A Stone's Throw From The Line

Big Big Train

English Electric Recordings, 2016


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Like musical cicadas re-emerging after nearly two decades, British progressive rock collective Big Big Train returned to the live stage in 2015. During its lengthy studio hibernation, the band had evolved from a somewhat obscure, locally gigging quintet into one of the premier prog acts of its era, now featuring a core lineup of eight, with its orchestrally-inclined arrangements often adding brass and/or strings on top of that.

A Stone’s Throw From The Line collects highlights from the band’s August 2015 weekend residency at Kings Place, London, serving as a summation of the seven years, four albums, and two EPs gone by since co-founders Greg Spawton (bass) and Andy Poole (keys/guitar) were joined by first Nick D’Virgilio (drums, ex-Spock’s Beard), David Longdon (lead vocals/flute/banjo), and Dave Gregory (guitar, ex-XTC), and then Danny Manners (keys), Rachel Hall (violin), and Rikard Sköblom (guitar/keys, ex-Beardfish). But it also makes an essential statement: as challenging as this multilayered music is to assemble in the studio, we can also play it live on stage.

Doing so requires not just the full eight-person core lineup, but a five-man brass section tucked away in the gallery, since they wouldn’t fit on the venue’s relatively modest stage. Still, one of the biggest issues Big Big Train had to tackle in order to play these songs live is the complexity of the vocal arrangements. In a number of cases the studio recordings feature a multi-tracked Longdon singing his own harmony vocals; that means that live, while the players are in the midst of navigating a variety of complicated parts, shifting time signatures, and sharp turns between different sections of the songs, they also have to sing those complex harmonies. It’s a world-class musical challenge; fortunately these are world-class players, every one.

The evening opens as it should, with the concise, anthemic single “Make Some Noise,” whose bounding rhythms propel the poppiest tune this lineup has ever recorded. Some of the group’s more progressive-minded fans aren’t entirely sure about this track, but it has undeniable punch and appeal, with concise, jabbing solos instead of long, winding ones. We quickly segue into “The First Rebreather,” thrumming and swerving through its heroic narrative before moving on to an even bigger challenge: the epic 22-plus-minute title track from the group’s superb 2009 album my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 The Underfall Yard. It’s as the assembled players traverse their intricate parts while simultaneously chanting a ringing, intense refrain of “Far skies, deep time” that I first find myself thoroughly lost in this beguiling music.

As the setlist progresses, there are several notably clever adaptations for the stage—for example, studio guest Jem Godfrey’s zippy but somewhat uncharacteristic synth solos from the studio version of “The Underfall Yard” have been translated into a guitar solo and a violin solo, respectively—but what makes this album such a special addition to the BBT catalogue is the interaction with the live audience. The handclaps propelling “Uncle Jack” are at least as spot-on as the vocal harmonies, whose density and complexity is nearly impossible to recreate live; this version might not be as crisp and perfect as the studio recording, but it’s perhaps even more charming for its imperfections; it takes nerve to even try to pull these songs off live, and the audience lifts the band up with its enthusiastic support for their efforts.

Closing out the first set, “Victorian Brickwork,” Spawton’s 12-minute elegy for his father, is performed with all the billowing emotion it should be, its horn section-over-organ fanfare achingly beautiful as Gregory re-enters, driving toward the song’s crescendo. The gentle outro has just begun to fade into stillness when the crowd erupts in damp-eyed applause.

Yet another thing BBT did right here is to preserve the run order of the three gigs, while selecting the best performance of each song for inclusion here. This adds to the verisimilitude of these well-chronicled shows, which earned Big Big Train the Best Live Event award (as well as the Band of the Year award) at the 2016 Progressive Music Awards.

The second set/disc opens with four big, propulsive numbers: the majestic “Kingmaker”; the churning, at times nearly funky “Wassail,” with enthusiastic audience participation; the ringing, lyrical “Summoned By Bells,” with more sublime guitar-keys-horn section interplay; and the rollicking, playful “Judas Unrepentant,” before slowing things down for “Curator Of Butterflies,” a stunning ballad.

The latter sets up the big finish, as the group delivers a genuinely thrilling take on their 16-minute opus “East Coast Racer,” whose cinematic climax—complete with swelling horns, skyscraping Mellotron, thunderous bass pedals, and Longdon crying out “She fliiiiiiiies…”—sends chills up the spine of every listener then and now. After a short break filled with rapturous applause, BBT returns to encore with the closing song from 2012’s terrific English Electric Part One, the galloping romp “Hedgerow,” as the crowd claps along in giddy ecstasy.

The barely detectable rough edges that emerge here and there in these concert recordings are more than redeemed by the electrifying exchange of energy between band and live audience that amplifies the emotion of these performances. A Stone’s Throw From The Line captures more than 120 minutes of richly melodic and thoroughly engaging progressive rock made by true artisans for a crowd of elated fans. To employ a bit of this very British outfit’s own vernacular, it’s bloody magnificent.

Rating: A

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© 2016 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 Recordings, and is used for informational purposes only.