Caught Live: Eric Martin, Tivoli Venue Buckley 27th October 2018

There’s been a lot of talk about how tribute bands have ‘ruined’ the live scene, with an increasing number of places only putting on these kind of acts, playing tried and tested music from a classic artist instead of original artists, who may be younger, and will certainly be unknown. The solution is of course in the hands of the public, it’s up to them to turn out to support artists who are doing their own thing as opposed to somebody else’s.  The Tivoli in Buckley hosts its fair share of tribute bands, but is one of the better venues for staging gigs from original artists, both newer and ‘heritage’.  The management could explain why they put on tributes simply by comparing numbers who showed for this gig, against the much larger crowd they played host to the night before when AC/DC tribute LiveWire performed. Quite simply the tributes pay the bills – they bring in a crowd, and the crowd knows what they’re getting. The fact remains that a known ‘name’ in the business was playing the ‘Tiv’ the next night which did not draw the punters in anything like as many numbers, though, and that’s a shame since the solo performance from Mr Big vocalist Eric Martin here was a truly special evening indeed.

I was here with a friend and two of her children, the eldest sibling often accompanies her mother to gigs. Before we got to the main act, there was an opening band in the form of B4 Time. Although the main act was to perform acoustically, there was a complete set up of drum kit and amps for this band, a quartet who played a set comprising mostly covers from quite a variety of bands, ranging from the Wildhearts to Metallica (!) The band are three guys of ‘a certain age’ shall we say, but backed by a girl drummer. I’d guessed the girl was one of the guys’ daughters, which was confirmed by their singer/guitarist late in the set. The band were actually pretty enjoyable, and as was the case with the last time I was here (when The Clan opened for Martin Turner), they benefitted from a good sound balance.

They completely stripped the stage after that set, leaving just a table and a couple of microphones on stands, for when Eric Martin came on accompanied by another player in Dave Cotterill. The performance was informal, to say the least and featured a number of deeper cuts from Mr Big and other stuff he’s done, including a burst of ‘Sucker For A Pretty Face’ from the Eric Martin Band’s 1983 album of that name. There was more familiar stuff to, including a cover of Cat Stevens’ ‘Wild World’ as well as a few of his main band’s hits. The ballads ‘To Be With You’ and ‘Just Take My Heart’ were performed, as well as an impressive acoustic take on ‘Daddy Brother Lover Little Boy’. No electric drills this time, but the lead solo on acoustic was played impeccably by Dave Cotterill. He found himself acting as tech for the main man on several occasions, helping him tune or in one instance, actually taking the guitar and tuning it for him while Eric engaged in banter with the front row. There wasn’t much beyond that front row in truth, this was a crowd best described as ‘exclusive’.  He also gave a shout-out to former Mr Big guitarist Richie Kotzen, telling us to go and see him if we get the chance. (We got the chance in the summer, Eric and I was one of those who took it!) The duo then performed (if memory serves me correctly) ‘Electrified’ from one of the albums that band made with Kotzen, ‘Get Over It’.

It was a great night of music performed with humour and style, and Martin was sounding in splendid voice all night. The acoustic style suits him, and he did say that he’d love to come back here again despite the disappointing turnout. The night got even better following this show however. I and my companions waited around for a short while in the hope Eric would appear; we were about to call it a night when he came down to the floor to greet the few who’d stayed around. He settled at a table near the bar, and gave an impromptu meet and greet, but he sprang a real surprise when he was asked about the Mr Big song ‘Take Cover’. The duo did not perform it in the set, but when he found out it was a favourite of my friend’s young son (who was here this night with us) – he asked Dave to fetch the guitars, and the two of them played it, at the bar, where they stood. This was a fantastic gesture, from a guy who’s been on the biggest stages, played to huge crowds the world over, and yet he can grant a wish like that for one young boy.  By doing that he transformed the night from merely very good to truly special, the hallmark of a genuine rock star.

To conclude then, yes enjoy a tribute gig if that’s what you want but do try and support artists who are still out there doing their own thing too. After all, as this showed, you never know what surprises you might get!

5 – Delightful

Caught Live: Jeff Lynne’s ELO, Echo Arena Liverpool 23rd October 2018

There was one thing and one thing only which disappointed me about this concert: the absence of keyboardist Richard Tandy from the line-up. The only other member of the classic band (besides leader Jeff Lynne) still involved, he has been suffering health issues recently and so has sat out the 2018 tour dates. Perhaps at his own request, no mention of this was made during the show, not even when Lynne introduced the audience to his ‘right-hand man’, guitarist, vocalist and musical director Mike Stevens, who then introduced the rest of this expansive line-up.

