“Welcome to a weekend of…our shit!” With those words, vocalist Steve Hogarth kicked off the Marillion Weekend in Łódż – three nights, three completely different shows, 60 different songs (many of which are 8 to 20 minutes in length) – this is not an event for the casual fan.
(For info on the backstory of the band and their conventions, click here.)
Luckily, as the band is well aware, there’s no such thing as a casual Marillion fan – a fact immediately illustrated by the decision to open proceedings with “The Release,” a B-side from 1989. From this crowd’s reaction, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was one of their biggest hits.
This was Poland’s first Marillion Convention, and a palpable sense of occasion accompanied the entire weekend. Pauses between songs were often filled with the sound of the crowd en masse chanting “MAR-ILL-ION! MAR-ILL-ION!” football style. As guitarist Steve Rothery soared into the gorgeous melody/solo at the end of “Sounds That Can’t Be Made”, a thousand voices joined in, prompting a more-or-less impromptu reprise after the song’s normal ending. This kind of energy and excitement never flagged for a moment the entire weekend, no mean feat over over seven hours of music.
Friday night seemed, at first, to be a random selection of rarely played album tracks (“The Other Half”, “One Fine Day”, “The Only Unforgivable Thing”, “Beyond You”) interspersed with some more commonly performed ones (“You’re Gone”, “The Great Escape”, “Estonia”), but as the set unfolded, a recurring theme began to emerge, and it was a subtext that would resurface again and again all weekend; the quest for peace in a troubled world.
In fact, it may seem a strange observance to make about a progressive rock band that started its career in the 1980s, but if there was a unifying continuity to all three nights, it was… John Lennon. Either songs inspired directly by him (“A Voice from the Past”) the use of his visage in video footage (“Living in Fear”), and even audio recreations of his interview quotes (“Gazpacho”, “King”), appeared nightly, all reminding us of the ideals of a man who believed in and has come to symbolize peace.
But this isn’t some misplaced nostalgia for the 1960s hippie dream. As Hogarth sings in “Living in Fear”;
Our wide eyes aren’t naive
They’re a product of a kind of exhaustion
Will there come a time when we believe
The only way ahead is to put down our arms
When we finally know
The bitter consequence of not doing so
There’s such a price to pay
For living this way
Living this way…
In keeping with that theme, the first night’s encore was the band’s most controversial song, 2012’s 17-minute “Gaza”. This cinematic epic explores daily life in the Gaza Strip completely through the eyes of a child, and while it makes no political judgments, it is a subject fraught with preconceptions on both sides and the band has been criticized for even telling the story. But as the song itself points out;
Nothing’s ever simple – that’s for sure
There are grieving mothers on both sides of the wire
And everyone deserves a chance to feel the future just might be bright
But any way you look at it – whichever point of view
For us to have to live like this
It just ain’t right
And like the best Marillion songs, it is punctuated by an emotive, lyrical, commanding yet delicate guitar solo courtesy of Steve Rothery. Very simply one of the most underrated guitarists of all time, these three concerts could have been offered as a masterclass in guitar melody, composition, and tone. Although perfectly capable of ‘shredding’ with athletic abandon when the song calls for it, Rothery always has the restraint to do what is best for the arrangement and composition. It is an exercise in taste that often causes audiences to spontaneously erupt mid-song after a particularly emotive guitar break. He comes from the progressive rock school of David Gilmour, Steve Hackett, and Andrew Latimer, but brings something completely original to the table.
If I had to choose a favorite among the three nights, Saturday would be the winner. The first part of the show was dedicated to celebrating the 30th anniversary of Clutching At Straws, the last album to feature original vocalist Fish. Seven of the album’s 10 songs were played, and all became vehicles for giant singalongs, particularly “Incommunicado”, featuring keyboardist Mark Kelly with one of the great “widdly-widdly” synthesizer solos of all time.
