Sounds of the Ages 2012, Roman Amphitheatre, Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Written by on September 26, 2012 in Bulgaria, Leisure, Perspectives - No comments

Fish, September 21

Former progressive rock band Marillion singer Fish and the British progressive/alternative band Anathema played with the Plovdiv Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Levon Manukian, at the Roman Amphitheatre in Plovdiv on September 21 and 22, respectively.

The two concerts were part of the Sounds of the Ages festival, which started in 2011 with a sold out opera show of the former Nightiwish singer Tarja Turunen and drummer Mike Terrana, again with the Plovdiv Philharmonic Orchestra.

The festival is under the aegis of Plovdiv’s mayor Ivan Totev (a self-confessed rock and metal fan) and is a part of the city’s bid to become a European Capital of Culture in 2019.

Over the years the Roman Amphitheatre has proven to be an excellent venue for all sorts of concerts and events, which always benefit from its unique atmosphere. After last year’s success, this year’s edition of Sounds of the Ages promises to be even more special.

The Friday night is quite chilly, but the nearly 2000 people pay no attention, as they wait for Fish who will perform some of his best loved songs for the first time with a classical orchestra.

I have always liked Marillion and most definitely consider “Vigil in a Wilderness of Mirrors” a great album, but would never describe myself as a huge fan. I am a bigger fan of Anathema, but, having a vague recollection of the rave reviews of Fish’s previous concert in Bulgaria, in 2005, decided to attend both nights and have high expectations.

The tall Scotsman and his band get on the stage shortly after 8 p.m. to the wild roar of the audience. Barely halfway through the first song, “Faithhealer”, Fish climbs the stairs and sings among the audience, much to the dismay of the security guys and the delight of the fans.

Upon returning to the stage, he motions to one of the technicians who brings him a bottle of wine. “I am Scottish, it’s normal”, he points out and swigs straight from the bottle. Looks like we’re in for the long haul and I regret it that I didn’t think of bringing my faithful souvenir flask. Full with a certain liquid of Scottish origin.

As I comment with my friends that the word “avuncular” describes Fish and his good-natured and self-ironical remarks between the songs pretty well, he all of a sudden gets political. Maybe it’s the wine, or it’s part of the show, but only four songs into the concert, he starts talking politics and somewhat loses momentum.

I really don’t like to mix my entertainments.

“I am angrier than I was 30 years ago”, Fish announces as the Plovdiv Philharmonic Orchestra take their seats. Then he rants about iPhones, the society, the war, the government, the system, the condition of man, etc., quotes Che Guevara (which perhaps is not the best idea in a post-communist country) and waves his fist in the air. Only the most avid fans follow his example, while some of us are stirring rather uncomfortably on the ancient marble seats.

“Fish is giving a political speech”, post I on Facebook from my smart phone (I bet Fish wouldn’t have approved of this.). “Take notes”, comments a friend, “via mobile”.

Someone in the audience uses a quiet moment to suggest that they play “Kayleigh”. But they play “The Perception of Johnny Punter” – a very political song, indeed. The orchestra is barely audible – either the sound engineer is not doing a very good job, or maybe it’s just because Fish is doing a show with an orchestra for the first time.

Looks like the political speeches are over, at least for the time being, as the gentle piano intro suggests “A Gentleman’s Excuse Me” – one of the most beautiful songs by Fish. The orchestra is in full swing, the arrangement is even better than the original version, but, sadly, it is clearly audible that Fish’s voice is definitely not what it used to be.

The arrangement of “Vigil in a Wilderness of Mirrors” is rather good and the audience seems to be enjoying itself once again. It is another gem in Fish’s discography, one of my favourites, and I was really curious to hear the orchestral version. It turned out pretty well, but, again, Fish sounds a bit disappointing in the high-pitched bits. As a very good friend commented the following day over lunch – we are bound to be somewhat disappointed when we see our musical heroes in their older age. This is what I get when I raise my expectations too high.

During “Innocent Party” and “So Fellini” the orchestra takes a break, but remains on the stage. I know from Fish’s Twitter update from the previous day that there will be two more songs with them, one of which is another great love song – “Cliché”. I really do like Fish’s love songs better than the political ones. I wonder if the orchestral arrangement would mean no killer guitar solos, but guitarist Frank Usher definitely nails it. Small wonder Fish announces it as “Frank’s song”. Eight-nine minutes of pure epic beauty.

The final song with the orchestra is “Lavender”. I haven’t heard it for ages and it sound lovely with a string arrangement.

The encore is a “drinking song” – “The Company”. In his own words, Fish is in a great hurry to get back home for the celebration of his parents’ 60-th wedding anniversary the following day.

“Good Night! My name is Derek and I’m a fish.”

On our way out of the theatre, I overhear grumbles that he didn’t sing “Kayleigh”. Indeed he didn’t – it may be a cliché, but it is one of the best known and most liked Marillion songs. It turns out later, that there were two more songs on the setlist “Fugazi” and “Open Water”, but they were skipped. Maybe in favour of the political speeches.

Setlist:

Faithhealer
Credo
Assassing
Long Cold Day
Brother 52
The Perception of Johhny Punter
Gentleman’s Excuse Me
Vigil in a Wilderness of Mirrors
Innocent Party
So Fellini
Cliché
Lavender
The Company

Anathema, September 22

The second night of “Sounds of the Ages” will most certainly lack political speeches. Anathema have no penchant for such things and, besides, are shooting the concert for a Bluray and DVD. They have a small, but rather avid following in Bulgaria and there are a lot of familiar faces in the audience. There is also a considerable number of foreigners.