That aside, this show was as good as you’re going to get. A collection of hit songs, plus a few deeper cuts and surprises, all performed live by an ensemble cast of 13 people, fronted by one of British popular music’s most successful, most enduring and most gifted performers. One who, until fairly recently, eschewed the whole idea of going out on the road. Now, with Stevens alongside him and a carefully-selected band complete with a string section and three keyboardists, there seems to be no stopping the man.

This time around, the band opened their set with ‘Standing In The Rain’, a cut from 1977’s mega-selling ‘Out Of The Blue’ album.  Having a closer spot this time than I had two years ago, I focused less on the visuals and more on the actual playing. Lynne, or more correctly Stevens, has selected a remarkable group of players to bring this painstakingly-orchestrated material to life. They all played magnificently, and Lynne himself sounded in good voice overall, though his advanced years did betray him in one or two places. He has little to say to the audience, other than a simple “We love it here in Liverpool, thanks for having us” there was not much else from the man who wrote and produced all this music, which still holds up well four decades on.  Yet the atmosphere did not suffer for it, the songs were strong enough to stand up for themselves. Hit followed hit, from ‘Evil Woman’ to ‘Showdown’, through disco-flavoured numbers like ‘Last Train To London’ and ‘Shine A Little Love’ to harder rockers like ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’ or ‘Do Ya’, all of it had this crowd in raptures.

One of my favourite moments was the performance of ‘10538 Overture’, a number we didn’t get last time. But there was so much to savour from this concert, they played 19 songs in a set which approached two hours, with little fanfare as they launched into classic song after classic song. Lynne even reached back to his Traveling Wilburys days to play ‘Handle With Care’; with supplementary vocal from Iain Hornal. When the ensemble eventually launched into biggest hit ‘Mr Blue Sky’ the place just erupted, almost as though the arena was about to lift off like the spaceship seen on ELO album covers.  Following that, the whole band took their customary picture with the audience as backdrop before exiting, only to return for regular encore ‘Roll Over Beethoven’. The Chuck Berry song gave Lynne and guitarist Milton McDonald ample opportunity to trade guitar licks and send this capacity crowd home happy.

One of the shows of the year for me without a doubt; he may have had to wait until technology caught up with his vision, but now he has that as well as enough people on the stage to recreate his music live, Jeff Lynne finally seems as happy on the road as he has done in the studio.

Support act was Northampton singer-songwriter Billy Lockett; his set of soul-tinged pop numbers was going over well and then he dropped the mother of all clangers: he plugged an upcoming date of his own in… Manchester! The reaction he got answered his own question (“was that bad?”) as he recovered from that moment (“well, that didn’t go as well as hoped!”) to carry on with his set. He was backed by a drummer and a guitarist who occasionally switched to bass, while he himself sang and played keyboards. The trio were actually a really good live act, not my cup of tea in truth but despite the faux-pas, he won enough over to ensure his show at the Deaf Institute will be well-attended next year.

5 – Delightful

 

Caught Live: Prognosis (with Equinox, Dead Rebel, NESH), Outpost Liverpool, 20th October 2018

Unbeknownst to me, Maguire’s Pizza Bar, the pizza restaurant which sometimes hosts gigs in its back room, has had a bit of a makeover and is now known as Outpost. Still serving pizzas but now with an expanded menu and drinks selection, the back room is still used to host live bands such as this evening’s offering of four rock groups. Not much has changed in that back room, it’s still painted matt black throughout, still has stickers and posters all over the pillars and ceiling and still has a *loud* sound system for such a small room. I got there to find NESH nearing the end of their short set, this is a band I’ve seen before and probably will again in the near future so apologies for missing their opening set. I did hear at least two in the audience praising them however.

Next up were self-styled ‘Doom Dance’ trio Dead Rebel; first thing I noticed was that there were two guys out front but no bassist! Their sound was heavy regardless, I suspect the guitarist who doubles up on vocals has his guitar tuned down a bit, he seemed to be playing the bottom strings a lot so his sound was almost bass-ish, if that makes sense. Overall, the trio sounded reminiscent of Alice in Chains to these ears, that same sort of heavy guitar attack. They weren’t working to a set list and were discussing among themselves which number to play next! They have a track on Spotify, ‘No Reply’ which was played during this set, that is pretty representative of what they’re about.

