Caught Live: Def Leppard/Whitesnake, NEC Arena Birmingham 12 December 2015

Almost 32 years ago, I visited this venue for the first time to see a band called Whitesnake. I’ve seen a couple of incarnations of that band since then at the same place, most recently in 2008 when they toured alongside Def Leppard, which is the case once again in 2015 for this tour, dubbed ‘Let’s Get Rocked – In The Still Of The Night II’. Unlike the Leppards, Whitesnake have once again rung the changes in personnel; only guitarist Reb Beach remains from the 2008 line-up alongside mainman David Coverdale. That said, drummer Tommy Aldridge is a survivor from when I saw the first ‘hair metal’ incarnation here in 1988, and that line-up also featured guitarist Vivian Campbell – who has spent the last two decades as a member of Def Leppard!

The arena in Solihull (one of the first large-scale indoor arenas in this country) has had an extensive refit, increasing the capacity and from what I could see, improving the seating greatly. It is almost unrecognisable inside to how it looked 30 years ago, and for sponsorship purposes it is now known as the Genting Arena. But not for the purposes of this blog! Having visited this place numerous times down the years as the ‘NEC Arena’, that’s how it’s going to stay for the duration of this post… 😉

Nowadays the arena uses automatic turnstiles as you enter the building, the stewards scan your ticket barcode and in you go. All a bit like a train trip for me, but it does work efficiently and I found myself in a short queue inside the building, waiting to be let through to the venue hall itself. In this corridor, we could hear Whitesnake doing their soundcheck, and we were treated to ‘The Gypsy’, ‘Burn’, and ‘Fool For Your Loving’ among others. What I hadn’t realised was that there was a split line, a handful of early punters were put in a separate queue. I found out later the show was going to be filmed, but it was a frustrating sight to see that line go through first while the rest of us were held behind that tensabarrier. Luckily I still got on to the barrier at the front more or less where I intended to be but the centre including the area around the ramp coming from the stage was already taken up.

At around 6:45 openers Black Star Riders came onto the stage. Now with two albums under their belts, their live set is no longer as dependent on the Thin Lizzy repertoire as it was previously. There were only two Lizzy classics in their short set (three, if you count ‘Whiskey In The Jar’!) and although their own material is definitely influenced heavily by Scott Gorham’s old band, they’re now finding their own feet. Frontman Ricky Warwick sounded in better voice tonight than he did when I saw this band in Liverpool a couple of years back, and this was an enjoyable set warming up the early attendees nicely.

Next up were Whitesnake, as was the case in 2008 Coverdale had given over the closing slot to the Leppards. This is the third time he and his band have played arenas as part of a co-headline tour, with the last time being a tour alongside US rockers Journey. That hasn’t gone down too well with all their fans, some of whom would definitely prefer a tour of smaller theatres under their own banner, but it cannot be denied that this co-headline setup has proven popular, with the NEC arena close to being sold out on the night. So it’s likely to be something Coverdale will continue with, for as long as he wishes to carry on touring.

Once again, he had a couple of new Snakes in tow, with the big change coming in the guitar department. After over a decade alongside Coverdale, co-writing material and acting as the band’s (musical) leader, guitarist Doug Aldrich unexpectedly announced his departure from Whitesnake in May 2014. The reason given was scheduling difficulties, as he had taken up a role with Las Vegas show ‘Raiding The Rock Vault’ while the band were off the road. Popular with fans for his willingness to connect with them and always having time for a picture or to sign stuff, his departure came as a disappointment to many. Nonetheless Coverdale barely skipped a beat, recruiting former Night Ranger six-stringer Joel Hoekstra almost immediately. He did have to keep the guitarist under wraps for some weeks however, since he had prior commitments to fulfil and it was only in August of that year that Coverdale could unveil his new axeman finally.

Also departing the ranks was keyboardist Brian Ruedy, with multi-talented Italian musician Michele Luppi taking over the ivories for the road. The revamped band’s latest recorded offering is an album of Deep Purple covers from Coverdale’s time with that group, which raised a few eyebrows since he had consistently said that he wanted to move forward with his music rather than look back. So this album of songs first written 40 years ago came as something of a surprise, but in the main worked very well, as the band arranged the material to suit the voice Coverdale has now, not the one he had in 1974.

