Prog inspired urban fantasy - Chalk

Back in 2016 I shared some art from a comic series I had in development entitled Chalk. Eighteen months on and the project is back on track, with a new artist Diego Simone. We've almost completed the first ten pages of Issue 1, with Diego providing pencils, inks and colours and Sean Rinehart pencilling. 

I've known Diego for some time, he worked on stories that appeared in our Eagle award nominated anthology Eleventh Hour back when I was part of Orang Utan Comics. He went on to take over as series artist on Starship Troopers (Markosia) and has worked on books like Alpha Girl (Image) and as a colourist on Dark Horse Presents. So I'm very excited to finally get to work with him myself, it's already proving to be a fruitful and inspiring collaboration. 

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The book, which is set in and around Winchester in Hampshire, England centres around folklore Professor and former prog musician Howard Chalk. I can't say much more than that until we know the book has a home. More on this in the coming months. 

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WIP - Chalk

I've been fighting the urge to say too much about this project as it's in the relatively early stages, but I couldn't resist. Chalk is a British set urban fantasy, planned as a five-issue mini series with the potential to develop into a series of arcs or even an ongoing title. It's been co-created with artist Ho Seng Hui. If you liked my work on The Interactives, I think this will be right up your street. Much of the plot is complete and Issue 1 is currently going through rewrites. 

Here are some of the main cast.

Professor Howard Chalk

Hoshiko Deguchi

Detective Inspector Jack Long

More to follow on this as things develop further. In the meantime you can listen to the Spotify playlist of music that's helped inspire the story and shape the tone. 

Big Big Inspiration Part Two

As I'm writing this I'm listening to Along the Ridgeway, the third song on the new Big Big Train album Folklore (which isn't in shops until May 27th, so I highly recommend that you pre-order it now). If you've been reading my blog for a while you'll remember the name of the band, as they were the subject of a long and praise laden post last August.  

Since that blog post, my daughter and I have had two more unforgettable days that revolve around the critically acclaimed band . In March we spent the day on St.Catherine's Hill in Winchester being extras in the video for the album's title track  (which you can watch below) and yesterday we were with the band again, this time in Box, Wiltshire. We were lucky enough to spend the day alongside many more of the band's fans, known collectively as Passengers, at the Folklore listening party at Real World Studios, musical home to legendary singer Peter Gabriel and the place where the album was recorded. 

We were also treated to a two song acoustic set by the band, minus drummer Nick D'Virgilio who was back in the States but did join us by video later. Hearing Wassail and Uncle Jack played up close and personal was an unexpected treat.

This is all very good and well and just like the concert last year at Kings Place in London both these days will live long in the memory, but what exactly does it have to do with my writing? Well in my August 2015 post I said the following and it has proven to be very true. 

Music has always shaped me as a person and as a creative and Big Big Train will continue to be a big part of that. 

I'm working on a new comic project currently, I can't say much about it yet as it's very early days with no artist attached and nothing pitched to publishers. What I can say is that I've loosely plotted it as a five issue series and Issue 1 is completely broken down with seventeen first draft pages written. Tonally it's not a million miles away from my 2011 book 'The Interactives' and it's already it's shaping up to be a book only I could write. I've taken inspiration from lots of sources, including Big Big Train's back catalogue and some of the iconography surrounding their latest release. I've also been listening to two albums by another modern prog band Phideaux, The Great Leap and in particular Doomsday Afternoon along with anything I can find on Spotify's The Sound of Neo-Progressive playlist, while working through the plot. I find that the best bands in the genre have music that really helps expand your mind and frees up the imagination. I do almost all of my plotting in the gym these days, on the treadmill doing something I've christened "Running through a story", which should probably be the subject of a process post all of its own.  

If you read the previous blog, it outlined some things that becoming a fan of BBT had made me think about when approaching a new project.

  1.  Collaborate with lots of talented people.
  2.  Don't be afraid to be British.
  3. Take risks, put things together that may not obviously belong with each other
  4. Don't be afraid to be emotional.
  5. Smile.

Does this new series meet those criteria? Not intentionally, as this wasn't set out as a plan or manifesto. However, by being true to myself and evoking the mood and spirit of Big Big Train's music has definitely taken me in the right direction. 