Despite the fact that Clutching At Straws was an album steeped in the excesses of the 1980s in terms of subject matter, the sentiments expressed in songs like “Warm Wet Circles”, “White Russian”, and “Slàinte Mhath”, are as pertinent today as ever, sometimes sadly so. Many of the lines penned by Fish in 1987 are as fresh as the morning news, especially “White Russian”, with its images of “swastikas spat with aerosol”. This song, originally inspired by witnessing a resurgence of anti-semitism while on tour in Austria (and to underscore the point, played in waltz time), perfectly fit the themes of the weekend;
The more I see, the more I hear, the more I find fewer answers
I close my mind, I shout it out but you know it’s getting harder
To calm down, to reason out, to come to terms with what it’s all about
I’m uptight, can’t sleep at night, I can’t pretend everything’s all right
My ideals, my sanity, they seem to be deserting me
So stand up and fight – I know we have six million reasons
They’re burning down the synagogues, Uzis on a street corner
The heralds of the holocaust, Uzis on a street corner
The silence never louder than now, how quickly we forgot our vows
This resurrection we can’t allow, Uzis on a street corner
It could have been written last week.
The trip into the past wasn’t over yet. Marillion’s biggest selling album was 1985’s Misplaced Childhood, but the band knows that its faithful have no need to hear the hits “Kayleigh” or “Lavender”. Instead, the rarely played “Lords of the Backstage” and “Blind Curve” were a welcome surprise. The visit to the Fish Era concluded with a fast and spirited rendition of “Market Square Heroes”, the very first single from 35 years ago.
All of that was fantastic, but it’s not what made Saturday the best of the three nights. What followed was a complete presentation of the band’s newest album, Fuck Everyone And Run (F E A R), and it was stunning. Think of the implications; a band in its fourth decade follow a triumphant hour-plus of material from their salad days with the entirety of their 18th studio album released a mere six months ago…and the excitement level of the room actually rises! It’s hard to imagine any other musician or group with a 35-year recorded history pulling that off (except perhaps Rush on the Clockwork Angels tour a few years ago.)
To be fair, F E A R is a special album (as was Rush’s Clockwork Angels) – their most successful both artistically and commercially in many years, although it’s success is entirely outside of the mainstream, and it follows no conventional commercial template.
For fans, they are no BAD Marillion albums, but some (Brave, Marbles, Afraid Of Sunlight) are exceptional; at the very least, F E A R is one of those. Some believe it’s their finest effort yet (ask me in a year…)
This is not ‘easy’ music. F E A R is a 5-song 70-minute exploration of the socioeconomic and political implications of current events, with songs that twist and turn like scenes from a surreal travelogue. Like much Marillion music, there is a British slant to its narrative, and although the lyrics were written three years ago, they seem to anticipate Brexit, the Syrian refugee crisis (“El Dorado”) and even Trump (“The New Kings”). Even “The Leavers”, the album’s one non-sociopolitical song, is weirdly prescient with pre-Brexit references to “leavers” and “remainers.”
At the end of “Living in Fear”, a catalog of man-made geographical borders is turned into a call-and-response gospel shout out with the audience;
What a waste of time (YEAH YEAH)
The Great Wall of China (YEAH YEAH)
What a waste of time
The Maginot line
The Great Wall of China (YEAH YEAH)
Chto za trata vremeni
What a waste of time (YEAH YEAH)
Die Berliner Mauer (YEAH YEAH)
What a waste of time
What a waste of time
The crowd responses spontaneously continued on after the song’s ending, leading to another impromptu reprise, this time with Hogarth adding, “the wall across Mexico.”
If you’re wondering if all of this heavy subject matter is depressing fodder for a night out, the answer is a resounding NO. Like all of the best art , there is catharsis in the airing of such grievances, and the sense of community at these shows was a rare experience. There is a line from “The Leavers” that sums this up, and has become the catchphrase for this year’s conventions; “we all come together / we’re all one tonight.” For once, this sentiment is more than just a romanticization of an ideal of the performer-audience symbiosis. For Marillion and fans, it’s simply the truth. There are no ‘star trips’ here – it was a normal occurrence to run into band members at the hotel next to the club, and they always had time for a quick conversation – even a disheveled Steve Hogarth at the breakfast buffet in pajama pants.
