Big Big Train, Dim Gray – Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury – 2nd September 2022
In the wake of the cancellation of the HRH Prog event in Leeds and the subsequent non-viability of the accompanying European tour, we can count ourselves amongst the lucky ones to have caught some live Big Big Train this Summer.
The most excellent Waterside Theatre in Aylesbury was clearly the place to be on a Friday night. The foyer packed pre- and post-gig with Passengers (the close-knit and fiercely loyal BBT fan fraternity), tour patrons sporting their lanyards and T shirts, the PROG magazine hierarchy, biographer Grant Moon and Marillion’s Pete Trewavas all pressing the flesh with the band who made a prompt appearance not long after the last notes had faded.
We even had the legendary David Stopps acting as MC as part of the similarly legendary Friars promotion; the local area an almost holy place of pilgrimage for music fans. Hence such an honour for the young men of Dim Gray (who we have now renamed ‘Dim Dim Gray’) who secured a support slot as new English Electric Recordings labelmates and who too are earning quite a reputation (not least amongst us here at ATB – our recent review of Firmament).
The expanded band had the chance to plug the new music on release day and showcase what a lush outfit they’ve become. Now able to cherry pick from an impressively expanding catalogue, both Oskar Holldorff (doing a double stint after being recruited on keyboards for the BBT set too) and Håkon Høiberg took on vocal duties, Oskar occasionally stepping out front while his guitar partner teased and finger picked all manner of subtleties from his instruments. The Høiberg vocals not too far a step from Feargal Sharkey’s quivering Irish lilt, and while the emphasis was all about atmospheres and textures and at the core, some quality songwriting, a hint of the darker side of Dim Gray comes in Dreamer’s Disease where, despite the sombre nature, hope still breaks through.
Suitably bedded in up from the previous night’s warm up gig in Southampton, Big Big Train appeared as shadowy figures slowly taking the stage against backlit blue light, the only splash of colour from the band logo peering down from overhead. The slowly building Master James Of St George inspiring the first of a run of standing ovations began almost before a note was played. A contrast with the carpe diem burst of Alive that opened the Grand Tour shows that fairly burst into bloom from the first note but nonetheless, like most things that come from BBT, a considered move.
It followed a slightly bizarre opening set piece where the sounds of Ozzy’s galloping Crazy Train proved the signal for everyone to leave the bar and scurry to their seats before the echoing refrain of “train…train…train” saw the house lights dim. It conjures a memory of Neal Morse’s first Testimony shows where the Sledgehammer intro picks up on the “this will be my testimony…” line as a similarly suitable intro.
Any need for an injection of colour and vibrancy exploded with Made From Sunshine – arguably the star turn of the Welcome To The Planet album – and musically at least, a significant contribution from ‘The Dave’ Foster, new guitar recruit and smart move in the transfer market. A musician whose contribution is often breathtaking while the double neck looks great, and proper prog too. Talking of which, perhaps the man we were all keen to see and hear and who we were all rooting for, new singer Alberto Bravin, crept up quietly yet assuredly and delivered exactly what we hoped he would plus a whole lot more. Vocally he was spot on; born for the role some might say, whilst adding keyboard and guitar contributions and stepping respectfully back as some of the instrumental passages took off.
The instrumental sections of Atlantic Cable even saw those ovations start to occur mid song. Deservedly to be fair as Messrs Holldorff and Rikard Sjöblom duelled and combined like swashbuckling keyboard musketeers. Rikard in particular multitasking effortlessly through the set in a masterful display, this performance countered at the close of the ovation by Alberto’s simple “thanks.”
There were a few tweaks in the set list from the previous night – our Hedgerow was a fair swap for Proper Jack Froster – and there were no places for some of the epics in Brave Captain or East Coast Racer. We can envy the Southampton audience who also got The Transit Of Venus Across The Sun, yet the choice of songs from what’s become such a broad catalogue seemed, like the aforementioned captain, a brave one. No playing it safe or reliance on what you might cheekily call ‘the hits’.
Irrepressible folky acoustic bounce is how you might term the opening passage of The Florentine, with Nick D’Virgilio reprising his frontman duet role – always a lovely feature of the Spock’s shows when he sang June with Neal Morse – and was a personal highlight of the evening – an Italian singer, an Italian artist as subject matter and prog rock proving an infallible blend. Perhaps going head to head with the closing part of The First Rebreather that seems to acknowledge Genesis’ Stagnation melody or the D’Virgilio/Sjöblom duet on Telling The Bees. A touching nod to the songwriting skills of the much missed David Longdon – saw Alberto add a rich soulfulness to a song that’s close, and maybe now even closer, to the heart. Nick of course, is an effervescent and irrepressible character who thrives in this band, singing, playing guitar or particularly as he conducts the ‘drums and brass’ showcase that skirted around the margins of a Mission Impossible theme.
The prolonged ovation (that word again) received by band founder and foundation stone, Gregory Spawton in the band intros, showed the high regard in which he’s held. He may be virtually offstage, hovering humbly in the back corner, but his presence is powerfully felt in the growling Rickenbacker basslines and in that most prog of instruments, the bass pedals where he’s always ready to step up and add a depth charge to proceedings.
The latter part of Hedgerow and Apollo (the latest in an increasing line of dramatic epics) both display the anthemic qualities that make a great prog song and add the communal touch that elevates them into the Hey Jude (or that one about the curtains) league. It finds Clare Lindley – part of the 2021 transfer window – sealing the deal, owning Rachel Hall’s old part on Hedgerow, cupping her hand to her ear to encourage the Passengers to join and not the only time her violin lines floated gracefully through the mix.
And while they can do the glorious and often outrageously skillful prog rock statements, A Mead Hall In Winter highlighting fifteen minutes of what King Crimson would probably have called ‘an observation’, they can do the delicate and intricate. That came with Snowfall, where the Hackett-like ringing notes cascading as the room is lit with mirrorball sparkles. Yes, the days have flown by, Winter may be coming in the air, but the prospect of the continuation of BBT comes in the consolation of the new song that served as the encore. An indication of the direction of the music on the new album where Alberto will make his recorded mark next year. Last Eleven – the intro almost leads us to believe they’re taking us for a Dance On A Volcano – fits the BBT bill; poignancy, memories, a tale of the outsider and the underdog.
Finishing the main set where the show began by referring to BBT manager Nick Shilton’s sleeve notes on the 2020 remix/remaster of The Underfall Yard, he talks of how BBT “has featured numerous twists and turns over the years,” before his final statement that notes how there may be “a few more chapters left to run.” Prophetic words indeed as the journey of a band gradually attaining imperious status, continues.
Categories: Live Reviews