French prog rock band Lazuli had pulled their support slot appearances on these London shows after frontman Dominique Leonetti was hospitalised. There was no time to fix up a replacement and news hadn’t got through to all the punters. As a result, a fair crowd had pitched up at the swanky Assembly Hall early doors, kicking their heels with nothing to do but drink and buy merchandise. (Can’t believe I’m a Large these days…).
No one seemed unduly worried though, and amongst many other qualities, Fish’s typically heart-on-sleeve, 2¼-hour set represents excellent value. As does my T-shirt.
The gig was sold out and an enthusiastic reception meets the first song ‘Voyeur (I Like to Watch)’, setting an upbeat tempo with its bouncy, pomp-infused keyboard riff and bright pop-vocal hook, contrasting intentionally with the murkier subject material.
‘Emperor’s Song’ from the album ‘Suits’ follows and then the first chance for Robin Boult to stamp a stronger influence on proceedings through the angular, edgier ‘Circle Line’ from the excellent and often-overlooked ‘13th Star’ opus. The track is a great choice and is the first highpoint of the gig.
Fish takes a breather and has a chat with the audience. The forthcoming ‘Weltschmerz’ he tells us, will be his valedictory studio album. I take the chance to move to a better pitch where the vocals are less bass-heavy, as Fish says he had hoped to play some of the material live, but it was not yet sufficiently well-developed. ‘Weltschmerz, we learn, means a feeling of melancholy and world-weariness. “If 2017’s anything to go by, it might be a double album!” quips the big man.
And we are off again, this time with the evergreen ‘State Of Mind’. The vocals are clearer nearer the front and we join in the first mass participation session of the evening on its call-to-account ‘…we the people..’ chorus.
I’m keen to be in the right place for the ‘Clutching At Straws’ set because I don’t want to miss a single inflection or curled lip in the recounting of this gifted lyricist’s best ever work, in my humble view.
The 4th studio album by Marillion and the last with Fish was not an entire concept album in the same way as its predecessor ‘Misplaced Childhood’. Though there was a strong narrative knitted around the semi-autobiographical character ‘Torch’ and his self-doubt and bitterness, the album on the whole has a more defined, delineated structure.
Fish remains faithful to the album’s classic opening tracks. ‘Hotel Hobbies’ segueing into ‘Warm Wet Circles’ and ‘That Time Of The Night (The Short Straw)’ is sublime. The band, led by principal protagonists Boult and John Beck on keyboards, shape the moods with melodramatic soundscapes. But it is Fish’s vocals that dominate the performance by orchestrating moods and manipulating emotions.
Particularly evocative is the searing observation Fish makes, echoed by a hall-full of people, about the moment when youth gives way to hometown adulthood: ‘She faithfully traces his name/With quick bitten fingernails/Through the tears of condensation/That’ll cry through the night/As the glancing headlights of the last bus/Kiss adolescence goodbye…’. The singer once said in a long forgotten Kerrang! interview that nothing would give him more pleasure than writing a book of poetry. I’d be first in the queue to buy a copy.
A word here for Doris Brendel on backing vocals who provides colourful flourishes and depth throughout the whole show, but really adds sparkle to ‘That Time Of The Night’. Fish may not have the range of old, but little of the overall vocal feel is lost.
The gig diverts from the album running order with the promotion of ‘Just For The Record’ and the hook-laden, riotous ‘Incommunicado’, which found a welcome spot amongst the punters. However, the double-hit of the tender ‘Torch Song’ giving way to the angst and working class bile of ‘Slainte Mhath’ is preserved. The impact is powerful and Fish is as animated here as at any point in the show. The video backdrop is flickering with complicated images of industry interspersed with shots of a youthful Fish. A highlight.
Most of the crowd have been bellowing out the lyrics all night, but ‘Sugar Mice’ seems to move the group sing-a-long up a notch. Robin Boult is again right on the money with the guitar solo here. He has a languid style and looks so chilled and in control on stage.
There’s a bit more chat from Fish, who talks with humour about the recording process 30 years ago. He could do stand up. Except that with the ravages of time and an enduring back problem, he’s actually sat down at this point! Very cosy.
‘White Russian’ changes all that. The meaning of a song that has been close to Fish’s heart since he penned the words all those years ago is adapted tonight to reflect current rise in right wing views. After the final round of ‘racing the clouds home’, a bloke next to me whom I didn’t know looked at me and just said, ‘Wow! That’s such a great song’. Indeed.
‘The Last Straw’ brought things to a climactic close, Doris again soaring the backline into the stratosphere. There’s a Pink Floyd ‘Great Gig In The Sky’ quality about the vocal here.
There are encores too. Maybe a little bit after the Lord Mayor’s Show. For me anyway. ‘Tux On’ is good, though ‘Perfume River’ and ‘The Great Unravelling’, a pair off the most recent album, ‘Feast of Consequences’, are a bit underwhelming. Boult hauls the latter track out of the mundane with some more smoking fretwork.
As ever, Fish appears a touch reluctant to leave the stage. He gives his all every time and this environment is his natural domain. There’s less theatre and physical drama in his shows these days, but the passion and intensity remain. A great show. It’s all a bit emotional really.
Review by Dave Atkinson
Photos by Paul Clampin
David Randall presents a weekly show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio, Sundays at 22:00 BST (GMT+1, repeated on Mondays and Fridays), when he invites listeners to ‘Assume The Position’. This show was first broadcast on 2 August 2020.
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