The penultimate band up were the ones I’d actually come to see: Equinox. I was impressed with this local quintet when I saw them at EBGBs recently, and they gave another good account of themselves tonight albeit with a shortened set. The band’s lead singer Daniel Moran was once again in jocular mood, improvising a ‘snooker cue’ from his mic stand and pretending to play shots for the benefit of a gig photographer at the front. However he also has a tremendous voice, an exciting raw talent whose sheer power ensured he could be heard over the (overly-loud, in my view) sound system. At the moment they’re seeking a permanent bass player, as at EBGBs it was Chris Jones who stepped in. He doesn’t look the part at all; bespectacled, with shorter hair than the other band members and tonight, wearing a Level 42 T-shirt – but his playing is impeccable. This is a young band, but he brings experience and accomplishment to the party. Whoever eventually gets this role will have a lot to live up to. It was another enjoyable set; though there wasn’t room for ‘Empire’ tonight, this band absolutely blew me away when I saw them play it at EBGBs. I’ll follow these guys and girl more often from now on, this is a local band I think are going places.

Last band of the night were Manchester quartet Prognosis, these guys specialise in long-form numbers with heavy but intricate riffing, and complex drum patterns. Vocals were split between bassist Danny Daemon and guitarist Phil Weller, the latter occasionally came out onto the floor to give us some up close and personal fretwork! I was wondering what drummer Aaron James Youd was on to be able to perform like that, his playing was something to behold. A technically accomplished outfit I wouldn’t mind seeing again on a bigger stage.

Another good value night of rock/metal in one of Liverpool’s small venues, it does prove that the bands are out there if you care to delve a little deeper. For a fiver it was well worth the effort to get out and see these bands.

4 – Deserving

NESH Facebook page

Dead Rebel Facebook page

Equinox UK Facebook page

Prognosis Facebook page

Caught Live: Delain, Patronaat Haarlem NL, 12th October 2018

‘Oh, mijn haartje’.

Towards the end of this show, a specially-arranged date intended to preview material from an upcoming EP, Delain singer Charlotte Wessels has to stop to take in tumultuous, and relentless, cheering from the sold-out Patronaat crowd. Addressing her home crowd (mostly) in her native language, this exclamation (‘oh, my little heart’) came after the reception actually moved her to tears briefly.

The show did indeed unveil two new songs, but was based still on last album ‘Moonbathers’. There was no support act, so it was a long wait for the die-hard Delainers who’d been queuing outside the venue, some since mid-afternoon. The doors eventually opened at 8pm and I managed to get a spot just off the front, which meant looking upward on this rather high stage.  When they came on stage, the whole band were wearing something red. What this signifies is unknown to me yet, but from a red dress for the singer, to a natty red suit for keyboardist Martijn Westerholt, the theme was clear. Guitarists Timo Somers and Merel Bechtold both had red jackets on, bassist Otto Schimmelpenninck van der Oije wore a red T-shirt, while new drummer Joey de Boer was wearing a red tie to offset his mainly black attire.  Although the set was mainly focused on the last album, they opted to start with ‘Go Away’, off the ‘April Rain’ album (one I hope they celebrate next year, as it will be a decade old by then). The first of the new tracks, ‘Masters of Destiny’ followed; the main thing which I picked up on here was how Wessels really pushed her upper range in this number. Her voice is far stronger now than it was even a few years ago, so I look forward to hearing the recorded version of this song.

(These photos were taken only on a phone camera, apologies for them not being very good!)

The band always give you 100 per cent whenever they step on a stage and this was no exception; plenty of synchronised head-swishing, band members frequently swapping places and some fine vocal backing from Timo Somers. In fact, for the other new number (‘Hunters Moon’, delivered late in the set) it was he who started the vocals with a raucous scream. A different approach I guess, and again one I need to hear the officially recorded version of to make proper judgement. My only slight reservation was that despite these two new numbers, the set itself wasn’t that far removed from the one I saw them play on the last full tour, albeit with the song order shuffled about. With it being a special show I would have liked a few deeper cuts, numbers they don’t play that often, as they’ve done at previous Patronaat gigs. One thing I did like – they’ve made room in the set for a ‘Timo and Joey spot’; this gives Somers the chance to show his not-inconsiderable guitar ‘chops’ and also showcases de Boer, who has just been elevated to a full band member after spending several months touring with the band in place of previous sticksman Ruben Israel. Anyone who follows Timo Somers’ own Facebook page will know just what a potent axeman he is, in my view he’s in the class of Doug Aldrich or dare I say Gary Moore – he has the tone, the nimble fingers, and the fire. However the regular Delain material doesn’t tend to allow for guitar pyrotechnics, and it’s good to see him show a little of what he can really do.

