Three gigs in five days, in two different cities.
We start in Manchester, with Marillion at their usual Manchester venue, Academy 1. Last year the place was still a building site with a temporary entrance, and festival-style portaloos. Now it’s finished, with a proper bar and cloakroom, so you don’t have to spend entire gigs clutching a wet coat.
The support band were so utterly forgettable that I don’t even remember their name. Marillion seem to be so determined to avoid any opening act with the faintest taint of ‘prog’ that all too often we end to end up with pretty generic alternative rock. As for this lot, I can tell you they were a four-piece, with one guitarist playing some pedal steel. But I don’t remember any of their actual songs.
Marillion, though, were excellent. Their two hour set drew heavily from their new double album “Happiness is the Road”, favouring the atmospheric first disk “Essence” over the rockier “The Hard Shoulder”, and interspersed with a few older favourites. The new material comes over very well live, but with a double album there’s no way they can play all of it in one set. I hope they tour again next year to play the other half of the new album. As for the oldies, it’s nice to hear ‘The Great Escape’ from “Brave” again, and while some people are saying ‘Neverland’ could do with a rest, it still makes a great set closer. As usual, there was nothing whatsoever from the Fish era. Steve Rothery in particular was on superb form – it’s not for nothing that I he’s possibly my all-time favourite guitarist. Nice one.
Then it was down south to London for Marillion’s former frontman, Fish.
Unlike Marillion, Fish always has good opening acts, and the support for the first part of the tour was none other than The Reasoning. With Fish’s own set timed for more than two hours, they had a short slot of just 30 minutes, not long, but just enough to make an impression. With a very good sound for a support band, they went full-tilt, just five songs (Dark Angel, Aching Hunger, Call Me God?, Awakening, A Musing Dream). A pretty storming set, and judging from comments on Fish’s forum, they went down well with the large and enthusiastic crowd.
Fish was on great form. Even though his voice isn’t what it was back in Marillion days he’s still a powerful live act, his sheer presence and charisma, helped by a talented backing band making up for any shortcomings in the vocal department. If this one didn’t quite match that legendary gig at Manchester last year, it still came pretty close. His set consisted almost entirely of his new album “13th Star” and old 1980s Marillion songs. Although he’s playing many of the same songs as last year, he’s made a few changes, notably including more of “13th Star”, and replacing some of “Clutching at Straws” with those two big hits from “Misplaced Childhood”. ‘Openwater’ in particular rocks as powerfully live as I expected it to. He went walkabout in the crowd during the cover of “Faithhealer”, and recognised me from Manchester; I got the “Oh God it’s him” look. Frank Usher, recovered from the health scare at the end of last year was on great form on lead guitar; his playing on his showcase number ‘Cliché’ was as utterly mesmerising as last time. Chris Johnson was great on second guitar; seeing him next to the 6’5″ Scotsman really does make him look Hobbit-sized.
The one sour note of the gig was that Fish insisted on telling that story about the Fairies. If Fish really wants to be known as the great lyricist and frontman he undoubtedly is rather than a bitter knobhead who can’t stop washing dirty linen and reopening old wounds in public, he really needs to drop that one. Yes I know what and who ‘Dark Star’ is about, and I don’t want to be reminded of it. There will be trouble if he tells it in York on Sunday, I tell you.
Back to Manchester again for the mighty Uriah Heep at Manchester Academy 2
Support was from a female-fronted five-piece Maccara, a pretty impressive mix of blues, metal and even a bit of reggae at one point. The impressed me enough to buy their album from the merch stand. We may be hearing more from this band in the future.
It’s several years since I last saw the Heep, at this very same venue. The last few times I’ve seen them they’ve played what amounted to greatest hits sets. This time, with their first album for nine years, they decided to take the brave step of playing their new record “Wake the Sleeper” in it’s entirely. It’s a ploy that could have backfired badly had the new album not been up to scratch, but with the strength of the new material it turned into a triumph. New drummer Russell Gilbrook has injected another level energy into this band, and they’ve become an unstoppable juggernaut of sound. The more guitar-driven new songs complement the Hammond-drenched older numbers well. Of the new songs, ‘What Kind of God’ was a high spot, as was Trevor Bolder’s “War Child”. The older numbers were without exception real crowd favourites like ‘Gypsy’, ‘Easy Living’ and ‘Sunrise’, dating from the 70s, all of which were rapturously received. This is a band that you can tell really enjoy playing live; Mick Box always has a huge grin on his face. That’s a possible candidate for gig of the year.
Three gigs, from three bands which are now well into the ‘veteran’ category – indeed their careers add up to ninety years in total. What’s significant is that not one of them has taken the easy route and become their own tribute band. Even if Heep and Fish’s sets included a lot of old material from the 70s and 80s, they also played a significant amount from their most recent releases. I’ve heard people (mostly indie fans) who insist that nobody can make good music after ten years. To which I say “Bollocks!”.