  1.  Collaborate with lots of talented people. I'm on the look out for an artist. 
  2.  Don't be afraid to be British. The story is all set in England. 
  3. Take risks, put things together that may not obviously belong with each other. There are some interesting things in Issue 1 already. 
  4. Don't be afraid to be emotional. I can see the book going more that way over time. 
  5. Smile. I've been doing that every day while working on this story, it's been great fun. 

I'm sure that as I become more accustomed to BBT's latest long player (I'm only on listen number four) it will have an even more profound impact on my approach to my work. I should have a first draft of Issue 1 of the new book completed this month and I'm hoping that once I have an artist I can start sharing a few more details. In the meantime....Wassail! 

 

 

Favourite things in 2015

This year has absolutely flown by, and I find myself compiling my favourites of the year list all over again. Like last year this isn't a definitive 'best of' list, merely a compilation of what I most enjoyed in the last twelve months. You can see the 2014 list here

TV Drama – Marvel's Daredevil.

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By no means perfect, Daredevil was a bold new step in the right direction for Marvel's broadcast output, bringing the Marvel Knights world to play alongside the more family friendly cinematic universe. After the 2003 film version it looked like the Hell's Kitchen blind lawyer's story was unlikely to be told again, but they managed to pull it off by making a series that really felt like the book it was based on.  This was a show I never imagined existing and I'm pleased that it does. 

Honourable mentions – I was very close to picking Ray Donovan Season Three as my favourite show, it was certainly my favourite returning series this year. After the slightly hit and miss nature of Season Two it was good to see the show returning to the edge of your seat tension that made the first season so compelling. Liev Schreiber, Eddie Marsan and Dash Mihok continue to deliver exceptional performances each week and I can't wait for the next series. Better Call Saul helped me get over my general distrust of prequels, the show featured some brilliant writing and excellent performances too. It both worked as part of the Breaking Bad world and also as its own thing, mixing comedy and tragedy to great effect. On this side of the pond it was River that held my interest the most, a slightly surreal detective series set in London featuring a powerhouse performance from Stellan Skarsgard, who should be showered with plaudits and awards.  It's also the second of my favourite shows this year to feature the ever versatile Eddie Marsan.  Marvel's second Netflix show Jessica Jones rounds off the list, we're only seven episodes in and I don't think we'll get it all watched before the year is out. Another interesting show and proof the Marvel/Netflix deal was a very good thing. And for the second year running, yes I know I need to watch Fargo.

Film – Star Wars - The Force Awakens

This really isn't the film I was expecting to top this list, but I'm pleasantly surprised that it did. I was grinning from start to finish and there were moments where my skin was actually tingling. We live in an age where trying to recapture the feelings of our youth dominates mainstream media, this is often to the detriment of quality. Having felt like a nine year old for a couple of hours again this is one occasion where touching on old themes and bringing back familiar characters worked exceptionally well. Unlike the prequels this completely felt like a Star Wars film and you were immersed in another world. The new characters were brilliant and the torch has very much been passed. Between this and last year's Guardians of the Galaxy it's fun to go into space again. 

Honourable mentions –

Birdman was nothing like I expected and all the better for it. I've always been a fan of Ed Norton and it was good to see him stretching his acting muscles again and for Michael Keaton to get to explore a character that parallels his own Batman experiences. The film made me think a lot about life, creativity and mortality and it is deserving of all the praise it has received.  Southpaw isn't the boxing film I was expecting to put on this list, but with Creed's UK release date being in January, this was the one big screen piece of ringside action for me this year. Like most of these kind of films it was very predictable, but it hit all the right emotional beats for me, coming close to being a modern day Champ. I could watch Forest Whitaker train Jake Gyllenhaal all day and before I saw The Force Awakens this would have been my pick. Ant-Man was far better than expected and the casting of Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lilly worked very well. There were still some Edgar Wright touches in there alongside what was added later. It wasn't close to being my favourite film of the year, but was certainly my preferred Marvel movie of the 2015.  Inside Out was exceptional, thoughtful, moving and inspirational in a way that most live actin films aren't and I'm really looking forward to watching it again.  Indie horror romance Spring was a film that would have flown under my radar if I hadn't watched it as part of a workshop I was working on. The main performances are excellent and it has its own unique vibe, if you haven't seen it I'd recommend you do.  John Wick and Big Hero 6 were both late releases in the UK, having been shown elsewhere in 2014. Big Hero 6 was great fun, but like The Good Dinosaur it suffered by comparison from being in the same year as Inside Out.   John Wick was one of the best action movies I've seen in years, I'm someone who's always championed Keanu Reeves and it's great to see him have a film like this and the planned sequel to sink his teeth into.  I didn't get to see Whiplash to see if that film would have made it onto the list.  Mad Max Fury Road looked amazing and I definitely enjoyed it, but I didn't seem to get the same level of enjoyment as others did so it sneaks onto this list for the visual spectacle. 

