Riverside - Live at the Islington Assembly Hall, 22.05.17

I must admit I was very late to the Riverside party, only discovering them after reading the rave reviews of Love, Fear And The Time Machine. Since then I have been on a wonderful voyage of revelation, exploring their rich catalogue of music and rapidly they have become a favourite band of mine. After the tragic death 14 months previously of guitarist Piotr Grudzińsk, it is with a mixture of trepidation and excitement that I take up a place just behind the front row, right in line with Mariusz’s microphone. I’m not really sure what to expect from tonight.

After a long wait (due to no support act) the three remaining band members finally appear on stage and Mariusz says a few words indicating he hopes we go home with positive thoughts in our heads. The gentle intro to Coda rings out and eventually, as the song builds, Maciej Meller joins them on stage as the band stretch the song out way beyond its recorded version. For some reason this makes for a strange, stilted opening, the band appearing slightly nervous. There’s something not quite right that I can’t put my finger on. Never-the-less the band are given a huge roar of approval at the songs end.

The gorgeous opening chords of Second Life Syndrome ring out to more huge cheers as the band launch headlong into this long, hugely complicated song and gradually the band slip into gear. As they reach the climax of the From Hand To Mouth part of the song and Mariuz’s voice soars at the “And when that all shattered I felt I’d broken my fall…” section, the musicians click and the magic happens. This epic is followed by its mournful album-mate Conceiving You with its glittering piano introduction. This sad song is played beautifully with Mariusz’s desolate vocals and a dazzling guitar solo.

Bringing us up-to-date, next up is a crushing version of Caterpillar and the Barbed Wire and then the band stretch their legs with an extended The Depth of Self-Delusion. The song starts with a bass solo, allowing Mariusz to show his four string skills before the rest of the band join in and the song escaltes. This is one of the many things Riverside are excellent at - gradually building a song. There’s an extended jam that takes this tale of an overloaded modern life and love towards its conclusion.

In photos Mariusz always cuts a slightly forlorn figure but here on stage he comes alive. Bouncing around, smiling frequently and really inhabiting the songs he looks like he’s having a ball. When he addresses the audience his warmth shines though. Michał’s keyboard playing has to be seen to be believed. Surrounded by keyboards he is an old school player, sometimes attacking them in the style of Keith Emerson, throwing himself into the music. His arms are often stretched between his many different keyboards. From my vantage point at the front of the stage I can see the numerous pedals and switches on the floor and he’s like a manic ballet dancer pressing and triggering them. He too spends the whole gig grinning from ear to ear. On drums Piotr Kozieradzki is a powerhouse. He’s not behind the biggest drum kit in the world but nothing in his percussive arsenal is wasted as he keeps the beat. He is like a canvas for the rest of the band to spread their colour over. It must have been hard for Maciej, given the circumstances of him playing with the band. He is a very good guitarist and has all the right notes. His playing and soloing are superb but more importantly he has the emotional feel of the songs too.

At the end of the show Mariusz says that tonight is Riverside’s story and the set proves just what a wonderful story that is. It also demonstrates just what a varied catalogue the band have. There’s a delicate acoustic version of Lost (Why Should I Be Frightened By Hats?) and the slow-burn staccato of Saturate Me with Mariusz’s haunting vocals. And there’s the heavy, anthemic Panic Room, a real crowd pleaser built around one of the catchiest riffs ever written. The audience are encouraged to sing along with the “Sweet shelter of mine, I’m freezing without. Sweet shelter of mine, I’m dying without” chorus. Like we needed to be told!

Riverside also excel at long songs. Second Life Syndrome was played early in the set but Riverside save their other classic for late in the set. The vast, sprawling Escalator Shrine shows every facet of this amazing band. There’s funky, jazzy bass and scintillating guitar and there are parts of this song that remind me of classic 70’s Deep Purple. Like Blackmore and Lord sometimes Michał’s Hammond organ is in perfect harmony with Maciej’s guitar playing, sometimes they battle for supremacy. The song twists and turns and builds inexorably towards it’s climax which, when it arrives, is like a huge release of tension. Superb! The highest compliment I can pay to Riverside’s monumental songs is that they are worthy of standing shoulder to shoulder with the best of Marillion and Porcupine Tree.

Finishing the main set with Before, this mournful dirge is somehow curiously uplifting. Like many Riverside songs they are paeans to life, love, loss, confusion and sadness but within these sad psalms there is always hope, always a small shaft of light in the darkness. The band depart to huge applause and soon reappear. After a brief explanation the band play the tour’s signature song, Towards The Blue Horizon. Given the song’s lyrics this is an emotional roller-coaster and could almost have been written for Grudziński. With the emotion both on stage and in the audience there’s hardly a dry eye in the house. The hairs on my arms stand up when Mariusz sings “Where are you now my friend? I miss those days, I hope they take good care of you there. And you can still play the guitar and sing your songs. I just miss those days and miss you so. Wish I could be strong when darkness comes.” I’m sure this encapsulates the band’s emotions at playing their first tour without Piotr on guitar.

It seemed a strange decision to open the set with Coda and the band finish the set with a livelier version of the same song and in actual fact everything now makes perfect sense. Tonight is the story of the band and this feels like closing the circle. Completeness. Closure. A Way to move forwards. The band take their final bows wearing grins as big as ours down in the audience. I’m sad that I never saw the band with Piotr but after tonight I am very glad the band decided to carry on after his loss. I certainly leave feeling positive. After such an uplifting, enthralling performance it would be almost impossible not to.

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