Marillion, The Tramshed, Cardiff
I have to admit that I've not seen Marillion since the 1986 Misplaced Childhood tour rolled into St Davids Hall. Thirty years is a long time to leave it and it was with much anticipation that I headed to the Tramshed to renew acquaintances.
Since that tour Marillion has morphed into a totally different beast. With the arrival of Steve “H” Hogarth the band were released from many of the difficulties they had experienced with the “Scottish singer” and over the past 28 years their sound has changed dramatically, far removed from the punk fused neo progressive rock that many who don't follow them still associate with the name of the band. In fact, the Hogarth era sound is much closer to the progressive nuanced indie style of Radiohead and the like. Clever without being arrogant, delicate and intricate, intriguing and thought provoking and beautifully played. It's fair to say that Marillion don't make music for the three minute single generation.
The Tramshed is a cracking venue but boy does it become hard work when full to capacity. For the vertically challenged it's inevitable that sight lines will be interrupted or even completely blocked and the temperature rockets very quickly. Sensible action by the ever excellent staff in opening the doors to allow airflow during the main set helped but this was only after at least one member of the audience required assistance. Perhaps the demographic of an audience for a band such as Marillion needs to be given more consideration. These aren't spring chickens we are talking about.
Opening act John Wesley (6) faced a stern challenge. With a stellar reputation thanks to his time in Porcupine Tree and of course with Fish, he didn't have to win over the crowd but his solo approach with programming to support his guitar and vocals was a bit dull for a partisan crowd who were there for only one reason. Despite a game effort and some pleasing interactions with some wags in the audience prior to his last song, A Way You'll Never Be, Wesley was unable to maintain the attention of many which caused frustration for those who did want to listen.
The start of two and a half hours of quite superb music began with Marillion (9), minus H, gently arriving on stage and launching into The Invisible Man, the digital backdrop projecting H’s vocals before the man himself arrived on stage, dapperly dressed in suit and tie. As the evening progressed H’s appearance matched the mood of the music, losing the tie and later jacket and by the encores changing from a sweat drenched shirt to tee and leather. It's no coincidence that this band evoke such loyalty from their audience. This was akin to a religious experience with the commitment of the band fully matched by the crowd who soaked up every minute, passion and emotion present throughout.
Whilst H is the focal point of the band, and he is a damn good frontman, the unassuming work that goes on around him is remarkable. Ian Moseley is a fine drummer, his work with bassist Pete Trewavas solid and crafted. Mark Kelly’s keyboards and programming provides the layers and textures which are the Marillion sound whilst the underrated guitar work of Steve Rothery, the sole original member was just beautiful. Never one to push it, his work meshes perfectly with the band's, but he can let rip when he wants. Of course, it's the vocal performance that makes or breaks a band and H cannot only sing but perform as well, theatrics enhancing his lyrics. He also took the audience banter brilliantly, swearing like a trooper and greeting an impromptu “oggi oggi oggi “ with genuine surprise.
A large chunk of the set was unsurprisingly devoted to the quite magnificent F.E.A.R , possibly the album of 2016. Politically astute and observationally accurate, F.E.A.R reflects the world we live in, ruled by wealthy corporations to the expense of the rest. Chillingly clear and oh so accurate. Living in Fear was the first track, many of the audience fully familiar with a release a mere two months old. Solitary pre H track Sugar Mice from Clutching At Straws allowed those around at the time to open up the vocals, H only needing to sing about a third of the song thanks to the Cardiff choir who were in full voice. I’m sure there is a massive cross over between the Fish and Marillion fan base and it was no surprise to hear many sing it word perfect.
The most accurate and frightening part of F.E.A.R, The New Kings held everyone captivated. A quite masterful piece of work, H’s Performance was astonishing, dripping with emotion and anger. The ovation that was received was fully deserved. The fragility of the rock star life was hammered home during King with a poignant montage of those stars who died before their time. Enough legends to fill the entire song, Lynott, Presley, Lennon and Winehouse amongst them.
A deserved encore brought more new treats in the shape of El Dorado from F.E.A.R which sounded majestic in the live arena. Sadly a few of the crowd were by now restless and some of the quieter parts were spoilt by mindless chatter. The finale of This Strange Engine, introduced by H as a mad song that even he didn't know what was about, brought a fantastic show to a close. Two and a half hours in length and quite technically astonishing, Marillion really did deliver.
As a footnote, it would be remiss of me not to comment on the quite idiotic behaviour of some of the fans. It appears to be increasingly common for the crowds in the Tramshed to get tanked up as the night progresses. This got to ridiculous proportions when during Marillion’s set a fight broke out! Yes, grown middle aged men for fuck’s sake. Whilst the Marillion army is devoted to the core, they also contain some of the biggest assholes. A real shame but a bit of tarnish to an otherwise glorious evening.