Summer Shall Not Fade (2CD/Blu-Ray)

Big Big Train

English Electric, 2022

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Legendary is a word best left for others to employ, unless you’re Bruce Springsteen. Still, when it fits, it fits.

The legend of Big Big Train is still being written today, but in the modern band’s brief history of live performances, their headlining set at the July 2018 Night Of The Prog festival in Loreley, Germany was surely a milestone. After spending 17 years as a studio-only outfit, and just eight gigs into its reincarnation as a live band, the group drew the headlining spot at a major progressive rock festival, playing to a 3,000-strong crowd. The results were, according to the fans in attendance, nothing short of spectacular.

That it took four years to finish and release the double-CD / Blu-Ray set chronicling this memorable performance is testament to two things: the group’s stubborn determination to do things right and not rush the production process, and the chaos that threatened to sink the band in the intervening years. Of the seven core members of the lineup represented here, three left over the course of 2020, and a fourth, frontman David Longdon, died suddenly in November 2021. All things considered, the mere existence of this album is no small miracle.

With all that as preface, let’s follow BBT’s lead and get on with the show.

The filmed performance opens in black and white, a nice bit of stagecraft as the house lights dim and the band members make their way onto the broad stage from the wings. As the first quiet notes emerge, the stage and picture bleed into glorious color as the group—Longdon (lead vocals, flute), Nick D’Virgilio (drums, vocals), Dave Gregory (guitars), Danny Manners (keys), Rachel Hall (violin, vocals), Rikard Sjöblom (guitars, keys, vocals), and founder Gregory Spawton (bass, bass pedals)—launches into the rippling opening guitar chords of “The First Rebreather.”

Augmented by guest Robin Armstrong (keys, guitar), the group’s performance is tight but not an exact replica of the studio version; small adaptations are evident and the whole exercise is enlivened by the interplay among band members, and between the band and the audience. As compelling as the studio version is—a gripping tale of underwater heroism—every bit of drama the rangy tune contains is magnified here.

From there they are joined by the Big Big Train Brass Band—Dave Desmond (trombone), Ben Godfrey (trumpet), Grant Jameson (euphonium), Nick Stones (French horn), Jon Truscott (tuba)—and launch 13 strong into a rousing rendition of “Folklore.” A series of sharp solos leads into the song’s memorable spoken-word bridge, which is staged masterfully, with Longdon’s soliloquy punctuated as he hits “and LIGHT” by the house lights going up full; it’s a breathtaking moment.

The group’s ode to the Enlightenment “A Mead Hall In Winter” is an early highlight, with the rock-solid D’Virgilio drumming and signing harmony like a boss, exuding energy and attitude. “Mead Hall” is a lengthy, complex, turning-twisting 15-minute epic, but the entire group is on it every moment of the way, and kudos go to video director John Vis and editor Geert Schoonbeek of, who engineer cutaways to each player as they are featured, at times split-screening the performance among two or four players or areas of the stage. The song’s principal musical composer Sjöblom and musical engine D’Virgilio drive the band hard start to finish and Longdon—who you observe coming into his own as a frontman song by song—leads the crowd in a swaying, waving final chorus.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Early BBT song “Kingmaker”—revisited and updated by the modern lineup for 2010’s Far Skies Deep Time EP—spotlights the inimitable Dave Gregory, whose tasteful, driving guitar work shines. Another revisited tune, “Summer’s Lease” from 2007’s The Difference Machine, is a pleasant choice that Longdon sings beautifully over a fuller arrangement than the original recording, dueting with D’Virgilio at times.

Next Longdon steps forward to introduce his composition “Brave Captain,” which receives a magnificent airing, with more quad cuts provided to cover all of the action during the heavy mid-song jam. The song’s climax, complete with robust crowd singalong, is simply stunning. Then Danny Manners’ rather Wakeman-esque solo spot (“Prelude And Fugue”) gives the rest of the band a short breather leading into the keyboard-driven “Judas Unrepentant,” whose rousing rhythms get the crowd going again.

The ensuing band intros help demonstrate how much this moment meant to the band, as the superb but rather shy Rachel Hall appears both taken aback and charmed by the warmly appreciative chant of her name from the 3,000-strong audience. Greg Spawton appears similarly abashed by the crowd’s affectionate attention, and then they’re into his “The Transit Of Venus Across The Sun,” whose brass-and-violin overture sets every last hair on the back of my neck at attention; it’s almost inhumanly beautiful.

English Electric 2’s “The Permanent Way” makes a smashing concert debut, its gorgeous core melody full of yearning, and then its final sustained chord cross-cuts directly into the evocative piano melody that opens the main set closer, the band’s signature epic “East Coast Racer.” Longdon rides the swelling emotions through the stirring opening verses, acting out the line “He walks the high wire” as he sings. The entire performance—visuals, lights, music, vocals—is absolutely thrilling, full of flair and joy and unstoppable energy, and when Longdon steps forward to hit the big note—every Passenger knows the one I mean—it’s chicken skin and damp eyes times a thousand.

After the interval, D’Virgilio solos briefly before engaging in a lively duet with the brass section, a pulse-quickening set-up for the finale. Closer “Wassail” is given a firm and emphatic reading that’s as funky as any British prog band could ever hope to be and inspires another crowd singalong. It’s a poignant moment when Longdon’s fiancée Sarah Louise Ewing’s “green man” artwork flashes on the big screen behind him as he leads the crowd in a resounding chorus while wearing his “green man” mask, a choice that works both on its own and as a nod to one of the band’s key influences, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis. 

There are several additional takeaways from this set. First, Loreley for the first time offered Big Big Train a stage and setting as grand as its music. Second, this was a virtual all-star team of musical talent, featuring members of XTC, Spock’s Beard, Beardfish, Cosmograf and more, plus in the brass section members of the Royal Coldstream Guards Band—and since then Spawton, D’Virgilio and Sjöblom have gone on to assemble still another one, which speaks to the lasting quality of the music this group has created. Third, the band’s longtime sound guru Rob Aubrey once again proves his mettle with a sparkling mix.

Finally, as always with Big Big Train, the packaging and presentation of this set is top-notch, leaving the listener with another beautiful object to be savored and admired, not to mention an eminently worthy tribute to “our own brave captain, David Longdon.”

Loreley was a critical juncture for Big Big Train, the band’s first ever live performance in front of a crowd that reached four figures, and the resounding success they achieved that evening earns every bit of the special treatment it receives here. Summer Shall Not Fade captures a moment that deserves to be preserved for the ages, one that some might even call legendary.

Rating: A

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 2022 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.