Big Big Train at Cadogan Hall, London - live review

Folklore collective return to the capital for a series of sold-out shows

Big Big Train live on stage
(Image: © James Sharrock)

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Big Big Train are no stranger to Prog Awards, but they’d better find some more space in their trophy cabinet as tonight proves that they’re as stunning a proposition as any contemporary progressive rock band on the scene. Two sets of monumental arrangements are delivered with extraordinary musicianship, but it’s what they do with that musicianship that matters. The songs are both intricate and accessible, twisting and turning in surprising ways, but aware of when to lock in and build until it sounds like happy angels are crying.

When the five-piece brass section are onstage there are 13 players, capable of sounding like 30. It’d take too long to namecheck everybody but you’ll rarely see finer guitarists than Rikard Sjöblom and Dave Gregory. Nick D’Virgilio is dazzling without ever distracting on drums, while frontman David Longdon balances the high-wire act of singing flawlessly (including a falsetto) and enacting theatrical moments.

“I remembered the telescope!” he laughs. “I forgot it last night – it’s an expensive prop.” Less expensive – probably – are the flute, cane, flight goggles and wassail mask that come out at various points, but he works them for every penny, while the sleek blue suit means he’s never a Gabriel parody.

The Bournemouth-formed ensemble, who don’t exactly gig frequently, put an abundance of thought into the presentation as well as the sound. The show is a triumph. Big Big Train deserve to be showered in garlands in stadiums. This is big, big music – to corrupt that famous Waterboys slogan – and it’s what prog should be doing now. Blending the melodic beauty of Genesis with a tinge of Tull folk, revitalising it with elements of the post-rock drones of Mogwai or Sigur Rós – it’s not about how loud or heavy you can be, it’s about how everything interacts with everything else to create transcendent new glories.

“Get ready to weep,” advises Longdon, and it could be the Hovis ad pathos of the brass or Rachel Hall’s keening violin, or the all-round ebbs and flows and surges that finish you off as these songs of history, art, war, trees outliving cities, philosophy and trainspotting make their journeys. “Shall we cheer you up? Or maybe you like the misery?”

They haven’t been shy in releasing records of late, so they infuse 2015’s legendary setlist with plenty of fresh forays. You can’t cherry-pick highlights from the epics Brave Captain, A Mead Hall In Winter, Swan Hunter, The Transit Of Venus Across The Sun and Victorian Brickwork. Although nothing is mightier than the elegiac East Coast Racer, because that would be impossible.

Standing ovations ensue. If you’re notyet a Trainiac, get on board with the best British prog group of our times.

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has written about music, films, and art for innumerable outlets. His new book The Velvet Underground is out April 4. He has also published books on Lou Reed, Elton John, the Gothic arts, Talk Talk, Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson, Abba, Tom Jones and others. Among his interviewees over the years have been David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Bryan Ferry, Al Green, Tom Waits & Lou Reed. Born in North Wales, he lives in London.