There’s an unspoken agreement amongst Fish-heads that one is too polite to mention that the old boy’s voice ain’t what it used to be. Why? Everybody’s voice changes with age, especially after a lifetime of smoking and hard liquor – the trick is to write material that plays to one’s strengths or transpose old songs into lower keys, rather than lamenting high notes gone by. Presenting songs in a stripped-down format is a brave move: there’s no rock bluster to hide behind, especially beginning with an acapella snippet from ‘Plague of Ghosts’. Quipping between songs that recent X-Factor departee,Frankie Cocozza ‘can’t sing for shit’ might be considered foolhardy, though Fish does at least have the grace to say ‘I do like his attitude’.
With that in mind tonight’s performance can only be judged a partial success. The material is not an issue: with four Marillion and ten solo records under his belt, Fish is spoilt for choice. Performing as a trio, with long-time collaborators Foster Paterson (keys) and Frank Usher (guitar) allows the words and melodies to take centre stage; well, almost centre stage. Everyone who attends a Fish gig knows that the big man’s stage presence and banter is a big part of the appeal.
Fish explains the three rules of tonight’s show: no flash photography, no videoing – well, maybe just a little bit – and no talking during the songs as it ‘pisses off the band and the other guys on your table’. Next to me a woman exclaims how refreshing it is for someone to say that. In between renditions of ‘Somebody Special’, ‘Brother 52’ and ‘Zoe 25’ amongst others, we are treated to stories about cancerous fish (the piscene kind) in the pond at Oxford services and Foss Paterson’s ‘shite shirt’: the latter being a product of the Shite Shirt co. and available online for just £30.Form an orderly queue, please 😉
Pairing ‘Punch and Judy’ and ‘Family Business’ is a calculated juxtaposition that allows Fish to expound on his chequered family life over the years. He chats to a guy in the audience who is about to get married before declaring marriage and himself incompatible (he keeps the rings from his last abortive marriage on a chain around his neck as a reminder ‘never again) and apologising incase he comes across as a ‘bitter, misogynist bastard’.
By way of an antidote his ‘drunken romantic’ side comes to the fore by way of ‘Torch Song’ and ‘Slainte Mhath’ from his Marillion days and both songs work well in the trio format. For all his limitations as a singer Fish has always been an articulate chronicler of rock’n’roll hedonism and on ‘Clutching at Straws’ he struck a fine balance between his then propensity for flowery language and telling it like it is. ‘Incubus’ works less well: shorn of its original rich arrangement the climax falls somewhat flat and his voice cracks badly at the end. ‘Sugar Mice’ is a good choice of closer for the main set and has the crowd singing along rousingly.
The band return for a brief encore, and having drained a box of wine during the performance thusfar it seems fitting that ‘The Company’ closes the show. The audience are invited to stand and raise a glass at the appropriate moment and all are happy to oblige.
And top marks to the barmaid who remembered what I was drinking on my second trip to the bar despite a sizable crowd – such good service is all too rare these days.