I  had somewhat mixed feelings towards Anathema until I went to their first show in Bulgaria in 2010 and have since become a fan. To some they are depressing and sad, but I have grown to appreciate their ethereal melancholy.

Over the 20-something years of their career, they have evolved from being among the pioneers of the death doom metal genre, along with Paradise Lost and My Dying Bride (who have also evolved), and recently got an award at the Prog Awards for best live performance.

There hardly is a more appropriate way to inaugurate the autumn, than an Anathema concert.

Having heard a considerable part of their rehearsal, while having lunch with friends this afternoon, I know that the majority of the songs will be from their latest two albums “We’re Here Because We’re Here” and “Weather Systems” . It is quite understandable – their earlier albums have been represented in previous DVDs, some featuring performances with a string quartet, so the orchestra is not such a huge innovation, only a logical evolution.

The concert is preceded by a very short speech by Plovdiv’s mayor Ivan Totev, who said he’s been a fan of the band for a long time and is really happy to host the show. Oddly enough, he’s not wearing his Anathema t-shirt, which he wore at the press conference two days earlier, but, then again, Anathema themselves turn up on the stage dressed for the occasion with shirts and jackets. The keyboard player Daniel Cardoso even wears a tie, which he throws in the audience in the end of the show. – He must have dreamt all his life as a keyboard player to throw something in the audience in the end of the show.

Bassist Jamie Cavanagh comes on the stage with a camcorder and sweeps it across the semi-circular stands – everybody is on their feet cheering, even before the start of the show. The Bulgarians may not be as fanatical as the South American audiences, but we are loud and enthusiastic enough and establish good rapport with the artists and various bands of the rock and metal persuasion often choose to shoot their concert DVDs here. Perhaps Anathema will not be the last one.

“Dobur vecher, Plovdiv!”, screams singer/guitarist Vincent Cavanagh, greeted by cheers and applause. “Blagodaria!” A photo of Vincent’s “cheat sheet” with the transcriptions of the key phrases and the opening lines of the songs is posted by a Facebook acquaintance on the following day. How he got it, I don’t know.

As expected, the first half of the concert consists mostly of newer songs. Anathema are brilliant all by themselves, but the string section of the Plovdiv philharmonic orchestra adds incredible depth and fullness to their sound. There are quieter introspective moments, there are louder moments, when the orchestra sounds almost like a heavy metal band. During “The Storm Before the Calm” the audience claps in perfect time.

The cameras are rolling, the audience is on its feet most of the time and responds with enthusiasm, stoked by guitarist Daniel Cavanagh, who gets off the stage and approaches the audience, which is ready to flip out. Lee Douglas floats back and forth for her vocal duties, which are more prominent in the newer songs.

The first taste of the older stuff comes with “Closer”, which is not my favourite because of its strange house vibe, dating from the times before house music got popular, followed by “A Natural Disaster”. Vincent asks the audience to take out their phones and lighters and wave them in the air. The atmosphere is surreal as everybody complies, singing along with Lee and the violins at the top of their lungs.

“One Last Goodbye”, the song the Cavanagh brothers wrote for their deceased mother is a staple at the Anathema concerts and quite understandably everybody knows the words, while the orchestra really does it justice.

“Flying” – another amazing older song also gets everybody singing along. It is one of my absolute favourites so I am singing with particular enthusiasm.

During its long outro, fireworks light up the sky above Plovdiv’s Old Town. It takes me a few seconds to realise that they’re on the occasion of Bulgaria’s Independence day on September 22, but I am amused by the perfect timing. Vincent is obviously touched and remarks that this is “once in a lifetime”. I suspect that the mayor had something to do with this uncanny timing, but it was very nice indeed.

The encore is a slowed-down orchestral version of “Fragile Dreams”. The promised two hours and 16 songs are over, the orchestra leaves the stage, but the audience refuses to let go that easily. So Anathema come back for an impromptu rock encore. “This is a song about chickens and other animals”, says Vincent and plunges into “Panic”.

We realise that this is our special treat and the proof comes a couple of days later with a photo of the original setlist.

There are two more songs. Vincent is ready to leave the stage, but his older brother Danny signals to him, that there will be one more: “Fragile Dreams the way all of you expect” – rock, fast and loud.

Now it really is over. The technicians start unplugging cables and disassembling the drum kit, while most of the audience still screams in the aisles.

Hopefully the Danish director Lasse Hoile will do a good job of transferring the emotion and magic of the first autumn night of this year onto the DVD.

Setlist:

Untouchable 1
Untouchable 2
Thin Air
Dreaming Light
Lightning Song
Storm Before the Calm
Everything
A Simple Mistake
The Beginning and the End
Universal
Closer
A Natural Disaster
Deep
One Last Goodbye
Flying
Fragile Dreams

Impromptu encore:

Panic
Emotional Winter
Internal Landscapes
Fragile Dreams

Photos: Tangra Mega Rock

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About the Author

Hristina Dimitrova has more than a decade of journalistic experience and is a senior editor at The Sofia Globe; previously she has worked in both online and print media, having started her career at The Sofia Echo.