It’s a Saturday late in August and we’re listening to Mark St. John’s weekly progressive rock show on the Voice of Peace. Mark dedicates a track from Big Big Train’s recent live release, Merchants of Light, to us, and really, to the whole BBT family who gathered in Germany last month and instantly we are transported back to a certain Biergarten overlooking the Rhine. And it’s time for the final blog post from our trip.
Last year we went to London to see Big Big Train play live at Cadogan Hall. We posted about that amazing experience; not just of the music, but of the memorable gathering of passengers, culminating in an unforgettable night at the Antelope pub with friends who instantly felt like family. Our decision to travel to Germany less than a year later to see Big Big Train play was driven, in large part, by the thought of connecting again with this wonderful group. (Oh, and yes, to see our favorite band’s mainland Europe debut and to bask in their wonderful music!)
As we planned the trip, and as we got closer and closer to Sankt Goar, we looked forward to seeing everyone but wondered in the back of our minds if we could ever reproduce the experience of the weekend at Cadogan Hall and the Antelope. We knew it would be good to see everyone, but we just didn’t think that the magic of that night could possibly be reproduced. We tempered our expectations and said we’d be happy with whatever unfolded.
What we discovered is that memories can’t be reproduced, but new ones can be just as magical and memorable.
Arriving in Sankt Goar ahead of most of the group our job was to scout out a gathering spot for everyone as they arrived from different directions. That was easy. The Bistro Café Sankt Goar, with our favorite server, Susan, fit the bill nicely with its outdoor seating and plenty of space. We parked ourselves late afternoon and waited….. wondering how many would actually show up. We needn’t have wondered. As late afternoon shifted into early evening the chairs and the tables around us filled up with friends old and new. Some we’d met in London, some we knew only on Facebook. The ten months since our night at the Antelope disappeared and we were immersed in the warm glow of friends with a shared love of music, beauty, adventure, and humor. Over German lager and bratwurst the group talked and laughed. Told stories and shared memories. We toasted friends who hadn’t been able to make the trip and made sure they were with us in spirit. The sun sets late in Germany in the summer. We barely noticed it going down and before long it was midnight and the restaurant was getting ready to close. Folks headed off towards their respective hotels and Airbnb rentals and we had one last pint of beer with Scottish friends Glenn and Maureen before finally calling it a night. A quick plan was made to meet for breakfast and thus launched the beginning of a most unforgettable weekend.
Dinner at Café Sankt Goar — With Mark, Spike, Astrid, Graham, Geoff, Tobbe, Marie, Glenn, Maureen, Graham, Peter, Andreas, Buster, Barrie, Irene, Jo, Rich, and Michael)
Of course we didn’t fly all the way to Europe just to eat, drink and make merry. The purpose for the gathering was the Night of the Prog Festival featuring three days of music from a wide range of progressive rock bands. Most significantly for us was that Big Big Train was going to be one of the two co-headliners on Friday night. This was a big moment for the band.
Big Big Train is mostly a studio band and they rarely play live. A devoted following of Passengers easily filled the small music halls in London when the band did play in 2015 and 2017. Coming to the European mainland and playing before a crowd of thousands was going to be a whole new experience. We wondered how the crowd would react, and how it would all work in a large outdoor venue.
Friday was the big day. We woke to the sun shining over the Rhine and gathered with our friends at Café und Bäcker St. Goar, a small sidewalk cafe and bakery that serves coffee and light breakfast. (Communication for the weekend was facilitated by use of WhatsApp. Whatever did we do before the internet?) Having had breakfast at our hotel, we ordered lattes, while others ate breakfast, and then we all boarded the ferry to the village of Sankt Goarshausen on the opposite bank of the Rhine. Our friend Mark, who was camping at the festival site, met us and led us to Cafe Rheingold where we had a round of pre-festival German lagers and eagerly awaited the day ahead. Finally, it was time to head up to the top of the Loreley rock to what would be our home for the day – the Loreley Amphitheater.
Built by the Nazis before World War II, the Amphitheater was initially used for education and propaganda purposes. Over the years it was used for theatrical productions and then in the 1960s became a popular venue for rock concerts. The venue is situated near the top of the rock and has some truly stunning views of the Rhine.
Big Big Train wasn’t scheduled to go on until 10pm, but determined to have great seats, we made our way to row 5, where friends were saving spots for us. Arriving in time for the 2:00 pm start we sat through a succession of mostly progressive metal bands – Deafening Opera (Germany), Retrospective (
Poland), Antimatter (England), Threshold (England) as well as the other co-headliner Riverside (Poland). Prog metal is not really our cup of tea but we were determined to get our money’s worth out of our tickets and were hanging out with great friends. Again, we wondered about the atmosphere of this open-air venue, with its gaudy lighting and smoke generators. Surely they’ll tone it down for Big Big Train, right? We’re used to seeing them in a posh theater, with pristine sound and simple lighting that doesn’t distract from the music, with a polite, respectful audience.
It’s unusually hot for Germany this weekend and there is no shade over the amphitheater seating. The stone benches are uncomfortable, even when sitting on the inflatable cushions that we brought. But we are enjoying ourselves. Afternoon turns into early evening. We leave our seats long enough to grab a bite to eat and to meet the band during their pre-scheduled signing session.
