I seem to be reviewing a lot of, ahem, more mature acts at the moment, and Fish, at 56 with orthopedic shoes, a dodgy memory (he had lyric sheets on a music stand), and glasses he continually shoved back up the bridge of his nose as they slid sweatily down time after time, is another of those men renegotiating the faustian pact of Rock n Roll. These acts must negotiate two separate tributaries of the great river of time, physical degeneration and temporal distance from that tipping point that was their greatest triumph. The audience, of course, must do the same, juggling the loyalty they feel for the creator of those spine-tingling moments of yesteryear with their feelings for the artist in front of them. Of course, today’s artist can be vastly superior to yesteryear’s, but there’s a way in which tunes you heard at formative periods are filed in a special box, and are accorded special status. That’s what the older artist must challenge.
Tonight was the third time I’ve seen Fish. I was at the UEA for the first show of Marillion’s Script for a Jester’s Tear tour (1983?), and at the last of the same tour at the good old Hammersmith Odeon. I went in order to see Peter Hammill, who was supporting with Robert Ellis (Vibrators, Stranglers) on guitar. I didn’t like Marillion at the time so at UEA left my stage position to meet Peter (I succeeded), only watching Marillion at the Odeon because we thought we may as well. They played every song they’d written and the consensus was that this guy was a bit special, for all his Gabriel/Hammill affectations. In fact, when Hammill was heckled (‘Cheer up!’) Fish came onto the stage and remonstrated with the audience (‘Without him Marillion would never have started’). The second was at The Bell Inn, Norwich. I spoke to him at the bar. He was evasive and a bit sullen. When soundchecking he could barely squeeze out a note. I was starting to think the gig was a mistake, that I’d stop appreciating his work, but when the band started, and he began performing, my, oh my. Just awesome charisma. His band were excellent, reproducing and improving the Marillion back catalogue. I went to the Concorde 2 with high hopes.
I must say the first tune surprised me, not because of the band (good, but not great), or even Fish (pretty good, but plainly needed warming up), but Derek W. Dick, the lyricist. He used to be a pinpoint ironist, able to tell stories with a line:
‘Washing machine, pinstripe dream, stripped the gloss from a beauty queen’
It says so much more than ‘Take me back to the perfume river’. Dick was dealing in cliché. Several of the songs seemed to have a Lethean flavour, without the pithyness of earlier lines:
‘A creature of habit, begs the boatman’s coin’
So much imagery conjured in such a small package. Dick used to provide songs to savour, but now … well-crafted, well-played, but no drama, no spice, no challenge, no insight, no chutzpah.
Things improved rather when Fish started telling stories. He still has an effortless stage presence, even if he is a bit arch (‘glasses off, Wembley Arena: glasses on, Brighton’), and is an engaging and witty speaker. I suspect he’d do very good business on the after dinner circuit. The stories start to introduce songs, and a long, emotional and affecting narrative about a trip to Arras leads to the High Wood suite, which is accompanied by vintage footage of the Great War, something I’m never sure about. High Wood is worth a listen, and it plainly comes from deep within Dick, but I can’t help thinking about White Russian and how poignantly it captured the same set of emotions.
Earlier, a wag called out ‘Incubus’, which struck me as an odd tune to request, but Fish merely said ‘I was a much younger man then. This is neither the time nor the place’, another appeal was met with the word ‘WAIT’.
This may sound as if I hated the show, but it wasn’t the case. Fish was in good voice, and the sound, for a change, was pretty good, but the whole show was just a little dissonant, in a cognitive sense. I truly don’t think I read it wrong, but most of the audience were waiting for the Marillion section. Finally, it came. The first few notes of Windswept Thumb were greeted with a roar and it was as if the electricity had suddenly been switched on. It may seem odd, but to me, it was as if the first two lines summed up what he’d been trying to say for the previous hour and three quarters:
‘On the outskirts of nowhere, on the ringroad to somewhere,
on the verge of indecision, I’ll always take the roundabout way.’
It was truly elevating as practically everyone sang the words to this and Heart of Lothian. It simply took the shackles of history to be thrown off and his past to be embraced for everything to slot into place.
And then, that was it.
Except the encore: Incubus. An odd tune, I thought. But still an elevated crowd. A second encore. Acoustic ballad. Ok. Atmosphere gone.
Why are people so keen to ignore the nuggets of their past? Beats me, but then perhaps I’m not hounded by mine.
My short review:
Fish, effectively the performance wing of D. W. Dick, lyricist and songwriter, is a captivating frontman, punctuating his impassioned vocals with lyrical narrative digressions which often, like the story preceding Great War song cycle High Wood, touch as much as entertain. But the material presented him by Dick is not what it was, and when the shackles of history were finally thrown off with two songs from his Marillion pomp, he said more in the first few lines than he had in the previous hour and three-quarters. The audience, until then warmly appreciative, lit up like so many roman candles.