They did have their usual guest appearances for this show; up popped George Oosthoek to deliver his grunt vocals where required on songs such as ‘Hands of Gold’ or ‘Pristine’ (his headband made me think of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle; I do hope he is not reading this!) and also returning was cellist Elianne Anemaat for the gentler ‘Scarlet’ as well as ‘Danse Macabre’.  For ‘The Gathering’ they not only used the streamer cannons but also a bubble machine – I couldn’t help but think of Ozzy here and his complaint of ‘what’s so evil about bubbles?’ 😀

It was a very good gig as I expect from this band, the only reason I haven’t gone for all five inflatable guitars was that for me it did feel a little too familiar, there were many songs still in the set that appear on the Paradiso DVD which came out last year.  When they come around again next year (I assume there will be a run of UK dates in 2019, Martijn/Charlotte!) hopefully the set will be markedly different.

 

4 – Deserving

 

Caught Live: Chantel McGregor (with Lucy Zirins), Citadel St Helens, 6th October 2018

Early on in this set, Chantel McGregor is glancing at her watch while in the middle of another shreddingly spectacular guitar solo. Quite why she needed to know the time so soon after coming on stage was a mystery to me, until she explained herself at the end of the number. It turned out her watch was one of these fancy new-fangled things that is also a phone, and she’d received a text from her Dad.  It got better, since the text was to warn her that her boobs were in danger of falling out of her dress! “What can I do about that, when I’m playing a guitar solo?”, she asked the audience and by extension her Dad, stood near the door of the small standing floor at the Citadel. After checking to make sure ‘all was safely gathered in’ she carried on with the set, but not before a few more jokes were thrown about between herself and her band!

That was one of several ‘blonde moments’ which punctuated this set; another classic moment came later on when she picked up her acoustic guitar. Hearing nothing, she asks “Am I being really dim here, but I’m not hearing anything come through?” A further check and she realised that the battery for her pickup in the acoustic guitar was flat, and she had no spare! Worse was she didn’t even know what sort of battery she needed – until her guitar tech came to the rescue with a new 9 volt battery so that she could play the song she’d intended. These aren’t the type of things you expect from an experienced live musician, but when this woman strikes up with her guitar you can forgive her anything. She is an astonishingly good player, able to melt faces with the best of them or play with magnificent subtlety. Often during the course of the same song!

The main difference between this gig and the last time I saw her (in Chester) was that the sound balance here was much better, it was a tad TOO overpowering last year but here it was a more satisfying mix, her guitar prominent but not overly-dominant. That allowed her (extremely good) rhythm section of bassist Colin Sutton (whose hairstyle caused some to compare him to Phil Oakey, which he didn’t mind, or in my case Jesus Jones – at least one of them, anyway – which he liked even more!) and drummer Thom Gardner (standing in for regular sticksman Ollie Goss) the chance to show their own considerable skills, the bassist filling all the gaps with some delightful runs.  For ‘Inconsolable’, a number which starts out acoustically then ends with a mind-blowing lead solo, Chantel had suddenly remembered that this drummer wasn’t clued in on how the closing part would go! Yet another ‘blonde moment’, but averted thanks to a thoroughly capable drummer who worked around it well enough to convince everyone present that it had all been rehearsed to within an inch of its life!  I haven’t even mentioned her vocals, she was suffering from a cold on this night but she sounded in great voice, again the sound mix did her vocal more justice than was the case last year, when she was swamped somewhat by her own guitar.

She and her band were so good live that it was easy to overlook the goof-ups between numbers, even the confession that they had not got drum mallets and so improvised with tissue paper and tape on a regular stick! “Why are you paying £30 for drum mallets, you’re onto something here!” she asked her drummer. Soon after that one of the ‘mallets’ fell apart when the tissue paper came away mid-song, but it hardly mattered as Thom just continued with regular sticks! In lesser hands these sort of things could have caused the whole show to disintegrate like the ‘mallet’, but the calibre of these players – all of them, not just the name on the ticket – was such that everything was just laughed off by this crowd. It was a respectable if not packed Citadel, the gig scheduling gods had once again played their tricks since a certain Joanne Shaw Taylor was playing in Chester on the same night as this gig. Those who plumped for this show however, got a doozy of a performance in amongst a few farcically comic moments for their money!

