The door time on the ticket said 6:30, so I dashed up the M62 thinking I was pushed for time before doors opened, and fearing I’d get a lousy spot in this cramped basement venue. It is similar to the downstairs at Liverpool’s o2 Academy in capacity, and also in that if you can’t get somewhere near the front, you won’t get much of a view. However, after parking up (I know the back route in as a result of going to many gigs at this place, avoiding Oxford Road) and weaving my way around a massive queue for the main Academy (where 3 Doors Down were playing), the door staff at the University building told me that they weren’t open yet, and instead pointed me in the direction of the bar. One beverage later, and they had opened up the Club Academy doors. I missed out on getting to the front but managed to get near, and a reasonable spot in time for opening band Stray Train. I hadn’t realised this was a three-band bill, and it was news to me that it was actually a co-headline jaunt with German stoners Kadavar (this was not mentioned anywhere on the ticket).
Stray Train (hailing from Slovenia) played a good if rather inoffensive set, they are a five-piece playing a similar style of retro hard rock to Blues Pills themselves. All had the ‘hipster’ look of short but styled hair and straggly beards, one of the guitar players was even sporting a MAN BAG (!) but it was their other guitar player who stuck out. Considerably older (and greyer) than the other members, it looked as though one of the band members had taken their dad out on tour! He got the short straw when it came to stage lighting too, there was hardly any in his direction all set! They didn’t leave a lasting impression, although they went down well with the crowd who’d made the effort to get there early.
They didn’t hang about getting the stage cleared, even crew from the next band up were helping clear Stray Train’s kit away before setting up for Kadavar. I did raise an eyebrow when I saw them setting the drum kit front and centre of the stage, this band is a trio and I got a sense of foreboding when they plugged in the bass during setup, and it shook me to the core! They’re another band who had far too much of a backline for their surroundings, there were two stacks for guitar either side of the stage, and also two bass cabs either side with a head for each. When they came on (led by their drummer Christoph ‘Tiger’ Bartelt; flanked by bassist Simon ‘Dragon’ Bouteloup and guitarist/vocalist Christoph ‘Lupus’ Lindemann) it was a mass of hair, beards and overpowering bass. It appeared they had sound problems all night as crew appeared periodically to attend to ‘Dragon’s bass amp. Certainly the out-front sound I experienced was about ninety percent bass, it rather ruined things for me. Their music is epic stoner rock, with songs being dragged into extended jams, but there was so much bass I could feel it juddering through me all night. It wasn’t quite as bad as the Dinosaur Jr gig the week before, but it wasn’t far off and I do feel they’d have been better off leaving one of those amps off. It was way too much for a basement venue with a low ceiling and a cramped floor, a shame as I would probably have enjoyed their set given a decent sound. I soon understood why ‘Tiger’ was out front on the drums, he is basically Animal from the Muppets reincarnated – all whirling hair and wild expressions! Even their closing cover of The Beatles’ ‘Helter Skelter’ didn’t save things, the sound was just so bad that I couldn’t get into this band at all.
After Kadavar’s set, there was more frantic activity as the crew cleared their backline with remarkable efficiency, revealing the Blues Pills backline, with the space at the back of the stage empty as the drum kit was being set up stage right. This band played in Liverpool last year (at the aforementioned o2 Academy) and some were unhappy with the sound that night too. They had considerably fewer amps/cabinets and so I was expecting a cleaner sound. I should have known better! When they came on (now a five-piece, with a keyboard player/rhythm guitarist added for this tour) and opened with ‘Lady in Gold’ from the recent album of the same name, the sound was little better than it was for the previous band. Indeed, Zach Anderson’s four string dominated in the same way Kadavar’s bassist had done, meaning it was actually difficult to hear vocalist Elin Larsson – and she is definitely a ‘blues shouter’ of the old school! It soon became clear why the drums were set up to the side as Larsson used the space in the middle as her personal dancefloor, either hopping about the stage (in stockinged feet) or stomping all over the place. She never stood still from first song to last! They played a set weighted towards the ‘Lady In Gold’ album but with some favourites from the first album too, including ‘High Class Woman’ and main set closer ‘Devil Man’. The other members of the band kept strictly to their positions on the stage, guitarist Dorian Sorriaux hardly moved from his spot just in front of drummer André Kvarnström, bassist Zach Anderson also held position the whole set while the fifth member (whose name I did not catch!) only emerged from his keyboards to play occasional second guitar. The focus therefore very much fell on the lead singer, who used the stage well even if the edge was taken away from her voice by the poor sound mix.
In the encore, Larsson came out alone and went over to the keyboard to perform ‘I Feel A Change’ solo. This was about the only time we got to hear her properly all night, and she gave a fine rendition of the song. The rest of the band came back for ‘Rejection’ and ‘Gone So Long’ before taking their bows.
I really like this band and enjoyed their set last year despite some fans’ complaints of the sound then, but this time around the sound mix definitely let them down. As it was, it was Stray Train who had the best out front sound of all three bands. It’s something Blues Pills (and Kadavar) really should address, I know they aim to be retro in their approach but a little 2016 technology in cleaning their live sound up would not go amiss!