With artists such as the accomplished John Wesley (of Porcupine Tree, Fish, et al) and progressive rock veterans Marillion, writing a review can leave a weight on your shoulders because such a grand reputation precedes them. But after watching John walk out on such a large stage, alone, with his guitar and an unassuming disposition, the music starts and instantly the weight is lifted. Instead of taking notes, you find yourself taking in every stroke of his pick, every note singing from his guitar and voice, barely noticing that he is the only person on stage.
Yes, instead of his usual repertoire on acoustic guitar, John was playing electric with full-band backing tracks over the house PA, and it sounded wonderfully full and live. His sound was absolutely massive, and a small chat with him after the show revealed that he was using a portion of his collection of PRS guitars, a highly modified vintage Marshall JMP head and a vintage Marshall 4×12 speaker cabinet from 1976, bought by his father when John was only 14. The cabinet is loaded with a set of Celestion Greenback speakers, offering an all-too-familiar sound that we have come to expect from the best of music through rock history.
The vast majority of his set consisted of songs from his recent solo record, ‘A Way You’ll Never Be’, with exceptions -“Mary Will” from his previous release ‘Disconnect’, and “Rome Is Burning” from his 1994 release ‘Under the Red and White Sky’. Every song was more captivating than the last, and you could tell that he held himself to the highest standards by the precision of his performance. You might think that this level of artistry and work ethic would result in a haughty attitude, but watching John shake the hands of and listen with great attention to every fan that wanted to meet him after the show left me with a profound appreciation for his genuineness, both as an artist and as a human being. He is the kind of artist that truly bares his soul and shows his character in the way he writes, performs, and carries himself.
However, the evening was far from over, and John Wesley’s set closed with a ripping guitar solo, aptly priming the crowd for the experience to come. As I waited for British progressive group Marillion to hit the stage I noticed that the whole venue was like one big family reunion, as whole groups of people were conversing with each other, sharing stories of seeing the band in the past and some even knowing each other! Many actually flew in from England (and all over the world) to see this two-night event in Chicago, IL.
The set opened up with the song “Invisible Man.” The lights dimmed and the stage backdrop lit up with various graphical themes following the music. This song carries so many messages about the state of our world today, and the band built up the musical dynamics with master-level skill. Just when I thought it was going to explode, the echoes of the band rung out and a somber piano line played by Mark Kelly under Steve’s voice, barely carrying over the melody, captivated all of us. Then the band came in again with a crescendo into a soaring guitar solo by Steve Rothery, carrying great emotional conveyance, as evident by the crowd’s complete engrossment in their performance, leaving everyone in awe for the remainder of the evening.
Marillion ended the show with “3 Minute Boy” from the album ‘Radiation’, but not before some comedic dispositions by front man Steve Hogarth. He had so much control over the crowd, by the end of the song we were all chanting the acapella melody even after they finished. As one last hurrah the band went back into the final bars of the song and played it out once again, and the rush of cheers that ensued was absolutely breathtaking. On stage, Steve puts forth a larger-than-life personality with his facial expressions, dramatic gestures, and the trembling vibrato of his voice. Off stage, his personality was eccentric and friendly, offering the same joyous smile and sense of humor that the crowd has grown so attached to since he joined the band in 1989. Hearing the members of the band speak with the fans after the show was a very interesting experience. The level of knowledge that the band and the fans had of each other was astounding; they spoke as normal people talking about life and family. The connection seemed deeper than a simple band and its fan base, of which I am a very proud member.