Support was from Lancashire lass Lucy Zirins, a singer/songwriter accompanied by just a keyboard player and a bassist (playing a strange short-scale instrument that he explained had ‘shrunk in the wash’!) She delivered a gentle warm-up to the main act, strumming an acoustic guitar and demonstrating a rather sweet singing voice. Most of her set was original material but she also performed a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Everywhere’, stripped back to just her voice and an organ. She went over well, sadly she’d gone by the time the main act had ended so I couldn’t grab a CD afterwards.

Despite the flat battery, near-wardrobe malfunctions and improvised percussion materials, the delivery of this set from Chantel and band was such that I am obliged to award all five inflatable guitars. On a night when another more ‘notorious’ McGregor was making a return, this particular McGregor proved to be a far more enjoyable way to spend a Saturday night.

Chantel McGregor Facebook page

Lucy Zirins Facebook page

Setlist Chantel McGregor

Set list (those with ‘?’ not performed)

5 – Delightful

Caught Live: Sons of Apollo (with Schiermann), Academy 2 Manchester, 1st October 2018

“Is this thing on?” *taps mic stand on floor*
Early on in the set Sons of Apollo vocalist Jeff Scott Soto was already having to work hard to get this Monday night crowd warmed up, having got only a muted reaction when attempting to elicit a loud response. All evening they didn’t quite get the crowd going as hoped, which in any case was by my estimation three-quarters full at the most.

It just goes to show, you can put together five of the absolutely top guys in the current hard rock scene, but it’s no guarantee that they’ll pack ’em in wherever they play. Drummer Mike Portnoy has had several projects since leaving Dream Theater, most recently the Winery Dogs with bassist Billy Sheehan, This group sees the duo join up with virtuoso musicians such as guitarist Ron ‘Bumblefoot’ Thal and keyboardist Derek Sherinian, Portnoy’s old Dream Theater bandmate. Topping the whole thing off is ace singer Jeff Scott Soto, one of the finest hard rock vocalists out there. With all this heavyweight musical talent on one stage it had to be good, right?

Well, yes it was. Good, certainly, the playing exceptionally so from all concerned. But collectively, this show just didn’t light my fire, there was too much going on. It was loud, bombastic and technically perfect, but little in their set (aside from the covers) really stuck with me. There was great vocal harmonising between Soto and Bumblefoot, with Portnoy also adding vocals alongside his trademark fills, Sheehan was his usual impeccable self on the four-string (actually an eight-string, he had a double-neck bass), and both Sherinian and Bumblefoot displayed deft touches on their respective instruments. It’s just that the songs rather got lost for me amongst all of the technoflash playing! Maybe I wasn’t the only one feeling that way; the crowd duly cheered each number but, as the remark from Soto showed, weren’t necessarily getting ‘into’ this show.

For old-school rockers this show featured a solo spot for every band member – that included Soto, whose slot featured a partial cover of Queen’s ‘The Prophet’s Song’ (which was pretty good to be fair, using loop effects to replicate those on record) plus  a lengthy instrumental passage while he was off the stage, leaving the guys to perform a cover of ‘The Pink Panther Theme’. That was also good, but it’s these fun interludes which stick in my mind rather better than the songs in the main set. Not even the Dream Theater covers registered with me, although appreciative of these guys’ playing I didn’t find myself playing any air guitar all night!

The encore was a good one though, opting to cover Van Halen’s ‘And The Cradle Will Rock’ Soto surprised us all by appearing at the back of this room and then singing from the floor. That was a near-perfect rendition of the VH classic, which sent the punters home happy (trails – they exited to a tape of VH’s ‘Happy Trails’ after this).

But overall – I think this show was something you have to be a musician yourself in order to get the most out of it. I wanted to enjoy it far more than I actually did, I’m afraid!

Support was from Schiermann, a trio led by guitarist Chris Schiermann. He stood out straight away in this trio, looking like someone straight out of WWE with his bald head, beard and muscular build, accompanied by two younger guys on bass and drums respectively. This was an instrumental set which consisted of technically-accomplished jams which for me went on much too long, and didn’t really go anywhere. Had this set been at a guitar clinic it would have been fine, but as a support act they completely failed to warm me up.

3 – Decent