Cheap Trick at the Cavern Club 16th December 2018

The night after their set at the Echo Arena, opening for Def Leppard, US rock veterans Cheap Trick performed a special show at Liverpool’s Cavern Club. The significance was that the shows came almost 40 years after the band’s only previous appearance in the city, when they headlined after a Battle of the Bands event organised by Phil Easton of Radio City, who then presented a rock show broadcasting across the Liverpool and North West England area.  This show came about after guitarist Rick Nielsen was interviewed by local DJ Kevin McDempster, who back in 1979 was involved with the organisation of that show, and he took the opportunity to remind the Cheap Trick axeman of it. Promising that they’d make the effort to play in the city again, they squeezed this date in between their run of arena shows in December 2018.

Needless to say the Cavern was packed this night, people had come not just from the local area but from across the country and indeed the world. There was a short support set from Robin Taylor Zander, son of the Cheap Trick vocalist (who also contributes additional guitar and vocals with his father’s band) before the band we’d all come to see made their way onto the stage. A rather different, ‘up close and personal’ experience, the whole band were having a terrific time playing an extended set which still was concentrated on their peak years of the late 1970s/early 1980s, as well as including a couple of Beatles covers (naturally!) What follows are a selection of photos from the night, it was a special night indeed for both band (long-time Beatles admirers) and attendees.

 

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Caught Live: Def Leppard (with Cheap Trick), Echo Arena Liverpool 15th December 2018

As a frequent complainer at the lack of rock gigs to attend in Liverpool it was frustrating to find two scheduled for the same night. Albeit at opposite ends of the ‘rock’ spectrum; there was this high-value production show from Sheffield’s finest Def Leppard (with the added attraction of rock veterans Cheap Trick as openers), or if you like things a bit more rough and ready, there was Skindred across town at the o2 Academy. I’ll need to catch the ragga-metallers another time, as this one had long been on the radar since it’s been a decade since the Leps last graced this arena and in the case of Cheap Trick, a staggering forty years since they last visited Liverpool!

I feared a sparse attendance at this gig, having got in shortly before Cheap Trick were to come on stage and finding myself in a closer spot (about ten from the front, on the left close to the stage ramp) than anticipated. However, looking up at the surrounding tiers none of the sections were curtained off, so that at least suggested they were expecting a good showing at this arena. From my spot I was amused to see a mic stand completely covered in guitar picks, right to the bottom. That could only be for Cheap Trick’s guitarist Rick Nielsen, known for his shall we say, eccentricities! This would be the first time I’d ever seen the US power pop/rock legends; their last appearance in Liverpool is still fondly remembered by those who were there at the time. One of those who was there that night is now a veteran rock DJ and writer, he interviewed Nielsen last year, and reminded him of that show. As a result of that the band slotted in a date at the Cavern for the Sunday after this appearance, which I shall cover in the next post.

Having never seen this band before I was surprised to find five on stage instead of the expected four. I knew that original drummer Bun E. Carlos no longer tours with the band (his place being taken by Nielsen’s son Daxx) but there was also an additional guitar player, one who looked considerably younger. It turned out that was Robin Taylor Zander, son of vocalist Robin Zander, contributing backing vocals as well as rhythm guitar. Zander senior came on stage in a suit that appeared to be printed in the style of a newspaper, with pictures of the band all over as well as a wide-brimmed hat. Straight away, that made me think how much of an influence he must have been on Vince Neil, though it must be said that the former Crue man is not in anything like as good shape as Cheap Trick’s frontman these days!  Their shortened support set was mainly focused on their glory years of the late 70s, many of the numbers performed appeared on their landmark ‘At Budokan’ live album of 1978. Nonetheless they gave an energetic, high-tempo set that belied the years of Nielsen, Zander and bassist Tom Petersson. Nielsen in particular was running or duck-walking all over the place, for all the guitar picks on his stand he seemed to spend much of the set playing fingerstyle guitar. That’s because he kept throwing the things out into the audience! With Robin Taylor Zander behind him that gives Nielsen freedom to play to the crowd, and during ‘Dream Police’ he got a handful of yet more picks from the guitar tech, showering the first few rows! He did nothing for the plastic pollution problem then, but entertained us all with his antics.

