I’m writing this from O’Hare International Airport, where I plan to make use of the “international” part of the name. I’m waiting for my flight to Montreal, where I will experience my second Marillion Weekend.
The last time I attended a Weekend was in 2015, and it was one of the best concert-going experiences of my life. Even aside from the music, which I know is divisive (although I am not sure why), a Marillion show is unlike any other, and a Marillion Weekend even more amazing. Over more than 40 years this band has cultivated a fanbase like no other, and to be in a room with them as band and audience feed off of the reciprocal love for one another is an incredible thing. You really have to be there to understand it.
And I will be there. The fans are one reason, but I love this band the way I love very few others. I have tried and failed for decades to explain why at this point. All I know is that the particular combination of things that they do hits my soul in exactly the right way. Yeah, there are all kinds of intellectual reasons why I consider them one of the best bands in the world. They’re without genre, for instance, equally at home with three-minute pop tunes and 20-minute epics and dabbling in just about everything in between, and their musical chops are without peer.
But honestly, none of that explains it. None of that explains why I am planning to board a plane in a couple hours and fly to another country, shacking up with people I have only met once, just to hear them play. I can’t explain it. This thing they do, it just works for me. This weekend I will get to hear them play some of my favorites, from “Ocean Cloud” to “This Strange Engine” to “This Is the 21st Century” to all of Essence, the first disc of their wonderful Happiness is the Road album. I know the contours of this music inside and out, and I am still jumping out of my skin with excitement.
They’re Marillion, and I’m a fan, and I get to hear them three times this weekend in the company of fellow fans. For me, that’s magic. I’m so ready.
There is just no explaining the vibe of a Marillion Weekend, but I’m gonna try.
Montreal is a gorgeous city, its old-stone buildings and streets very reminiscent of the parts of France I have been lucky to see. Everyone speaks French and English, but French is preferred. There are dozens of little cafes and shops, and winding little avenues that promise hidden adventures. And this weekend, there are Marillion fans everywhere. It’s like slipping into an alternate universe in which the obscure band I love is suddenly a household name.
I’m staying this time at a first-floor home one of my traveling companions found on AirBnB, and it feels like an authentic Montreal experience. I mentioned this above, but I’m staying with two people I have only ever met once, at a previous Marillion Weekend, and one person I met just today. This is the kind of instant camaraderie that I have rarely felt with the fans of any band. There’s an immediate connection with fellow Marillion fans, like we’re sharing a secret. That feeling is a rare one, and usually only happens in small doses, but this weekend is like swimming in it.
In defiance of Jeremy Piven’s advice, wearing the shirt of the band you’re going to see is encouraged, so that fans can find one another. One of my compatriots tonight wore an original shirt from the 1981 tour, which is pretty amazing, but I also saw a veritable sea of shirts from previous Weekends and the 2016 North American tour. Again, I have to emphasize how surreal this is, to see thousands of people proudly showing off their devotion to a band I have loved in a lonely way for decades. We ate in a corner bar before the show and met probably a dozen fellow fans, just randomly.
L’Olympia is a lovely theater, with a balcony and a tiered floor to make it easier for everyone to see. I will not be able to adequately describe the vibe of love in the room, reflected from band to audience and back, but it’s something to be a part of. Tonight’s opening band was District 97 from Chicago, and I had a few good laughs about the fact that I traveled to another country to see a band from my neighborhood. (They were fine, but maybe not for this audience. They have all the pieces, but I wasn’t a fan of what they built with them.)
OK, so here is what you need to know to understand the music choices for this Marillion Weekend. The band used to have a singer called Fish, but he left in 1988. The “new guy,” Steve Hogarth, joined the band in 1989, which means this year is his 30th anniversary at the helm. So this weekend is basically a guided tour-slash-retrospective of his three decades with the band. Tonight’s show drew from their first four albums with H, as he is known, spanning 1989 to 1995. I knew this going in, because the setlists for other 2019 Weekends had been posted online, but it was fun to be with people who didn’t know, and were pleasantly surprised.
Early H-era Marillion tended to be a little more straightforward, a little more prog-pop, a little more synth-driven than the current stuff. It’s a sound I think of as classic, but some might consider dated. The band faithfully reproduced it tonight, beginning with the long and glorious keyboard intro to “The King of Sunset Town,” which kicks off Seasons End, the first Hogarth-led Marillion album. The soaring melodies and even more soaring lead guitar parts are hallmarks of this era, and I can’t get enough of them.
