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!

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