Album – Hand. Cannot. Erase. by Steven Wilson

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When Hand. Cannot. Erase. came out in February I knew straight away it was something special. I've been a fan of Mr Wilson since i first heard Porcupine Tree's Stupid Dream album playing in a record shop in 1999. A concept album inspired by the death of a London woman, which went unnoticed for three years, it's a exceptionally emotional 65 minutes of music. Regardless of whether you like progressive rock, I think everyone should listen to it, to feel its impact. Probably the first album to almost bring me to tears. I wish I'd got to see it performed live. 

Honourable mentions –

It took a very impressive set of songs to mean that Sol Invictus by Faith No More wasn't my favourite album of 2015. I'm a huge Mike Patton devotee and a big fan of all the band's work, rather than just the high profile Jim Martin period that the media tends to latch onto. I'd been eagerly waiting this new set of songs and they didn't disappoint, there was just one album that connected with me more this year, otherwise this would have taken the crown as expected.  Meliora by Ghost was another excellent long player and might just be their best album to date, immediate and evocative and overall great fun to listen to. It was great to have Baroness back at the end of the year with Purple, with their first release since the coach crash that caused two of the band to call it quits. And so we watch you from Afar were a band I discovered at the start of the year as the soundtrack to much of my writing, their Heirs album continued their rich vein of form.  +4626-COMFORTZONE by Beardfish and Wolflight by Steve Hackett, both prog albums I discovered via my love of Big Big Train, got a lot of play from me in 2015 too.  Higher Ground by Chris Cornell was another album I played a lot this year and there was a lot to like about it, particularly the folk vibe on some songs. Sadly I will always compare his solo work to his first solitary outing Euphoria Morning which is one of my favourite records, although in some ways that was him fronting Eleven. 

Song -  Superhero by Faith No More


When I first Superhero  I really wasn't sure about it, it felt a bit like FnM by numbers but after a few listens to the true genius of this anthemic track shone through. It's up there with their best songs and I've been singing along to this aural gut punch all year. 

Honourable mentions –

Wassail by Big Big Train was within a hairs breadth of being my pick (it was was certainly robbed at the Prog Awards this year) and it's another singalong anthem albeit with a very different tone. It's brilliant on record and even better live.  Nearly forgot my broken heart by Chris Cornell was the other single that I really liked this year, it's quite poppy but still maintains the immaculate attention to detail and superb vocals you'd expect from the Soundgarden frontman. Spectral Mornings 2015 was a song I played a lot, not a new track but a new charity version complete with vocals (the original as an instrumental). The track featured s who's who of modern prog and Steve Hackett himself. 

GigBig Big Train (London)

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This was by far the easiest decision to make when looking back on the year. On Sunday 16th August my daughter and I were truly captivated by a phenomenal performance by a world class group of musicians, when we were lucky enough to see Big Big Train play Kings Place in London. We were in the second row and make a few brief cameo appearances in the Victorian Brickwork video from the show. I'm not sure another gig would ever top it in my lifetime, let alone this year, I still think about that show every day. Life affirming, majestic stuff. 

Honourable mentions –

Shawn Smith at Bristol Folk House in April was another intimate seated affair and it isn't often that you get to share the toilet hand dryer with the act you've just seen. It was great to see him solo a few years after enjoying him with Brad. The live album of this show is available hereThe Manic Street Preachers playing all of Holy Bible, followed by a greatest hits set would have been a dream gig for me at one time. It was great to hear arguably their best album played live, but the sunny June daytime Cardiff Castle setting and crowd of anthem lovers alongside the more rabid fans made it a real mixed bag.  If only I'd made it to the Tin Spirits gig in Swindon, as I have a strong feeling that would have made this list. 

