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Live At The Kentish Town Forum, 11.12.14

So here I am once more... down at the front of the London venue The Forum. This is one of my favourite places to watch bands. Small enough to be relatively intimate, large enough to allow a really good atmosphere and plenty of room for the band on stage. Downstairs soon fills up but it is still quite cold, as confirmed by support act Luke Jackson who commented how it was hot in the dressing room and cold on stage, the exact opposite of Manchester the night before.

Luke ambles on stage with an acoustic guitar looking for all the world like a roadie but he strolls up to the microphone, plugs in and plays. His youthful looks belie his skill with the guitar and his voice... a mature, bluesy drawl. He is at ease on stage, entertaining us with his characterful, folky songs and is a great warm-up for the main course. He departs after playing the title track from his latest album and thanking Marillion for giving him the opportunity to play.

While the real roadies are preparing, Mark Kelly appears on stage clutching an i-Pad. He asks us all if we have one of these or a smartphone to keep it in our pockets, not to photograph or film the gig and just enjoy it. This is the band’s response to an increasing number of complaints about gigs being spoilt for people by others holding their technology up in order to take crappy photos or wobbly film footage. This gets a huge cheer, although there are still too many here tonight who think it doesn’t apply to them.

One advantage of these Christmas dates appears to be that because there’s no album to tour the band have shaken the set list up and serve us up a right bunch of crackers. Some of the usual longer numbers like This Strange Engine and Neverland are given a rest, allowing the band to deliver a punchier, slightly more direct set.

The lights soon go down and the band appear on stage. They open with the somewhat lightweight and poppy Gazpacho. Although this is the opening track on Afraid of Sunlight, it seems a unusual choice, eschewing their usual slow burner (Gaza, Invisible Man, Splintering Heart) for something a little more direct. It’s a track that’s not been played for a while and despite this being the fourth night of the tour the band seem a little rusty. The sound isn’t particularly good either and everything sounds a bit muffled.

However, everything comes together for The Univited Guest. The sound appears to have been sorted and the band hit their stride with this more jaunty, upbeat number which gets everyone singing along, especially during the ever-so-catchy chorus. h then welcomes us all to the gig informing us that the band have tried to put together a celebrational set list “like a kind of happy funeral”.

Things are slowed down for the subtleties of both Power and No One Can. Both gorgeous as ever h sings the former with real passion as the song builds gradually towards its climax and the latter is full of such gentle, sweet sentimentality, and is dedicated to Jan and Martin who got engaged in Manchester the previous night. As h says it’s about as close as Marillion get to a love song. Judging by the way the crowd sing along this is still a firm favourite.

The band then dip into the Fish years with h dedicating Warm Wet Circles and That Time Of The Night (The Short Straw) to Derek William Dick and his fine lyric writing, which is a nice touch. h does sing Fish era songs so well and Rothers’ playing is exceptional. The audience sing along with every word as h holds his microphone out into the crowd encouraging us to get even louder. I love the ‘Fidra Lighthouse’ section and it never fails to send a shiver down my spine. h sings these songs with such passion, throwing himself around the stage; the words aren’t his but he can obviously relate to them as he squeezes every drop of emotion from Fish’s lyrics.

h takes to his keyboard as the band give us two selections from the Essence disk of Happiness Is The Road, namely Woke Up and Trap The Spark. The lyrics for Woke Up means the song is perfect for a Christmas show and as the gentle intro gives way to the punchier main section the song sparkles like a brilliant bauble on a Christmas tree. The rarely played Trap The Spark is so fragile it brings a tear to the eye. h plays keyboards and makes dramatic catching gestures with his hands to emphasise the futility of trying to trap the spark (you can’t).

h regails us with a tale of his ‘honeymoon’ with the band at “a mushroom farm” where this song was written after which Steve Rothery picks out the opening notes to Easter on his acoustic guitar to a huge cheer. A perennial favourite, the crowd sing along with gusto to the gently Gaelic flavoured tune. Switching back to an electric guitar Rothers pulls out a sublime solo. Could anyone ever tire of hearing this song? Certainly not this reviewer. The band slip easily into Sounds That Can’t Be Made, the funky bass line propelling the song forwards to the Aurora Borealis section where h sings over Rother’s soaring guitar; another shivers down the spine moment. As ever the crowd carry on singing the refrain once the song has finished and the band join in again.