Tonight I got to see so many older tunes I had never seen live. “The Bell in the Sea” remains incredible, especially the pirate-shanty guitar melodies. Hogarth brought out the MIDI gloves for “The Uninvited Guest,” which was a treat. They played almost all of Holidays in Eden, their most accessible record, including the rarely-performed title track. That album is full of guitar-heavy pop-rock songs which went down like candy. Being part of an audience that not only knows “Cover My Eyes” but sings every word of it is an amazing thing.
Highlights? So many. The snippet of “Montreal” the band played early was one, certainly. I knew we would get this song at some point this weekend, as it has become a staple here, and joining in with the crowd on the line “welcome back to Montreal” was joyous. “Dry Land” was wonderful. Hogarth still sings the living hell out of it. The suite from 1994’s Brave, still one of their most complex and dark records, was phenomenal, especially the beautiful title track, which I had never heard live. And the encore consisted of three upbeat songs from 1995’s Afraid of Sunlight, including “Cannibal Surf Babe,” which was an absolute delight.
The vibe, though. It was the vibe that made this special, and that’s something I have never really experienced anywhere else. This weekend was already worth the money and time, and there are two nights to go. I know what’s coming – I can’t stop myself from peeking at setlists – and I am so very excited. Now, to sleep!
The second day of our tour through the music of Steve Hogarth began with the music of Fish.
As I mentioned above, Marillion’s original singer – a tall, brooding Scotsman named Derek Dick who goes by the moniker Fish – left the band in 1988. Hogarth does occasionally sing songs from the Fish era (four albums dating from 1983 to 1987), but with three decades of extraordinary material with the band, he has no need to rely on the older work. But the fans still love it.
Enter Scripted, a Fish-era tribute band from Montreal, who performed a wonderful two-hour set of the early stuff at a pub named Brutopia this afternoon. Brutopia is one of the strangest pubs I have been in, in terms of layout – there’s a stage that is not visible to about 2/3 of the venue, including an upstairs area that overlooks only part of the performance space. This place fills up pretty quickly, so I was preparing to merely hear Scripted, but as it turns out one of my traveling companions scored us a table right next to the stage. It was an extraordinary bit of luck that turned a pre-concert lark into an unforgettable musical moment.
I’m the guy who loves every era of Marillion, so hearing the Fish-era stuff is always a treat for me, especially since the opportunity to see it live is rare. Scripted is a really good band, and singer Patrick Turcotte puts everything he has into these performances. It was incredible to see him up so close, and to be part of a massive, roiling crowd that knew every word and shouted them along. This never happens – I never get to be part of something like this, with so many people who love the same obscure thing I do, screaming and dancing and going insane. I honestly thought the floor of the bar would buckle under our joyous cacophony. Being right in the middle of it for “Market Square Heroes” and “Incommunicado” is an experience I will never forget.
Of course, that was only act one. Marillion proper gave us an epic set of music tonight, spanning their middle period with Hogarth, from 1997 to 2003. They took from four albums again – This Strange Engine, Dotcom, Anoraknophobia and the amazing Marbles – and mixed up the setlist rather than guiding us through a series of suites. I definitely think it was the right way to go. This set lasted two and a half hours, and a full hour of it was given over to four lengthy songs, interspersed throughout. The ebb and flow was magnificent. They opened with the 15-minute “Interior Lulu,” a song I’d never heard them play, and it set the tone wonderfully.
Honestly, I have never heard this band sound better than they did tonight. I’m still buzzing from being in a room with thousands of people who love this stuff the way I do. We stood right in front of guitarist Steve Rothery while he played some of his best soaring lines – he does them the same way every time, but he puts so much feeling into them that they feel like his first forays. Hogarth took “One Fine Day” to a new level, and the whole band killed it on “An Accidental Man.” And then there was “Ocean Cloud,” my favorite Marillion song. Being part of the five-minute ovation for this number was something special. “Ocean Cloud” is 18 minutes long, and this whole crowd was just INTO IT, every second of it, and they applauded like the band had just played all of their wedding songs. It was soul-lifting.
The encores felt like they were chosen for me – “Estonia,” a song I want played at my funeral, and the incredible “This Is the 21st Century,” followed by a full-on emotional performance of the 15-minute “This Strange Engine.” I could not have asked for better. Seeing Rothery play THAT solo in “Engine” was, as usual, astonishing, and Hogarth put so much of himself into the finale of the song that I thought he would burst. The vibe was even better tonight than it was last night – you could almost literally see the love being passed back and forth between band and crowd, and I was right there in it. Unforgettable.
