Caught Live: Martin Turner, Citadel St Helens 26 February 2016

“Who?”
Martin Turner, ex-Wishbone Ash?
“Oh right, yeah.”

That’s the power of an established band name, and one which led to a court case a couple of years back between founding members Martin Turner and Andy Powell, who both fronted bands using the name Wishbone Ash until the matter was settled in favour of guitarist Powell, who now has exclusive ownership of the name. However, the court threw a bone out to bassist/vocalist Turner, who up until then was touring under the name ‘Martin Turner’s Wishbone Ash’ (believing that, as a founding member, he had equal rights to the name). Although the ruling meant he could no longer tour under that name, he could still advertise the fact he was in that band when promoting his gigs. Since then, he has gone out either as ‘Martin Turner Plays The Music of Wishbone Ash’, or simply ‘Martin Turner, ex-Wishbone Ash’ as he has done for this current run of dates. To the outsider the whole thing looked rather unseemly, especially since we’re talking about guys now well into their sixties, once part of a band whose heyday was the early 1970s, and whose original line-up didn’t last beyond that decade. But as stated at the top, a band name once established, becomes a valuable brand.

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Martin Turner and band at St Helens Citadel

To Turner’s credit he has put the case behind him and has come back with a new album (Written In The Stars’) featuring his current band, and this show at the intimate Citadel in St. Helens was to be filmed for an upcoming DVD. There was no support, and the guys came on at 7:30 for the first part of the show, featuring the complete ‘Written In The Stars’ album played live. I’ll admit I’m completely unfamiliar with this album since I don’t have it, so sat in my seat high in the balcony at the Citadel to pay close attention. What I got from this run-through of the new material was that all the hallmarks were still there; twin lead guitars present and correct, plus some excellent close harmony vocals, both guitarist Danny Willson and drummer Tim Brown backed up Turner on many vocal parts. The last new track was album closer ‘Interstellar Rockstar’, a mellower track obviously influenced by the recently-passed David Bowie, but built up into another guitar workout between Willson and fellow axeman Misha Nikolic. This material was generously received by the crowd but it wasn’t what most were here for in truth; they were here for the classic Wishbone Ash material (jokingly referred to by Turner as ‘hippie music’!) They then segued into that part of the show before the end of the first set, launching into ‘The Pilgrim’ and closing part one with ‘Blind Eye’. Following that, with the crowd now cheering raucously, Turner and company took their leave for a short interval.

When they returned to the stage about 20 minutes later, Turner was now sporting what looked like pyjama bottoms along with a white jacket (!) No marks for sartorial elegance then, but that mattered little once they struck up and ran through a selection of Wishbone Ash’s classic tracks. The playing was absolutely top-drawer, with Danny Willson the more prominent of the two lead guitarists. He was even given the lead vocal on ‘You See Red’, a track originally written by former Wishbone Ash guitarist Laurie Wisefield. This part of the show was very much the crowd-pleaser, with many tracks from ‘Argus’ including ‘Warrior’ and ‘The King Will Come’ played. (‘So you like the tracks off Argos then’, joked Turner!)

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Martin Turner live at the Citadel

Such was the standard of playing I found myself wondering ‘who needs Andy Powell anyway?’ as this band proved beyond doubt they had the chops to do justice to the classic material. It helped that the sound mix was one of the best I’d heard at a rock gig for some time; it may be Turner’s name on the ticket but his bass was not overpowering everything else and the balance was just right. It really makes a difference when the live mix is done properly, accounting for the venue size. (It was noticed that there was not a huge wall of amps on the backline, just enough for the surroundings.) Turner was in jovial mood throughout, even finding time in the encore to deliver a (corny) joke before delivering two more classic songs, ‘Doctor’ and ‘Jail Bait’.

Martin Turner is now eligible for his pension (‘my kids call me a rock fossil, not a rock legend’, he told us) but on the evidence of this performance he still has plenty to give. If you get the chance to see his band live in your area, go along.

4gtrs

Deserving

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EP: Delain ‘Lunar Prelude’ (Napalm Records)

NB: For reviews, Air Guitar ratings will appear from now on. 5 – Delightful; 4 – Deserving; 3 – Decent; 2 – Dreary; 1 – Dismal. Look out for the inflatable guitars! 