That leads me to point out the elephant in the room where this band is concerned: David Coverdale does not sing the way he did 40 years ago, or even ten years ago. Having come back from a near career-ending throat problem a few years back, long-standing fans had noticed that the band had taken the songs down at least two steps for live performance since then. He does make good use of his band to back him up vocally, Luppi in particular was likely chosen since he is an accomplished singer in his own right. All the musicians bar drummer Tommy Aldridge contribute vocally, with guitarist Reb Beach often accompanying the frontman on verses. The fanbase is definitely now split over Coverdale’s live vocal; there’s no doubt he isn’t the singer he was in 1984 (when I first saw him here) but he is now 64 with a fantastic career behind him. He does still have a mighty roar, he still gives you all he has got every night, and the amount of punters who still come along to watch must tell him he is doing something right still. ‘Burn’ opened the set, one of only five Deep Purple numbers in this set. Personally I’d have liked one or two more from ‘The Purple Album’ (I especially would have loved to see them do ‘You Keep On Moving’ as they’ve been doing in Europe) but although the tour started with many Purple classics in the set, it’s gradually been scaled back in favour of Whitesnake’s own songs. One song I think could do with a rest is ‘Love Ain’t No Stranger’ which I believe has featured on every tour since 1984, certainly on every one since Coverdale reactivated Whitesnake in 2003. A nice surprise was the restoration of ‘Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City’ to the set, dedicated to those fans who have been with Coverdale since his early days with Whitesnake.

The stage ramp was used a lot by the frontman, meaning from my position on the barrier I could see only David’s back for much of this set! However, I was directly in front of Joel Hoekstra, who spent most of the gig throwing shapes and showing off his fancy custom guitars, all of which feature the ‘Whitesnake’ logo. Those who thought the band lost a lot of showmanship with the departure of Doug Aldrich need not have worried, Hoekstra brought plenty of showmanship of his own to the proceedings. He is also equally as adept on the six-string as his predecessor. Fellow guitarist Reb Beach is now the longest-serving member of the band except for Coverdale himself, and was described by the singer as the new ‘bandleader’ when introducing the players. The rhythm section remains bassist Michael Devin and drummer Tommy Aldridge, who have formed a formidable partnership, while over the other side of the stage Michele Luppi quietly got on with his task of adding keyboard colour and strong vocal backing.

This was a strong performance from Whitesnake as a whole unit; how much longer Coverdale will continue in this vein is still open to conjecture, but he’s been confounding speculation for several years now and with dates already being pencilled in for 2016, he’s not showing any inclination to stop yet. Perhaps the regular infusion of new Snake blood is keeping him going, so I would not be surprised to see a few more changes in the ranks before he finally hangs up that microphone.

From my position on the barrier I was directly in line with one of the floor PA cabinets, and although the sound I was getting was a little bassy as a result, I knew straight away when Leppard’s soundman had taken over from Whitesnake’s as the sound from the tape playing music between acts suddenly became far more bassy. There was a huge curtain over the stage with the ‘Def Leppard’ logo on it while they were setting up for the Lepps, which fell at around 9:30 when the show started. Opening with ‘Let’s Go’ from the new, self-titled album, my worries about the sound being swamped by bass were confirmed from the outset as the bass thudded from that cabinet right through me all night. I realise it’s a bit of a lottery when you opt to go on the front but the bass sound really was too much from that spot, it wasn’t like that for either of the other two bands so I couldn’t understand why it needed to be like that for the closing band. It absolutely ruined any hope I had of enjoying Def Leppard’s set, such was the relentless pummelling I was getting from that cabinet.

Vocalist Joe Elliott sounded in good form from what I could make out, and acknowledged the packed NEC arena; noticing the people right at the back and declared that ‘rock n’ roll is definitely not dead’. Credit where it’s due, he also remembered that not everyone present was actually from Birmingham, addressing the audience as ‘Birmingham, and wherever else you have travelled from tonight’.

The best sound I got all night was when Elliott performed ‘Two Steps Behind’ solo and acoustic mid-set. With no bass guitar or drum to judder me into a blancmange, it was consequently the high point of the set for me. The set was weighted towards the ‘Hysteria’ album; although Elliott had promised ‘a bit of everything’ this night, there were only two tracks from their breakthrough album ‘Pyromania’ (‘Photograph’ and ‘Rock of Ages’) played (and both came in the encore). Their pre-‘Pyromania’ era was acknowledged only with the instrumental ‘Switch 625’, those hoping for ‘Wasted’ to return to the set will have to wait a little longer.

Had I been further back in the NEC’s huge hall, I might have enjoyed this show far more as they made good use of the screens and video backdrop, and would probably have got a better perspective of the sound. As it was, I endured this set and that was a real shame, as many of their best-loved songs were played but I simply could not enjoy it such was the overwhelming sound of that bass.

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