Tonight’s opening act was Rothery’s daughter, Jennifer, playing songs from an EP she has just released under the name Sylf. Strong, moody songs delivered with a powerful, melodious voice. A really terrific lead-in for one of the best nights of music I have ever treated myself to. And I get to do this again tomorrow. Very much looking forward to wrapping up this journey with the late-period work, but in no way am I looking forward to all of this being over.
It rained here in Montreal today while we were waiting in line at L’Olympia. The experience of thousands of us shivering in the downpour while smiling and getting to know each other sort of summed up this weird third day for me. The setlist was my least favorite of the weekend, but the real Marillion weekend was the friends we made along the way. Or something like that.
And I definitely made new friends this weekend. One of the best things about these get-togethers is that our shared love for a band few others know makes for a ready-made conversation starter. I heard stories from so many people about the various ways they got into this music, from old veterans to newbies. In the rainy line we met a woman who lives in Montreal but had never heard of the band before a few weeks ago. In the venue we met two people from Massachusetts, my old stomping grounds, who had been following the band for years and years.
I think every fan has a favorite era, and the way the songs were organized this weekend felt like an attempt to argue for the strengths of each of those eras. Tonight we got the late-period work, from the band’s last four records: 2007’s Somewhere Else, 2008’s Happiness is the Road, 2012’s Sounds That Can’t Be Made and 2016’s Fuck Everyone and Run. I love all of these records, and if I were to create a setlist that honored them, it would feel very different to the one we got tonight.
That was the slight downfall of night three for me: the band chose to eschew a lot of crowd-pleasers (like “Sounds That Can’t Be Made” or “The Leavers”) in favor of a more downbeat set. It was still great, but it never really approached the greatness of the previous two nights. It didn’t successfully argue for its era like I think it should have. I enjoyed what we got, certainly, and would put tonight’s performance up against 90% of the shows I have seen in my life. But in comparison to the first two nights, it was a bit of a comedown.
I should mention first that there was no opening act today. Instead the band took the stage with their manager, the amazing Lucy Jordache, to answer fan questions. That was a lot of fun. They are genuinely charming and humble folks, and their bond is obvious. Hogarth told a hilarious story about bassist Pete Trewavas’ ill-fated attempt to learn the ukulele, and Lucy brought a few fans on stage to have their photos taken with the group. I enjoyed this semi-intimate peek at the band as people.
I also knew going in that about an hour of this show would be taken up by a full performance of an imperfect yet beautiful and meditative album called Essence. It’s the first half of the Happiness is the Road double record, and long stretches of it are quiet and patient. It’s an album about being lost and finding peace within yourself, and while it never seems to be anyone’s favorite Marillion album, I have always loved it. I expected it to be a transporting live experience, and it wasn’t quite that, though the more joyous second half really worked. The crashing first chords of “Woke Up” brought us out of the quiet with a burst of energy, and the finale, the ten-minute “Happiness is the Road,” had the crowd singing with gusto. What a great moment to be part of.
After that more sedate record I think I expected the band to let it rip, given the coiled-up excitement of a last night at a Marillion Weekend. They didn’t quite do that – “Whatever is Wrong With You” went down very well, but they stuck with some more thoughtful pieces like “Invisible Ink” and “Somewhere Else” when the crowd really wanted to dance. They ended the set proper with a long, slow, sad epic called “The Sky Above the Rain,” and at that point the disconnect between what we wanted and what we were getting felt strong in the room.
But the encores made up for everything. The band found their fire and ripped through a few favorites, including their cover of “Toxic” (which I still maintain is one of the best pop songs of the last 20 years) and the only Fish-era song to see an airing, “Slainte Mhath.” It was so much fun being near the front of that crowd for that song in particular – it has energized and connected these people for more than 30 years. The band showered us in confetti during closer “All One Tonight,” and that was magical.
And then it was over. Afterward hundreds of us stood on a floor covered in bits of colored paper and reminisced about what we’d seen, not wanting this weekend to end. But we’ll take these new friendships and lovely memories with us as we board our separate planes tomorrow. (As a quick side note, 28 countries were represented at this weekend. 28 countries!) Marillion is a band unlike any other, and its fanbase is unique as well. Being a part of it for the last three nights has been amazing. Thank you to everyone I shared this with. Let’s do it again in two years.
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See you in line Tuesday morning.