Monday, October 12, 2015

The Train That Got Me Across the Atlantic



Ireland's southern coast

On Dublin's Grafton Street

We spent a night at Ballyseede Castle, Tralee, Ireland
Back in August, Libby and I took the longest vacation--- in duration and in miles--- we've ever had together, a two week trek to Ireland, London and Paris.

Last November, on a crazy whim, I purchased tickets online for a couple of concerts by one of our favorite bands that would happen in mid-August --- in London.  That left us with a decision--- we could either sell the tickets to the concerts (which sold out almost instantly) or figure a way to build a trip around the concerts. 

Sounds like an easy choice, right? Take a trip to Europe. No problem. Look, I run a comic book shop and European vacations really aren't in the cards for a guy used to working six days a week. Fact is, I had never been across the Atlantic before. 

Usually, the trips I take away from the shop that others see as "time off" are built around business, like attending San Diego's Comic-Con and the annual ComicsPRO meeting. Those may be fun events, but, believe me, they are still long hours of work and definitely not vacations. 

Libby jumped at the chance and was up to the challenge of organizing our first vacation overseas together (no, Caribbean cruises may be "on the seas" but they aren't "overseas").

Working with a travel agent and armed with the advice of family and friends about places we needed to see (especially in my ancestral country of Ireland), Libby came up with an itinerary that had us spending almost a full week in Ireland, plus several days each in London and Paris. Truly a dream trip. 

But this blog post isn't meant to be a travelogue (though I'm including a few photos here, anyway). This is about, as the blog post title says, The Train That Got Me Across The Atlantic.
At Trafalgar Square on 8/15/15, the 70th Anniversary of V-J Day
This is about the majestic, melodic, emotional, orchestral, progressive music of a band called Big Big Train. 

Those of you who have followed this blog for any length of time know that both Libby and I are crazy about the music we love. We've been to hundreds of live concerts together since 1976 (our first show was a Barry Manilow concert at the Concord Pavilion, if you must know). It's been a real blessing for our marriage that our taste in music is (mostly) synched.


At the National Portrait Gallery "with" Paul McCartney
Long before we were married in '79, when I'd visit my friend Libby at her family's Orinda home, I was impressed by her record collection. Her tastes ran the gamut from the mid-'70s requisites James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Dan Fogelberg, the Eagles and CSN&Y, to The Beatles (she's saw them live in concert --twice!), to the Spinners, to early Hall & Oates --- it was a pretty nice collection of music.

But along with those very popular superstar hit-makers, there were albums from bands not normally found in a young woman's vinyl trove. Bands like Emerson, Lake & Palmer, the Moody Blues and Yes. She actually liked this thing called "progressive rock." And so did I.  Oh, yeah!

Notre Dame Cathedral
Over the years, it became clear that our mutual favorite band other than the Beatles was the British progressive powerhouse Genesis. Though we were late-comers to Genesis, never having seen them with their original singer, Peter Gabriel, we have everything that band has released and most everything released solo by each of the band's members, including Gabriel, Phil Collins, Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford ("Mike & the Mechanics"), Steve Hackett and Anthony Phillips. 

We are not typical music consumers, willing to buy whatever the music media says is popular. We learned a long time ago that the best music is often the stuff that doesn't find its way to commercial radio or even most retail music stores (sadly). 

Most aren't aware that there was an independent progressive revival of the '90s...that still continues to this day. In the late '90s, a friend suggested that since we like Genesis so much we should check out a band called Spock's Beard. Doing their own thing but still occasionally nodding to earlier prog masters like Genesis, Yes and Gentle Giant, Spock's Beard was originally fronted by singer/multi-instrumentalist Neal Morse. 
Paris!

After SB's release of the double CD "Snow" concept piece (seriously, it's better than The Who's "Tommy"), Morse left the band and the lead vocals were taken over by a fantastically talented drummer named Nick D'Virgilio. I should mention here that one of the things that attracted us to the Beard was the fact that Nick D'Virgilio actually drummed on the last Genesis studio CD, "Calling All Stations." 

Libby and I have seen Spock's Beard live many times in the last 15 years. One of the benefits of loving indie bands and seeing them fairly often is the chance to greet and chat up the band members. And so it is with us and SB. A few years ago, after Nick had left SB, he became one of the leads in Cirque D'Soleil's "Totem" show. Knowing he'd be on tour with the show in San Francisco, I asked Nick if he'd be up for doing a solo concert at Flying Colors... and so he did, on Libby's birthday! You can see a performance from that show HERE!

At the top of the Eiffel Tower
At that solo show, Nick mentioned he was officially leaving Spock's Beard, but that he was now in another band, the only American in an otherwise all-British band. He recommended we check them out. That band he recommended is Big Big Train

How's that for a progressive intro? 

