Merchants Of Light is a 2 disc live "souvenir" of Big Big Train's run of 3 Autumn 2017 (UK Prog Magazine) award winning shows at London Cadogan Hall. Drawing the set list mainly from their 2016/17 Folklore (see review) / Grimspound (see review) duology, this live set is an edit from all 3 nights shows.
As a band who have certainly had their fair share of praise and adulation, fans will just go out and buy this. For anyone who has so far either resisted the seemingly unstoppable rise of Big Big Train or are still undecided, this is actually a good jumping-on point. It's not one of those live sets that play fast and loose with the album material, rather a slick professional set of readings off the album material. My only criticism of Big Big Train in the past has been quality control, I always thought there was one classic album in the 2 albums that make up the heart of this set, so as is often the case with a live set, it does bring focus and allows one to reappraise this material.
Disc 1 starts off with the instrumental Folklore Overture, segueing into Folklore, and the accompanying 4 piece brass ensemble certainly make this stirling stuff, with a catchy hook and singalong chorus. On to Brave Captain, for me the standout track on Grimspound, all epic boys own tales of aviation and daring do. The bands 2 keyboard players, Danny Manners and Andy Poole really shine here, weaving intricate piano and solo work to produce the closest this band come to full on epic, Mellotron choirs and all. Next comes Last Train, an oldie from their 2009 Underfall Yard album. Back to the Folklore/ Grimspound material with a reading of London Plan, a beautifully atmospheric piece and a showcase for Rachel Hall's string arrangements. The subsequent Meadowlands is a particularly strong performance from vocalist David Longdon. Here he sounds strong and distinctive, without the marked Peter Gabrielisms that do creep in to his enunciation occasionally. The first disc end with the epic Meadhall In Winter, truly progressive with distinct sections, clever changes in tempo, etc, and strong guitar and bass synergy from Dave Gregory and Greg Spawton.
It's on the second disc that the addition of a brass ensemble really makes a difference. Experimental Gentlemen sets the 2nd half off to a resounding start, then the far more gentle and poignant Swan Hunter. This song really benefits from the brass, creating an atmosphere reminiscent of Northern English industrial town brass band music along with some very subdued banjo picking. Next another song from the pre Folklore/ Grimspound material, Judas Unrepentant. This has a real Genesis "Hogweed" vibe to it. Transit Of Venus Across The Sun is another sad and atmospheric number that again greatly benefits from the brass arrangements. Another track of older material follows in the very epic East Coast Racer. The next track, Telling The Bees is a change in atmosphere and reminds me of the sort of smart pop song, reminiscent of Deacon Blue/ Prefab Sprout etc, that might have been a novelty hit single 30 years ago when there was still a slim chance of these sorts of band getting on daytime radio. Next, Victorian Brickwork, very "Selling England.." era Genesis. Drums And Brass is the only new material on this live album, a quite jazzy showcase for the brass ensemble. Wassail sends everyone home with another jaunty, almost folky number that provides a bookend to the set opener, Folklore.
This is all very polite. While this set edits out most of the between song dialogue, when they announce they are off for tea at the mid set break, you know it's true, can't really imagine this band having wild parties backstage. Similarly, thematically this is all very worthy, songs about trains, and shipyards, nothing controversial here, which does set them apart from their closest peers like Marillion who can still deliver something as angry as F.E.A.R. (2017, see review). Big Big Train do however have their own almost English pastoral quality, songs like London Plane are beautifully atmospheric, helped by Rachel Hall's sympathetic string arrangements. This would be a perfect lend to any old proggers still refusing to listen to anything other than the classic bands of the 70s, all the classic elements of keyboard/ synth, Steve Hackett kind of guitars etc are present and correct. I make no apologies for continuous Genesis comparisons, this is clearly their biggest influence, most apparent on the older pre Folklore/ Grimspound material. I'm sure you had to be there, I've seen footage of these gigs, and David Longdon's performance and theatrics during songs like Brave Captain add another dimension to these shows, I'm surprised there was no DVD/ Blue Ray set to accompany these prestige concerts. All in all a fantastic coda to Big Big Train's successes over the last couple of years and an ideal jumping on point.
**** Neil Boughey
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