Marillion - Unplugged At The Walls

Originally written for Marillion fanzine "The Rest of Both Worlds":

The two special 'acoustic dinners' held by Marillion at The Walls restaurant in Oswestry in late June '98, during the mixing of the Radiat10n album, were being feted by those who had travelled to them from all over the world as soon as the last applause had faded. The ensuing clamour for the tapes of the evenings to be made publicly available led eventually to their release as the Unplugged at the Walls album in Spring '99. So what was all the fuss about?

The double-CD set has been described as Steve Hogarth's musical CV and, from the first bars it is easy to see why - H is on top form, in a sparse musical environment geared to his exquisite vocal touches. The relaxed atmosphere to the concerts (and recorded offering) is signalled by his little pitching whelp and Beautiful begins, a little faster than usual, which turns out no bad thing. The shortened arrangement also signals a theme for the evenings. Beyond You is surprise number one, in that H had previously considered it too personal to perform - a stunning rendition from all concerned of a heart-wrenching song, only fractionally marred by the quirky, too staccato ending.

The listener now knows what to expect and, after some passing Hogarth banter, is treated to a superb rendition of Afraid of Sunrise, another rarity (and it doesn't speed up at all, honest!). Some great Trewavas bass here. The emotional assault continues with Runaway, allowing Mark Kelly some shining room. There's been nary a slip to this point and you already understand why it couldn't be left in the vaults.

A relaxed explanation from H of how the evenings came about serves as an introduction to a previously-unheard track - Now She'll Never Know - featuring some instrument swapping (Pete on acoustic, Rothers on bass) and a flawless vocal execution of yet another heart-wrencher. So, how long can they keep this up? Well, the tension is lifted and yet more ice cream genius spooned on with an inspired, (and shortened) reggae Alone Again, apparently conceived only that morning. Steve H stops momentarily to check if anybody has left (!) and we're straight into a rearranged version of The Space - the unsurprising absence of the finale being compensated for by the use of the 'space around the stars' section as a chorus and the ending contrived succinctly from the instrumental break of the original.

The first cover of the evening is Radiohead's Fake Plastic Trees, a marvellously cynical treatise to which the Marillos do immense justice - enough for this version to reach the These Chains single. To the background clink of glasses, Holloway Girl begins and swiftly grows above Mark's piano riffs to a barely acoustic chorus. The cycle continues in the second stanza and refrain but unfortunately the song stops short of the middle eight, leaving it a little in mid air for me. Unfortunately, there follows the most annoying part of the CD, where H asks the audience where they're from. I know why it's on here but it's so terrible it should have been cut. Top tips - if you ever meet me and you're from Bishop's Castle, don't tell me! Fortunately we're straight back on form with King. "How do you do that acoustic?", I hear you ask - restrained and with surprising effect is the answer.

CD2 starts poorly with a rendition of The Answering Machine that's rather limp when compared to the album version, despite the latter's controversial production style. Things pick up again with the La Bamba mix of Gazpacho, which actually works much better here than on the Radiat10n tour. It's lively, busy and inventive in this form. CSB is announced as the last track and is lightly reworked for the occasion; surprisingly enough it goes down a storm.

Inevitably there are encores (although I'm not sure we have to hear the three minutes of table bashing in between, thank you very much!), the first couple being covers. We begin with Pete, on acoustic guitar, and Steve H classily performing the Beatles 'Blackbird' - if the person from Bishop's Castle shouts anything else over the vocals he's getting my Lemon & Lime Cheesecake over his head, by the way - followed by the one-song 'electric set', Abraham, Martin & John. Now I'm no soul Freak but this is just beautifully delivered with some lovely Rothery touches and Ian coming partly out from his enforced sedation. Another goodnight and another three minutes of rumpus ensues - sorry, but I've never seen the point of this on a CD.

Never mind, it's compensated for by the wonderfully quirky, swing version of Hooks that ensues. N.B. Audience - you can't count after that many drinks, OK? Come to think of it, listen to the individual band performances on this one and the sum is far greater than the parts! Fairly inevitably, given the nature of the evening, the set ends with Eighty Days. These two might perhaps have been the other way round but that 's just nit-picking.

Personally, I'd be very surprised if those reading this don't already own Unplugged at the Walls, such has been the acclaim afforded it since its release in Marillion circles - I know that its sales far outstripped any other Racket release. The musical performances have few flaws and some are quite superb. The arrangements are mainly excellent, particularly given the relatively complex nature of your average (I know, there aren't any!) Marillion song and the production is top-notch for two almost impromptu gigs in a restaurant. If you don't have it I can only assume that you're F-era fans lost entirely to the post-Clutching Marillion, in which case Unplugged at the Walls is simply another reason to ask "Why?".