On the 25th of June 1998 a strange thing happened.
A group of like-minded people arrived at England’s sea and airports and made their way to a small town on the Welsh border. The came from Brazil, Mexico, North America, Australia, Japan, Israel, Germany, Holland and Spain.
They came to have dinner.
…they also came to see a band.
MARILLION – Unplugged at the Walls (1999 Racket Records – Racket 10)
What’s your favourite acoustic album?
We all know the big “unplugged” performances, but between the cracks fell the web-only release Unplugged at the Walls by Marillion. Only available via their website, this remarkable album was recorded while Marillion were working on their 10th record Radiation back in 1998.
While recording in Oswestry, Marillion struck a deal with the “best restaurant in town”, the Walls. Now independent, every penny counted. In exchange for free meals, Marillion agreed to play some acoustic sets at the Walls. The idea grew and people came from all over the world to hear new songs and tunes that had never been played acoustically before. They stripped down and re-arranged songs, added some surprises, and the result is one of the best Marillion live albums ever made. Out of over 100!
Sampling tracks from the five Hogarth-era albums, no oldies were to be found. Plenty of singles though: “Easter”, “Alone Again in the Lap of Luxury”, “Hooks in You”, “Eighty Days”, and “Beautiful” which opens the set.
While Marillion have always been top-notch musicians, in an unplugged setting such as this, Steve Hogarth is the standout performer. Whether whispering or letting it all out, Hogarth is never less than spellbinding. He is always in complete command, with every ear on him.
The highlights are many, but Marillion’s version of Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees” may surpass the original. That’s all because of Hogarth. Nobody can touch him. He gets more intense as the song builds. When he sings “I could blow through the ceiling,” you truly believe it. The track is so good that they eventually used it as the B-side to “These Chains”.
“Abraham, Martin and John” (Marvin Gaye) is a track Marillion have since released on other live albums, but this gentle version is fantastic. This one sports some beautifully warm electric guitar tones courtesy of Steve Rothery. Marillion also cover “Blackbird” (The Beatles, but you knew that) and do a damn respectable job of it. Instead of birds chirping, you get the sound of diners cheering!
The new songs premiered that night were the already-acoustic “Now She’ll Never Know”, and “The Answering Machine” which, over the years, has been popular both electrically and acoustically. “Now She’ll Never Know” is the quietest song of the night. “Answering Machine” meanwhile is one of the most upbeat.
They also tackled the surf-rocker “Cannibal Surf Babe” which did just fine unplugged and stripped to the basics. “The Space” received a completely new, jazzy arrangement. They played this version many times over the year, but it’s a bit of a slog compared to the rest. The closer “Eighty Days” is jaunty and receives a massive response from the crowd, as does “Gazpacho”. Appropriately enough, the Walls had gazpacho on their menu that night.
Speaking of which, the menu is included as part of the booklet. It does indeed sound like the best restaurant in town! “Salad of black pasta with marinated seafood and prawns.” Wow!
This album was reissued in 2018, giving everybody a chance to get one. You should.