The final night began with an entire rendition of 1999’s marillion.com album. While this one is probably not in most fans’ upper echelon, seeing it performed live in sequence was a potent reminder of the high quality of even one of their ‘lesser’ albums. And it does feature some really fantastic, rarely played songs.
Pete Trewavas was the unsung hero of the .com material. His bass playing on “Go” added a quiet intensity that both drove the song and added to the melody, and his groove on the epic “Interior Lulu” is a rare thing in the progressive genre. And when technical failure scratches the planned use of a new Rickenbacker double neck for “Tumble Down The Years”, he gamely transposes the arrangement to bass guitar with no discernible difficulty.
“Enlightened” was perhaps the highlight of the .com material, and accordingly received one of the biggest ovations of the night, prompting this exchange between Hogarth and an audience member:
H: “Thank you – that’s better than drugs!”
Audience member: “No, it’s not!”
H: “Yeah it is. I’ve done both – it’s better!”
By the time they reach the end of the concluding “House”, one of the most powerful divorce songs of all time featuring some of both Hogarth and Rothery’s most soulful performances, marillion.com has been reassessed (by me anyway) as a much stronger album than I’d previously thought.
Of course, nearly 90 minutes in, the show was far from over. The “second set” was a complete joy; four intense and dramatic songs from the late ’80s and ’90s, beginning with perhaps their greatest concert opener ever, 1991’s “Splintering Heart”.
“King”, a live favorite, followed with drummer Ian Mosley adding muscular fills and double bass drum kicks to the cautionary story of how success and stardom can be destructive, while a parade of tragic figures appeared on the screen, from Judy Garland to Elvis to Tim and Jeff Buckley to Ian Curtis. And of course, John Lennon. “Berlin” followed, a rarely played song dating back to Hogarth’s earliest days with the band, before a completely transcendent version of “This Strange Engine” closed the set.
In many ways, “TSE” is the ultimate Marillion song. Dating back to 1997, it is the first song where they really perfected the “episodic” approach to songwriting and arrangement, which often throws out convention like verses and choruses, instead concentrating on impressionistic storytelling and changing moods and ‘scenes.’ At nearly 20 minutes long, it encapsulates everything that makes Marillion unique.
I don’t know if I’m being at all objective when I say this, or if I was just caught up in the moment, but I would swear that this was the best version of the song I’ve ever heard.
The inspired choice of encore was “Real Tears For Sale”, a song that deserves to be better known, but as such was a perfect parting gift for this crowd.
Well, nearly perfect. The idea was to segue into a reprise of the closing section of “The Leavers” for a big climactic “we come together” sing-along ending.
And that’s exactly what happened – at least the second time. The first attempt was botched in a nearly unnoticeable way, but such is the informality of the relationship between band and audience, it was stopped, laughed about, and started again. In its imperfect way, the perfect ending.
Each night, Marillion were preceded by excellent Polish artists, all of whom acquitted themselves well and no doubt won new fans from all over the world. WALFAD (AKA We Are Looking For A Drummer), Tides From Nebula, and Fismoll are very different from each other – and different from Marillion as well – but complimented the shows perfectly. In fact, Marillion had personally requested Tides From Nebula, having played with them a few years ago.
There are not enough adjectives to describe the professionalism, care, and love that went into the production of this event. The sound, lights, and presentation were exemplary. Promoter Piotr Kosiński and Rock Serwis, in conjunction with The Web Poland, worked tirelessly to make this happen, and created a memory for thousands that will last a lifetime.
When the planning begins for Marillion Weekend 2019, I know that I won’t be alone in lobbying for a return trip to Łódż. Or better still, Krakow!