Way back in the mid-90s, I turned down the opportunity to see Fish live in concert, and opted to go and see another band, who I was more familiar with. The band I saw were distinctly disappointing, and I’ve regretted not choosing to see the former Marillion frontman instead ever since, especially as, a couple of years later, I started taking an interest in him and his former band and decided that, should I ever hear he was playing in Sheffield again, I would make the effort and go and see him.
I didn’t really appreciate it at the time, but as someone who walked away from major record labels to go it alone, Fish was something of a pioneer in marketing his music and communicating with his fans via the internet. Of course these days, every act, record label, PR company and venue have their own website, but few acknowledge Fish as the early adopter he was, and how saw the benefits of going online long before the rest of the music industry.
Nearly twenty years later, and finally I’m sat in Sheffield City Hall, awaiting my first Fish gig. The atmosphere is dripping with expectation, as you would expect from an audience of Fishheads and Marillion fans, indeed few fanbases are as rabidly loyal, or oddly communal. Audience members greet friends they met at previous gigs like long lost members of the family, and in a way they are, as once you are Marillion or Fish fan, it’s something that never really leaves you. Once you’re accepted into this fanbase community, few ever leave.
A measure of the respect that Fish has for his fans, and his support act, was the introduction he gave his support act. Now, having been to my fair share of gigs down the decades, so I’m used to a support act surprising me every now and again, but for one to do so without playing a note is something new. I mean what the hell is that he’s carrying? It looks like a sort of pointy chapman stick, but it’s much more sleek and aggressive looking. Apparently it’s a léode, a musical instrument of this guys own design, which he plays with one arm. This is Claude Leonetti, the léode player in Lazuli, a five piece prog rock act from Southern France, whose vocalist, Dominique Leonetti, is Claude’s brother. I must admit, I’ve not spoken a word of French since 1997, so I didn’t understand a single lyric, but that didn’t prevent Lazuli from charming the hell out of a fanbase who were there to just see one man.
Lazuli’s energy and communal joy in performing is obvious to anyone who experiences them live, and tonight they were absolutely red hot, so by the time they reached their penultimate number, they already had the audience in the palm of their hand, but the fact that their set concluded with a tune that necessitated all five members of the band playing the same marimba simultaneously will be a joint experience that every audience member at this gig will take to their grave.
A fellow gig goer commented to me that he’d never seen a support act get a standing ovation before. Not only that, but they fully deserved it too. Trust me, you owe it to yourself to check out Lazuli next time they’re in town.
By the time Fish hit the refreshingly sparse stage the audience had reached fever pitch and the crowd greet him like a returning hero. He’s obviously under the weather, but it doesn’t prevent him from tearing into a couple of his solo tunes with almost reckless abandon, before greeting his audience and explaining why Sheffield City Hall has always been something of a bogey gig for him, as he recounts tales of cracked skulls, stage invaders and laryngitis.
As well received as his solo numbers are, this audience are here to specifically experience Fish perform the best selling album of his career. The efffect of a massed crowd singing along word perfect to Marillion’s original frontman perform Misplaced Childhood is one of the most oddly powerful experiences in rock music, but even then there are some that decide to pop out to the bar during the instrumental sections, only to return defeated, drinkless and a little grumpy. The mood is lifted though with an impassioned rendition of “The Heart of Lothian”, and everyone in the room is back on board, even those without drinks. By the time the band come to the end of “White Feather” to a deafening applause, it’s obvious that Fish and the audience know that, under the weather or not, he’s brought the house down tonight.
After a few moments for everyone to catch their breath, the band return to the stage for a full-blooded rendition of “Market Square Heroes” which is greeted with almost as much feverish intensity as Misplaced Childhood. Sure, there are still fans that wish Fish and Marillion could do one last brace of gigs together for old times sake, but they have followed their own paths for so long now, that even if it did happen, chances are it just wouldn’t meet their expectations, better then to enjoy a well drilled band back one of the most uniquely charismatic performers in rock music. As good humoured as he’s been throughout tonight’s gig, there’s a definite tang of pathos in the air when Fish explains how vital the connection with his audience has been to him maintaining the momentum of his career. It’s sad to think that Fish is apparently planning to retire in the next couple of years, because tonight he has proved to a relative sceptic like me that his audience has always meant as much to him, as he has to his audience.
As we file out of the City Hall, there are groups of grown men sniffing back the tears, because for many in attendance tonight, this is the performance they’ve waited over three decades for. As one of rock music’s great survivors, Fish is in the process of slowly lowering the curtain on a long and eventful career and it’s only right he be celebrated before the rest of the music industry realise they didn’t miss him until he’d gone.
As for Lazuli, the future of progressive rock is safe in their hands.