A haunting Gabriel’s Message leads gently into Seasons End, a song warning of global warming and climate change long before it became a trendy subject. h sings about how it may never snow again in England, although it was cold enough for some sleety rain while queuing outside! Rothers nails the beautiful solo perfectly; there are few other guitarists who can wring so much feeling out of six strings and a couple of pieces of wood.

Man Of A Thousand Faces is sung with such zeal by h as he takes the role of the song’s hero/anti-hero. Another crowd favourite we all sing along and when the “Voice of command, Voice of a snake, Voice of humanity, Voice of insanity...” section arrives it’s another hair-stand-up-on- the-back-of-neck moment.

The main set ends as it began with another selection from Afraid Of Sunlight as h is handed his Rickenbacker guitar to misuse and abuse. The opening babble of sampled voices announces the arrival of King, dedicated to One Direction’s Harry Styles. How long can you stand indeed. Another song that shines in a live setting, this cautionary tale of fame and fortune builds inexorably towards its cacophonous climax as the band really let rip and h slams away at his poor guitar. The band leave the stage to rapturous applause, although they soon reappear.

I’m sure many of us have been lucky enough to see the band live before but it bears repeating what superb musicians they are. Mark adds colour and texture to the songs; Ian and Pete effortlessly provide the rhythmic backbone for everything and what is there left to be said about Steve Rothery that hasn’t already been said? Tonight his fingers were magical. Apart from the slightly wobbly opening song, the band are locked tight together as a unit. Steve Hogarth’s personality shines through for the entire performance, a born entertainer with a voice full of character and emotion. The band look like they are having great fun throughout the duration tonight, h covering every inch of the stage and beyond and Pete bouncing up and down when not singing backing vocals.

Resplendent in a fairylight covered waistcoat and a silly seasonal t-shirt, h settles down at his keyboard again and informs us that the next song died on its arse in Glasgow (“I blame the Scots”) and died on its arse in Manchester (“I blame the fucking Northerners”). So as h politely points out “We’re going to play you a song you won’t like but we don’t care. It’s not all about you, you know” and the band get all festive with The Christmas Song (that’s the one that goes “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire”) and it’s a bit shambolic but we don’t care and cheer anyway. h says we almost gave a reaction and some wag in the crowd shouts out “above average”.

Far more together is the band’s version of John Lennon’s Happy Christmas (War Is Over) which is really well played. As if to disprove themselves, snow starts falling from the ceiling covering the crowd down at the front. Looking at those around me they, and myself, probably look like the strangest bunch of snowpeople you’re ever likely to see. The only problem was it looked like we all had a bad case of dandruff (pass the Head & Shoulders) and I was still picking bits of the damn stuff out of my pockets a week later. Mr Hogarth leads the audience in another mass sing-a-long and before we can catch our collective breath the band lauch into Slàinte Mhath. Another welcome blast from the past, the band play with passion and h seems really fired up, especially when we reach the “from the barbed wire at Flanders and Bilston Glen” section which he really belts out, whirling around the stage. The audience sing the words “waiting... for the whistle to blow” back at the singer who grins from ear to ear. The band exit the stage again but we know they will be back again soon.

Reflecting at this point on what has come before this, I feel the choice of set list was a brave one by the band. There’s nothing from Marbles or Anoraknophobia; those are being saved for the forthcoming Marillion Weekends. But there is a nice balance between the familar (Man Of A Thousand Faces, Easter, King), lesser played tracks (Gazpachio, Trap The Spark, The Uninvited Guest, The Release) and nods to the Fish era.

The band reappear and announce The Release, the rather obscure but brilliantly catchy Seasons End era song. Built around Mark’s ‘bingley bongley’ keyboards this song is so good you have to wonder why it was left off the album. Marillion are definitely worth missing the last bus for. This leads nicely into Garden Party, that wonderfully tongue-in-cheek paean to the upper classes. Huge cheers ring out as soon as the opening chords are heard from Mark’s keyboard and there is mass bouncing at the front. h is at his camp best as he acts out the songs lyrics as he sings. The last notes fade away and we exit into the cold Camden night, warmed by the knowledge that we have just seen a wonderful gig by a great band.

First published in the Spring 2015 Issue of The Web UK Magazine / Photographs ©2014 Alan Jones

Set List: Gazpacho / The Uninvited Guest / Power / No One Can / Warm Wet Circles / That Time of the Night (The Short Straw) / Woke Up / Trap the Spark / Easter / Sounds That Can't Be Made / Seasons End / Man of a Thousand Faces / King / Encore: The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire) / Happy Xmas (War Is Over) / Slàinte Mhath / Encore 2: The Release / Garden Party
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