Comic – Lazarus (Image Comics) 

 

For the second year running Lazarus is my favourite book and by the end of the year it was the only thing I was reading in single issues, as I'm reading the likes of Nailbiter, Revival, Zero, Saga, Southern Bastards, Deadly Class. It's a top drawer sci-fi, with gorgeous art, well rounded characters and the ability to surprise. If you aren't reading it you should be. 

Podcast – iFanboy

This was the year that I realised how much this podcast has become part of my weekly routine. Monday morning wouldn't be Monday morning without their Pick of the Week show, even though I am reading most books in trade so have to skip forward chunks. With Ron back on the show (although it was sad to see Paul go) I'm reminded how much time I've spent listening to these guys over the years. The first thing I do after seeing a geeky movie or TV show is to listen to the special edition podcast to find out if we agree, we usually do. If you've seen Star Wars The Force Awakens, they articulate what I thought far better than me, listen to that episode here

Honourable mentions –

It's the usual suspects for me, Geek Syndicate, Nerdist Writers Panel, Austin Film Festival's On Story podcast, Comics Experience Make Comics, Comic Book Outsiders, Word Balloon and The Hat Decides (which I hear is due back very soon). Plaudits must got to PJ and Doktor Andy for taking over The Sidekickcast and making it their own thing. I will, of course, direct you to Bags of Action the action movie show I present with my friend and writing partner Steve Aryan. 

So, there you have it. Those choices were a lot harder than last  year, with a wealth of things I really enjoyed across all mediums. That's not including some of the older things that I really liked such as the whole run of Battlestar Galactica, classic albums by Peter Gabriel era Genesis, The Dark Tower comics from Marvel and the exceptional Secret Identity Superman book by Busiek and Immonen - all of which were ineligible of course. Anyway, here's to another year filled with things to enjoy. 

 

 

Big Big Inspiration

Music is a very important part of who I am and it plays a significant role in my writing. I've been reminded of that a lot lately and the gig I went to on Sunday afternoon brought those thoughts to the fore once more for a number of reasons. It got me thinking about my relationship with music, what part it plays in my everyday life and in turn my creative pursuits. 

 Music has the power to connect people, to elevate us above and beyond our own limitations and restrictions. In many ways I think music is one of the things that makes us human. I'd be lost without films, TV shows, books and comics but I have a feeling that music is the entertainment medium that I'd be most unable to live without. Probably because I could listen to music while trying to make things for those other outlets myself. I actually tried the making music thing, but having attempted to sing in a couple of bands as a teenager I soon realised that wasn't going to be my most fruitful creative endeavour. 

My gateway to music was through my Dad, I didn't like absolutely everything he listened to but he's someone who tends to have music playing all the time, in the house or in the car, so I was exposed to a lot of music at a young age.  I actually took my eight year old daughter to the concert with me on the weekend and watching her sing along to songs she'd discovered in my car reminded me of learning songs the same way, at around the same age.  

Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man.
— Aristotle

As I type this I'm listening to an album that my Dad and I played a lot when I was seven, as that's the age I was when it was released. Time by ELO (Electric Light Orchestra), came out in 1981 and unsurprisingly it was the first concept album I'd ever listened to. The songwriting and the production made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and overwhelmed my young psyche with a range of unexpected emotions. This wasn't just music to dance to or sing along with, this was music to think and feel to, music that told stories. Thirty four years later, the feeling I get listening to this album is the same as it was then and I still know all of the words. It's an evocative collection of songs, conjuring images of the future, time and space travel. The young writer in me found inspiration in this collection of songs when he first started putting pen to paper. Any album with a prologue and epilogue will help teach about about structure, build up and pacing, even if it's only subliminally. 