The show dates were August 14-16 at the beautiful and intimate concert hall at Kings' Place, London, just a block or two from the St Pancras International Rail Station (where we would take another "big big train"---the EuroStar--- to Paris via the Chunnel on August 16).
King's Place

Big Big Train is simply and intricately a wonderful band. Two members of BBT do the songwriting, bassist/guitarist and band co-founder Greg Spawton and David Longdon (vocals/flute/banjo/percussion). Another bit of Genesis trivia: When Phil Collins left Genesis, a number of vocalists auditioned for the part. Among them was David Longdon.  

Other members of the band are co-founder/keyboards/guitars Andy Poole, lead guitarist Dave Gregory (formerly of the great XTC), Rachel Hall (violin/vocals), Danny Manners (keyboards), Rikard SjĖ†blom (guitar/keyboards/vocals)... and Nick D'Virgilio (drums/vocals). Stellar players, one and all!


One huge reason we needed to make the journey to London to see Big Big Train is the sheer size of the band. With eight primary musicians and an additional brass section of five, that would be a very expensive touring outfit, so the chances were pretty slim that the band would perform anywhere close to us. There were just three live shows, all at King's Place, with just 500 seats in the theater. Such a small venue that the brass section wasn't even on the main stage, but was situated in the balcony above the band.

With BBT guitarist Dave Gregory

Among Big Big Train's songs, you really won't hear any three minute love ditties, but you will hear the love and care they put into their music. Their songs are quintessentially British, often telling stories infused with the history and geography of the British isles. 

While the band is content with the "progressive" or "prog-rock" label, in my estimation BBT music has a lot in common with classical music. As an example, BBT's epic "East Coast Racer"tells the story of the people who built and admired the Mallard, the train that set the land speed record for steam trains back in 1938. The song isn't as much about the train as it is about the love and labor that went into its building and the fascination the public had with it. In the 15 minutes of "East Coast Racer," I hear the construction, complexity and emotional depth of Bohemian composer Bedrich Smetana's piece about the river "Moldau." There are movements, there are musical themes that punctuate the song's emotion. It's a brilliant and complex piece of work. 

Joe with BBT co-founder Greg Spawton
While BBT's music is rightly classified as part of the rock genre and the progressive sub-genre, the music veers all over the musical map, from rock to jazz to classical to pop. For a couple of the band's shorter and poppier tunes, try David Longdon's "Uncle Jack" and "Leopards." "Uncle Jack" is an ode to David's actual uncle, a man David loved and who knew quite a bit about nature, gardening and caring for the earth as a gentler way of life. "Leopards" may be about as close to a three minute love song as you'll find in BBT's oeuvre, with its cautionary tale about how, like leopards, it's difficult to change one's spots.  

The concerts were beautifully performed, even with the opening night jitters of a band that had never played before a paid audience with this current line-up. Standing ovations after several songs, especially the longer pieces, happened at both shows we attended. These concerts, filled with many of the band's most dedicated fans, also brought tears of happiness due to the moving performances. 

With Rachel Hall (Violins/vocals)
Since vocalist Longdon, drummer D'Virgilio and guitarist Gregory came aboard the Train in the last several years, the band has steadily built a larger following, particularly through effective use of social media. The BBT Facebook page is one of the most peaceful, fun, music-loving spots on any social media, with a steadily growing number of fans. 

It was no surprise for me, as one of those fans, to learn of so many others making the trek to the concerts from all over the world. Pre-show and post-show socializing at King's Place were filled with happy fans meeting each other in person for the first time. Post-show, band members joined the party, taking photos, signing programs and CDs, chatting with attendees. I can only imagine how gratifying it must have been after so much work went into the planning, rehearsing and playing the shows to have the band members finally get some feedback. 

Here's what Big Big Train played at the King's Place concerts:
Libby with Nick D'Virgilio

Opening Set:
Make Some Noise
The Underfall Yard
Uncle Jack
Victorian Brickwork

Set 2:
Kingmaker
Summoned by Bells
Drum solo
Judas Unrepentant
Curator of Butterflies
East Coast Racer

Encore:
Hedgerow

Take a look at this video shot at King's Place on Sunday August 16:
 

Look,  I'm definitely not a professional reviewer and I'm certainly not a critic of a band that has brought us so many hours of music bliss. 

My hope with this rather long post is that you'll be moved enough to listen to some Big Big Train music, maybe go so far as to order one of their albums--- you can do that HERE! If you do, I recommend you start with "English Electric: Full Power."  When you delve into Big Big Train's music, please let me know how you like it. 

And that's my story of The Train That Got Me Across the Atlantic, otherwise known as "What I did on My Summer Vacation." Class is now dismissed.

Peace & Music! 

Joe "FlyCoJoe" Field
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