My first exposure to Marillion came in 1985, when a local radio station started playing “Kayleigh” semi-regularly. I adored that song, and my friend Kevin was a fan of the band, so I taped the Misplaced Childhood album from him. Well, I liked that album enough that when its sequel Clutching At Straws came out in 1987, I bought it right away. I even had a big poster of the album cover in my room, thanks to my job-at-the-time with a record store. Both those albums stayed on heavy rotation throughout my high school years. The driving, Who-ish music was great, but what I loved the most were the poetic lyrics, passionate intensity, and thrilling voice of the lead singer, a chap who went by the handle “Fish”. (His real name is Derek Dick — I guess I’d pick a pseudonym too.)
Sadly, after Clutching, Fish left the band, and I stopped paying attention. Marillion released more stuff with a new singer, but it didn’t captivate me, and as far as I knew, Fish disappeared completely. If only the Internet had been around in those days, I’d have learned soon enough that he’d done no such thing. Instead, he came out with a solo album a mere 3 years later, but I never saw that album — Fish is Scottish, and I guess as a solo artist he didn’t have a big US distribution deal the way Marillion did. He then went on to release eight more solo albums, the latest of which, 13th Star, came out earlier this year. I never bought any of these, even once I knew they existed, because as imports, they all carried high price tags. Since post-band solo work is often inferior, it felt like too much money to spend for the risk involved. However, when I saw he was touring the US for the first time in 10 years and playing a lot of late Marillion material, I decided I needed to go. Even better, I figured out that I could download 13th Star from iTunes for almost half of what Amazon wants for it. Thanks, Internet!
It’s a good thing I did, too, because this concert had one of the strangest set lists ever. With only two exceptions, the entire set list consisted only of cuts from Clutching At Straws and 13th Star. This meant that he performed most of each album. Now, because I love Clutching so much, this was pretty great for me, though it would have been nice to hear something from Misplaced Childhood. This kind of set list isn’t weird from an artist that’s only released two albums, but from somebody who’s been around for 27 years and has a 13-album catalog? Weird. And of the two songs that weren’t from those albums, one was a cover! (More about that in a bit.)
The show was at the Fox Theatre in Boulder, a nice enough venue, and when I got there (after Dante had been put to bed) the opening act was still playing. Now, a few words about “progressive rock.” I own my share of Rush, Pink Floyd, and Queen albums, but I don’t consider myself a prog fan. To me, the term evokes exactly what I saw this opening band playing: synth-heavy, 15-minute songs devoted to changing time signatures, flute solos, fussy percussion, and guitar fetishism. Actually, that sounds more derogatory than I mean. I don’t mind the aims of progressive rock, but it’s just not my cup of tea — I get impatient, and it starts to feel a bit windy and self-indulgent to me. I guess that’s why I prefer Abacab to Selling England By The Pound, 90125 to Close To The Edge, and Asia to King Crimson and ELP. Apparently, Marillion is considered prog, and maybe for the pre-Misplaced albums, they were. I do remember giving those early albums a listen in high school and being unmoved by them. However, the albums of theirs that I love just feel like grand, majestic rock and roll to me. Perspectives vary, I’m sure. In any case, this opening band had the whole prog thing going, which had me hanging out near the bar and waiting for it to end.
Finally, the lights went down for the main event, and over the speakers came the voice of… Lisa Simpson? Yes, apparently Yeardley Smith is a Fish fan, and she recorded a short concert intro monologue in character for him. It was quite random to hear, and very fun. Then came a bit of Rossini’s “La Gazza Ladra” (a traditional Marillion pre-show tension builder), and finally the band came on, opening with the great “Slàinte Mhath”. From there, as I said, it was pretty much a matter of bouncing back and forth between the current album and the one from 20 years ago. He did break the pattern early on with “So Fellini”, a likeable song from 2002.
What became clear from watching him perform those old songs is that time has taken its toll on his voice. He can no longer hit those glorious high notes from the 80s, and when they come up in the song he just holds the mic further away, screws up his face, and either transposes it, approximates it, or skips it altogether. However, his sense of drama and showmanship is wonderful. First of all, Fish is a big guy — probably about 6’5″, and quite physically imposing. He commanded the stage, and was great fun to watch as he careered through a range of personas, from grim and formidable during “Dark Star” to downright goofy throughout “Incommunicado.” The theatrical highlight of the night had to be when he covered “Faith Healer” by The Sensational Alex Harvey Band. He descended from the stage to walk amongst the audience, walking from person to person and placing his large hand on various heads (including mine!) as he sang the song. In some cases he was singing forcefully right next to a person’s face, which had to be fairly unnerving. I will say that for such a large person, he had a surprisingly gentle touch.
It wasn’t just the songs that were entertaining, though. In between numbers, Fish would seat himself on an amp and begin free associating, expounding profanely on whatever crossed his mind, like a taller, balder, larger, uncensored, more improvisational, and much more Scottish Craig Ferguson. This could be anything. He mentioned that as a teen he was in love with Mindy from Mork And Mindy. (Apparently being in Boulder reminded him of the show.) “Here was this absolutely perfect woman, an angel sent from heaven, and who the hell was this fucking guy with her? I wanted to punch that fucking guy!”
Or thoughts inspired by perusing the SkyMall ads: “I want to talk to you Americans about the American capacity to buy shite. I saw this thing in the airplane catalog, a little tiny staircase to help your fucking pet get up on the bed! Who in the hell buys this thing? Whose pets need this fucking thing? I have cats, and they fucking jump onto the bed. They don’t need fuckin’ stairs! You know that this invention had to come from people in California. [Here he mimes weed-smoking and alters his voice to match, putting on a hilarious American accent in the bargain.] ‘Hey man, you wanna get rich? I got an idea that’s worth, like, a million bucks, man. Fuckin’ pet stairs! And you know people are gonna buy it too, because we’ll put it in that airplane catalog. People can’t help but buy shit from there, man, because, you know, they’re trapped on the plane. What else are they gonna do but buy shit from that catalog?'” It was a riot.
In fact, the atmosphere was so casual, that at one point, a couple of guys to my right shouted out, “Dalkeith High School sucks!” This was apparently Fish’s alma mater, because he says, “Oh, let me guess, <Rival high school name here>, right? Yer a buncha pussies, ye always were.” It was as if when he wasn’t singing, we were sitting at the pub across from him, just chatting about anything and everything. The crowd wasn’t that large — maybe 200 people, probably half of whom were wearing t-shirts from one prog band or another. They were an amusing bunch to observe: mostly men, with a distinctive mix-and-match of goatees, ponytails, bald heads, pot bellies, and rail-thin frames. I like small crowds though — it makes for a more intimate setting, with more room to move, and most everybody there really loves the music, which cuts down on highly aggravating intra-song chatter. (Though I’m sure Fish himself wouldn’t have minded a larger turnout…) All in all, it was quite an entertaining evening, and a pretty good compensation for having missed the Clutching At Straws tour way back in the day.