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7 July, 2004

Review: Marillion, Manchester Academy, 1 July, 2004

Though I'm very familiar with all of their official albums and have heard over sixty unofficial concert recordings (not bootlegs!), this was the first time I'd seen Marillion live, in person, so I was understandably excited.

The trip from and back to Lancaster, via Blackpool and involving a 25-mile (41 km) cycle ride which got me home by 03:20, is another story, but "many thanks" to Rob and Liz for the lift, and "hello" to Zoë and Alun (not to mention his toasted mother).

We reached the Academy at about 19:45, only fifteen minutes after the doors opened and whilst there was still a significant queue of people waiting to go in, but we didn't join them until about 20:15, during the final song by the tour support band, 'Kid Galahad'.
From that admittedly brief sample of their material, I didn't feel we'd missed much. Theirs was the generic hard/indie rock of a thousand minor-league bands; I'm not saying they were technically or presentationally poor, but I didn't detect the spark of additional brilliance or creativity which might elevate them to being a top band.

I saw Porcupine Tree on tour at the Academy in March 2003 (probably my favourite concert ever), but that was in Academy 2 in the main University Union building whereas Marillion were in the larger Academy 1, a separate building next door. They filled it, apparently; according to Marillion.com the concert was sold out, though I didn't think it was that full. Maybe the front of the crowd was tightly packed, but there wasn't too much of a crush where we stood, about ¾ of the way back on the left.

I'm always intrigued by the composition of an audience, people-watching and spotting band T-shirts before the show. There was a surprising uniformity to the latter: well over a third of the audience seemed to be wearing Marillion T-shirts, but few other bands were represented. Surprisingly, mine was the sole Porcupine Tree top, so far as I was aware. Ages seemed to cluster around late thirties, though I saw a few young teenagers, presumably attending with parents. The gender balance was around 60% male, of which about a third had bald/shaved heads, 33% ponytails, and 33% 'vanilla'. I didn't notice many prog or goth stereotypes, but both were represented.

The stage layout was slightly odd. From the audience, Pete (Trewavas, on bass, for those unfamiliar with the band) was at the front left, with Ian (Mosley; drums) behind him. The drum kit itself meant that I only caught occasional glimpses of Ian's head throughout the show. h (Steve Hogarth; vocals, second keyboards, second guitar) was at the centre front, his microphone stand also holding four maracas and a tambourine. His keyboard was a little to the right. Steve (Rothery, guitar) was on the far right, in front of Mark (Kelly; keyboards) on a raised platform. During the show, Pete and Steve freely wandered side to side, though Steve seemed happiest in his place for his solos, amongst his monitors. Pete was very energetic, running across the stage and, for a mad moment, just bouncing on the spot.

As I'd known in advance, the concert was divided into two sets, the first comprising tracks solely from 'Marbles', the second featuring older material. Perhaps surprisingly, the first set featured the entire retail version of the album, pretty much in order, apart from 'Drilling Holes' being replaced by 'The Damage'. The second set disappointed some, as the chosen songs tended to be from recent albums and conformed to the same rather downbeat feel of the 'Marbles' material, apart from the final two 'live classics', which therefore themselves felt out-of-place.
This was a concert encouraging attentive listening rather than a wild sing-a-long - which suited me perfectly. I attend concerts to see a band and listen to their music; from the moment they appear on stage until the moment the lights go up after the encore(s), the rest of the audience are largely just a distraction.

Thankfully, the audience was very attentive, to a surprising degree, and it was obvious that most were familiar with the new material; there was almost no clapping in the wrong places, except on 'Quartz', which admittedly does end oddly. There was also negligible talking over the music, with one exception. 'The Hollow Man' started quietly, and suddenly the noise from the bar/back of the crowd was very evident; h certainly noticed, and some audience members called for silence. I don't know whether the band decided to abandon it, or whether they'd only planned to play the first minute or so of the song anyway (the setlist posted at Marillion.com doesn't mention it at all), but they segued straight into 'The Party', and regained the audience's full attention.

The lights were good, somehow avoiding the disadvantage of strong colours diminishing visibility, with the contrasting use of white light adding further clarity at key moments. Masked spotlights played patterns over the band members' faces, and picked out individuals in complementary colours, which was an attractive effect. Images from the album artwork were projected onto the backdrop, again with masked lights varying the colours.

Greeted by tremendous applause, Marillion were on stage by 20:45 (five minutes late), beginning with The Invisible Man. I'm not entirely sure why, but h started the show in a business suit & tie, with glasses and slicked-back hair. Perhaps it was a reference to 'invisibility' through anonymous uniformity. By the end of the song, the glasses, tie and jacket had gone.

