Images and Words: Geoff Bailie
Billed as “The Journey Continues…”, and following a ‘friends and family’ run through on the previous night, a renewed Big Big Train stepped on to the stage in Aylesbury tonight and made some history of their own! If you’re reading this, I expect you don’t need me to remind you of the unplanned routes that journey has taken the band over the last 3 years. But as the train rolled out this evening, this was very much a band back in business.
Prior to this, we had a fantastic set played by Dim Gray, a band who have newly signed to BBT’s English Electric label, and whose keyboard player Oscar Holldorff is pulling a double shift filling in for Carly Bryant in the BBT line up. If you haven’t heard their new album Firmament you should check it out (REVIEW LINK). Expanded to a 5 piece band for the live stage, the key elements of the band’s sound blasted from the PA. Tom Ian Klungland’s almost tribal drum rhythms were the pulse over which was layered Oscar’s wash of keyboard and the reverb-laden chiming guitar of Hâkon Høiberg. Album opener Mare exploded into the audience with a confidence and power that let us know this first proper U.K. gig was no warm up! A particular highlight for me was the track, Avalon | The Tide which soared and flew as Oscar and Hâkon’s complementary vocal styles merged. The band breezed through a set list that included material from Firmament, the album released that very day, and their debut Flown. Dim Gray showed themselves to be a force to be reckoned with, rather than just a time filler support act l, and I saw many people heading straight to the merch stand to get their albums after the set ended!
And so to Big Big Train – I had planned an instant review but it’s taken me a bit of time just to gather my thoughts on the evening. I got to see BBT’s last tour in Edinburgh. I’ve viewed this as a privilege that many of my prog friends haven’t had that opportunity to experience – so to get that chance again, it’s quite hard to put into words.
I’ve shared the set list at the bottom and I think the band took a really good approach to how that was structured. A dozen songs: four from albums which did not exist at the time of the last tour; the b-side of a Christmas single; a brand new song; and a track each from The Underfall Yard, Folklore, Grimspound and The Grand Tour and two from English Electric. This was a brave selection, reflecting the writing contributions of Greg, Nick, Rikkard and Dave F, as well as David L, and, I assume deliberately, steers away from some of the songs most strongly associated with David’s stage presence.
The audience was rapturous as the band came on stage, and the slow building “Master James of St George” introduced us to band’s vocal qualities, as well as giving new singer Alberto the first chance to make his presence felt. When the instrumental section kicked in, we got the first feature of Dave Foster – my reflection on his performance is that throughout the show he was spot on in achieving a balance between being faithful to familiar guitar parts, while imprinting his own style at points where that was the thing to do. In those moments, you knew that he was playing things that Dave Gregory wouldn’t have played, yet it was all complementary and served the song. The ending of this song scales some vocal heights, and it didn’t take long -not that anyone was in any doubt – to be assured that Alberto Bravin is quite simply superb.
As “Made From Sunshine” kicked in, this joyous song was perfectly set to lift the audience to a new level. I’ve said to many people that one of the factors that raises BBT shows to a higher plane is the brass section… and they made their show debut in the mid section of this song. What my friend Prog Nick – who has seen BBT live – once expressed as the “movement of air” produced by David Desmond’s ensemble is unlike anything else I’ve ever heard in rock music. The power and majesty of the combined registers of the instruments brings an incredible synergy, that needs to be experienced to be understood. Greg’s epic “The First Rebreather” was up next – the first track on English Electric, the distinctive flute sounds were present, emulated by keyboards. We get to the soaring chorus of “Here she comes…” and I’m seeing hands in the air and smiles on all the faces around me… and they widen even further when Oskar Holldorff takes the keyboard solo. The more atmospheric notes of the Dim Gray catalogue made way for some classic prog keyboard riffing, showing us that Oskar can hold his own, while holding the fort for the temporarily absent, and much missed, Carly Bryant.
For me, “Atlantic Cable” was the point in the show when I was able to shift my focus from the “new” aspects of the line up. All members, including Clare Lindley, who had played up a storm on violin and added some crystal clear female vocals, had demonstrated their right to be on that stage. Of course this epic piece, being played live on tour for the first time, was amazing – its story, and musical light and shade came across incredibly well.
