'a night of two veteran performers both of whom have still "got it"' Tim Hall reviews.
Double headline shows are an increasingly common phenomenon nowadays. In these economically straitened times it can sometimes be the only way medium-sized artists can get to play showcase gigs at bigger venues in cities like London. When such gigs work well they can be a great experience; the bands can go full-tilt with an intense set without having to pace themselves, and if both bands are on top form the audience gets their money's worth in a way they might not have done with a conventional headliner and support.
Friday night at Shepherds Bush Empire saw former Marillion frontman Fish paired with ex-Deep Purple bassist and more recently Black Country Communion frontman Glenn Hughes. Both seasoned classic rock performers, but on paper a rather odd combination. For this gig at least, Fish came on first, with Hughes the nominal bill-topper.
Fish has spent the last couple of years touring with an acoustic trio with Foss Patterson and Frank Usher, and this short run of gigs represented his first outing with a full electric band for the best part of four years. His set began with guitarist Frank Usher alone on stage, striking up the Zeppelinesque riff of 'The Perception of Johnny Punter', soon joined by the big man himself and the rest of the band.
The song set the tone for the set, with an emphasis on up-tempo guitar-driven numbers. The slimmed-down five piece band with just a single guitar gave the songs a different feel, with a lot more open space in the sound. Gavin Griffiths' drumming in particular stood out, giving a funky edge to 'Credo', and a driving propulsive rhythm to the Marillion oldie 'Assassing'.
The man himself was on fine form; even if his voice doesn't quite have the range and power he had in the 1980s, he's still capable of doing the older material justice, and he's always been one of the most charismatic frontmen in progressive rock.
The setlist covered the whole of Fish's 30 year career, from the early days of Marillion through to 'Openwater' from his most recent album 13th Star, including an interestingly rearranged 'Vigil in a Wilderness of Mirrors' opening with some bluesy guitar from Frank Usher. A strongly charged rant denouncing Tony Blair and the Iraq war as "a crock of shit" introduced the song, reinforcing hints that his next album with the working title of Feast of Consequences will be an angry political one.
He closed with a intense 'Forgotten Sons' from the very beginning of his career, dedicated to everyone who's ever worn the uniform of the armed forces. For a thirty year-old song, the Psalm 23/Lords Prayer section has lost none of it's power, neither have lines like "From the dole-queue to the regiment/A profession in a flash/But remember Monday signings when from door to door you dash". And hats off to Frank Usher for nailing the guitar lines at the end; even if there is still only one Steve Rothery, whom even Richard Dawkins thinks is God, Usher came close enough that it made little difference.
It was clear that Glenn Hughes was going to find that tour-de-force hard to follow.
Legendary DJ, Bob Harris came on to introduce Hughes as "The Voice", and his set of blues and funk tinged hard rock numbers emphasised the strength of his vocals. There are very few hard rock vocalists of his generation who can still hit sustained high notes the way he can.
very few hard rock vocalists of his generation who can still hit sustained high notes
He drew songs from Trapeze, Hughes/Thrall, Black Country Communion and various solo records. 'First Step of Love' from the 1982 Hughes/Thrall record was early highlight. Another strong moment was a acoustic version of 'Cold' from the second Black Country Communion record, performed solo on guitar. But while his set had a lot of energy he seemed to lack Fish's depth of back catalogue, and a few of songs that I didn't recognise sounded a little indistinguishable from each other. He did rein in the cod-Stevie Wonder vocal showboating this time around, but it's a pity he chose not to perform any of the Mk3 Deep Purple songs he's played on previous tours; that might have been just what he needed to lift his set to the level to match that of that of his co-headliner.
So, a night of two veteran performers both of whom have still "got it". But while Glenn Hughes' set certainly had it's moments, for my money the evening belonged to Fish.