A lively rendition of The Move’s ‘California Man’ and inevitably, Fats Domino’s ‘Ain’t That A Shame’ were the only covers in this set, and when they eventually burst into ‘I Want You To Want Me’ the still-filling arena really woke up. This was a great set, but merely an appetiser for the next night for those lucky couple of hundred who had tickets for the Cavern.

Leppard are long-term admirers of Cheap Trick of course, though their own set was much slicker. They’re celebrating the ‘Hysteria’ album, now 31 years old and one of the biggest-selling rock albums ever, by performing the whole thing in full and in sequence. That meant stage favourites ‘Animal’ and ‘Pour Some Sugar On Me’ came early in the performance, though each track was cheered loudly by this crowd, by now an almost full arena. It was a very polished performance, almost exactly like putting on the CD and listening but with the full stage show in front of you. Joe Elliott’s vocal has held up well, you could tell in places he’d not sing quite as high or as hard as on that record but overall, for a bloke who’s 60 next year, impressive stuff. He did however hit ‘Run Riot’ superbly, perhaps he paced himself for that! He’s backed well by the rest of the band, bassist Rick Savage and guitarists Phil Collen and Vivian Campbell provide fine harmony vocals. Midway through this set, preceding ‘Gods of War’, a huge picture of former guitarist, the late Steve Clark appeared on the screen behind drummer Rick Allen, which drew warm applause from the crowd.

The ‘Hysteria’ album comprised all of the main set, the encore allowed them to dip into their other material. For this show, the singer told us that they’d had a lot of requests for ‘Promises’, explicitly stating that many of these came from Liverpool. So that track was performed for the first time on this run. The headbanger in me would have preferred ‘Wasted’ (done on some other dates) but majority rules, I suppose! After a few more favourites, including ‘Rock of Ages’ and ‘Photograph’ from their other major-selling album ‘Pyromania’, they took their bows with the usual sign off from Elliott: “Until next time, and there WILL be a next time: don’t forget about us, we won’t forget about you.”

A fine evening of classic rock, in contrasting styles then, and I suppose it’s inverted that it was the US band which had the harder-edged approach to the British band’s smooth delivery, but nonetheless an enjoyable if somewhat nostalgic night. The Leps are to be commended for bringing this show to Liverpool and as a bonus, on a Saturday night too!

4 – Deserving

 

Caught Live: Nightwish (with Beast In Black), Manchester Arena 11th December 2018

Nightwish concerts in the UK are rare events, tours doubly so. This run of dates hardly counts as a tour, consisting of just three shows (all in England) but it is the first time (festival slots apart) they’d played outside of London since their 2012 UK dates, when vocalist Floor Jansen had been hurriedly drafted into the band. Six years after that turn of events, she has become the figurehead of the band; a towering presence, it’s no exaggeration to say she’s not only restored this outfit to greatness but helped them to still greater success.

The last time I saw Nightwish was three years ago in Amsterdam, reasoning it was easier to go over there than travel to London and Wembley Arena for their only UK date that time. They were supporting then-new album ‘Endless Forms Most Beautiful’ then, after that tour they took a year off and when they reconvened, it was not for a new album but to tour in support of a career retrospective album, ‘Decades’. To that end, the setlist for this show included many older songs, ones that they haven’t done in many years and probably quite a few unfamiliar to more recent converts to the band (raises hand!)

With this show falling midweek and in Manchester, I feared a traffic nightmare since there are extensive roadworks taking place in and around the city centre, including on the motorway heading there. The delays have been bad enough to hold traffic up for around an hour, however I got lucky on this night as I was able to get to my usual spot a short walk from the arena in plenty of time to make it through the security checks and get a reasonably good spot about 10 from the barrier. That meant I was able to see openers Beast in Black, another Finnish-based group fronted by Greek vocalist Yannis Papadopoulos. I knew only two things about them beforehand: the fact that they were founded by a former member of Battle Beast (guitarist Anton Kabanen), and their single ‘Born Again’.  I’d heard that on a rock radio show, which was broadcasting in my local area up until around this time last year, and liked it for the strong vocal and to be honest, overblown production!

