One year after booking the tickets the unmissable weekend of Big Big Train live at Cadogan Hall, London was finally here – and it proved to be well worth the flights from Toronto. Words and pictures by Tim Darbyshire.
There was a palpable sense of anticipation as people arrived at the 950 capacity Cadogan Hall last Friday evening, knowing they were about to witness something very special. Big Big Train returned to the live stage in 2015 with three shows at Kings Place (also in London), and since then the hope of more live dates has been creating world wide excitement. Accordingly, these three gigs attracted fans from Australia, the US and of course Canada as well as many European countries.
It’s not long before the foyer is packed out, and the (very reasonably priced) merch desk is doing very brisk trade with men (and women) of a certain age helping themselves to t-shirts, signed posters, programmes and even umbrellas. Inside the auditorium, it’s great to see all 13 musicians sharing the same stage – in 2015 the 5 piece brass section were tucked away up on a balcony. Violinist Rachel Hall is first on stage playing a haunting prelude to ‘Folklore’ and it’s standing ovations all round as the rest of the band join her and launch into the title track of 2016’s highly acclaimed album of the same title.
The setlist is a well thought out nicely balanced mix of songs from 2009’s ‘The Underfall Yard’, ‘English Electric’ (2013) , ‘Folklore’ (2016) and ‘Grimspound’ (2017). The long epics being interspersed with lighter numbers. Big Big Train of course is all about story telling – ‘Brave Captain’ tells the story of World War I pilot Albert Ball with vocalist David Longdon enthusiastically acting out the part complete with flying goggles and old fashioned microphone. ‘Last Train’ poignantly documents the tale of the last station master at Hurn station in Dorset – the song tells the story of the final day as the last train departs in 1935. ‘London Plane’ sends shivers down the spine, and is very apt considering where we are. The song is accompanied by a film projection on a large screen (as are all the songs).
Just three songs in and it’s evident just how talented the musicians on stage actually are. Nick D’Virgilio relentlessly drives the band forward, aided in the rhythm section by Greg Spawton’s elegant bass lines and bone-shaking bass pedals. Big Big Train encompasses a wide sound palette with keyboards (including plenty of mellotron) provided by Danny Manners, Andy Poole and Rikard Sjoblom. Sjoblom also turns his talents to searing lead guitar lines and gentle acoustic 12-string and if that isn’t enough, provides backing vocal harmonies. The guitar duties are also shared by legend Dave Gregory, and the line up is completed by Rachel Hall whose violin beautifully cuts above the mix and of course front man David Longdon. It is Longdon who is often the focus of attention, delivering every line as if his life depended on it.
The first set takes a change of pace with ‘Meadowland’ – a delicate acoustic number dedicated to the late John Wetton. It was John’s vocal support of the band that helped to propel Big Big Train to where they are today. The first set is brought to a close with the lengthy ‘A Mead Hall In Winter’ from the ‘Grimspound’ album with plenty of opportunity for audience sing alongs…….
‘Experimental Gentlemen – Part 2’ kicks off the second half of the show after a 20 minute interval. Next up is a song I’d been hoping they would play – ‘Swan Hunter’ from ‘English Electric’. Documenting the decline of the ship building industry in the North East, and backed up by a stunning image of a ship towering over terraced houses as children play in the deserted streets, this heavily emotional piece is elevated to new heights by the brass section.
The mood is lightened as the band romp through another crowd favourite from ‘English Electric’, ‘Judas Unrepentant’. ‘Judas’ recounts the interesting story of art restorer turned forger Tom Keating who is eventually arrested for his crimes.
Greg Spawton’s ‘The Transit Of Venus Across The Sun’ is probably my favourite track from ‘Folklore’ and this follows ‘Judas’. The brass section once again are with us, adding the textures that only they can. Not even David Longdon’s forgetting to use the ‘expensive telescope prop’ twice in three attempts can stop the enjoyment of this song. At the Sunday matinee, an audience member pointed out he’d forgotten to use the telescope, leading to an impromptu replaying of the last couple of minutes of the song with the aforementioned telescope!
By now every song is greeted with a standing ovation – a trend that continues as the band play ‘East Coast Racer’, considered by many to be BBT’s finest moment it was voted #45 in a recent poll of Prog magazine’s Top 100 anthems. ‘East Coast Racer’ tells the story of the streamlined steam train Mallard and its record breaking 126mph run on the east coast mainline in 1938. The mellotron and bass pedals towards the end of the song has the whole place flying.
‘Telling The Bees’ is delivered with a relaxed vibe and allows time for band introductions, before the set closer ‘Victorian Brickwork’. I’m not sure what to write about this song, after all the preceding high points of the set I didn’t think it could get even better, but it did. Glancing around the audience as the song approached its climax there were many fighting back the tears as the brass lads do what only they can do.
Nick D’Virgilio is first out for the encore which begins with a short drum solo, he then introduces the brass section one by one and the funky jazzy groove develops into a rousing crowd pleasing ‘Wassail’ with singer Longdon donning his green man mask. Three hours after the show started and it’s all over, with everyone wanting more.
Ten minutes later and the whole band are in the foyer taking the time to meet fans, sign stuff and chat – no cash grab expensive meet and greet packages here. Despite restricted sight lines for some of the gallery seats, and audio issues during the first half of the first show which were quickly resolved during the interval, the band have delivered on all levels. Loreley Night of the Prog festival is in for a real treat in Summer 2018.
Thanks to all involved in the Big Big Train extended family for an unforgettable weekend.
A Mead Hall In Winter
The Transit of Venus Across The Sun
East Coast Racer
Telling The Bees
Big Big Train:
Andy Poole – keyboards, guitars, mandolin
Danny Manners – keyboards
Dave Gregory – guitars
David Longdon – vocals, flute
Greg Spawton – bass, bass pedals
Nick D’Virgilio – drums, backing vocals
Rachel Hall – violin, backing vocals
Rikard Sjoblom – guitars, keyboards, backing vocals
Dave Desmond – trombone
John Storey – euphonium
Nick Stones – french horn
Jon Truscott – tuba
Ben Godfrey – trumpet