Wild River (2023 reissue)

David Longdon

English Electric, 2023


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


This is a story about many things: love, loss, determination, fate, tragedy and friendship.

In the early 1990s, future Big Big Train frontman David Longdon was an aspiring singer-songwriter with a prodigious gift but not much to show for it; his band The Gifthorse aimed high, but never made it out of the pubs. In the midst of that span, Longdon—whose rangy, resonant voice bears a notable resemblance to Peter Gabriel’s—was invited to audition for the lead vocalist position in Genesis after Phil Collins’ departure. He worked closely with the band for six months during 1996, only to have Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford choose Ray Wilson instead.

Disappointed but not defeated, Longdon went home and went back to work. In combination with the death of his father and a painful divorce, this trio of setbacks informed the new songs that emerged over the course of the next few years. Recorded in fits and starts across the early 2000s, Longdon’s self-produced-engineered-and-released solo debut Wild River eventually appeared in 2004. The album showcased an eclectic hybrid, a sort of progressive folk-pop, and featured Longdon on vocals, guitars, mandolin, keyboards, flute and percussion, supplemented by a core band of friends Andy Lynn (drums), Beth Noble (violin and viola), and Andy Moore (bass), as well as guests including guitarists Dave Gregory (later a bandmate in Big Big Train) and Michael Brown (who mixed the original 2004 edition of the album).

Despite the best efforts of everyone involved, the album was not finished or packaged to Longdon’s satisfaction. Even as his career blossomed after joining Big Big Train (BBT) in 2009, he hoped eventually to revisit Wild River and improve it however he could. He and his friends Greg Spawton (BBT founder) and Rob Aubrey (BBT producer) spoke of it many times, even as other projects were prioritized ahead of it; Longdon’s vision for a reissued Wild River remained an oft-remarked upon but unrealized goal when he passed away suddenly in November 2021.

The long-imagined re-release of Wild River could easily have been left on the shelf at this juncture, if not for his friends. Instead, with the blessing of Longdon’s partner Sarah Louise Ewing, Aubrey spent many hours across many months working with the master tapes, striving to capture the sound he and Longdon had discussed, and then Spawton reissued the album on English Electric Recordings, Big Big Train’s “house label.”

A warm ending to a sad story, yes—but what about the music?

As an album, Wild River is lovely and lively and emotional and warmly crafted, a 12-song compendium of shiny, clever, progressive pop. Its instrumentation is primarily but not exclusively acoustic and its rather folkish tone is frequently disrupted with progressive flourishes and elements.

Opener “Always” is an upbeat, airy, sophisticated folk-rock number whose sonic qualities demonstrate immediately the commitment Aubrey brought to his task: every element is crisp and clean and the multiple layers of instruments and vocals ripple with brightness and energy. From that promising beginning, the album shows the playful side of Longdon’s nature as the surprisingly sunny and bubbly “Honey Trap” veers between fast and slow, urgent and languorous line readings, with harmony vocals, flute and other elements coming in and out. You can sense Longdon flexing his creative muscles, saying here, look what I can do. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The cheekily named “Mandy” features mandolin and a soaring vocal performance that reminds of Steve Winwood; a lively closing jam furthers the sense of Longdon reveling in his own compositional and arranging chops. “About Time” has a rather Moody Blues feel in places, especially when the Mellotron and bass pedals make an entrance at the front end of the extended jam that carries the second half of the 5:46 tune. “Vertigo” opens with an upbeat, pastoral, violin-and-mandolin tone that feels like a precursor to some of its author’s work with Big Big Train.

Quickly, though, you realize it’s about the divorce: “Look out below / All my surroundings are spinning around / Must be the masochist in me / That wants another chance,” he sings in this churning, emotional number. The songwriting-as-psychotherapy continues with “Wild River”: “These lean times / Can be character building / Can be soul destroying,” he sings as the music does a long steady build, adding strings, bass pedals, Mellotron and electric guitar. As it breaks down in the closing section, two things happen: you realize that this is essentially a blues ballad, and that Longdon is a singer of uncommon power.

The tonal contrast could hardly be greater when “Loving & Giving” kicks in, a wistful, gorgeous look back at the love that’s been lost.  “In Essence” might have been a subliminal message for Messrs. Banks and Rutherford, feeling like a lost Peter Gabriel tune with abundant space in the arrangement, big vocals, gently galloping drums, subtle guitar accents and prominent flute.

“This House” is a darker, heavier concoction about displacement and dissolution (“This house doesn’t feel like a home anymore”) which also serves as a vocal showcase as the man at the mic veers into and out of falsetto, sometimes single-tracking, sometimes double- or triple-tracking his powerful voice. Then the upbeat strings featured on the four-minute opening section of “Joely” inevitably bring the Beatles to mind, even if the closing spoken-word section is a bit of a head-scratcher.

Penultimate track “Falling Down To Earth” delivers a rather Tears For Fears feel with a pulsing bass behind Longdon as he songs about surrendering control and going with the flow; one suspects the reverb and precision of the vocal mix here are the work of Mr. Aubrey. Album closer “On To The Headland” is a purely solo, acoustic-and-voice number that finds Longdon surrendering to the inevitability of all that’s happened and letting go of any bitterness about it; he sings it magnificently.

The second disc of this reissue features a live performance of much of Wild River, plus a couple of Gifthorse tunes, with the same core band behind Longdon as on the studio recordings. These are all skillfully and enthusiastically delivered, further supplemented with an alternate extended version of “On To The Headland” and the unreleased and notably proggy tune “Beyond Belief.”

As with all English Electric releases, the packaging for the 2023 edition of Wild River is beautiful and the liner notes quite thorough, if not entirely complete. Remarkably, the name of a man without whom this release more than likely would not exist—Greg Spawton—does not appear anywhere. Which feels like a final expression of friendship: here, this is yours, we did this for you, to celebrate your life.

And while one might wish for a happier ending to this story, it’s still one well worth knowing, about a prodigiously talented man fueled by determination and blessed with true love and true friends. Wild River showcases David Longdon’s tremendous talents as a songwriter, vocalist, player and arranger, and this beautifully remixed and repackaged new version puts a fresh shine on his first outing as the frontman he was born to be.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 2023 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.