I think it’s worth commenting at this point about Alberto Bravin, who sang this song that sadly David Longdon never got to perform live. BBT have done a good thing by not hiring a vocal clone, but instead securing a singer with bags of personality of his own. Unlike, say, the freedom that Dave Foster has to improvise in his own style in certain passages, Alberto has to walk a much narrower line. The songs should be sung the way they should be sung, but nuance and personalization come not from reinventing vocal melodies, but from a deeper place – and in my opinion, Alberto Bravin has found that place. His level of performance is exemplary. It doesn’t have some of Longdon’s props and theatrics, but it has a drama and emotion that exists in the sonic rather than the visual world. In short – it’s new, it’s different and it’s really great: Bravo Bravin!
Alberto’s voice also finds a different and appealing blend when mixed with Nick D’Virgilio’s, as is the case in the next song, “The Florentine”. Coming together at the front of the stage, the duetists voices are actually quite similar in tone in places which brings a different shade to the harmonies in this glorious song. Once again it’s a A Grade performance, and has some fantastic bass moments both on the guitar and on bass pedals. It’s notable that this time around, Greg Spawton had chosen basically the back right corner of the stage as his place of work. Depending on where Claire Lindley stands, he can even be obscured from view – and I think that’s the way he likes it! Certainly judging from some of his confessions in the brilliant Grant Moon biography of the band, we understand that the keeper of the flame in BBT is not in it for stardom or recognition, but for his passion and commitment to creating wonderful music and songs. As fans, that’s exactly what we love about his presence rather than his (virtually non-existent) stage moves! His trebly bass lines and deep resonating bass pedals are attention grabbing enough to compensate.
At the midway point in the show, most of the band leave, while Nick straps on a guitar, and Rikkard prepares behind the keyboard for an acoustic version of Telling The Bees. It’s an appropriate tribute to its writer, both in terms of the low key way it is performed and in the subject matter. The act of “telling the bees” was something done when news, good or bad, needed to be spread, and the song refers to this practice which was done when a family member passed away, or indeed when a new life was born. Both of those things have happened to BBT in this recent period of change – so the bees must be told.
The introspection of this stripped back song gave way to an exuberant version of English Electric’s “Hedgerow”. The audience were uplifted, and clapped along, leading to some drum ‘m’ brass fun before Nick’s “Bats In The Belfry”. His instrumentals from Common Ground and Welcome to the Planet (“Apollo”) were both played tonight, highlighting the trajectory of his place in the band, rising from session player to writing, full band member. The two instrumentals were separated by “A Mead Hall in Winter” and, perhaps the most surprising addition to the set list, “Snowfalls”. Rikkard played a big part in writing the former and so it’s right that his skill should get this showcase in the set list. Once again, what can be said about the amassed BBT Big Band blasting out this incredible music in concert – my adjectives are running dry – as good as the albums are, it just has to be heard in person to be believed. The combination of electronic synths, keyboards, strung and wind instruments is just sonic heaven.
“Snowfalls”, I’ve mentioned, was an unusual choice, being a melancholy reflection on the loneliness experienced by some older people during the winter season. How does this apply to us on a warm summer night in England? Well my take on it, for what it’s worth, is that the preceding years, with lockdowns and fear of illness, have been an extended “winter” that we all have experienced. I’m sure many felt solitude and separation in ways they hadn’t done before. And as we look at a world headed to recession and rising costs of living, the words “it’s harder now, much harder now – but still you believe” felt like a motto to help take us forward. Reading too much into it? Perhaps. Maybe it’s just the case that it’s a great song, fits perfectly in the set and gives the brass band a chance to do their thing! That’s enough for me really.
And how to follow that? Well the band return to the stage to present “Last Eleven” – a new Greg Spawton song and the first to be realized by Alberto Bravin. It hasn’t been recorded in a final version and only appeared on YouTube a short period before this show. It’s testament to the loyalty of The Passengers that its opening is greeted with as much warmth and enthusiasm as the familiar favorites. A song about those who are the tail-enders and “extras”, is it surprising that it resonates with the dedicated fans of this band? I don’t think so.
A self-help book writer once said: “Starting over is nothing more than recognizing The Pause before picking up your thread and continuing to weave your own story”. That’s what Big Big Train have done with these shows. That’s what Last Eleven points to. Long may this Train roll…
Master James of St George
Made From Sunshine
The First Rebreather
Telling The Bees
Bats In The Belfry
A Mead Hall In Winter