The band on stage are a quintet, featuring two guitarists (Kabanen is joined by the equally fleet-fingered Kasperi Heikkinen), but surprisingly no keyboard player. Considering much of their music has prominent keyboard sounds as well as guitar, that was a little disappointing to find that these parts would be delivered on disk. Papadopoulos was as powerful live as he is on record, able to go full Halford when required or sing in lower registers. The band were typically Euro-Metal though, complete with synchronised poses, cheesy grins, and for one number (‘Crazy, Mad, Insane’) even wearing shades which spelt out on an LED ticker the words ‘Crazy’ or ‘Mad’. It all came off a little bit cheesy, a bit too Eurovision for me; I like my Metal with a bit more menace and doom. I could have lived with it all though, had there been an actual player performing all the keyboard parts we heard, and had it not been so  obvious that the backing vocals were also on disk. Either that, or Kabanen and bassist Mate Molnar can emulate the lead singer’s voice perfectly whenever they stepped to their microphones! Even their delivery of ‘Born Again’ didn’t get me going, and I was sadly underwhelmed by their set. A pity, since I wanted to like them more than I did.

Nightwish’s set was heralded by a pre-show announcement asking people not to reach for their cellphones during the gig; a forlorn request as minutes into their set a multitude of the devices popped up in the crowd. First to appear was multi-instrumentalist Troy Donockley with a gentle flute intro before the whole shebang kicked off in a spectacular way with ‘Dark Chest Of Wonders’. They threw the kitchen sink at this one; back projections, lights, pyro, flashbombs were going off all over the place, and the pace didn’t relent with ‘I Wish I Had An Angel’ providing a perfect one-two punch of an opener. Having got the crowd (by my reckoning around 7000 showed, which is  respectable but in this enormous dome, it looked a bit empty) rocking they then reached into the back catalogue for their promised ‘trip back in time’, for ’10th Man Down’.  Some of these numbers were so old that only founding members, keyboardist Tuomas Holopainen and guitarist Emppu Vuorinen actually played on the recorded versions, but everything was handled superbly by Jansen. She made her own of even early stuff such as ‘Dead Boy’s Poem’ and ‘The Carpenter’; the latter introduced by fellow newbie (kind of!) Troy Donockley, whose flute, uilleann pipes and bouzoki  added much to the band’s sound.

‘Elan’ (one of only two from the last studio album in this set) got the crowd bouncing in unison, before they delved back through the years yet again for ‘Sacrament of Wonders’. A lengthy set came to its conclusion with the epic ‘Greatest Show On Earth’, with the visuals in full effect both on the screen and on the stage, as yet more pyro toasted the first few rows. The encore was ‘Ghost Love Score’ after which the ensemble took their bows as the conclusion of ‘Greatest Show On Earth’ played on tape.

Although this was every bit the full-on, slick arena production we’ve come to expect from Nightwish, there was still some fun to be had. Jansen tries and fails to get Emppu Vuorinen to dance with her mid-set, and she is later seen enjoying a glass of wine with Tuomas Holopainen while Marco Hietala talks to the audience. An observation I made back in 2012 still holds, in that she is so much the face and voice of the band now, that anyone new to them would think it’s been her band all along. I also said that they should move heaven and earth to keep her around as she was the one to make them great again; they did and she has.

All in all then a real ‘event’ of an arena show which deserved more of an audience than it got. Coming as it did in the middle of three big shows at this place (Black Stone Cherry performed the night before, Def Leppard the following night) that might have affected attendance, as people pick and choose which big gig to attend.  However, for the show itself I have to award all five inflatable guitars.

5 – Delightful