Delain’s next full studio album is currently in progress, but as that isn’t due until later in the year the Dutch symphonic metallers have issued this mini-album. A similar idea to when they issued their ‘Interlude’ compilation between studio albums, the artwork for this release is once again provided by Glenn Arthur, who started working with the band on 2012’s ‘We Are The Others’. The record was issued in both vinyl and CD format, and this time I plumped for the ‘gold’ vinyl edition, available only by mail order. I treated myself to a vinyl copy of ‘We Are The Others’ at their merchandise stall on the last UK run, and found it a better listen than the CD edition; it seemed to have better range in its sound.

The record comprises two new studio tracks (‘Suckerpunch’ and ‘Turn The Lights Out’), one song from the last album (‘Don’t Let Go’) reworked and several live cuts, plus an ‘orchestral’ arrangement of ‘Suckerpunch’. It is therefore a shorter offering than ‘Interlude’ (which was a collection of ‘B’ sides, reworked material, live tracks and two new songs) but is intended to serve much the same purpose: to keep the band’s profile high while they work on the follow-up to 2014’s ‘The Human Contradiction’, scheduled for release later in 2016.

Taking the record from its sleeve, first impressions were that the streaky yellow appearance of the vinyl gave a  rather different impression to the ‘gold’ effect that they were going for (!) but the disc itself appears to be heavy duty vinyl; you can’t use it like a wobble board like you could with some LP records back in the 1980s! Disc colour notwithstanding, the needle was dropped into the groove and it was time to pin back the lugholes…

Both ‘Suckerpunch’ and ‘Turn The Lights Out’ have been performed live; the latter debuted on the UK tour and the former provided the basis for the theme behind the band’s recent show at Haarlem which I attended. On record they are rather ‘lighter’ in tone than live; there’s not as much emphasis on the guitar, even though the group now boast two axe-slingers with the recent addition of Merel Bechtold as a permanent member, alongside incumbent guitarist Timo Somers.

‘Suckerpunch’ sounds rather like a 1980s pop-rock song, with it’s ‘whoa-whoa’ hook and also using the old modulation trick on the chorus near the end, it isn’t a million miles away from the sort of thing Bon Jovi broke big with 30 years ago. One definitely aimed at the radio, even if the lyrical content isn’t quite the sort of standard boy/girl stuff of typical chart hits (‘Suckerpunch the demons from my dreams’, sings Charlotte Wessels over those Jovi-esque ‘whoa’ chants). ‘Turn The Lights Out’ is even lighter in tone, with the singer’s sweeter side shown on the chorus. Whether this suggests a rather poppier direction for the next record is still to be determined, but if they are going that way then remember to pack the guitars – their best album to date (IMO) ‘April Rain’ was very much in that vein, strong pop songs with enough of a heavy guitar base to satisfy those of a more metallic persuasion.

Next is the reworked version of ‘Don’t Let Go’, a track originally found on the expanded edition of ‘The Human Contradiction’. This one HAS been given a slightly heavier treatment, but is still difficult to distinguish from the original version. Similar to the reworked treatment of ‘Are You Done With Me’ found on ‘Interlude’, you have to listen to them back-to-back to spot differences in production. I’d have liked to see something completely different to the original if they are going to redo a recent track, the differences are so slight as to render this version almost redundant.

The best part of this record is definitely the live section; there are four live tracks presumably taken from a recent show in their home country, as the frontwoman can be heard addressing the crowd in her native Dutch between songs. All the live tracks (‘Lullaby’, ‘Stardust’, ‘Here Come The Vultures’, ‘Army Of Dolls’) featured on their last album , these versions showcase Wessels’ excellent live vocal and feature (I’m guessing) the expanded six-piece line-up. The lead guitar part on ‘Stardust’ does sound a little different in tone, suggesting it’s Merel Bechtold’s six-string we’re hearing. The songs do sound heavier, harder-hitting live than on the record now that they have a twin-guitar attack, and it’s to be hoped they can bring some of that heavier sound into the studio for the next album. The record closes with the orchestral version of ‘Suckerpunch’; again this is an idea reused from ‘The Human Contradiction’ where two songs were given similar treatment for the expanded 2-disc edition. I’d have preferred another live track personally, these orchestral arrangements sound like film scores and are little more than filler in my view.

