There’s a wonderful revolution currently taking place and it’s happening in unexpected places, like on hillsides in Winchester and deep in the Wiltshire countryside rather than in some huge faceless metropolis or swanky foreign location.
It brings together a lost tribe, a band of people who would not have known about each other’s existence without what communication philosopher Marshall McLuhan described in 1962 as “the global village concept”.
Fifty-four years later, McLuhan’s prophecy has been fulfilled with the global reach of Facebook gathering in self-proclaimed Passengers from as far afield as Australia, Sweden, Germany and Scotland. But more about them later.
What links them all is joy. This joy emanates from a rich seam of cultural and elemental history, its celebration made flesh by the music of Big Big Train, a band which has taken the art of storytelling to new dimensions.
They are helping us to reconnect to the values of yore, using the latest technology in the studio and social media engagement with their friends and followers. They do this to communicate powerful messages that help remind us all of who we really are and where our true values should lie.
This is encapsulated in the title track of their new album Folklore. Even now, that very word conjures up remarkable scenes on a hillside and within a studio – the natural world and technology respectfully tipping their foliage festooned hats to each other.
Let’s start on that hillside, where around 60 doughty travellers assembled on a Sunday morning in March, a keen wind cutting through St Catherine’s Hill’s contours, necessitating the wearing of mufflers, gloves and an exotic selection of head-ware to keep out the relentless chill.
The peace and tranquility enjoyed by the hill’s regular dog walkers and lycra-clad runners is abruptly interrupted by this alien army, who, on musical cue, suddenly come alive, following a strange ritualistic dance that interconnects jerky monster mash moves with dainty balletic twirls. By about the twelfth take, and after a guest appearance of a drone, camera crew and band appear happy with the result.
This is probably the first recorded evidence of alfresco aerobics being practised by persons of a certain age since the members of Knapely Women’s Institute tackled t’ai chi on a Yorkshire dale in Calendar Girls. The common link is that on both occasions, thankfully, everybody keeps their clothes on.
But there’s more – strange animalistic masks appear, giving the scene a more pagan edge, like some mystic ritual being initiated for the benefit of some obscure deity.
Back in the real world, you could look across to see folk like Catherine, Geoff and Beth from Cambridge, Kristian from Walsall and Sue from Rugeley, all lovely, warm people having the best of times.
The band watches, observing them going through their paces and probably wondering what weird alchemy they had invoked to induce such passion and dedication from the Folklorish followers.
This is further borne out as the band leads them down the hill, the flute-playing David Longdon giving it an air of the Pied Piper of Hamelin but followed by recycled teenagers and their offspring rather than children.
It’s a wrap and time for the pub– good job done. Fast forward two months…….
The video is now out and freeze frame photos abound as everybody tries to locate themselves on the hillside. There’s a real buzz – and I use the expression advisedly – not just because the song’s a celebration of that day and all that has been passed down from generation to generation, but because Folklorish followers begin to turn their gaze to the next destination on their remarkable journey.
As some so rightly have said, there’s a “pilgrimage” and a “cathedral” that lie ahead next on this road less travelled.
Indeed, it’s verily an international line-up of Passengers which gathers in the hallowed halls of Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in Box, a large Wiltshire village full of light golden houses sited in an area renowned for its quarries and the fine stone they produced.
The studio complex itself seems to encompass the best of all worlds. There’s more of the glowing golden brickwork in its traditional buildings set in stark contrast to the futuristic steely design of the adjacent “performance” area, all of which is surrounded by a beautiful tranquil garden with a fast flowing stream and visiting swans.
This temple of the talents is manna for the souls of all those who let loose their musical mojos within it.
That continuous buzz among the Passengers is growing as all are greeted, presented with a copy of the new as yet unheard album then ushered into the anteroom, where Nellie Pitts is under friendly siege, dishing out the pre-ordered merchandise and taking copious new requests.
From there, it’s a short walk into the main studio auditorium and it immediately becomes obvious that this is the perfect environment for Big Big Train to craft their superlative storytelling.
The huge airy space within and the vast banks of sound shifting knobs and dials are counterpoints to the two touches of whimsy – a rickety table lamp perching on the edge of the vast desk and an old wooden chair behind it.
There are strategically placed sofas around the studio and for this particular occasion, rows of chairs are arranged for the Passengers. However, the carefully organised schedule of events allows plenty of time to explore and examine every nook and cranny of this sacred place.
It also gives ample time for socialising and new acquaintances to be made, names and faces from Facebook now made real, providing endless opportunities for countless photographs to be taken as a reminder of where we are on Saturday 21 May in the year 2016.
In time honoured fashion, there’s curry being served in the anteroom as a starter for the main musical course that begins when seven eighths of the band enter the auditorium to thunderous applause.
The band seems overwhelmed by the rapturous reception and Danny Manners, the band’s genial keyboards king, very self-effacingly acts as Master of Ceremonies, welcoming everybody to the listening party.
He explains it will be a play of two halves, the first half going up to track five, which will be followed by a ten minute break, after which track six will be deliberately left out, moving swiftly on to track seven and then, after the last track, we all are requested to turn our chairs around. More about that later.
You could have cut the air at this point. The anticipation was electric. The main course starts with the now “old favourite” title track Folklore, the ideal scene-setter: a clarion call to continue passing down the old ways of stories and music from generation to generation.
