A Passage From India

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This week Tushar takes a break from Bangalore to ruminate on Big Big Train’s recent live shows

Last week, while clearing up my hard drive, I came across some of my earliest pieces of writing on music. While this could have easily degenerated into an exercise in self-flagellation, it did not, I am happy to report. What I did notice was a recurring theme in many of those early concert reviews- an unyielding sense of excitement and a profligate use of superlatives. My review of an Iron Maiden show in India, for example, contained the phrase `And then there was Bruce Dickinson. Possibly the greatest performer alive.’ Another review yielded ‘Pain of Salvation is a band that is so far beyond criticism for me that I cannot feign objectivity’. (I should clarify that I have since become much better at feigning objectivity, the rest of this particular column notwithstanding.)

When I was fourteen years old, discovering these bands through shared earphones on a walkman, cover bands, dial-up-speed downloads and extortionately priced CD imports, the idea of getting to watch any of them live in Bangalore within a few years was completely unrealistic. The superlatives were simply an expression of the overwhelming feeling of emotional release that concerts like that triggered in so many of us.

Years later, I moved to England, and the first few months were a whirlwind. I was in prog heaven and, to be honest, I did go a little overboard. I went to over a hundred concerts in one year. As time passed, my priorities at concerts changed. In the early days, I would queue up for hours to get to the front row. At Iron Maiden’s first show in Bangalore, I got to the venue at 7 a.m. For my first Dream Theater show, while on holiday in New York, trying not to appear too eager, I turned up as late as 10. A far cry from my current priority- a nice comfortable seat not too near the band.

The reason I bring this up now is that last week, for only the second time since those early, adrenaline-fuelled concert days, I experienced that same giddy feeling. It happened at Big Big Train’s first live show in over a decade at London’s Kings Place. It certainly helped that virtually everyone there was also seeing the band for the first time- the atmosphere was one of collective catharsis, not unlike the first Iron Maiden or Metallica show in India, although on a much smaller scale and considerably less violent.

There is something intensely personal about an event of this scale- an audience of 500 or so people, for most of whom Big Big Train is their little secret, finally being able to exult in the company of like-minded people. Someone drew the apt analogy between the audience at this gig and a crowd of football supporters collectively cheering their team on. Emotions were running high and this manifested itself in several outpourings from the audience over the course of the evening. Some were friendly and self-aware; someone shouted `Make some noise!’ just as the initial applause died down to silence, and the band obliged. Others were vexing, interrupting the flow, but the most memorable was during the climax of East Coast Racer, during which, the sections of the crowd not busy dabbing their eyes, erupted in a spontaneous uncontrollable applause.

One of the problems that many prog bands face when performing live is that four or five instruments is not enough to capture all of the nuances present on the album. Big Big Train would certainly fall into that category of bands if they tried to perform as a five or even six-piece band. Fortunately, the special one-off nature of these shows meant that we got an eight-member electric band and a five-member brass section. And, with the wizardry of Rob Aubrey at the mixing desk, none of the adornments were missed. The sound was complete, and there were no blanks that we, as an audience, had to fill in from memory. All we had to do was somehow attempt to take it all in. I can do no better than to quote prog journalist Alison Henderson, who wrote of the show, ‘There was not one soul that night left untouched by the evening’s alchemy. No-one emerged the same person as when they went in.’

For indulging me in this paean to Big Big Train, dear reader, I am grateful. Perhaps in the next fortnight circumstances will conspire to restore my relative objectivity and redress the balance. For now, though, I will continue to bask in the afterglow of a superlative-inducingly memorable night.