The album tells the story, through its songs and lyrics, of a man from the 1980s finding himself in the year 2095 and trying to come to terms with being unable to return and adjusting to his new surroundings.
— Wikipedia

Robin of Sherwood was my favourite program growing up, it ran from 1984 to 1986 so I was ten to twelve years old when it was shown on ITV. My favourite character in the series was defintely the Saracen assassin Nasir, played by actor Mark Ryan (who Wikipedia tells me has written for DC Comics, in fact his whole career sounds fascinating). As well as enjoying the acting and adventure on the show, this was the first time I'd really noticed the music on TV. In films I was used to the score being an integral part of the whole experience, but I'd never felt this sensation on the small screen before. Robin (The Hooded Man) was the theme, but the whole soundtrack was something very special indeed. My Dad bought a copy of "Legend" by Clannad, which had all the songs from the series on it and we played that a lot in the house and in the car. Those songs didn't just live on through that cassette copy though (which come to think of it may actually have been my older brother's), it also played almost constantly in my head. Growing up in the countryside meant lots of fields and woods to play in, and those Clannad songs were the backdrop for my own Robin Hood adventures too. Years later I bought my own CD copy and I still listen to it regularly. It was one of the albums I put on when I was writing medieval story "The Lament of Lady Mary" for the Unseen Shadows universe, along with Last Samurai, Kingdom of Heaven and some other selected soundtracks. 

My tastes have changed over the years, but I still have to listen to music every day. Music is still one of the things that inspires me as a person and also helps fuel my own creativity. A lyric, a song title, the production values of an album, a particular riff or refrain, all can spark story ideas or help shape the ones I'm working on. Much of this is relatively under the surface, but there are times when I use music in a more direct sense when I'm writing. 

My one and only screenplay Restitution Day (a Western) is named after a Jerry Cantrell song lyric and contains characters taking their surnames from Cantrell himself and Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready. In my early comic work I weaved in references to the likes of Iron Maiden, The Smiths and The Doors, into the shorts I wrote for anthologies and I've written two separate stories featuring vampire rock bands - the most recent Blood Dolls appeared in the British Comics Showcase from Markosia.  I totally wore my heart on my sleeve in my graphic novel The Interactives, which featured a character taking on the physical appearance of Mother Love Bone lead singer Andy Wood and a group of other deceased rock stars. 

 One of the mini series I'm working on, Viva Las Venus, was loosely inspired by PM Dawn's song Downtown Venus, an old series idea 5th Outlaw took some cues from the Velvet Revolver video for She builds quick machines. I was also planning to delve into another music centred concept with a mini series idea simply called Prog, but the existence of This Damned Band by Paul Cornell and Tony Parker from Dark Horse, probably put paid to that one. I'm currently editing and writing for a Pearl Jam based anthology I put together called no (comic) code, which features almost eighty other comic creators with an affinity to the band too. So I have plenty of out and out influences that come from the world of music. 

For each series I write I usually create a playlist, not necessarily to write to as I try to avoid lyrics when I'm working, but to help shape the tone and feel of the narrative. I might put that playlist on during the staring into space stage of the writing process, be that sat at my desk, in the shower, car or gym. Then when the actual physically getting words onto paper stage happens I shift to the likes of Matt Stevens, And so I watch you from Afar and film soundtracks to stop me from being too distracted. Although silence usually ends up being my final destination once I get into the real nitty gritty of the work.

So what does this all have to do with the gig I went to on Sunday. What was it about that two and a half hour show that made me think so much about how important music is to me, or why and how it helps fuel me as a writer?

The concert on Sunday was at Kings Place, near Kings Cross in London and the band we went to see was Big Big Train. I discovered the British prog band via comic artist friend Marc Laming (Planet Hulk, King's Watch) after he shared the video for Make Some Noise on twitter and made it his 'jam'.  That song was quite immediate and not as overtly prog as the rest of their music, it also reminded me of those teenage bands I mentioned earlier.  I delved into their English Electric: Full Power double album and was instantly liking what I heard.  I was already a big fan of Porcupine Tree and this was a slight left turn from that band, through the prism of Peter Gabriel era Genesis

Fast forward just under two years and Big Big Train have become one of my favourite bands and certainly my favourite current one from this side of the Atlantic. Like many other progressive rock outfits they are immensely popular with other creative people. Fables and Miracleman artist Mark Buckingham is a fellow Passenger (the name given to the band's loyal fanbase, as seen on the official Facebook page) and he was also at the gig on Sunday too. Comedian and actor Mark Benton also put in an appearance at Kings Place and Justice League artist Jason Fabok is also a fan. 

