Marillion (With Friends From The Orchestra) / Harry Pane

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Marillion (With Friends From The Orchestra) / Harry Pane - Forum, Bath (UK) - 09 November 2019

Their current UK and European tour sees Marillion renewing the live acquaintance initially established with string quartet In Praise Of Folly during the 2017 Marillion Weekends. French Horn player Sam Morris and flautist Emma Halnan complete the touring "chamber orchestra".

First up though was ever-affable singer-songwriter Harry Pane, accompanied this evening by Nathan Weanie on double bass. His voice was sounding fantastic, as he worked through a short though impressive set that drew heavily on his life experience, offering both accessibility and bite. Particularly impressive were a powerful version of Fleetwood Mac's 'Big Love' – seemingly a mainstay of Harry's set – and the slide-guitar stomp of closing track 'Mamma'. Both performance and audience reaction auger well for the planned release of new material early in 2020. Watch this space!

And so to Marillion. Anyone concerned that the addition of the "friends from the orchestra" would water down the band's essence, need not have worried. As on the studio disc released in support of the tour, band and orchestra blend superbly. Indeed, in the live setting the orchestral contribution is even more telling, adding colour, drama and pathos to a set of songs that, let's face it, already had these things in abundance.

Opening with the lengthy 'Gaza' always strikes me as a bit of a gamble, but the string section adds so much to the sound and feel of the track that even the band seemed inspired. The "savage" section sounded particularly savage, the lights were amazing, and the flow from vocalist Steve Hogarth's heartfelt "It just ain't right" to guitarist Steve Rothery's solo was just sublime.

Classic after classic was delivered with conviction, energy and style, the songs benefiting from the metaphorical lick of paint and thriving in their new musical surroundings. 'Afraid Of Sunlight' was the first sight we got of the orchestral musicians smiling and nodding along even when they weren't playing. 'Seasons End' was bold, crisp and confident, and, to these ears, has never sounded better. 'Estonia' was enhanced with a gorgeous orchestral intro, with the strings also prominent in the breakdown. 'The Hollow Man', hazily introduced by Hogarth as "the shortest song on our 'Brave' album" was lifted to new heights, as was 'The Sky Above The Rain', with the new arrangement giving the song a more musically interesting and coherent feel.

When 'The New Kings' kicked in, I was a little worried that it might be one long song too far, but again my doubts were quickly dispelled. Hogarth's performance was impassioned, presumably inspired by a negative comment in a review he confessed to have read. "Overstated and in your face"? Not likely. Not tonight at any rate, as band and orchestra combined to produce a mesmerising aural and visual experience of epic proportions. "Remember a time when you thought that you mattered," spat Hogarth, as one of the strongest musical passages on 'F.E.A.R' was delivered even more impressively – direct, moving, stinging. "On your knees peasant"!

As the dying strains of cathartic set closer 'The Great Escape' faded into ecstatic applause, I heard someone say, "I'd have come tonight just for that". I sensed that almost everyone in the sold out venue would agree with him.

For me, however, the best was yet to come. First encore 'Fantastic Place' was beautiful, and so much more powerful with the orchestra live than on the new album. If its inclusion was predictable, then 'Separated Out' came (to me) as a delightful surprise. It's a full-on, hard-rocking rendition that, accompanied by great visuals, got the whole venue up on its feet for the first time. And then, as if the string-enhanced Mark Kelly-led circus freakery wasn't enough, the orchestral musicians took a sharp right turn and, as one, launched in Zeppelin's 'Kashmir', its grand stomp all but bringing the house down. 'Zeparated Out'! It was a moment to die for. I'd have come just for that.

The band were on top form throughout, bassist Pete Trewavas and Hogarth bringing energy and freshness, sparking off each other like Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder. Hogarth's random ad hoc patter at times was entertaining as the music. "Gin and tonic!" he shouted, as the bloke in front of me left to find the nearest gents. "Don't let him back in without two drinks," he tells security. "Shut up and listen to this," he said introducing 'Estonia', "it's a bit special" - not that anyone was talking at that point. His pronunciation of "Bath" was corrected by the home-town contingent every time he mentioned the place, but he was more concerned with the imminent difficulties that Brexit might bring to getting the Brussels-based string quartet touring with them again.

All played their part. Drummer Ian Mosley and (a relatively low key) Mark Kelly did a sterling job providing the backbone all evening, while guitarist Steve Rothery brought the unwavering emotional and technical precision that has enabled him to nail every solo.

Final encore 'This Strange Engine' – another long track but one that never outstays its welcome – was, for the most part, brilliantly played. On the one occasion where band and orchestra noticeably fall out of sync ("What a fuck up! Let's go!" shouted Hogarth), it's a Rothery riff that rescues the situation, with the mishap long forgotten by the time he earned yet another ovation for that solo, before band and orchestra romp through the song's closing section as smiles abound.

Indeed, there was an inordinate amount of smiling on stage tonight, and it's wonderful to see the warmth and bonhomie between all the musicians. Dabbling with orchestras and orchestral arrangements can so often misfire, but tonight it worked. Marillion and friends set the quality bar high and they hardly put a foot wrong.

Review by Michael Anthony, photos by Mike Evans

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