All in all then a bit of a mixed bag; of the two new songs ‘Suckerpunch’ is the stronger but the live material is the most worthwhile for me, while I find the orchestral number and the remade song somewhat non-essential. One for existing fans rather than anybody new to the group; if you are just finding them I’d recommend starting with ‘We Are The Others’ as that album provides much of the basis for their live show still.

3gtrs

Decent

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The artwork for Delain’s ‘Lunar Prelude’ by Glenn Arthur

Caught Live:Graham Bonnet Band, o2 Academy Liverpool 11 February 2016

If it went purely on talent, Graham Bonnet would have been a star now, performing on much bigger stages than the small downstairs one at Liverpool’s o2 Academy. A rock singer of astonishing range and power (even today), who has had what’s best described as a chequered career. He is of course best known for his time with Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, having sung on their best-known hit ‘Since You Been Gone’ and the album it came from, ‘Down To Earth’.  However, since parting company with Blackmore and company after their headlining appearance at the inaugural Monsters of Rock festival at Donington Park in 1980, his career took several twists and turns. He enjoyed a solo hit with the single ‘Night Games’ in 1981 before linking up with guitarist Michael Schenker. That partnership yielded the album ‘Assault Attack, but soon hit the buffers after a well-documented onstage incident in Sheffield. He then founded Alcatrazz, a band which brought guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen (and his successor Steve Vai) to the attention of the wider rock fanbase. While both went on to bigger things, Bonnet seemed to be left behind somewhat as personal issues began to get the better of him.

In recent years he has put his past troubles behind him, and has now put together a band under his own name featuring some excellent – if unknown – musicians. The Graham Bonnet Band, as it’s billed, is a four-piece with himself out front, flanked by bassist Beth-Ami Heavenstone and guitarist Conrado Pesinato with the engine powered by drummer Mark Zonden. All are experienced players from the Los Angeles area, although the focus is on the British frontman. The set delivered was very much a case of ‘give ’em what they want’; a mixture of songs from his Rainbow days, some from the Michael Schenker Group, some Alcatrazz and a couple of solo tracks. They even played ‘Only One Woman’, a song Bonnet scored a hit with as singer of The Marbles, almost 50 years ago!

Opening with the Rainbow classic ‘Eyes Of The World’, the singer showed during this set that he very much still possesses ‘the pipes’, as he ran through this set packed with fan favourites, drawing plaudits from many in the audience who were knocked out that a guy his age (68) could still belt it out like that. He looked in good shape too, throwing many poses and even getting on his knees at one point. He got a big cheer even for informing us that he’d been sober for fourteen years as of 2016 – from what I could see tonight, he was singing as well as he ever has done in a live setting.

With such a mixed set, comprising songs written and arranged by some of rock’s most celebrated guitarists, there was a lot of focus on Conrado Pesinato. He doesn’t try to copy the style of a Blackmore, Malmsteen, Vai or Schenker; he keeps enough elements of their original solos while putting his own stamp on the material. One particularly challenging number was the Alcatrazz song ‘God Blessed Video’ which involves a lot of finger-tapping – he performed that while still delivering backing vocals! Over the other side of the stage, Beth-Ami Heavenstone was solid and dependable, playing with discipline and locking in well with Mark Zonden. Of course the hits were delivered, ‘All Night Long’ came early, as did his solo hit ‘Night Games’, while ‘Since You Been Gone’ came towards the end allowing the singer to encourage some audience ‘whoa-wo-wo’ chants.

The band have been working on new material, showing that they’re not intending to just play the hits forever, but this set definitely gave the audience what they craved, a nostalgic look back through the classic rock era from the perspective of one of the major players of that scene. On the evidence of tonight, Bonnet and his crew still have plenty to offer.

The show was actually a four-band bill, unbeknownst to me so I missed the early openers (Matchstickmen). The band that were on when I entered the venue (The Sonic Revolvers) were a local act, hailing from nearby Frodsham. Although their vocalist tried hard to get things going, they were merely competent and didn’t do a lot for me. They probably weren’t helped by the overly-bassy sound mix, though their guitarist had little in the way of tone – it was a wall of noise.

