Marillion | Review
Ulster Hall, Belfast • Sunday 8 April ’18
By Elizabeth McGeown • Photos: Marta Janiszewska
“Marillion?” people say, “That band with the singer named Fish?” Well, no. They did have a singer called Fish in the dim and distant past, between 1981-88 to be precise. But he left to go his own way and the band carried on for the next 30 years with their new singer, Steve Hogarth. Fish mainly sticks in the common memory because, well, he liked to be called Fish. And because he sang on the band’s most commercial hit: ‘Kayleigh’, which reached number 2 in the UK in 1985. Tonight, however, will be a Fish-free zone. Even songs from the pre-89 Fish-era are eschewed this evening – surprisingly as the most popular album from that time span, 1985’s Misplaced Childhood was remastered and released as a deluxe edition as recently as 2017 – in favour of “a broad spread of what we’ve been doing the last 30 years”, Hogarth tells us.
Hogarth (who likes to be known as ‘h’ but is not to be confused with uppercase ‘H’ from Steps) is a contradiction of a frontman. One part hammy clown who leers into the lenses of the amassed photographers and stands on speaker stacks, posing bat-like; every inch the aging vampire. He interprets the songs literally; at one point his hands clasping at his own neck in a strangling motion in ‘The Great Escape’, with its metaphors for death. He’s intense and giddy, speaking sweet nonsense and giggling to the worshipping audience, sometimes shaking his shaker to emphasise a sentence that doesn’t need emphasising. On the other hand, though, he’s an accomplished singer. He embodies the weeping rage brimming in these songs; a conduit for the emotion. In him resides the impressive scream of the truly anguished… and then he grins.
Speaking of literal interpretations, the visuals on the screen offer a startling insight into the song meanings. Most bands preferring geometric shapes or perplexing short films we have here a cross-section of the themes repeated and refined until we all get the message. The quiet piano study ‘White Paper’ mournfully meanders while characters appear on a page and paint slowly dissipates in water. ‘Real Tears For Sale’ removes all doubt that it was inspired by Sinead O’Connor, her face through the ages projected the length of the Ulster Hall’s back wall. The complete version of ‘El Dorado’ is played, changing starkly from a golden summer meadow to looming monoliths of gold blocks, barbed-wire fences cruelly keeping families in/out.
It’s a night of movements and suites. ‘The Leavers’ is played in full much to the delight of the audience who, on this first night of the tour, aren’t really sure what to expect. It’s another gradual build of a monster, the tale of musicians on the road from the point of view of “leavers” and “remainers” and although the source album Fuck Everyone And Run (FEAR) was released in 2016 and is their most political to date, it’s not an overt Brexit reference. Covert though… you would need to ask the band. These suites give time for everyone to shine. In contrast to Hogarth’s showiness, guitarist Steve Rothery is the stoic, silent type, changing guitars without a murmur, standing stock-still and creating vistas of dreaminess and rage, only a small smile at the standing ovation a giveaway of some emotion. Mark Kelly on keys is also the quintessential head down hard worker, providing the light and shade, the backbone to Hogarth’s thinking aloud, never overfilling the sparsity.
The first encore begins with a change of coat for Hogarth and ‘Sounds That Can’t Be Made’ with its perpetual motion stirs the crowd who sing along with the guitar riff and continue long after it has finished. Hogarth tries to speak then picks up on the audience mood, throwing a few bones to us in the form of the central melody on synth again. ‘Easter’ from Season’s End is introduced as: “a song we wrote for your city” and Hogarth tells us it’s: “an honour to sing that song for you and I hope we don’t patronise you with it. It’s from the heart.” From the reaction, it’s clear to see the crowd believe the sincerity. A second encore follows and this is where aforementioned ‘El Dorado’ slots in, in its entirety. Another standing ovation from the seated auditorium assures us that the absence of ‘Kayleigh’ is completely forgiven.