Less than a decade ago, a young band from Northern Ireland called The Answer were performing at the Manchester Arena as openers for AC/DC. Tonight, while the huge arena played host to the Kaiser Chiefs, less than half a mile away The Answer were in the rather more intimate surroundings of the Band On The Wall, essentially a pub with a back room professionally kitted out to host live music.
It’s long been a mystery to me why this band is not now headlining the sort of large-scale venue they’ve played as support to some of rock’s biggest names, including Alter Bridge, Whitesnake and the aforementioned AC/DC. It isn’t for lack of trying, they’ve released six albums in the space of ten years and played anywhere and everywhere in that time. Their most recent album ‘Solas’, released last autumn, was a departure from the traditional hard rock they’ve become known for, introducing instrumentation often heard in Irish folk music including bouzoki and mandolin, with songs that reflected their heritage more overtly than before. The new sound has been both praised and panned, with some of their dedicated fan base embracing the change while others, perhaps taken by surprise at the abrupt musical about-turn from the five previous albums, have been less welcoming to it. The album was however critically acclaimed, and as with their previous work ‘Solas’ dented the UK album charts, while making a bigger splash in the independent and rock album charts.
This venue was extremely small and intimate, with a stage only slightly raised from floor level. The stage itself was pretty cramped, so openers Black Cat Bones had their drum kit set up over on stage right. The five-piece hailing from Liverpool gave a short but enjoyable set of bluesy hard rock, vocalist Jonnie Hodson looking uncannily like 1980s-era W. Axl Rose but with a much less harsh vocal style. The band clearly do take cues from the Gunners, as drummer Ash Janes was resplendent in a G ‘n’ R t-shirt for this set. Although they’re from my part of the world, this was the first time I’d seen them, it won’t be the last.
The Answer were greeted like heroes when they hit the stage, opening with the title track from ‘Solas’, it was noticeable from the off how conspicuous by its absence the restraint showed throughout that record was when these songs were played live. They were able to play for longer this time than was the case on the Dead Daisies/The Answer co-headlining tour last autumn, and so several older tracks from across their back catalogue were put back into the set alongside eight of the eleven tracks from ‘Solas’.
“We have a lot of new material for you tonight, but for anyone who still thinks we’ve forgotten where we came from, we’ve got some older ones for you as well” said vocalist Cormac Neeson, before introducing ‘Never Too Late’ from debut album ‘Rise’. It matters little to them whether they’re performing before 200 or 20,000 people, they still give it absolutely everything. Live, the ‘Solas’ songs take on a whole new dimension, for example a lengthy guitar solo from Paul Mahon is added to ‘Demon Driven Man’ and none of them are daft enough to ask drummer James Heatley to hold it back, whatever the song. Consequently, even radically different stuff like ‘Beautiful World’ or closer ‘Battle Cry’ rock just as hard live as any of the older songs, but the older songs were there for their long-time fans, one of whom was frequently reaching for the air guitar when they served up ‘Demon Eyes’ or ‘Come Follow Me’ (!)
For all that, upcoming single ‘In This Land’ (performed on mandolin with bassist Micky Waters taking up an acoustic guitar) was enthusiastically received when it was played mid-set, according to the frontman it was deliberately scheduled for release on St. Patrick’s Day as “nobody will be doing much that day in Ireland”!
For those wavering about going to see this band because of the new album’s direction, don’t! They’re still the same four guys and they rock just as much as they always have – even their new material, with unusual instrumentation on record, is still delivered live by a four-piece rock band. I took the opportunity to chat with the band members afterwards (they usually come to the merch stand and mingle); Paul Mahon reckoned that they have been able to better develop the live renditions since the autumn, and Cormac said to me that I was not the first to tell him that I was better able to make sense of this album after having seen them play the songs live!
In conclusion, if you liked The Answer as a live act before ‘Solas’, you still will like them live now.