Main support were London band Evyltyde who are doing all dates on this UK run; they also suffered from a much too bassy mix, though at least the bassist (with his illuminated fretboard) gave plenty to listen to with his dextrous runs! I wasn’t too taken with these either, the guitarist and female singer were somewhat overwhelmed by the mix but there was little in the singer’s voice to really grab my attention anyway.

 

 

Caught Live: The Carnival of Madness, Echo Arena Liverpool 30 January 2016

Back in 2012, Kentucky rockers Black Stone Cherry headlined a sold-out gig at Liverpool’s o2 Academy; that night was their first visit to our city and after a triumphant set, vocalist/guitarist Chris Robertson promised the crowd that it wouldn’t be their last. Four years on, he and Black Stone Cherry made good on that pledge when they came back, this time to the larger Echo Arena to headline this four-band bill, on a tour dubbed Carnival of Madness and also featuring Shinedown, Halestorm and newcomers Highly Suspect.

I’m a frequent complainer that we get precious little of this kind of event at our arena, as similar multi-band bills in the past have called only at the Manchester Arena in this region. The tour is also scheduled to call there once again, but credit is due to the promoters and the bands for bringing this one to our end of the East Lancs Road. I last saw Black Stone Cherry top a similar sort of bill at the arena up the road two years ago, and noted how they’d grown into their role as headliners on the big stage. They’ve always been a talented band, but it took some time for them to get through to me as early appearances on these shores seemed to be missing a certain ‘something’ that made me sit up and take notice. That previous tour in 2012 which called at Liverpool cemented their headlining status in this country, they had made that step up and were no longer an up-and-coming act, but the finished article.

Before all that, there were three other acts. Openers Highly Suspect came on stage at the very early time of 6:15 pm. which caught many out including myself, who was aware of the early start but had to endure a bus ride through the city that seemed to take on Magical Mystery Tour proportions! (Ongoing roadworks have forced some traffic diversions). As it was I caught only the end of their 30 minute slot. They sounded heavy enough but 30 minutes wouldn’t really have been enough to judge them on, let alone about five! Hopefully I’ll catch them again another time. The arena floor was still to fill up, so I was able to get within about ten metres of the front for Halestorm’s set. Lzzy Hale’s crew were in Liverpool only a few months ago, headlining a special show at the o2 Academy where they performed their current album ‘Into The Wild Life’ in full. That was a truly memorable night, as fans had come not just from across the country but from all over the world to be at that show. This time, it was a much tighter ship being run as they were up at a still-early time of 7pm. They only got about a 45 minute set, but didn’t mess about once hitting the stage, opening with ‘Love Bites (So Do I)’ to get the early arrivals up and rocking. With such a short slot, they had to keep it tight and hard, but have been in this situation before on similar arena tours. The set was split between the current album and previous offering ‘The Strange Case Of…’ with a brief slot for drummer Arejay Hale to entertain the crowd as only he can.

I was one of those who was not that enamoured with ‘Into The Wild Life’ but when I saw Halestorm in August, it was clear that live, these songs took on a new lease of life. That was the case again at the arena, as they played a selection of the harder songs from that album with guitarist Joe Hottinger much more to the fore than was the case on the record. Naturally the main focus was Lzzy, and she gave her usual strong vocal performance allied with her natural ability to get a crowd on her side, even one which wasn’t all familiar with her band’s work. I’d have liked to see these higher up the bill, and it is to be hoped that one day they’ll come back to the Echo Arena as headliners themselves.

