“Come on,” suggests singer David Longdon. “Let’s make like it’s Saturday night!” This might sound like an odd statement to start a gig, but this is a Sunday matinee, and the alternative to this last of three sell-out shows — Big Big Train’s first in 17 years — is to linger over the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.
Longdon moves with the dramatic, sweeping exaggeration of an illusionist conjuring a series of increasingly unexpected animals from thin air, as if performing to an audience that’s much larger than the one actually present. And herein lies the one problem with this show. This is music of truly epic scale, and it deserves a bigger, grander setting than King’s Place. It’s a lovely venue, but with minimal lighting and wooden walls it all feels a bit village hall, as if proceedings might at any moment be interrupted by the results of a pork pie competition or the arrival of a tombola. Big Big Train’s music deserves a billowing fog of dry ice, banks of Vari-Lites, articulated lorries full of projection equipment and lasers, and a vast crowd.
That’s not to say this audience are short-changed. Far from it. The band receive the kind of rapturous welcome more usually reserved for returning legends like Brian Wilson or Kate Bush, and Big Big Train feed off the affection. There is, as they say, a lot of love in the room. Make Some Noise is a suitably rousing start, although it’s probably the weakest song of the afternoon, and what follows is little short of extraordinary. The First Rebreather and 2009’s colossal The Underfall Yard arrive early, both fearless jumbles of clattering rhythms and monumental melodic ambition. The latter sees erstwhile XTC man Dave Gregory — who appears to be having the time of his life — change guitars three times, but however complicated the arrangements or gifted the musicians, the performance never threatens to tip into self-indulgence. First and foremost, these songs are beautiful.
With eight players onstage and a brass section up on the balcony, individual highlights come thick and fast. Guitarist Rikard Sjöblom’s solo on Victorian Brickwork is dizzying, while Longdon, drummer Nick D’Virgilio and violinist Rachel Hall dazzle throughout. The crowd provide backing vocals on a triumphant Wassail, while the hazy warmth of Curator Of Butterflies is a lovely introduction to East Coast Racer’s charging climax. After another standing ovation, the band return for an exultant romp through Hedgerow. It all ends with musicians and crew onstage, arms triumphantly held aloft, posing for photos. This was very, very special.