Empire (BluRay/2CD)

Big Big Train

English Electric, 2020


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Last year I bought the t-shirt for a tour that never happened.

Having completed a triumphant UK tour in summer 2019, British progressive rock collective Big Big Train was set to play its first-ever shows in North America in May 2020. We all know how that went, but the band gamely modified their planned tour t-shirts with the headline “The Tour That Never Was” and we American fans snapped them right up, given their usefulness as both ironic mementos and crying towels.

Big Big Train hadn’t played a live date in 15 years when they took the stage at King’s Place in August 2015, and have only played a couple of dozen shows since, still primarily a studio group, and one with members who makes their homes in three different countries (the UK, the US, and Sweden). With live dates still a relative rarity, and set lists evolving significantly from one short run of shows to the next, it made sense for the band to issue its third live album in five years, this one accompanied by a concert film capturing the final show of its 2019 run at the gorgeous old music hall Hackney Empire in London.

It comes at a time of major transition not just for the world, but for the band. As the pandemic progressed, BBT lost three members from its heretofore seven-person lineup with the serial departures of guitarist Dave Gregory, keyboard player Danny Manners and violinist/harmony vocalist Rachel Hall. For some bands this might have been a killing blow, but the Train rolls onward, crewed by the remaining core of founder Greg Spawton (bass and bass pedals), David Longdon (lead vocals and flute), Nick D’Virgilio (drums and harmony vocals) and Rikard Sjöblom (guitars, keyboards, and harmony vocals).

Given all of the above context—Fear Of Missing Out come to life and all—and the visceral impact that Big Big Train’s albums of the past dozen years tend to have, watching this film is likely to be an emotional experience for fans. Keep in mind also that on this tour the seven-person core band is further supplemented by keyboardist-guitarist Robin Armstrong (Cosmograf) and a five-man brass section led by Dave Desmond, for a total of 13 musicians on stage making up a genuine progressive rock orchestra.

The show opens with a nice bit of stagecraft as Manners and D’Virgilio enter a darkened stage and break into the brief, evocative instrumental overture “Novum Organum,” which serves as walk-on music for the rest of the players. From there they further recreate the opening to the group’s then-new album Grand Tour by diving headlong into the galloping anthem “Alive,” an exhilarating set opener that gets both band and audience’s pulses racing. Then “Hedgerow” delivers a second sunburst of energy, an eight-minute tune with enough hooks for four pop songs, terrific Gregory riffage, and a simply stunning vocal arrangement featuring Longdon, Hall, D’Virgilio and Sjöblom at their very best. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The second quarter of the setlist is more adventurous. Grand Tour’s “Theodora in Green and Gold” soars, a somewhat understated tune that emphasizes the group’s gift for enchanting melodies. Next they pull out a real surprise, unearthing the never-before-performed “Winkie” from 2016’s Folklore, an eight-minute, multipart suite about [checks notes] a heroic pigeon. It’s a rousing rendition of an inherently theatrical tune, with two members of the brass ensemble providing additional percussion. “The Florentine” is a suitably grand portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, yet its best moments are the opening and closing, where D’Virgilio steps away from his kit to sing rich harmonies with Longdon at the front of the stage.

“Brave Captain” is one of the few returnees on the setlist, an extended story-song that achieves a stirring liftoff leading into one of this release’s highlights. Grand Tour’s standout track “Voyager” is a stunner, personifying man’s spirit of exploration in a 14-minute epic that soars through the stars much like its titular vehicle. As on the Grand Tour album itself, “Homesong” follows, a lovely and lyrical epilogue, the voyager returning home to contemplate their journey.

The rousing singalong “Wassail” again serves as an emphatic set-closer, before D’Virgilio re-emerges for the snappy, athletic “Engines & Men,” initially a drum showcase that evolves into a razzle-dazzle drums-and-brass anthem, a punchy warmup for the grand finale. “East Coast Racer” has become the band’s signature song, and why wouldn’t it, an impossibly cinematic, genuinely magnificent 15-minute epic whose climactic cry of “She fliiiiies!” never fails to bring the emotion of the moment flooding to the surface.

As is inevitably the case, one could pick nits about the setlist; I'd prefer more songs from The Underfall Yard and English Electric, but of course it makes good sense to feature the then-new album, and live recordings of many of the missing tunes exist on the group's previous live releases A Stone's Throw From The Line and Merchants Of Light. While I miss "Victorian Brickwork," "The Underfall Yard," "Summoned By Bells," "The Transit Of Venus Across The Sun," and the list goes on, it's understandable why they aren't found here.

As always with Big Big Train, everything about the production and packaging of this release is first rate. Blessed with superb staging, top notch musicianship, crisp sound (Rob Aubrey), excellent cinematography and film direction (Tim Sidwell), and a beautiful physical product (Steve Vantsis), Empire represents everything that BBT fans have come to expect from the band. Even the theatre itself plays a supporting role, a beautiful old three-tiered hall ringed with boxes and gilded details everywhere.

In conclusion we’re left to ponder the band’s future, which no longer includes three of the supremely skilled players featured on this release. What’s left, then? Well: the primary writers of every single one of these songs, four multi-instrumentalists, three vocalists who’ve each sung lead in other bands, and in Spawton, Longdon and D’Virgilio, the heart and soul of the group that made the band’s enduring classic The Underfall Yard back in 2009.

Dave Gregory, Danny Manners and Rachel Hall will be missed, rightfully and fondly; they have long since earned their place in BBT lore. But while this release marks the closing of one era of the band, the fact that the reconstituted group already has a new studio album in the can for summer release makes it clear there is fuel aplenty left in this Train, and miles of track yet to come.

Rating: A-

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© 2021 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of English Electric, and is used for informational purposes only.