It only needs to be said once but there was genuine applause after each of the component dishes of delight.
After Folklore comes the pastoral sweep of London Plane, a musically intricate meditation on the coming together of the natural world, the eponymous tree, and the city’s built environment. It is interspersed with glimpses of our cultural past and an audible mention of artist JMW Turner taking his boat out to “catch the light” (reminding one of The Underfall Yard). It is the band at their most wistful, at their most inventive.
Interlinked are Along The Ridgeway and Salisbury Giant, taking the band out once more into the country and offering up a human dimension to the second briefer part.
It’s The Transit of Venus Across the Sun that really stirs the soul on first hearing – its cosmic, mystic gentleness sets it apart from other more traditional compositions by the band.
After a short intermission, the band takes flight with Winkie, the captivating seven-part story of a carrier pigeon decorated during the Second World War, the song ebbing and flowing but never wavering into mawkishness.
Brooklands is a companion piece to the classic East Coast Racer through the driving rhythm that captures the speed and excitement of action once witnessed at a former race track in Surrey. “I was a lucky man” is the line which reverberates throughout, poignant in extremis when speed brought about the demise of the song’s central character.
Telling The Bees, a country-folk song full of little family home truths, brings the listening part to a close and there’s a standing ovation from all to acknowledge probably one of the most joyful 68 minutes of most of our long and probably eventful lives.
But it’s not over yet. Quickly, we turn our chairs around to face the raised area at the back of the studio and true to their word, the seven eighths of the band reconvene and assemble. Manners settles himself down on the stool of the grand piano, while violinist Rachel Hall, guitarist Dave Gregory, multi-instrumentalist Andy Poole and bass player Greg Spawton form an impressive back line behind singer/flautist Longdon. Rikard Sjöblom completes the line-up. On this particular occasion however, Gregory, Poole, Spawton and Sjöblom are all playing acoustic guitar, supplemented by Dave Desmond, leader of the band’s brass section, providing more rhythm.
As promised, we are treated to a live rendition of the “missing” track, the anthemic Wassail, now regarded as the code word of choice between Passengers. Not only does it look good on paper, it sounds great especially when sung out loud as the response line in the chorus. Try it sometime. It’s one of those words which seems to have built-in therapeutic qualities. Folklore masks are also distributed beforehand to help everyone get further into the rustic vibe.
Longdon looks suitably impressed by the previously silent throng before him, which is now totally animated and sated by song and merriment.
One song is never going to be enough, especially as Longdon starts telling everyone about his Uncle Fred, younger brother of his now legendary Uncle Jack, the inspiration behind one of the band’s best loved songs. He explains it was strange when Fred commented on the song Uncle Jack because Jack was his elder brother and he had never mentioned it to his nephew David before then.
Well, no guesses are needed for what is coming next. It’s probably their most engaging and accessible song. Rachel Hall said to me afterwards how impressed she was to see yours truly singing the “nursery rhyme” bit at the end – “Hedgerow, dry stone, dog rose, honeysuckle, blackbirds, red wing, song thrush, yellowhammer, lacewings, ladybirds.” Try it! It’s the best feeling in the world to be celebrating nature in such a joyous way!
Longdon is especially enamoured with the way the assembled Dawn Chorus tackles the bees section of the song and asks for three encores which are duly delivered.
Not surprisingly, everyone is absolutely bursting with joy and bonhomie after this live show, which, on one level, feels like an intimate night down at the local folk club until we remember where we really are.
There’s one more surprise to pull out of the locker before revelries draw ever closer to an end.
A live link to Fort Wayne, Indiana, USA, has been forged and there on the screen is the man with bragging rights to the expression “rawk!” within the rank and file of the band. It’s Nick D’Virgilio, the band’s popular and ever-effusive drummer, who has just beamed in to say hi. His immediate surroundings would indicate that he was in his garden having a run out his ride-on mower, the Indiana sunshine in stark contrast to the English rain falling outside the studio.
The other notable absentee today is the band’s sound maestro Rob Aubrey, the man who painstakingly sculpts the sound into perfect component parts then models them into the trains of sonic joy everybody heard earlier.
One or two optimistic Passengers are also hoping the studio owner might just put in an unexpected appearance. Male attendees with similar white receding hair and goatee beards are inspected closely…….just in case.
Merchandise, including beer, cider, beer glasses and the exquisite Folklore artwork of Sarah Ewing, herself present throughout the day, is still flying off the stand until the very end.
And at that very end, there’s a presentation to event organiser Kathy Spawton in the shape of a bouquet of flowers, a heartfelt token of appreciation from all the Passengers. It was hubby Greg’s birthday two days before so there’s a card and some more community singing to be done before Sue Heather, the lynchpin to so many Passenger activities, including the thriving Big Big Train Facebook group, presents three cake tins to Andy Poole. There’s a pretty good idea of what might lie within.
At this juncture, this happy band of Passengers departs, some to the pub or back to their overnight accommodation or heading homewards after an excursion of a lifetime.
There will be more destinations ahead along these extraordinary Big Big Train tracks, the band picking up even more new Passengers en route as more come to realise that a thing of beauty is a joy forever.
But while that momentum continues apace, nothing sums it all up better than the old Chinese proverb which simply states ‘The journey is the reward.’
“Oh down we go, into folklore”
Photographs by Martin Reijman and Angus Prune