By time Riverside finishes at 9:30 pm, we’re exhausted. But the sun is setting and Big Big Train is next! The band takes the stage and we are re-energized. They open with one of our favorites, “The First Rebreather.” The entire crowd is standing and at the end of the song the crowd of 2000+ erupts in cheers and applause. Not only does the lighting and smoke work, the band uses it to maximum effect to accentuate the music and illustrate the stories that are at the center of their music. The crowd is standing, dancing, clapping, singing along and we know that something very big is happening in the evolution of this amazing group of musicians. By the time they leave the stage, shortly after midnight (and about 15 minutes past their scheduled ending time), Big Big Train has clearly made hundreds of new fans, and have proven they can adapt to a festival environment. Full of emotion, we head back to the buses that are standing by to take the crowds back to Sankt Goarshausen and the ferry. The joy of the moment only tempered by the fact that we have to bid adieu (adjö?) to Tobbe and his wife Marie, who are flying back to Sweden in the morning.
If Friday was about the music, Saturday was about friendship.
Morning came early. We hadn’t gotten back to our hotel until almost 2 and then couldn’t get to sleep. On just a few hours of sleep we returned to our Friday morning routine of coffee at Café und Bäcker Sankt Goar, and beer across the river at Café Rheingold. Everyone talked about what a brilliant show BBT put on the night before. We found we weren’t the only ones not being able to sleep until very early in the morning due to being so buzzed by the music.
Lingering a bit too long over our lagers, we arrived at the amphitheater during the end of the set by a young German band called Smalltape. We all wished we could have heard more of them and they turned out to be a surprise favorite of the reviewers. Next up was Rikard Sjöblom’s Gungfly. Rikard was a member of Beardfish before being recruited by BBT as guitarist, keyboardist and backing vocalist. Gungfly is the band Rikard assembled to record and perform his solo compositions.
After Rikard’s energetic performance, we decided it was time to get out of the intense sun and head over to the Biergarten, just behind the stage and overlooking the Rhine Gorge. We don’t remember now if we were the first to gather, or if we joined others of our friends sitting there. We don’t remember who was the first to say “I feel like I saw the music I came to see. This is nice just sitting here with you all.” But it was a sentiment we all found that we shared. Eventually there were 10 or 12 of us sharing a shady table next to a small stone wall overlooking the Rhine. “Lunchtime” turned into an entire day and evening sitting there drinking beer, eating rotisserie chicken and chips, and admiring what has to be one of the most beautiful views we have ever seen.
That table became our “Antelope south” and our Mead Hall on the Rhine (see https://wordpress.com/post/joyfulsurprise.com/2310). The beer flowed freely as we got reacquainted with our friends from The Antelope and got to know our new friends. Rikard Sjöblom stopped by to chat for a few minutes. We had no expectations of recreating the comradery of Sunday night at The Antelope, but it happened. We talked about music, politics, travel and farts, followed Tobbe and Marie’s journey home via Facebook and WhatsApp and started making plans for the next gathering, during BBT’s 2019 UK tour.
We could hear the music from where we sat and occasionally folks would pop out to see a band they were interested in, and then come back to our shady spot when the heat became too much. The remaining bands were Wobble (Norway), Long Distance Calling (Germany), Mystery (Canada), the Sea Within (various countries) and Saturday’s headliner, Camel (England).
We watched the sun set over the river and the fields beyond and then somewhat reluctantly left the Biergarten to see the Saturday night headliner, Camel, the only “old school” band playing the festival. They released their first album in 1973. Considering guitarist/flautist Andy Latimer’s age and various health issues, there may be few opportunities to see Camel live again. Mike had known of Camel but never really got into them. But they ended up being his second favorite performance of the weekend. One of the highlights of the current configuration of Camel is the immensely talented multi-instrumentalist Peter Jones, who we saw perform in London last year the afternoon before BBT’s Saturday concert.
At the close of this performance, we again headed to the shuttle buses and, again, had to say a sad farewell to departing friends, this time Spike and Mark.
The festival was three days, and we had tickets for the entire weekend. But given the heat, our lack of sleep and too much festival food (we never need to eat curry wurst again) we decided to forego the festival on Sunday to relax and do our own thing. We met up, as usual for breakfast and coffee at our favorite sidewalk establishment and discussed options for the day. Glenn, Maureen, Michael and Graham, having hear us rave about our riverboat trip, decided on a paddlewheel boat trip up the Rhine. We meandered back towards the dock, stopping along the way for a beer in the village center where they were holding their annual Schützenfest (target shooting festival). Men and women in uniforms and traditional dress milled about while we were all entertained by a brass and woodwind band playing Beatles songs.
While our friends took to the river, we spent our last day in Sankt Goar relaxing and exploring more of the village. We found ourselves in the early afternoon seated at the Bistro Café Sankt Goar (being waited on by our favorite server, Susan), watching the Rhine flow by and reflecting on our experiences over the past several days. Between the beauty of the countryside, the amazing music and the fellowship of our companions, we agreed that this trip was certainly one of our most memorable.
Sunday night found us once more gathered for a meal with those of us who were still in town. Glenn & Maureen (Scotland), Barrie & Irene (Canada), Graham (UK) and Michael (US) joined us at Restaurant Zür Loreley for what turned out to be one of the better meals we had in Germany. Over bottles of Rhine valley red wine and outstanding food, we laughed, reminisced, told jokes, toasted missing friends and continued making plans for next year. Big Big Train is planning a UK tour in late October of 2019. Of course we want to hear the band again, but as much as anything, the lure for us is to connect again with our merry band of wayward Passengers.
“Beauty and Music and Friendship and Love….You will find us….The best of what we are”
From “A Mead Hall in Winter” by Big Big Train