Concert Reviews

Big Big Train live at Mozartsaal, Stuttgart, Germany, 8 September 2023

Armin Rößler

There can be some interesting connections between prog bands. Take Big Big Train, the band of the evening. Nick D'Virgilio sits behind the drums, sings and later also plays acoustic guitar. I saw him live for the first time in 1998 with Spock's Beard — and that rather unintentionally, since I actually came for opening act Chandelier. Then I watched Spock's Beard more often, and Nick always interpreted the Genesis cover Squonk so beautifully. Fittingly, he had been allowed to play on some actual Genesis songs (on the Calling All Stations album from 1997). I think I saw Rikard Sjöblom (here on guitar, vocals and keyboards) live for the first time in 2012 with his former band Beardfish supporting Flying Colors (who have Nick D'Virgilio's former bandmate Neal Morse in the line-up) and again in 2013 at a joint gig with Sound Of Contact (with another Genesis connection: Phil Collins' son Simon) and Spock's Beard. Finally, Singer Alberto Bravin (who also plays keyboards, guitar, percussion) was on stage with Premiata Forneria Marconi to support the longtime members Franz di Cioccio and Patrick Djivas with youthful verve when I had the chance to see the Italian Prog legends in Aschaffenburg and Varese.

Missing from the current studio formation is Dave Foster, who impressed me as the second guitarist of the Steve Rothery Band (next to Rothery, naturally) and as a support act with his solo band. Because of gigs with the Rothery Band he can't play this BBT tour. Maria Barbieri from Italy replaces him. She fits in really well, with some fantastic solos and great playing overall.

Big Big Train. Photo by Armin Rößler.

The Norwegian keyboardist Oskar Holldorff (also vocals) seems to have become a regular band member by now. He was already on stage today with his own formation Dim Gray, opening the evening. Big Big Train's only founding member left, Gregory Spawton (bass), is of course present, but stays discreetly in the background on stage. It's rather crazy how many personnel changes this band has had over the years. Claire Lindley can be heard on the violin (and on vocals), and in addition there is the four-piece Big Big Train Brass Ensemble, directed by Dave Desmond (trombone). So, on stage in the small but fine Mozartsaal of Stuttgart's Liederhalle, we have the rather Big Big Train Big Band.

Alberto Bravin is the successor of the former singer David Longdon, who died tragically and much too young in 2021. So he has to fill some very big shoes. Longdon, who was also in the final selection for the succession of Phil Collins in Genesis, has, in my opinion, successively raised Big Big Train to a new level since his entry in 2009, or at least contributed a very important part to it. Former members Dave Gregory (2009 - 2020), Danny Manners (2012 - 2020), Rachel Hall (2014 - 2020) and co-founder Andy Poole (1990 - 2017) have also certainly played their important parts, as have former newcomers D'Virgilio (2009) and Sjöblöm (2014).

Alberto Bravin. Photo by Armin Rößler.

When I bought the debut album as a special offer for a handful of Deutsch-marks, it didn't leave a greater impression on me at that time. It wasn't until the two English Electric albums (2012 and 2013) that the band reappeared on my radar — and have since delivered some truly excellent music and albums.

The word excellent also describes the concert perfectly. It's amazing that the band still sounds so English, somehow like the soundtrack to a Tolkien film adaptation, in which hobbits dance through rainy forests ... But the English are meanwhile outnumbered by Americans, Swedes, Italians and Norwegians. Still: Big Big Train sound folky, but has also a Genesis touch from the A Trick Of The Tail and Wind And Wuthering times. Nice.

Oskar Holldorff and Maria Barbieri. Photo by Armin Rößler.

The set starts with Folklore, one of the band's greatest songs (from the 2016 album of the same name), that presents the whole range from folk to prog. This becomes a bit more pleasing with The Connection Plan (from the latest studio disc Welcome To The Planet, 2022), but not any less good.

A brand-new song follows with Oblivion, also very much worth listening to. Later on, when the second new song is going to be played as the first encore Love Is The Light, Alberto Bravin reveals that the band has already recorded the next album. The two pieces are great appetizers.

Curator Of Butterflies, Hedgerow, Swan Hunter — the song selection is very good. Then drummer D'Virgilio and the four brass players take center stage in Drums And Brass 2023, a fine drum solo included. Nick, who always used to be so youthful but is now discreetly graying, shows the other sides of his skills as well: on vocals and acoustic guitar. Supported in a duet by Rikard Sjöblöm on keyboards and background vocals, he makes the David Longdon composition Telling The Bees one of the highlights of the evening.

Nick D'Virgilio and Rikard Sjöblom. Photo by Armin Rößler.

There are long tracks (East Coast Racer and the final encore Victorian Brickwork), rarely played songs (A Boy In The Darkness from English Electric Part 1) and instrumentals (Apollo from Common Ground). A good, rousing mix. And a very good concert.

The opening act by the way was Dim Gay from Norway. Their sound is somehow typical, if you draw comparisons to compatriots — not quite as Pink-Floydish as Airbag, certainly more diversified than Gazpacho, but blessed with a similar melancholy. That doesn't sound bad by any means, but after 45 minutes it's too early for a definitive judgement. The plan: to lend the band an ear for one of their albums (Flown from 2020 or Firmament from 2022) soon.


Folklore The Connection Plan Oblivion Curator of Butterflies Hedgerow Swan Hunter Drums and Brass 2023 Telling the Bees East Coast Racer A Boy in Darkness Apollo

Love is the Light Victorian Brickwork

Concert Reviews