It’s just after 10.30pm when Marillion play “Sugar Mice”, it should have been the second encore but it isn’t (“we usually go off and arse about for a bit, what’s the point?” enquires Steve Hogarth, the bands singer and focal point) and about halfway through guitarist Steve Rotheray finds his way to the centre of the stage and the spotlight for the first time tonight. He plays that solo and for about the 15th time in this two hours the whole world makes sense. About ten minutes later you find your way into the North Staffs night. There’s wind whipping over and its starting to rain. You’re just considering renaming the website you write as Maximum Volume Marillion and declaring you think all other music is pointless, as the chill lifts you out of your reverie, you think, I’ve got to explain this in a bit. Words haven’t been invented for this.
So let’s procrastinate and talk about Alan Reed. He’s just quit his job as a producer at the BBC, but he’s best known in this room as being the singer in Pallas until 2010. Here, with his acoustics and a few songs from his career, work like “For The Greater Glory” is clearly excellent despite the stripped down nature of this tonight. His first band Abel Ganz (“we thought we were Glasgow’s answer to Genesis”, he smiles) is represented in “Kean On The Job” and the 12 string guitar on Pallas’ “Sanctuary” is obviously that of a musician of skill. He’s moved back to Scotland now, and as such, there is a real passion to “Begin Again” a song he wrote while living in London about a longing for his homeland. As he reveals that there’s a Pallas reunion on the cards, you can probably expect to see a lot more of Alan Reed in the next few months. His presence is welcome too, given his absence from the scene has been keenly felt.
Which brings us to this here Marillion quandary. They were stunning. This was probably gig of the year. Yet the predicament is that I’ve got to tell you why, without resorting to the cliché “you had to be there…..”
It’s like this. Earlier this year the band released “An Hour Before It’s Dark”. If there’s been a better album in 2022, I haven’t heard it. And they’re playing it in full. In order. And you lose yourself in it for an hour and a bit.
The first two alone would be good enough to call this a special show. “Be Hard On Yourself” and “Reprogramme The Gene”. Concerning themselves with the twin evils of Coronavirus and the climate crisis, its noticeable how they, and the rest – in particular “Murder Machines” and “The Crow And The Nightingale” – come alive here, almost taking on a life of their own. A big part of that is Hogarth, a brilliant frontman, he possesses a wonderful voice, but its more. He has a theatrical presence. He acts the songs as much as he sings them.
The band too, are on top of their game. But their genius is in the fact they aren’t perfect. Rotheray’s guitar wasn’t fully working for a lot of “…Yourself” and keyboardist Mark Kelly’s rig fails in “Sierra Leone”. Hogarth makes a joke of both, and everyone in the audience is in on it. Somehow the fact they have a degree of fallibility in a world of the cold and clinical makes it even better.
After questioning what the fact that NHS workers have to go to foodbanks says about society, they deliver “Care” and there’s a standing ovation. Frankly, that would have been enough, but they are here to “busk” for a bit as Hogarth puts it. Some of what they do in the next section is jaw-droppingly good. “Somewhere Else”, “Afraid Of Sunlight” and a slow building “The Great Escape” just three of them, but special mention here for the sixth member tonight, Percussionist Lewis Jardine, he’d played on the album and he’s been drafted in here to do it live. He does, and his “bongos and hitting things” adds to the sound in a way you wouldn’t imagine.
For the encore, it’s the whole of “The New Kings”, by turns apocalyptic and yet prescient for the political landscape today. When the line about “trickle down” is spat out with a palpable bile, you can’t help but think of last week’s budget. You’re supposed to, I’d wager. Whatever, that one actually be the highlight, and there was plenty of competition.
Which brings us back to where we started and “Sugar Mice”. Think about it for just a minute. It is a classic song (in any sense of the word) but it is from a lifetime ago and from a very different band. Yet all but one of the men who are in the regular band here, were in the band then too. It is truly remarkable how they constantly reinvent themselves over a 40 year career, yet still take people with them and still sound like Marillion.
It helps, I suppose, when you can do something magical on a Sunday night, in Staffordshire, in the rain (to paraphrase a line you might know). There are two sorts of live shows: ones Marillion play and ones that aren’t as good. It’s just taken almost 900 words to reach the pay-off line.