Caught Live: FM (with Dare), Parr Hall Warrington, October 1st 2016

It’s autumn once again, and that means gig season. With that comes the inevitable date clashes, and this was my choice on the night in question over seeing Limehouse Lizzy (a long-established tribute to Thin Lizzy, which has been going for about twice as long as the original band did!) in Liverpool. LL tour frequently and I expect to get another chance to see them soon, so I plumped for this melodic rock bill.

I saw FM in the summer as openers to veteran US rockers Heart, and enjoyed their set much more than I expected to. I was never a fan of theirs in the 1980s, they were that bit too ‘nice’ for me back then, with their exquisitely-coiffured mullets, their tailored clothes that didn’t exactly look like they’d come from the local army surplus store, and their glossy sound, with a little too much emphasis on keyboards for me, as an unreconstructed Metalhead. Then again, I kinda liked Heart in those days, but they had Nancy Wilson… ūüėČ

They started to rock out a bit more with second album ‘Tough It Out’ but by then, the grunge revolution was imminent and FM were one of many rock bands swept aside for not fitting in with the trend. They disbanded in the mid-1990s, but a decade later were tempted to play at melodic rock bash Firefest, initially as a one-off. That show went down so well that the band decided to give it another go, with original members (vocalist Steve Overland, drummer Pete Jupp and bassist Merv Goldsworthy) being joined by keyboardist Jem Davis and lead guitarist Jim Kirkpatrick. (Original guitarist Chris Overland – Steve’s brother – parted company with FM in the early 90s and is nowadays a guitar tutor).

Dare have also had a chequered history since their formation in the mid-80s; founded by Darren Wharton of Thin Lizzy fame, he emerged from his keyboards to front this melodic rock act to some success around the end of the 80s. but after their second album ‘Blood From Stone’ (where once again, the band beefed up their sound) they splintered. They’re now best known as the group which gave Brian Cox (now Professor Cox of TV fame) his first gig – he was the band’s original keyboardist and played on that album plus debut ‘Out Of The Silence’. ¬†Wharton reconstructed the band in 1998 with a new line-up, releasing¬†several more albums, and in recent years has reunited with original guitarist Vinny Burns.

The Parr Hall saw a very good turnout for this show, I got there just after Stone Broken had finished their opening set (apologies, chaps!) and saw the crew feverishly working to set up for Dare. It must be at least 25 years since I last saw this band, probably more, and given that they’ve made many albums since the first two (the only ones I have) I wasn’t expecting to know much of their set. I got that wrong, as they performed several of their early hits (including ‘Abandon’, ‘Don’t Need A Reason’, and Wharton’s tribute to Phil Lynott, ‘King Of Spades’) as well as some of their more recent, Celtic-influenced numbers. Wharton’s stage persona is very chummy, he seemed to be grinning ear-to ear from first song to last and frequently threw his arm around either guitarist Vinny Burns or bassist Nigel Clutterbuck. His singing voice has held up well, and after an enjoyable set the band were cheered like returning heroes. Sadly I never got the opportunity to remind Darren about the time I saw Dare at this same venue in 1989, and while walking through the town was stopped by a van asking for directions to the hall. Of course it was Dare themselves, presumably he had an easier time finding his way here on this occasion!

FM’s set was a longer version of the one they played in the summer, featuring many of their old favourites from debut album ‘Indiscreet’ (they are celebrating that album’s 30th anniversary in 2016) and follow-up ‘Tough It Out’. Other more recent material was played too, but one thing I noticed watching them today as against when I saw them in the 80s supporting the likes of Gary Moore and Bon Jovi, was that their live sound is definitely harder than it was back then. Their songs are almost all designed to grab you on the first chorus (they have more hooks than in the locker room of the Denver Broncos) but nowadays there’s enough wallop behind them (courtesy of Kirkpatrick¬†and Overland himself adding occasional guitar,¬†plus heavy-hitting drummer Pete Jupp) to satisfy even hard-bitten rockers like me. That’s before I mention what a great singer Overland still is – he is another who has retained his singing voice over the years and is still able to do justice to those favourites. That said, he did warn the audience that he was likely to grimace all the way through ‘Someday (You’ll Come Running)’! That one is a fan favourite that he openly admitted he dreaded singing, presumably as it is so demanding.

They might not have been my cup of tea 30 years ago, but the FM of today are well worth seeing, boasting great songs and a singer who ought to be regarded as one of the finest rock vocalists this country has produced. Only slight quibble was that once again, they didn’t play ‘Crosstown Train’ from 2013’s ‘Rockville’ album but they can’t do everything and I remain hopeful it’ll be played the next time I see them. (There will be a next time, fellas!)

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Caught Live: Heart (with FM), Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, Scotland, 2nd July 2016

When Heart announced their first UK tour in over a decade last December, my own one sank when I found that the nearest show to me was at the dreaded o2 Apollo Manchester. The Apollo is a venue I used to visit frequently but now avoid at all costs, for reasons I won’t divulge here but suffice to say I’m far from the only one with the same opinion of the place.

