess by the time charismatic frontman David Longdon donned a pair of pilot’s goggles and took in hand an authentic old-style microphone to deliver the dramatic mid-section of the song.
Based on the reaction of the crowd, this was the point where we collectively realised that we were in the presence of genuine magic. Even at this early stage, several of the throng stood and cheered, much to the delight and apparent surprise of the band.
‘Last Train’ came next with its strong Genesis influences and it gave the band the chance to take a collective breath and relax into the performance, knowing that everything was going well. Being a less familiar song to me, it allowed me the opportunity to drink in the view and focus a little more on each musician, all of whom gave near flawless performances.
The first half of the gig lasted for just over an hour and in that time, we were treated to the likes of ‘London Plane’, ‘Meadhall In Winter’ and ‘Meadowland’. The former is a personal favourite so I was ecstatic to hear it in all its glory, accompanied by some terrific visuals that charted the growth of our capital city from pre-Medieval times right through to the modern day. However, it was the epic ‘Meadhall In Winter’ that received the biggest ovation of the half. Deservedly so too, because it was a magnificent extended composition brought to life like never before.
What struck me was the increased power that the compositions were afforded in the live arena. Led by the effortlessly tight and commanding drumming of an expressive Nick D’Virgilio and the subtle bass work of Greg Spawton, the music felt like it came alive even more so than on disc. The keys of Danny Manners and Andy Poole, occasionally supplemented by the ever-smiling multi-instrumentalist Rikard Sjöblom, were some of the biggest winners on the night. They sounded rich, vibrant and with a strength and clarity that shook the foundations of the venue, especially when delivering those epic, rousing notes. You simply can’t replicate this sound through a recording; they made me tingle, touched my soul and gave the music another irresistible dimension.
When the interval arrived, I felt stunned. I was expecting a good show but I hadn’t quite expected to be blown away in the manner that I had. As many of the patrons headed out of the hall to recharge their glasses or continue their animated conversations, I merely sat recalling and re-living what felt like a million little magical moments.
The second act began with a fabulous rendition of ‘Experimental Gentleman’, during which Rachel Hall’s violin delighted, Dave Gregory’s guitar sang like an angel, whilst the keys of Manners and Poole led the delicate beauty of the song’s closing section superbly.
It led to more standing ovations but for me, what happened next was even more incredible and special. The song ‘Swan Hunter’ was introduced, the crowd responded and I was swept up in yet more intense emotions as this moving track played out. The gentle brass carried with it a melancholy air of regret whilst in the background, the most striking still was allowed to linger. It depicted a row of terraced houses outside which a group of small children played on tricycles. But looming over everything was the shell of a giant ship being built at the nearby dockyard. It is an image that remains ingrained in my memory and, coupled with the emotive composition, led to yours truly welling up not for the first time.
The remainder of the setlist was comprised of an epic, energetic and enthusiastically-delivered ‘Judas Unrepentant’, the magnificently grandiose ‘East Coast Racer’, the emotionally-charged ‘Victorian Brickwork’, the breezy bittersweet ‘Telling The Bees’, dominated by Sjöblom’s acoustic 12-string guitar and the surprisingly stupendous ‘The Transit Of Venus Across The Sun’.
Introduced by David Longdon as one of his very favourite compositions by Greg, ‘The Transit…’ began with a stirring and sensational brass intro into which Rachel Hall blended exquisitely. This might have been the moment of epiphany where I finally ‘got’ the brass. No, more than that, I fell in love with it. In the context of this intro, it made perfect sense and I didn’t want it to end. Mind you, I have to admit that I had forgotten just how good this entire song was. Like the rediscovery of an old, almost-forgotten friend, I took it to my heart and, if pressed, it might just be my standout song on the entire setlist.
You’re never going to please everyone with the setlist, even at two-and-a-half hours and with an encore comprised of an electric drum solo from Nick D’Virgilio and a rousing, epic rendition of ‘Wassail’ complete with enthusiastic audience participation. I would have liked to hear any one of ‘Winkie’, ‘Brooklands’ or ‘Curator of Butterflies’ and there was a momentary pang of disappointment that I didn’t. However, as I quickly realised, if I’d have heard those, I might not have heard others like ‘Swan Hunter’, ‘The Transit…’ or ‘Brave Captain’, all of which were spectacular and spinetingling. So, on reflection, I wasn’t disappointed at all.
As I type this review, I am assaulted by many other memories from the show. Like the note-perfect delivery of the backing vocals from Sjöblom, D’Virgilio and Hall, or the sheer effort and commitment shown by lead guitarist Dave Gregory, who was constantly switching guitars in order to deliver just the right tones to each part of the songs. Or the previously unmentioned incredible flute-playing from the ball of energy that was David Longdon.
The other thing that struck me was just how much fun each and every member of Big Big Train was having on the stage. Smiles were never far away from any of the eight faces and this translated into the music, which was imbued with just a little something extra as a result. And the chemistry was wonderful to witness, with Longdon making several jokes at the expense of himself and others. ‘I didn’t forget to use the telescope prop…so let’s hear no more about it’. ‘Rikard, you’re up darling’, ‘on bass, surprisingly not wearing double denim…Gregory Spawton’. The list goes on and each time I recall a quip, I smile in spite of myself.
All too soon, the shotgun at the end of ‘Wassail’ fires, thereby signalling the end of the show. I was stunned at the interval, but I was shell-shocked at the finale. Nevertheless, I hauled myself off my chair and joined everyone else in the audience who, to a man and woman, boy and girl, was on their feet, giving the loudest, most enthusiastic standing ovation, I can remember at a gig for many a year. And it was richly deserved too, for it was a truly phenomenal spectacle.
As I walked down the stairs to the auditorium, I was in no doubt that I had witnessed something very special indeed, easily a top five gig of all time. And I’ve been to a few gigs over the years to say the least. The quality of the venue, the sound, the visuals and the perfectly-performed music was a devastating combination, one that will be etched indelibly on my mind for ever more. The night was made even better as I got to shake hands and take the ubiquitous ‘selfie’ with every member of the band, all of whom were very patient, welcoming and gracious.
At around 11pm, I exited the venue and headed into the rain to begin my journey home, elated, enriched and very, very happy.
Bravo, Big Big Train, bravo. What. A. Night.
Score of Much Metal: 10