Over the years, Marillion have released some great albums and played some fantastic shows. Their 2004 double album ‘Marbles’ and following tour very much represents a high point in the band’s career and post-80s fortunes – the shows on that tour were arguably some of the best they’ve ever played. Like every band that has ever set foot upon a stage, naturally, they don’t always get it right and some of the shows promoting their ‘Somewhere Else’ album in 2007 were frankly very dull indeed.
On this occasion, Marillion been given the honour of headlining the Prog stage at the very first Ramblin’ Man Fair, a classic rock and prog festival. It’s kind of ironic that a band who spent the whole of the nineties trying to convince everyone they were not a prog band would headline a prog rock stage, but the idea that Marillion have a headline slot at a UK festival is a very appealing one to both the band and their fans.
It’s a Sunday night early curfew and they’ve only got about eighty minutes, so opening with ‘Gaza’ – a seventeen minute epic from their current offering ‘Sounds That Can’t Be Made’ – seems like a bold choice from the outset. After a few technical gremlins, the piece quickly takes shape with its dark tones and darker lyrical matter, with Steve Rothery’s guitar taking on a broad tone which really fills the air. Set against a meaty bass from Pete Trewavas, Marillion sound really tough, the deepness of the material in contrast with frontman Steve Hogarth’s yellow trousers. ‘Gaza’ moves through many moods, and as such, gives the feeling of having heard more than just the one track by the time it reaches its climax. Changing the mood, drum loops signify the arrival of ignored hit single ‘You’re Gone’, allowing the audience a bit of a singalong – this, as it turns out, is the lightest point of their set and instantly brings back memories of those ‘Marbles’ shows. ‘Power’ – another number from ‘STCBM’ – brings a few rock chops and allows Hogarth to sing with a bit more force, before the unexpected arrival of ‘Sugar Mice’ – a reflective and sad number from the band’s formative years. Experiencing this number played under a bright moon – a moon that fascinates the singer – is a very emotional experience and while Marillion have moved on in almost all respects since this number was first released, it’s a genuine pleasure to hear.
Moving into the set’s second half, Steve Rothery picks up his acoustic guitar and it seems almost inevitable that we’re about to hear their 1990 single ‘Easter’ – a track that’s almost been omnipresent since the release of ‘Seasons End’ back in 1989. It’s a big surprise, then, that the opening notes from the much overlooked ‘Man of a Thousand Faces’ should emerge. This is a superb choice for a variety of reasons: it adds something a little lighter to the set; it’s got a great piano part which Mark Kelly nails; The Ho clearly enjoys singing it…and as it shifts into the second half which builds very gradually, the audience enjoy the opportunity to belt out their collective lungs. Even once the song ends, huge pockets of the crowd are still singing. It’s at this point, it’s clear that we are witnessing a great show.
The epic ‘Neverland’ – a track that had pride of place as set closer for a good while – feels a bit odd nestled between other material, but even so, it comes in a near faultless rendition with Rothery’s soloing very much a high point, before ‘King creeps along, tearing at the emotions before reaching an aggressive finish. This number, a look at the pressures of fame, ends so abrasively, it’s hard to know what Marillion will do for an encore, but quickly enough, the samples for ‘The Invisible Man’ can be heard. It is to be an encore of just the one song tonight – albeit one that stretches beyond ten minutes. There’s no respite within this piece; in some ways ‘Splintering Heart’, ‘Easter’ and ‘The Uninvited Guest’ would have been the perfect encore sending the crowd home on an upbeat note, but Marillion have clearly chosen their more complex material for these surroundings. While ‘The Invisible Man’ ends things on a relative downer, it’s darkness and cerebral nature encapsulates the essence of modern prog, and although fans have already seen the band dig deep into some thoughtful material, this is even more intense; the outdoor location and inclement weather makes this outing of the track feel a little more threatening than usual.
Marillion have been rather bold this evening – they’ve filled an eighty minute slot with just eight songs, clearly feeling that since they’re on the Prog stage, they’re should prog things up a treat and out-prog everyone. …And it’s a strategy that’s very much paid off.