Next up were Jacksonville rockers Shinedown. I saw these last in 2013, on a bill headlined by Alter Bridge which also included Halestorm as openers, but I was less than thrilled with this band that night. Then, it seemed that frontman Brent Smith was spending more time preaching to the crowd than actually singing, and I was not totally convinced by his live performance on that night in Manchester anyway. They do have some very good songs however, and this performance put right some of the reservations I had in 2013. Smith’s vocal was more convincing for a start, and although he still did his ‘preach to the crowd’ bit (including an excruciating moment where he insisted that fans turn to one another and shake hands), he kept these between-song lectures much shorter than last time out. He did actually vault over the barrier and onto the floor, parting the crowd in the process for one lecture, but even so, it didn’t drag as long as when he was on his soapbox last time. They played several songs off new record ‘Threat To Survival’ including radio hits ‘Cut The Cord’ and ‘State of My Head’, but the crowd were rocking to older favourites such as ‘Devour’ and ‘The Sound Of Madness’. He still hasn’t won me over, but this was a marked improvement on the set the band performed last time out.

A curtain descended over the stage as the crew prepared for Black Stone Cherry, and it was around 9:30 when the Kentucky outfit hit the stage. Opening with ‘Me And Mary Jane’ while the curtain was still in place, they had the crowd bouncing already before that curtain fell to reveal the group on a huge stage with ramps front and back. With a new album in the pipeline but not yet ready for release, the band delivered a run-through of favourites from their four albums to date, including ‘Blind Man’, ‘Rain Wizard’ and ‘White Trash Millionaire’. As usual, guitarist Ben Wells and bassist Jon Lawhon were running all over this big stage and up the ramps, frequently swapping places and headbanging while playing. Driven as hard as ever by drummer John Fred Young, it’s frontman Robertson who holds the whole thing together, demonstrating both an excellent singing voice and a deft touch on guitar. I’d go as far as to say he’s probably the finest singer/guitarist in hard rock since Dave Meniketti, who is still heading up Y&T to this day.

For ‘Peace Is Free’, the band brought Lzzy Hale back onto the stage to sing it from verse two onwards; the bands on this bill are all well-known to each other and that was further demonstrated when Robertson announced they would play a new song, which he told us was co-written by (former Shinedown guitarist) Jasin Todd. This came during an acoustic interlude with just Robertson and Wells on the stage, and for that segment the frontman got the crowd to light up the arena with the modern equivalent of the cigarette lighter, the cellphone lamp. The effect was startling, with an arena full of bright LEDs lighting the stage. A nice touch came in the encore; Robertson gave a clue as to what was coming by declaring: “We are Black Stone Cherry, and we play Rock ‘n’ Roll” – before closing things with a cover of ‘Ace Of Spades’. Everyone picks that when covering Motörhead, but with Lemmy no longer here and keeping in mind that he should have been playing at his spiritual home of Hammersmith Odeon (ok, the eventim Apollo) on the same night, we’ll give the BSC boys a pass.

This was a very enjoyable night of rock played to a respectable, if not capacity crowd. It is to be hoped that having brought this tour to Liverpool, future tours of this nature will stop off here rather than bypass our city, as happens all too often still despite the arena being here for several years now. We like to rock in this city too, when given the chance!

Caught Live: Delain presents Suckerpunch, Patronaat Haarlem (NL) 29 January 2016

Once again, Delain pencilled in a show at Patronaat, a 1000-capacity venue in Haarlem, Netherlands to close out a touring cycle. This gig, dubbed ‘Suckerpunch’ after a new song they unveiled recently, follows on from their ‘My Masquerade’ show at the same venue in late 2013. I was at that gig as well, so knew my way around the town and the venue. Although the band said this was to be their final show of their club tour for the current album ‘The Human Contradiction’, within days of this gig they had jetted off to the US, initially to perform on a cruise ship for ‘70000 Tons Of Metal’ and then to tour the United States as guests on the next leg of Nightwish’s world tour.  They’re currently working on material for their fifth full studio album, and are about to release another interim mini-album (‘Lunar Prelude’) featuring two new cuts and some live material.

A large contingent of British fans had made their way over to Holland for this show, and as on their autumn run of UK dates, they had arranged a VIP meet and greet for those who chose to take it up. The format was similar to the VIP package on the UK tour; there were posters and photo cards for the band to sign (many of us from the UK did not take the posters, being much too large to carry home when we’d brought only an overnight bag!), a photo taken with the entire group, two acoustic songs performed by guitarist Timo Somers and singer Charlotte Wessels, and priority access to the main venue. The latter is the chief reason I had taken up this option, although the venue isn’t that big so was not quite on the front row as hoped. Once we’d settled into our spots in the main hall, Charlotte herself came running in to remind us that there was one more element to this VIP package. She then handed over to keyboardist Martijn Westerholt, who was stood at the mixer desk. He then gave us a little background on the progress of the next album, before playing us brief excerpts of material they had so far. The extracts weren’t really enough to make an informed judgement, other than to note that what we heard was very much in the style they’re known for. Following this, we then took our places as the hall filled up rapidly.

