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Arena, Mean Fiddler, London, 13th October 2005

Welcome to the Mean Fiddler on a Thursday night! Thursday night....Not very prog is it? Don't they know we all have jobs to get up for and babysitters to arrange? Considering also that the Northern Line was out, which must have hampered some travellers in to London, there was a reasonable turn out in the venue for a weekday.

This date was slap bang in the middle of a world-wide 10th anniversary tour. A fact which could not be ignored as the very large on-stage projection that greeted gig-goers on arrival proclaimed as much. Blimey! 10 years for Arena, that slipped under the radar somewhat. So, for the last decade Arena have been regularly producing reasonable prog in the much maligned 'Neo' style. This concert and tour celebrated that decade with a Greatest Hits set designed to reward the faithful.

Forgive me but I am not hugely familiar with the song names of Arena material. Despite having all the albums, they don't get much airplay in this house apart from the most recent, Pepper's Ghost, which to my mind is of an order of magnitude brighter than the previous offerings. I really won't be able to give a set list but I'm sure that if you need to know exactly which songs were played, you were either there and know already or can find it online somewhere.

So, to the gig. A humorous intro film showing the band getting ready for a concert opened the show and we were off and running with a cut from Pepper's Ghost: Bedlam Fayre - I knew that one! The Victorian theme of that album is a bit of a stroke of genius, suiting the style of Arena's music very well and in particular lending itself nicely to vocalist Rob Sowden's stage personality. Arriving onstage in a frilly white dress shirt, long coat, grey wig and top hat, he looked the part and took the focus of the audience.

All of the previous Arena albums were then cherry picked for the best sonic gems with no particular era or album overlooked. Seemingly, the most obvious songs were chosen for this tour and some of the fans might have preferred a few of the lesser played numbers to have been included but this was a 'Best Of' show so I think the guys did the right thing. The set was nicely balanced from a point of view of fast/slow songs and all the numbers flowed together well.

Musically, the band seemed very tight but then I would expect nothing less after they had been out on the road for a month and a half. With Pepper's... they are moving slightly towards a more Prog Metal style although nowhere near as heavy as a band of say, Dream Theater's sound. John Mitchell is, for me, a very fine guitarist who often fails to gain the credit he deserves. I feel that it's his work with Kino that will bring him to a wider audience rather than his playing for Arena. Having never heard Mick Pointer play before I was perhaps a bit mindful of some of the comments I'd read about him in the past. I shouldn't have paid too much consideration to them at all as he held the rhythm line nicely with Ian Salmon....and Clive Nolan? Well Clive is Clive isn't he and twiddled away behind his keyboards much as usual, albeit somewhat reduced in size since I last saw him live, a couple of years ago at Progeny. Nice one Clive! What's your secret?

Rob Sowden is a very watchable and listenable frontman as long as you like the kind of theatrical presentation he favours, maybe some purists feel it's a bit 'over the top' but there were no complaints in the Mean Fiddler and no complaints from me. It's always nice for us girlies to watch a fine butt strut the stage in a pair of leather trousers. Accompanying the live musicians, the screen showed a variety of graphics mixed with live footage shot from a static camera somewhere up in the balcony. This was very nicely done - props to the visual team - and is a feature I'd personally like to see at more gigs as I find the average height of most prog fans to be at least six inches greater than mine. For once, the sight lines were good from all parts of the venue.

After around two hours of good old British prog, the band closed the set with Enemy Without from the Visitor album and wasted no time reappearing - Rob minus costume knick-knacks - for a short acoustic piece; Rob on guitar with Ian and then three further encore numbers. I think in the main, the band were preaching to the converted. I don't imagine there were too many people there who were unfamiliar with the band's work so everybody went away happy. I do kind of feel that Arena are in the Championship league of Prog rather than the Premiership. The Pepper's Ghost album has given them a boost into the play-offs and maybe this mammoth - for a UK prog band - tour can elevate them high enough to be considered with the likes of Marillion. Porcupine Tree etc. etc. Time will tell. (See Photos from the gig below.)

Jane Vincent

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Arena

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