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Big Big Train - Stone & Steel CD (album) cover


Big Big Train

Crossover Prog

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4 stars I'm breaking my (self-imposed) silence for the first time in more than three years because this generously filled blu-ray really is something special.

Ever since the release of THE UNDERFALL YARD I've been convinced that Big Big Train are the best new prog band to come from England since the mid-1970s. When I heard they were playing a couple of concerts in London in the summer of 2015, I was keen to attend, but by that time the gigs had already sold out.

Well, here at last is our chance to enjoy four extended tracks from those London gigs, preceded by an even more extensive set of studio rehearsals featuring the strongest tunes from THE UNDERFALL YARD and ENGLISH ELECTRIC. Strangely enough, the line-up that originally recorded those albums never seem to have met until after the albums were released. Most of their performances were "phoned in", so to speak - which seems a marvel, as THE UNDERFALL YARD in particular sounds highly organic. So the question was if these musicians could make their compositions come alive when finally meeting face to face. And the good news is they tried to achieve this by using an 'extended edition' of the band, featuring multi-instrumentalist and singer Rikard Sj÷blom as well as violinist (and singer) Rachel Hall. (Both musicians have since become permanent BBT members and I look forward to future releases by this incarnation of the band.)

I'm glad to announce the band's effort has really paid off. Each of the Real World Studios performances must have gone through intensive rehearsals, only to be filmed when the band felt they had really nailed the tune. Time and time again you can read from their faces how thrilled they are actually to be performing pieces such as 'Master James of St George' and 'Victorian Brickwork'. At first sight, Big Big Train may not come across as the world's most magnetic live performers. Apart from lead vocalist David Longdon hardly anyone ever moves about on stage, and some viewers may be reminded of the earnestness of Steve Hackett or Tony Banks, back in the day when 'The Musical Box' got its first airing... But such things hardly matter, since all the playing is masterful, great warmth speaks from the music, and the performers also clearly enjoy singing in unison.

All in all, I don't see a great difference in mood between the Real World Studios performances and the London King's Place material. If I have one gripe, it's that after a few hours this blu-ray starts to sound a little too solemn, and you wish the band had incorporated more up-tempo tunes such as 'Judas Unrepentant' or 'Wassail'. Nevertheless I'll venture to declare that, for all lovers of British prog, this is a release of historic significance! When I bought my own copy, I simply longed to watch Dave Gregory play the magnificent solos that are his trademark, and I was curious to see Greg Spawton and David Longdon in action, as they are BBT's main composers. I have now got to know all these artists a little better, and furthermore I greatly enjoyed breathtaking performances by the likes of Rikard Sj÷blom, Nick D'Virgilio and Rachel Hall. So long live Big Big Train - whether they finally decide to embark on a proper World Tour or not!

Report this review (#1552012)
Posted Thursday, April 14, 2016 | Review Permalink
5 stars I consider the 2009+ incarnation of Big Big Train to be one of the best and most classy prog bands to have come up from Britain in the recent years, but the fact that they did not have any live video was a bit of a let down, I wanted to see these guys playing their great music. Actually Big Big Train was a studio-only project, they had never played live since 1998. Not only that, this incarnation (with Dave Gregory on guitars, David Longdon on vocals and flute and Nick D'Virgilio on drums) had never played together, the different members exchanged music files and recorded their parts separately in the studio, but the whole band had never played physically together. But possibly the huge success of their 2009 album The Underfall Yard made them consider playing live again.

So in mid 2014 they hired the Real World studios of Peter Gabriel for a week to rehearse and try real live playing, with the intention that if it all went alright they would offer a few live concerts. They engaged the now-full-time- members Danny Manners for additional keyboards and double bass, Rachel Hall for violin and backing vocals, and Rikard Sj÷blom of Beardfish for guitars, keyboards and backing vocals. Plus a brass quintet for some of the songs. They recorded the experience on video and after the positive result, one year later in August 2015 they offered 3 concerts at Kings Place in London which quickly sold out.

This Blu-Ray release (also available as streaming or download in Vimeo) documents both scenarios, with 9 songs filmed when playing live in the studio plus 4 songs from the Kings Place concerts. The studio takes are great and give us 2 hours of delight, we get to see the band setting up and a few chats among the members in between songs. The setlist is impressive, with my favourite highlights being "Master James of St George", "Judas Unrepentant", the 23 minute suite "The Underfall Yard" and "Victorian Brickwork". Although the rest of tracks are also strong, we get "The First Rebreather", "Kingmaker", "Uncle Jack", "Summoned by Bells", and perhaps the surprise track is an acoustic version of "Wind Distorted Pioneers" from their 1994 debut album, here with just Danny Manners on the grand piano and Rachel Hall on violin and the rest of the band members doing backing vocals.

The 4 live tracks from the Kings Place concerts deliver almost another 1 hour of pleasure, "Wassail", "Curator of Butterflies", we get a repeat of "Victorian Brickwork" and finally "East Coast Racer". The filming quality is very good and although the band may not be one the most lively on stage the music is so good that it makes for a very enjoyable watching.

But for those wanting to watch the entire Kings Place concerts, they are also available for streaming or downloading on Vimeo in 2 parts, "Act One" and "Act Two", in total around 2 hours with the complete setlist being: Act One: "Make Some Noise", "The First Rebreather", "The Underfall Yard", "Uncle Jack", "Victorian Brickwork" and Act Two: "Wassail", "Summoned by Bells", "Drum Solo / Judas Unrepentant", "Curator of Butterflies" and "East Coast Racer".

A must for any Big Big Train fan and one of the releases I have enjoyed the most in the last couple of years.

Report this review (#2116465)
Posted Tuesday, January 8, 2019 | Review Permalink

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