Wish I was in London for the @bigbigtrain shows. Best band in the world at this moment in time IMO.
— @JasonFabok
Photo by Neil Palfreyman, courtesy of Greg Spawton (Big Big Train)

Photo by Neil Palfreyman, courtesy of Greg Spawton (Big Big Train)

So why was Sunday's concert so important, what was it about two and a half hours of award winning progressive rock that felt so enlightening? It was a number of things, taking my daughter with me was part of it, seeing how much she enjoyed the show (we're in the photo above together) reminded me how I bonded with my own Father over shared musical tastes. That took me back to those early albums and early musical experiences that shaped my first forrays into writing when I was at school. Secondly the whole thing was so joyful, the crowd were all complete afficinados of the band and each musician seemed to be thriving on the fact that they literally had a captive audience to play to. Then, above and beyond all else, there was the music, some of the best songs I've discovered in recent years played expertly by a set of extremely talented musicians, each bringing something to the stage that made the whole thing far, far more than the sum of its expert parts. 

With reflection there was a lot I could take away from this concert and from becoming a fan of Big, Big Train and listening to their music. 

1) Collaborate with lots of talented people. 

Fidelity isn't a trait I hold highly in my musical heroes. Artists like Neil Finn, Steven Wilson, Mark Lanegan and Mike Patton record under a variety of names and with a variety of musicians and their discographies have been all the better for it. Members of the Seattle bands that were such a big part of my teenage years have tended to form supergroups and have numerous side projects on the go too. I like the fact I have music by At the Drive In, Mars Volta, Bosnian Rainbows and Antemasque in my collection too.  Big Big Train evolved from being a duo into the eight-piece band they are today (thirteen when they add in the brass section) and each member of the band has other projects and other collaborators. Founding members Andy Poole and Greg Spawton have changed instruments over the years, guitarist Dave Gregory is also in Tin Spirits and was on twelve XTC albums, Rikard Sobjolm also fronts Beardfish in his native Sweden, Nick D'Virgilio was also the Spock's Beard drummer, he's recorded solo records, worked with Cirque de Soleil and appeared on a Genesis album, violinist Rachel Ward used to perform in a duo alongside her Father, vocalist David Longdon and pianist/double bass player Danny Manners have both been in the Louis Philippe band.   I'm remnded that I can write alone and co-write with people, work with a variety of artists and in a mixture of genres to keep my work fresh and interesting. 

2) Don't be afraid to be British.

Big Big Train's award winning song East Coast Racer, which closed the second set on Sunday,  is about the Mallard train, Judas Unrepentant centres around art forger/restorer Tom Keating, they have songs that feature places like Highfields, Upton Heath, London and Winchester. In my own work The Interactives is one of the few British set stories I've written, as the action takes place in both Monmouth and London. Listening to Big Big Train has reminded me that not all my stories need to be in space or the USA.  

3) Take risks, put things together that may not obviously belong with each other.

Prog rock is a genre of music that sometimes doesn't get the respect it deserves (you could level the same thought process at comics as a storytelling medium too), one of the things it does really well is taking lots of diverse influences and experiences into one song, one album, one show.  BBT and other bands like them remind me to try new things, to experiment and to not be afraid of failure. 

4) Don't be afraid to be emotional.

Grown men cried on Sunday, that is the power of the music and lyrics of many Big Big Train songs. You are taken on an emotional journey, powerful enough to make you feel very different by the time the song is over. My favourite comic writers do the same thing in their work, the likes of Jason Aaron and Brian K Vaughan. I'm reminded that this isn't a bad thing to aspire to. 

5) Smile. 

Big Big Train are a band whose lyrics hold weight, but they also seem to approach what they do with a sense of collective joy. Guitarist Dave Gregory smiled almost continuously through the thirteen song show and I'd love to capture that feeling, the unadulterated joy of creation and sharing it with an audience. I'm going to remember his smiling face and use that to push me forward whenever I feel like my writing has hit a wall, or if I'm riddled with self doubt and over analysing my early drafts.

Sunday was an amazing, magical, truly life affirming and almost spiritual occasion, probably the best concert I've ever attended. It will live long in my memory, but the impact on my writing will hopefully be permanent. Music has always shaped me as a person and as a creative and Big Big Train will continue to be a big part of that.