Looking at the alternative dates, the one which landed on a Saturday was Glasgow, at the Royal Concert Hall. The place sounded more appealing than the crumbling Apollo in any case, so plans were drawn up to make my first-ever trip north of the border and a ticket for this show was booked the first chance I had.

Fast-forward to summer (or what passes for it in this soggy island!) and it was time to decide how to get there. I opted to drive, long distance though it is because with me staying over I thought I’d get caught in an endless spate of railway engineering works if I were to take the train. That may or may not have been the case, but at least driving meant I could pick my own time to head up there. As it turned out, the drive North was straightforward if lengthy, and I found the city and my hotel relatively easily. The venue was about ten minute’s walk from the hotel so things fell into place well.

The Royal Concert Hall is a relatively new build, constructed in the late 1980s and opened in 1990 during Glasgow’s year as European City of Culture. Seating around 2500 people, the interior reminded me a little of Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall¬† (only bigger) , with relatively intimate stalls surrounded by a substantial balcony.¬† Finding myself slap bang in the middle of the stalls, I had barely found my seat when openers FM took to the stage.

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The veteran melodic rockers ran through a short set taking in many of their old favourites (including ‘That Girl’ and ‘Bad Luck’ as well as selections from most recent album ‘Heroes and Villains’. Vocalist Steve Overland reminded me a little of Thunder’s Danny Bowes with his short, grey hair, and was almost as good a live performer. I never took to FM back in the 1980s; I found them a bit too glossy, too ‘nice’ with their immaculately coiffured hair, their bright jackets and a sound that had a bit too much emphasis on keyboards for my liking back then (I considered myself a total Metalhead in those days). It didn’t help that their keyboard player in those days (Didge Digital) stuck out with his look being more Numan-esque than hard rock. Didge left the band a long time ago, and although FM have had their ups and downs since (having been inactive for several years prior to their 2007 reformation) they still feature Overland, plus bassist Merv Goldsworthy and drummer Pete Jupp as original members with guitarist Jim Kirkpatrick and keyboardist Jem Davis completing the lineup. They haven’t changed that much sound-wise since those mid-80s days of shoulder pads and hairspray, and their songs sound like they should be on the sort of CD compilation you might find in Asda, but the performance they gave was top-notch. Overland is still in great voice and by rights should be considered one of the best rock singers to come out of this country, but like the aforementioned Bowes he is underrated still. The only slight disappointment for me was that they didn’t play the excellent ‘Crosstown Train’, but if I catch them headline somewhere I’d hope they would do it live.

I’d heard some bad reports from the Manchester show that Heart were disappointing; this mainly stemmed from their set being rather shorter than expected although some had also complained of poor sound.¬† Having come all this way I was hopeful, if not expectant that they’d rectify that tonight. They came on at around 8:40 and opened with ‘Wild Child’ from 1990’s ‘Brigade’ album, then delivered a couple of crowd pleasers in early hit ‘Magic Man’ followed by 1985 smash ‘What About Love’. That had the Glasgow audience (already up on their feet) cheering loudly, as singer Ann Wilson announced that the band had a new album (their first in several years) about to come out and that there’d be some tracks played from it tonight. The first of these was ‘Beautiful Broken’, title track of the new record, but the set delivered was actually a mixture of some hits, a few deep cuts from older albums and several covers. Guitarist/singer Nancy Wilson took the lead vocal for 1985 hit ‘These Dreams’ and new song ‘Two’; these were the mellower moments of the set but there was also some hard-hitting rock performed, Ann Wilson showing that she still has the voice even at 66 years of¬† age.¬† Not to be outdone, Nancy (a mere 62) demonstrated she can still ‘kick’ – quite literally, with the trademark left leg high kick¬† as she belted out the intro to ‘Crazy On You’ on the acoustic guitar.

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The main set lasted about an hour and ten minutes by my reckoning which might appear short, but there were no drum solos or guitar jams padding it out, nor were there any lengthy speeches from either Wilson sister. They actually played 15 numbers in the main set and three in the encore, although all three of those were Led Zeppelin covers. That was another controversial choice but their selection went over well with this crowd, even ‘No Quarter’. All in all then it wasn’t quite as poor value as I’d been led to believe, however they elected to perform their best-known hit ‘Alone’ tonight (which was not done at Manchester, further fuelling dissatisfaction at that show) which brought about huge cheers from the audience.

The band backing the sisters is no longer the classic 1980s lineup but current guitarist Craig Bartock does a splendid job on lead, while bassist Dan Rothchild provides additional vocal as well as occasional keyboards alongside regular keyboardist Chris Joyner. Drummer Ben Smith rounds out the group, and can either give it the full Bonham when required or tone it down gently for the quieter moments.

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To sum up then, a very good live performance and remarkable to hear how Ann Wilson has retained that power and clarity in her voice. An excellent live performance, albeit with some slightly odd choices of song. I’d have preferred one or two more of their best-loved songs rather than so many covers personally, but it was a solid show and worth the long journey north.

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