Big Big Train, Dim Gray – Town Hall, Birmingham – 11th September 2023
Just over a year ago in Aylesbury, we saw the return of Big Big Train. Their second gig in their latest incarnation, most notably for new singer Alberto Bravin. They called it The Journey Continues, as indeed it does with four shows in the UK bringing to a close a European jaunt that’s seen the band, a few tweaks here and there, ever-evolving.
In the past twelve months Ingenious Devices has appeared with Alberto making his debut on record with a live cut, plus new material in the form of a new album is firmly in the pipeline for 2024. We even get a sneak preview with. a couple of new songs tonight. Just one of the many differences to be observed for BBT ’23. The venue however, is one where the band has played in the past, is an apt auditorium for their music. Historic, ornate, rather striking and majestic – words fit for purpose, and fit too for a taster of the future with a set of new songs and never played live before songs.
So for an opening, a crucial part of any gig, recently occupied by David Longdon’s affirmation of Alive and the more low key Master James Of St George for Alberto’s debut. But first, Ozzy’s Crazy Train is the sign for the overture that leads into Folklore; an apt choice as the band folk rock in before Alberto bounds on to sing “Let us begin where it all began…We tell our tales and sing our song,” the thought of thoughts of passing on in the “it carries on” line. We think back and wonder if, or how many Passengers in attendance today trawled up that hill in masks for the promo video back in the day.
Nick D’Virgilio’s busy The Connection Plan sees the twenty to the dozen lyric delivered with concentration before we’re suddenly into a new song with Oblivion. One of the results of their recent recording sessions, it’s a rocky little number with a slowed down middle section that has Alberto flying, arms spread as he intones. He’s let his hair down – literally – as he stands centre stage beside and often face to face on opposing keyboards, his “Black Sabbath brother” Rikard Sjöblom. For the record, Alberto is sporting a Never Say Die T-shirt design while Rikard is in the classic Vol 4.
The first of a number of considerable changes to the setlist, one that’s been fluid throughout the tour to keep all on their toes, shows a strong affinity for the two English Electric albums. Keeper Of Abbeys (that gorgeous chorus line nudges it into a higher spot in personal favourite BBT moments) sees acoustic guitars out in force along with electric twelve string. Gregory Spawton, while in his usual spot in the engine room at the back of stage left provides some of several significant bass lines and new guitar hero Maria Barbieri gets one of those mid-song ovations for her solo. She’s proving a real asset – some have commented on her as the most natural successor to Dave Gregory which is saying something (with no disrespect to personal favorite option, Dave Foster) and the Passengers have really taken her to heart. Clare Lindley too plays for her life with some fine violin work not for the only time in the evening.
It’s the start of a short English Electric run that includes a sublime and flowing Curator Of Butterflies which must have been the cue, both on stage and off, for the recall of memories of David Longdon. There’s also the bright and breezy Hedgerow where Rikard jokes “I wonder if they recognise that guitar sound?” as he teases the Day Tripper-ish guitar intro. Taking shouts from the front rows, Alberto confirms in true game show host style, “Yes! It’s Hedgerow!” The end section once again highlights the embarrassment of riches in the BBT vocal department with voices overlapping over the warm brass.
Nick D’Virgilio becomes master of ceremonies for a brief interlude, duelling with the four-piece brass section; drums and brass ’23 sees him taking a short drum solo before being rejoined for a brass-fueled nod to Heart Of The Sunrise. He then gets into a right old tangle as he heads centre stage to don an acoustic guitar to duet with Rikard on Telling The Bees which remains a faithful and touching tribute to David Longdon. He’s an incredibly talented musician, who as a senior member of the band now, offers so much to the stage presentation.
While we await Alberto’s take on the goosebump moment in East Coast Racer (“she flies…..!“) we offer a few thanks that they’ve chosen it for Birmingham after the alternative Brooklands has appeared in Edinburgh. A brief chat with BBT manager and general good guy Nick Shilton about where our money lies in which epic they’ll play tonight sees him playing things cagey, but bearing in mind the next two nights in London will be filmed, we bank on them giving East Coast Racer another polish before then. Fingers can be uncrossed and we add a little more belief in a higher power as the band does justice to what could be the trademark piece.
After another debut live offering with A Boy In Darkness (we’re truly spoilt) and with NDV remaining high profile, it’s his Apollo (an instrumental piece he once referred to – quite astutely – as their Los Endos) that provides the truly grand finale to the main set. The opening couple of minutes are a blur as every instrument is pushed to the max before the moment when Gregory plays his bass run alongside the keyboard line and we get the chills as the brass steam in with the first of their fanfare bursts.
As we reach the final crescendo, Alberto leads the arm swaying, the Passengers follow and those in the stalls slowly rise to their feet in a gentle wave that moves across the floor – a few creaky joints maybe after a couple of hours of intense sitting and concentration. The hairs on the back of the neck are up as the house lights go up and the brass kicks in; extravagant drum fills and duelling guitar solos head towards the ornate ceilings, bass pedals and kitchen sinks join the throng. Think Starship Trooper, Awaken and Supper’s Ready thrown into one for a real tour de force.
And if anyone isn’t genuinely satisfied, the encore brings another new song in the gentle reflection of Love Is The Light and a finale (and reassuring consolation that “it’s a long one“) with Victorian Brickwork. Stately and grand as befits the surroundings, there’s a chance that we may have overindulged, but also a moment to look around and take in the significance of the events that have passed over the last few hours.
Bows are taken and the band retire to emerge later to mingle in the bars with the Passengers and for us all to simply contemplate. Two nights in London to come with a future record in some form to emerge, plus a new album in 2024. Word is that the journey is set to continue and make several more stops around the nation too. Riches indeed, of which at one time we could only dream.
More than just a support act these days, the opening slot awarded to Dim Gray (known in our circles as we may have mentioned as Dim Dim Gray), feels more like a double bill given the warmth with which the young Norwegian band are welcomed.
Their set gets the first standing ovation of the evening. How often can you say that, which is why they’re more ‘special guest’ than ‘support act’. It helps that Oskar Holldorff has slotted very nicely and firmly into the Big Big Train keyboard slot, just one of the commonalities where the Venn diagram between DG and BBT crosses over.
They’re confident enough to be trying out a new song too (“why not?“) and Murals fits very neatly into the selection of lush Art Rock flavoured offerings from Flown and Firmament (what money on the next album being brought to us by the letter ‘F’?). By now, they’re very familiar amongst the BBT crowd, particularly those Passengers who show their support in as many gigs as possible. No wonder – it’s all very accessible and well played with enough rousing moments to nudge listeners from any casual reverie, as they demonstrate in The Wave We Thought We’d Ride Forever or the drumming battery that powers Closer. Håkon Høiberg’s guitar technique is, as ever, fascinating to watch and in Dreamer’s Disease, they have a signature song instantly recognized. No spotlights, and coloured by moody lighting that shifts subtly between red and blue combinations, they’re humble enough too, to show a positive delight in their reception as they take the applause.
Their recognition in the BBT community is a given these days – maybe the Passengers should make it their mission to spread the word about Dim Gray.
Categories: Live Reviews