I didn’t think I would even be at this show on the Saturday morning, expecting to have to stay in that night, but things changed. So it was I hastily booked a ticket (in the upper reaches of this arena) and a train, which conveniently stops at my local station thus negating the need to go into Liverpool city centre first, and headed up to what many still call the MEN Arena. It was the first time I’d been to this huge bowl in over a year, more to the point my first visit since that terrible attack in May. Having reached Manchester Victoria (and thus, the arena which sits atop the station) in plenty of time, there was time to have a little look around and see what had changed since last I was here.
First of all, you cannot now access the new walkway from Victoria Station to the arena concourse without your ticket for the event. There were barriers in place at the bottom of the steps, and Showsec staff situated at those barriers. As the old box office is still out of commission, I asked about ticket collection. The new box office is situated on the other side of this huge building, inside the underpass off New Bridge Street next to the arena car park and opposite the former Strangeways brewery site. Ticket collected, and there was time to have a little look around the immediate area, where there were plenty of Christmas market stalls in place. It was somewhat of a maze to get around, even if like me you do know this area of Manchester well, so after a hot drink and a cake from a well-known bakery chain I decided to go into the hall early.
When you enter the arena now, be it through Victoria Station or the other main entrance on Hunts Bank, you now need to have your ticket ready as described earlier, before even getting to the steps. Once you’re allowed through, and have climbed up to the City Room foyer you’re now confronted by airport-style scanners. There were four lines to go through these scanners, and it felt very much like the procedure before boarding a flight, there was even a shouty bloke organising the queues! The items they wanted in the basket were mobile phones, e-cigs, pocket cameras (that was me!) while we were ushered through a body scanner like those at the airport. All that done, and with my quip asking which way to the planes ignored, it was through the doors and into the arena concourse. Although they’d only just opened up there were already queues building at these scanners so it was probably a good idea to give plenty of time to get through it all. The procedure was understandable, although it was noted that attack came when the venue was letting out, not letting in.
When I got to my spot, high up in the upper tiers I found the majority of that area was sectioned off! They’d only opened two of the blocks and then only partially, about ten rows were open and I found myself sat in splendid isolation, high above the stage just over halfway back. The floor was seated, unusual for a rock gig at this place, and by my estimation they were expecting a crowd of 11-12000. (That means you could have staged a gig at Liverpool’s Echo Arena, Purple people!) It was nice and comfy up there anyway as I settled for CATS in SPACE, who would open proceedings at 7pm sharp.
When the openers came on, the arena had filled substantially. Their intro tape shows a nostalgic sense of humour with the theme tune to ‘The Sweeney’ playing over the PA. The group are unashamedly influenced by 1970s music, not just rock and indeed two of the band (guitarist Greg Hart and top-hatted keyboardist Andy Stewart) play in the covers act Supersonic 70s Show (also billed as Solid Gold 70s), an act I’ve seen live on two occasions. The CATS were only given around half an hour, meaning only a handful of numbers could be played. Opening with the title track of first album ‘Too Many Gods’ they didn’t hang about before next song ‘The Mad Hatters’ Tea Party’. Straight away it was clear they not only had a good sound in this massive bowl, but they were in great form themselves. Lead singer Paul Manzi gave a superb performance, ably backed by all the other CATS but in particular bassist Jeff Brown, who duetted with Manzi on ‘Greatest Story Never Told’, a lengthy epic off their first album and one that was probably brave to play considering they had only a short time. The other songs were ‘Timebomb’ off the current ‘Scarecrow’ album and they closed with ‘Five Minute Celebrity’ from the debut. That one featured some Who-style windmilling from Greg Hart, appropriate as the song is in that band’s style and also gave drummer Steevi Bacon a brief moment in the spotlight. If you’d said to Greg Hart this time last year that he’d be playing big arenas opening for one of the country’s legendary bands he’d probably have laughed; as it is he and CATS in SPACE have had an incredible year. They’ve opened for Thunder on their UK tour, done their own run of headline dates, and straight after this run of shows they’re back out again, this time supporting Status Quo on their usual winter tour. The band have gained a great deal of support in the year since I saw them play across this city at the University, and now with some crucial industry support this group of individually talented but collectively brilliant guys can only get even more popular in 2018. You cannot help but be delighted for them, especially Greg Hart whose vision it was but all these guys have paid plenty of dues, their success now is thoroughly deserved.