The sound wasn't wonderful, slightly too much bass vying with over-shrill treble tones. It may have been my imagination, or my ears becoming accustomed to the volume, but the sound did seem to improve slightly after the first song. Overall, it wasn't bad, and I don't want to be over-critical, but I think I'd been spoiled by the wonderful sound quality of the aforementioned Porcupine Tree concert. One specific, and definite, criticism would be that many of Steve Rothery's guitar refrains, which I'd enjoyed so much on the studio versions, were totally lost in the live mix. His solos could have been clearer, too.

Marbles I was next. Though I am going to itemise the full setlist, I don't plan to comment on every song!

The drums on You're Gone sounded less like programmed percussion than the studio versions. Together with a 'freer' guitar sound, this sounded less contrived to be a hit single, and more like a Marillion song.

Angelina isn't my favourite track, but in evoking late-night, laid-back lounge jazz, it works on the album. In a live setting, I'm not so sure.

Marbles II was a great improvement on the album version, being considerably lengthened and including a guitar solo. This seemed to fill the song out in the live context, but I can appreciate the reasoning behind keeping the album version short and evocative of childhood.

This was followed by the first real break in the music, as h thanked the audience for the extraordinary greeting (triggering another burst of abnormally loud applause) and for getting the 'You're Gone' single(s) to no.7 in the singles chart in May. This was a suitable opportunity to mention the next single,'Don't Hurt Yourself', to be released on 12 July. Unsurprisingly, they played that song next.

Fantastic Place contains my favourite guitar solo (actually double-tracked, so a 'duet') on the album. Live, it was indistinct. Despite this disappointment, I enjoyed the rest of the song.

Marbles III

The Damage was the only all-out, upbeat song of the first set, and the first to inspire a visible, collective response from the crowd, closer to that I'd expected from a Marillion audience. That's not to suggest the crowd were lethargic or that the band failed to hold their attention - far from it; they were enthralled.

Marbles IV

Neverland, sure to become a long-term Marillion classic, closed the 'Marbles' set.

The band then took a ten minute break. As we'd entered, I noticed a sign mentioning a 23:00 curfew, so by the time Marillion returned, only ~45 minutes remained for a second set comprising (slightly) older songs.

This Is The 21st Century ostensibly might have seemed an odd choice, and not entirely a crowd-pleaser, but it followed the tone of the 'Marbles' material perfectly, and is one of the few 'Anoraknophobia' tracks I particularly like, not least for the accidentally prophetic 9-11 reference (think about it).

Quartz isn't one of my favourites - the mildly clever central premise of the lyrics fails to carry a slightly boring, over-long song, even longer live than on the album.

Bridge/Living With The Big Lie - Much as I like the 'Marbles' material, somehow hearing the start of 'Brave', live, was the biggest thrill for me. One of my favourite bands playing one of my favourite (okay, and commonly-heard) parts of one of my favourite albums, right in front of me, for real, in person. Whee! I've started grinning again just thinking about it.

The Hollow Man/The Party - I've already mentioned the curiously abbreviated 'The Hollow Man', but I was pleased to hear 'The Party', one of the oldest songs of the evening (from 1991's 'Holidays In Eden'), and one I particularly like, yet not one of the 'big name oldies' which might have provided ammunition to critics seeking to write Marillion off as living in the past. In fact, I strongly suspect this was a motivation behind the choice of material for the whole concert: nothing from the Fish era, one from 1989, two from 1991, two (and a bit) from 1994, three from 2001 and eleven from 2004.

The main set ended with an obvious crowd-pleaser, Between You And Me, though that's still a recent song rather than something older, which many in the audience might have preferred.

The Uninvited Guest was a fairly obvious choice for an encore and an outing for h's cricket bat MIDI controller, but he reiterated that they had to obey the curfew and that the next song really would have to be the last of the evening.

Cover My Eyes somehow seemed an odd choice to close the concert, abandoning the audience on a high. There had been a second encore at the the previous show in Wolverhampton, 'Easter' which I'd loved to have heard and which would have been a more satisfying way to end.

The room took quite a while to clear after the show (leaving a carpet of beer cans and plastic glasses) so we had a quick glance at the merchandise stall while we were waiting. Nothing in particular caught my eye; the latest t-shirt designs seem aimed more at a stereotypically 'indie' crowd than the old 'neo-prog' audience; there were no new black t-shirts (which is the only type I'd consider wearing!).

Rob and Liz, who have attended several Marillion concerts, didn't rate this one especially highly, but I suspect that was partly due to their preconceptions of how a Marillion concert should 'feel' and the reduced novelty of having seen some of these songs performed live before. The overall tone was somewhat darker and introspective than I'd expected; this was no lightweight, 'fun' party. Yet that suited me perfectly, and I had an absolutely wonderful time.

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