The support on the night were fellow Dutch metallers The Charm The Fury. As is so often the case with support acts I knew absolutely nothing of these beforehand, but was briefed by fellow fans that their female vocalist (Caroline Westendorp) tended to do more of the ‘death metal’ style of vocal than clean singing. Their set was quite short, with a few new tracks from an upcoming album played alongside material from their first record. Of course, it was all new to me (!) but although they didn’t bring much new to the table, they gave an energetic set with the vocalist putting a lot into her performance. She reminded me a little of Arch Enemy’s Alissa White-Gluz, although she came over as a little less aggressive and ‘in your face’, and thus easier to warm to. I’d find out later I was nearer the mark than I thought during their set.

As at ‘My Masquerade’, following the support a curtain descended over the stage while they set it up for Delain. It wasn’t until about 9:30 their time when the main event began, with the curtain dropping to show only drummer Ruben Israel and keyboardist Martijn Westerholt. We could hear the rest of the band, but guitarists Timo Somers and Merel Bechtold, bassist Otto Schimmelpenninck van der Oije and singer Charlotte Wessels were still hidden behind another curtain in the centre of the stage as they opened with the new song ‘Suckerpunch’. Only when they got to the chorus did that curtain drop and the whole band were visible.

A few of their favourites followed before the first treat of the night; they’d promised guest appearances and some rarely-played tracks as they did at ‘My Masquerade’. They performed the ballad ‘Scarlet’ (a bonus track on some editions of the last album) with guest cellist Maaike Peterse and with Martijn Westerholt playing a real piano, as opposed to the electric one he usually uses on tour. They went back to harder rock with ‘April Rain’, then’ Sleepwalkers Dream’ before playing ‘The Tragedy Of The Commons’. That track was my favourite off the last album, and I’d never seen it done live before this show. They brought out Caroline Westendorp from The Charm The Fury to deliver the ‘growl’ vocals performed on record by Alissa White-Gluz, and she also provided clean backing vocal for the closing section. It worked very well, as noted earlier there’s a similarity in style between the Canadian vocalist and tonight’s opener. Much of the rest of the set was familiar, but they played the other bonus track from the last album ‘Don’t Let Go’ tonight, which is rarely performed. The new song ‘Turn The Lights Out’ (unveiled on last autumn’s tour) came next, then they brought back the cellist for ‘Silhouette Of A Dancer’. The guest for this song was George Oosthoek, who appeared on the original recorded version and has performed live on several occasions with Delain since then.

As has become commonplace at Delain shows, there was a prolonged pause so that the singer could take in the raucous cheers from the crowd. She then spoke – or tried to before being drowned out again – in both Dutch and English, as she knew many had travelled from other countries to be at this show. The main set was closed out as usual with ‘Not Enough’, then a three-song encore finishing with ‘We Are The Others’.

This was a better show than the last time I saw this band in Manchester, that night was for me blighted by a sound that was much too bass-heavy. This was better, or perhaps I was in a better spot; the bass was still a bit too dominant but it didn’t overwhelm as was the case at the Academy 2 last year. Nowadays with the band now featuring two guitarists, the leads are fairly evenly split between Timo Somers and Merel Bechtold, although the former also provides some good backing vocal on some numbers. The only slight gripe I had was the overuse of CO2 jets in the lighting rig, they were REALLY loud and the ‘PFFFFFFFFT’ when they were set off detracted from the playing in many songs.

Once again this was a triumph for the group, with another sold-out show in their homeland attracting an audience comprising fans from both home and abroad. It is likely we won’t see them again until the autumn now, hopefully their next album will be ready by then but 2016 also marks ten years since the release of debut album ‘Lucidity’. They are bound to do something to mark that anniversary, so I look forward to their return to European (preferably British!) shores soon.