The next act up were Europe; now I have only seen these guys once before, and that was at the Liverpool Empire at the height of their ‘The Final Countdown’ hysteria 30 years ago. That night, the audience was overwhelmingly teenage girls who outnumbered the rockers in the audience by about five to one – and I can still hear the screaming in my head to this day! The band of today is the ‘classic’ line-up which recorded that smash hit song and album; that includes guitarist John Norum who, back when they played in Liverpool 30 years ago was absent. Back then his place had been taken by Kee Marcello, who slotted into the line-up seamlessly. Despite this being the classic band, their sound has evolved markedly since then, and listeners to Planet Rock who have heard their most recent single ‘Walk The Earth’ would have been forgiven for thinking they were more Purple than Purple these days! When Europe came on stage tonight, that was the track they opened with, all brooding organ sound and heavy guitar so reminiscent of the band that was headlining tonight. The new material was well-received, and singer Joey Tempest was in good voice, however when they did reach back to their vintage era the crowd really woke up. Introducing ‘Rock The Night’, the singer cheekily borrowed a Coverdale expression with ‘Here’s a song for ya!’ That got the crowd up, and they also played ‘Carrie’ off that same album, for any remaining 1980s teenyboppers presumably! 😀
This band have survived the millstone hit single by delivering consistently strong albums in recent years, showing that they are indeed a legitimate rock band and not just a bunch of popsters who got lucky once. Needless to say ‘The Final Countdown’ was played last in the set, and air guitars broken out for Norum’s widdly guitar solo in the middle of the song! Europe have just announced a headline tour of their own for September 2018, and with King King along as support that is definitely a gig to look out for.
Deep Purple have billed this as ‘The Long Goodbye’ tour, hinting but not confirming that this will be their last major tour. The members have said in interviews that they don’t want to stop, but they’re now hitting their seventies and with the best will in the world, they cannot do this for very much longer. They still believe in offering new material whenever they do tour however, and this year’s album ‘Infinite’ was well-received by fans and critics alike. To coincide with this tour, the band even appeared on a BBC special which aired days before this tour commenced; that would never have been countenanced back in the days when Tommy Vance was the corporation’s only outlet for bands of this ilk. Nowadays, Purple and other classic bands of the era are finally being appreciated by a wider circle than the ‘rock crowd’ as their televised concert showed. If you saw that show, then this set was very much along those same lines. Opening with ‘Time For Bedlam’, complete with Gillan’s eerie spoken intro, they played several new tracks interspersed with selected classics. ‘Bloodsucker’ from ‘In Rock’ followed (or should that be ‘Bludsucker’, from ‘Abandon’ seeing as the band re-recorded the track in 1998 with Steve Morse now in place?) and that one showed how frontman Ian Gillan has managed his voice to account for his advanced years. He no longer sings the last verse in a high register, but delivers it as per the rest of the song. It still works, and he can still give the ‘ohhhh nonono!’ where required. He has adapted himself well, and as such can still carry these tunes and give a performance. That’s the right way to go about it, some other singers try too hard to push their voices live and end up blasting their throats out, Gillan has wisely rationed his voice and doesn’t try to be the guy he was in 1972.
The band were getting a very warm reception from the Manchester audience, even for the new material, which was appreciated by the frontman. There were of course plenty of oldies for the fans to enjoy still, ‘Lazy’ came mid-set and featured current keyboardist Don Airey who gave a lengthy, improvised intro before he and guitarist Steve Morse traded solo spots. The 80s were acknowledged with ‘Knocking At Your Back Door’ and ‘Perfect Strangers’, both of which still sound good in the live set today. ‘Space Truckin’ was performed towards the end, not quite the same intensity as when the Mk III version played it in 1974 (and no explosions near drummer Ian Paice this time), and again, Gillan correctly opted not to reach for the falsetto where it was deployed on record. Needless to say, ‘Smoke On The Water’ closed the main set.
Mindful of the time (I had to be on that 23:09 train heading back to Liverpool!) I was on the starting blocks during the encore; ‘Hush’ came first, then a prolonged bass and drum jam led into ‘Black Night’, prompting a big singalong from the crowd. I was all but out of the door when during the improvised section of this number, Steve Morse surprised us all by bursting into AC/DC’s ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’. As everybody was aware, the news of that band’s founder member Malcolm Young’s death had emerged earlier in the day, and although no words were said by any of the bands during this show, that one excerpt showed how highly he was regarded by his fellow rock musicians. Even before the last chord rang out I was scooting across the concourse back to Victoria Station, for my train which I caught in time to get a nice seat for the ride home.
Considering I wasn’t sure I’d even be at this gig, it was a very good night of rock. One classic band, one who are finally being recognised as such and one new band whose membership is one that’s been around and done it. Purple’s legacy is safe, while both the other bands on this bill can look forward to another successful year in 2018.