Looking back to when I first started listening to music, there was a time when I was quite possessive (some might say anal) about some of the bands I liked. I’m not sure that I had even heard the term “prog rock” when I first heard Yes, Pink Floyd, Rush or Genesis, but they were among my favourites at the time and, despite all being of a genre, they all sounded different. Then along came a new band which, to me at the time, seemed to be trying to emulate the sound of Genesis. I can’t say that I ever disliked Marillion, but I certainly never embraced them. In fact, metaphorically, I barely stepped forward to give them a peck on the cheek. I was aware of them (it was hard not to be) and I bought a 12″ picture disc version of Lavender, but that was it. I never followed them and, until recently, I couldn’t tell you when Fish left them or who was in the current line-up, let alone the names of any of the more recent albums.
Then, earlier this year, I spotted some of their albums in a bargain deal on play.com and, with my renewed (and growing) interest in prog, decided I had to buy them if only so my CD collection contained a valid historical cross-section of the genre. Imagine my surprise when they arrived and I gave them the usual cursory play only to find that I actually really liked them. One of them, Misplaced Childhood, is actually turning out to be one of my all-time favourite albums.
The similarities to the output of Genesis are still there. Fish’s vocals still remind me of something halfway between Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins and some of the lyrics could have escaped from the Foxtrot era – I defy anybody to listen to “A train sleeps in a siding; The driver guzzles another can of lager” without thinking of that classic album. The way that the tracks of Misplaced Childhood merge into each other, with nary a break anywhere on the album, is reminiscent of the various live medleys that Genesis are so good at and that are one of my favourite things about their output.
But there’s also so much more, including another influence that I only spotted the last time I played the CD. Does the opening of Heart of Lothian sound like Rush to anybody else? Quite frankly, the music is superb and grows in power as the album progresses. And Fish’s vocals? Well, with maturity comes the realisation that he was never just a Gabriel wannabe. From the rumbling Scottish accent of the spoken word, through the lightness of tone in Bitter Suite and the suppressed power of Heart of Lothian right through to the outright anger during parts of Blind Curve, there’s so much range and not a bad performance on the whole album.
Even if I hadn’t reconsidered my opinion of Marillion, I would almost certainly still have been at The Duchess tonight, to see Fish perform an intimate acoustic set of (mostly) his solo material, which I hadn’t previously heard any of. There are just some people that I have to see when they visit this fair city, whether I know much about them or not…
Support came from Marbled and I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t pay too much attention, as I was chatting with local celebrities and their friends and family, mostly about Fish and Marillion but also about music in general. Thankfully, one of them was also willing to escort me to the merchandise table and spend my hard-earned for me, pointing out which of Fish’s output was worth buying having been given a quick idea of what I already liked, while everybody else at the table played “spot the newbie”. Having now listened to all three CDs that I bought I can’t decide whether it’s a good job or a shame that I didn’t have more cash with me (the missus probably wouldn’t have been impressed if I’d turned up with more or less the whole back catalogue but, then again, I would have had more or less the whole back catalogue…) Anyway, I can’t tell you too much about Marbled, except that he was another “man with guitar” act, came across as a bit angry in parts but otherwise sounded OK.
Then, as pretty much the whole of the surprisingly small audience moved forward, fish took to the stage and belted out Chocolate Frogs with no accompaniment. For the rest of the two hour set, he was joined by Frank Usher (guitar) and Foss Paterson (keyboards) and we were treated to acoustic renditions of the likes of Shell Suit City, Miles de Besos, Vigil In A Wilderness Of Mirrors, Lady Let It Lie, Speaking In Tongues, Family Business, Just Good Friends and lots more, from what seems to be a varied cross section of the man’s solo output.
In between songs, Fish showed what a humorous, self-effacing and, well, talkative person he is. Songs were introduced by the stories behind them, such as the bitter-sweet memories of falling in love in Chile for Miles de Besos, or the reasons for writing the likes of The Pilgrim’s Address (a song which must have had special resonance for at least one of tonight’s audience). Other gaps were used to give Fish’s opinion on the World Cup performance of the English football team or for him to, basically, take the mickey out of his own personal life and failed relationships. Whatever he was talking about, though, he held the audience captivated. This was by far the quietest gig, in terms of unwanted audience, noise that I’ve ever experienced (apart from the encouraged heckling). And what an experience it was – the stripping down of the songs to their basics, along with Fish’s superb vocals meant that practically every word could be heard while the music was an absolute pleasure to listen to. As for stage presence, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody command a stage as well as Fish did tonight.
The set finished with the only two songs that I knew – a rendition of Kayleigh which made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and nearly brought a tear to my eye, and an almost as good version of Lavender. Then after a short time off stage, the trio returned to perform Lucky with enthusiastic audience participation.
All in all, this was an absolutely brilliant, thoroughly entertaining performance. It may have been the first time I’ve seen Fish, but I fervently hope it won’t be the last. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a couple of back catalogues I need to peruse…