13th October 2005
The Mean Fiddler, London, UK
It had been five years since I last saw Arena at the Mean Fiddler, and at that time lead singer Rob Sowden had not been with the band very long, and there seemed to be some issues surrounding original vocalist Paul Wrightson's departure. Needless to say there was a little tension in the air at the gig - some people would be seeing Rob live for the first time and there was an element of "can he cut it?" in the air. Thankfully he did indeed "cut it", and had easily won the crowd over by the end.
Thing is, back then I was not at all familiar with Arena's music, and though I enjoyed the gig the unfamiliarity aspect meant that it did not totally knock me out. I also have to say that though I know the bands material a little better now there is still something about it that I just cannot quite grasp - I can listen to it, I can appreciate it but it does not always move me.
So at this point you're probably wondering why did I go to this gig and why am I bothering to write a review? Well, back at Rosfest earlier this year Arena were the headlining band on the preview night. I thought ho hum, suppose I will go, nothing better to do. And they totally blew me away, and absolute stunner of a performance that had the whole audience on their feet cheering and clapping.
So here I am again tonight, back for another helping. And with no support band we were treated to a 2 and a half hour plus set of the best of Arena's back catalogue, plus a generous helping of material from the new album Peppers Ghost.
What stood out for me tonight was how much more confident a frontman Rob Sowden has become - tall, imposing, dramatic when the need arises, but not without a sense of humour. And John Mitchell seemed to have a superb sound tonight, every note was clear as a bell - and loud too. The only down side to that is that Clive Nolan's keyboards were not always as clear as they could be, especially with Ian Salmon and Mick Pointer making a hell of a racket on bass and drums respectively - but what a racket!. To be fair the venue does not have the best acoustics, which does not help.
But once the band get into their stride you tend to forget such little niggles and just enjoy the ride. There has always been a very strong Genesis/Marillion feel about the band for me, but you cannot deny the power and energy of epics such as Crack In The Ice, Medusa, Hanging Tree et al. Songs from new album Peppers Ghost also came across very well indeed, and were very well received by the crowd. Arena are a band that are able to infuse their material with a great deal of intensity and power, and are able to translate this into a powerful live experience.
Driving rocker Witch Hunt was a highlight of the evening, though not the only one, with it's sing along chorus giving the audience a chance to join in. Another was the somewhat low-key Waiting For The Flood which gave us a chance to catch our breath - before the crowd favourite Medusa was upon us. One of Arena's more upbeat numbers, and in form and structure not unlike Marillion's Kayleigh - nevertheless another great sing along number for the crowd.
Possibly the highlight of the evening for me was Riding The Tide, with Clive Nolan getting a chance to come to the fore and dazzle everyone with his incredibly fast, though pleasingly melodic synth work.
The atmospheric Chosen benefited from a superb vocal from Rob, and his commanding stage persona really helped sell the song.
Skin Game and Enemy Without brought the main set to a rousing climax, the latter once again giving us a chance to shout along with Rob on the chorus... well, I would not exactly call it singing... we did the best we could.
For the encores, a brief, low key, acoustic reading of Fridays Dream, leading us into a triple whammy of possibly the bands best known songs, namely Crying For Help, Solomon and Jericho - touchdown, crowd goes wild. And we did too.
At the end of the evening I made a mental note that I really must make more of an effort to listen to Arena's recorded output, because I must be missing something or just not listening properly.
A band that can play 2 and a half hours of wonderfully epic, intricate classics and have the audience singing along with every song simply cannot be ignored.
A Crack in the Ice
The Hanging Tree
A State of Grace
(Don't Forget To) Breathe
Smoke And Mirrors
An Angel Falls
Waiting for the Flood
The Shattered Room
City of Lanterns
Riding the Tide
Crying For Help IV