These multi-band arena bills are great for promoters, not so great for punters. It was three years ago that a similar tour (only with three bands that time) also headlined by Alter Bridge proved to be a bit of a watershed moment for me, in all my gig-going years. That show, midweek at Manchester’s huge arena, started bang on 7pm and in order to get there from where I was working at the time (Mold, in North Wales) meant an early dart. One stressful stop/start run along the M56 (after a long day’s work, not to mention a hefty commute that morning just to get there) and I barely made it in time for the first band. By the end of the night I was out on my feet, and with a run back home to look forward to plus having to be up again early the next morning, I decided something really did have to give.
Since then, I’ve tried to keep gigs to weekends unless they’re in the Liverpool area (which isn’t something that happens that often, a frequent complaint of mine and a subject for a post on another day) and so when this tour was announced earlier in the year, I plumped for Nottingham simply because it fell on the Saturday, rather than Manchester which once again fell midweek. That in turn led to another frustration of mine (the gig clash), as on this same night Aussie nutters Airbourne were in Manchester with Crobot supporting. That’s a gig I’d have liked to see too, and if only one of these tours had found their way to Liverpool I might have been able to do that too, but it was not to be.
So it was that I headed back down the motorway to the Midlands, the East this time and Nottingham’s newly-renamed Motorpoint Arena. For a large-scale arena it is surprisingly intimate, in fact I think Liverpool’s Echo Arena is a little bigger. The floor does not seem to stretch back as far, and I reckon a seat in the back blocks of this place would still give you a decent view (unlike some arenas where you’re halfway home again if in the back section). Thanks to Google having one of its periodic wobblers however, I found myself being led on a magical mystery tour of Nottingham as the app in my phone assured me that my destination (a shopping centre car park a short walk from the venue) was ‘just around the corner’, as I found myself rattling down an unadopted road with little in the way of city centre facilities. It did this at least twice before I eventually pulled over, and completely cleared the phone app and started over. Note to self: invest in a proper sat-nav!
Eventually I found the car park, and the venue was indeed only about five minutes away on foot. On entering, opening act Like A Storm were already on the stage. I’d hoped to get here early enough to catch all the bands and get a good spot reasonably close to the front, and although I missed the start I saw enough of the Kiwi ‘didgeridoo metal’ act to get a good impression of them. They were good live, but apart from the occasional use of said didgeridoo from frontman Chris Brooks, weren’t anything I hadn’t seen or heard before. Towards the end of their set they delivered a cover of AC/DC’s ‘TNT’ (downtuned to fit their overall sound) which did get the early attendees rocking.
Next band up were French metallers Gojira; there was a sizeable element to the crowd who were here for this band. Another good live band who weren’t really my cup of metal, the most impressive performance for me was courtesy of drummer Mario Duplantier. Their material appeared built upwards from his relentless pounding, and although they played well and got their fans going, it all was a bit too reminiscent of 90s shouty nu-metal for me.
Special guests Volbeat also had a considerable portion of the crowd here for their set, indeed one sign in the stand actually declared ‘Only Here For Volbeat’. The Danish four-piece, fronted by vocalist/guitarist Michael Poulsen, were impressive. Poulsen had a strong voice, and their set had some good singalong material including ‘The Devil’s Bleeding Crown’ and ‘Sad Man’s Tongue’ (preceded by a snippet of Johnny Cash’s ‘Ring Of Fire’ – now that WOULD have gone down well had you played in Liverpool, guys!) For ‘Evelyn’ they brought out Napalm Death frontman Barney Greenway who elicited cheers, though his grunt vocal contrasted starkly with Poulsen’s more traditional rock ‘n’ roll voice. I enjoyed their set, despite the antics of one prat in the crowd who pushed in and caused mayhem until ejected by the stewards, and despite Poulsen getting nobody up on stage when he invited it for closing number ‘Still Counting’. Perhaps the stewards weren’t having any of that here!
I always look forward to seeing Alter Bridge live, however it’s been clear that despite two (now three) new albums, their live sets always leaned heavily on second album ‘Blackbird’, giving the impression that the ‘Blackbird’ tour simply continued on and on past 2008. This was the tour where they finally started to move away from that album, with a more balanced set which gave all their albums a shake. They still played five tracks from ‘Blackbird’, with four off current offering ‘The Last Hero’ and predecessor ‘Fortress’, but it was an improvement especially considering when I saw them last in 2013, then-current album ‘Fortress’ had only three tracks performed that night!
This was one of frontman Myles Kennedy’s better nights; I make this my eighth Alter Bridge show and I’ve seen him in terrific form and I’ve seen him when he is suffering badly. This was the former, the British weather hadn’t struck as badly this time and his throat benefited from that. However what let this down a little for me was the sound; once again it was a mix heavily dominated by bass. Four-stringer (five, in fact) Brian Marshall spends much of the show at the back stood by Scott Philips’s drum riser, but there was no avoiding his sound as it dominated, if not quite swamped, Kennedy and guitarist Mark Tremonti. As in 2013, Kennedy had two microphones (one at stage right) and alternated between the two. A surprise came after the band performed ‘Isolation’; Tremonti took to his mike to point out a young fan who had been totally lost in the performance to that point, and then took the guitar off his back and HANDED it to that fan! I later found out this gesture was in conjunction with his guitar supplier PRS Guitars, he has been playing a production model for one number and handing it out at selected gigs. It still looked mightily impressive and as Tremonti explained, it was motivated by a desire to keep this style of music alive for the next generation.
There was some knockabout banter between Kennedy and Tremonti before the band performed the epic ‘Blackbird’, and this time the preceding excerpt from the Beatles song of the same name had been restored. (That’s another one that would go down great should you perform in Liverpool, AB!) Kennedy was playing noticeably more lead guitar this time around, especially in the newer numbers and the defined roles of singer/rhythm guitarist (Kennedy) and lead guitar (Tremonti) were a little more blurred as a result. That was even more pronounced when they performed ‘Waters Rising’ from the previous album, with Tremonti taking lead vocal.
I wanted to enjoy this show more than I actually did however, since that bass overwhelmed the proceedings. I would have scored this at three inflatable guitars but two things prompt me to award one more: firstly they are making an effort at last to move on from their second album and secondly, Kennedy’s vocal performance was probably the best I’ve seen from him since about 2008. It may be down to the fact that he has actually had something resembling a break this time, with Slash putting his Conspirators on ice to hook up with W. Axl Rose and Duff McKagan in the part-reunited Guns n’ Roses, while Tremonti has ploughed on with his solo tours when not performing with Alter Bridge. With a better sound mix I’d have praised this as their best show I’ve seen by them to date, as it was I’m just encouraged. For me then, Volbeat were band of the night as they had by far the best out-front sound as well as some good songs.