Marillion was a band tailor-made for an adventurous fan base like Buffalo's.
After all, this city was already enthralled with progressive rock by the time Marillion arrived in our record stores and on our more adventurous FM radio playlists in the early 1980s. Genesis, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Yes, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant, Rush, Mahavishnu Orchestra – all of these bands played the Buffalo market, most of them repeatedly, at venues ranging from Kleinhans to Rich Stadium. We were known as an East Coast prog-rock stronghold. It made sense that we'd fall for Marillion.
The band played Buffalo several times in the '80s, in now long-gone venues like the Skyroom. And then, suddenly, they stopped. A 1986 appearance opening for Rush at Memorial Auditorium was the last one the band made with original vocalist Fish. The band returned once with new singer Steve Hogarth, to perform at the much smaller Sinbad's in 1990. When Marillion plays Feb. 15 in the Town Ballroom, it will be its first Buffalo appearance in more than 25 years.
And yet, the audience remains loyal.
Said Donny Kutzbach of Fun Time Presents, who booked the Town Ballroom show, "Honestly, I was really excited to get them, because Marillion is a truly legendary band, and I know they have a fan base here that is so devoted."
That fan base is comprised of folks from various walks of life, but this being prog-rock, most of the truly devout are musicians.
"When I heard that Marillion was opening for Rush at the Aud, I bought tickets," remembers Williamsville Mayor Dan Delano, who also is a long-time area musician. "They opened with side one of the then-new 'Misplaced Childhood' album. I've been a fan ever since."
It's difficult to believe today, but at one time, bands like Marillion were played on the radio. I happened upon them while listening to Q104 WQBK FM in the Albany era, while a freshman in high school. That station was an invaluable asset in my musical education. It would play anything, regardless of length or genre. The DJs were fonts of serious musical knowledge. And one night, as I lay in bed with my headphones on, the overnight jocks played "a new band from England – this is their first album, and this is their first single, 'He Knows You Know.' " (I recorded all these late-night shows on cassette, and I still have most of them, including this one.) It was wildly imaginative, intricate, jubilant, strangely grooving music. The singer giving that music voice – he went by the name Fish, as legend has it, a reference to his prodigious capacity for drink - sounded like an erudite college professor whose classroom was an English pub serving luscious pints of strong ale. I fell in love.
The Fish-led era of Marillion made several brilliant records, but imploded by the end of the '80s. Marillion found their new man in singer Steve Hogarth, who wisely did his own thing, rather than aping Fish's. They dropped many of the progressive flourishes but retained imaginative song structures. They also became one of the first bands to venture into crowd-funding their tours.
"They really honed a distinct and mature way of approaching artful rock music," said Rich Hendricks of Amherst, a fan since 1985. "They eventually branched away from early Genesis leanings, incorporating influences like 'Spirit of Eden'- era Talk Talk, Beatles and Pink Floyd. The common thread is sincere and adventuresome writing."
Kim Russert, a singer and Buffalo ex-pat now living in North Carolina, believes that the band's "music and lyrics transcend prog-rock and put them in a category all their own."
So Marillion evolved, adapted, endured.
"Just like every other genre, the majority of prog-rock is crap," music journalist Anil Prasad told me recently. "But Marillion, post-EMI, basically abandoned commercial instincts and made music for themselves first and the market second.
"That’s why their fans stuck with them. They continue to make excellent music because they are free of commercial pressure."