Friday 19 December 2008

Status Quo, Nottingham Arena

I'm a little surprised at the size of the crowd tonight. I thought Quo were perhaps the biggest thing to hit the Arena since the Dalai Lama sold out five nights there in May... but I reckon there was only about 2500-3000 there, whereas a full arena is around 8000. The whole thing could have probably been staged at the Concert Hall, which would have been more appropriate because the average age of a Quo fans seems to be about 55 and a lot of them struggled to climb the steep steps of the Arena seating.

Now I've mentioned the venue, let's get the Arena bashing out of the way. I don't know whose job it is to set the place up for bands but they're not very good at it. Tonight's setup was rubbish. The crowd were shoehorned into one-half of the stadium and the band were shoved down the other end. They had brought the stage forward a bit but not much. We were a lot further away from the band than was necessary, the stage could have been moved a lot nearer.

It was also all-seater, which would have been ok if people had wanted to sit but everyone down on the floor area clearly wanted to stand and dance. They didn't even put many seats down there; there were big areas of unused floor.

The arena staff got seriously caught out because loads of people went to the front to stand straight after the support finished and they weren't ready for them. Eventually they got themselves organised and prevented anyone else going down there but why, when at a normal gig they allow more people than that to stand.

Support was by Manfred Mann's Earth Band with Mr Mann himself on keyboards. Well I'm afraid I just found them desperately boring. I'm not terribly up on much of their material but obviously, I knew 'Blinded By the Light' which was ok and the 'Mighty Quinn' which they finished with and murdered. It was all very 70's and as is the tradition of that period the band were determined never to let a good tune get in the way of an overlong guitar solo.

One thing I have to say about the Arena tonight is that the sound was good. I think I've finally worked out how they sound check the gigs, it's all set up for the chap in Block 10 Row N Seat 20, that's me by the way. So excellent sound, just a shame I'm straining my ageing eyesight to see the band.

So to the mighty Quo. Rumours that they are being kept alive on life support are premature. As for their audience well, even they seem to have some life left in them and are soon air guitar-ing in the aisles and for the less mobile, tapping their walking sticks, as the band open with 'Caroline'. Rumour also had it that they're accepting bus passes as valid ID at the bar, where they're also selling cocoa and biscuits, alongside the sherry.

Quo are much maligned as just a three chord band, as characterised by themselves in last year's 'In Search Of The Fourth Chord' album from which the single 'Beginning Of The End' is given an airing. I can honestly say that there's more to them than the head down rock everyone knows. E.g. 'The Wanderer', 'Roll Over Lay Down', 'Down Down' etc etc, which are all present and correct tonight, at times accompanied by the sight of all four guitarists side by side, strumming away in the familiar Quo pose.

In fact, I'm actually impressed and surprised by their diversity. From the psychedelic sound of 'Pictures Of Matchstick Men' from 1968 from which this 'Pictures' tour, to celebrate 40 years of the Quo, takes it's name, to some more recent stuff, a couple of tracks 'The Oriental', which is a bit dubious, and 'Creeping Up On You', which isn't half bad, from 2002's 'Heavy Traffic' album.

There are also plenty of oldies, that is in the set list, as well as in the crowd, some which I certainly don't remember, but I was still in nappies when some of them came out. All the way through clips of videos and old footage appropriate to each song is displayed on the screens behind them.

For me the highlights tend to be when Rick Parfitt is at the mic, such as for the excellent 'Rain', for me he upstaged Francis Rossi every time he took the lead. Parfitt's singing was outstanding, particularly considering he had growths removed from his throat only two years ago.

There are a few irritations, like when they disappear off into a medley. I hate medleys. If you're going to play a song, play it in full or don't bother. If you want to fit in more songs then cut out irritation number two, the pointless drum solo.

They close pretty much as expected with a string of their hits from the 70's, culminating with 'Whatever You Want' and of course 'Rocking All Over The World'.

The encore is a bit odd. 'Burning Bridges' is rocky but not the best, a brief bit of 'Rock n Roll Music' and then finally 'Bye Bye Johnny'. Then the band troop off stage as the new Christmas single is played through the sound system and on the video screen. This falls totally flat and is cut off half way through to the accompaniment of boos from the disappointed crowd.

Quite why they couldn't bring themselves to perform, and therefore promote, their first ever Christmas single I suppose only they know. It was all a bit of a damp squid ending to what otherwise was a pretty impressive and dare I say, credible, performance.

I suppose now that I've been to seen the Quo, it must officially be Christmas.

Tuesday 9 December 2008

The Hold Steady, Rock City

The support band are four lads from Toronto known as the The Mark Inside. They make you 'stand up' and take notice because they play loud, some times heavy and the lead singer likes to shred his vocal chords Frank Black style. Underneath all their noise and energy are plenty of decent guitar riffs fighting to get out. I understand the band have been together for some time and released their debut back in 2005, their next record is available in the spring, it could be worth checking out.

The Hold Steady had to postpone their October UK tour due to guitarist Tad Kubler's illness. He's now recovered and tonight it's the third night of the rescheduled tour.

They begin with 'Constructive Summer', also the opening track of their latest album 'Stay Positive'. Summer? How quaint on such a cold Tuesday night in December but those of us who brave the elements are treated to an impressive set culled from their four albums. I checked out the set list from the previous nights to try to gauge what they might play but it seems they rip it up and changed around half the songs each night. So certainly, a band you could go to see every night without getting remotely bored.

Craig Finn, a most unlikely looking rock star if ever there was one, is bouncing around the stage from the first note. He's obviously intent on having a good and I'm sure he hopes the crowd do too but I don't reckon it would spoil his enjoyment if they didn't.

'Massive Nights' from the brilliant 'Girls And Boys In America' album rings out and the crowd gradually thaw out, well, it is cold. Rock City is probably only about half full tonight, which is a shame because the Hold Steady are pure entertainment and certainly under appreciated.

By the time 'The Swish' and 'Magazines' had been despatched the crowd were much more up for it. Particularly down the front, where they were singing Finn's lyrics back at him and attempting to get away with crowd surfing. When the band rock out like this they're really good but Finn is a storyteller at heart and tonight they leave out some of their rockier numbers which causes the set to get a little bogged down in the middle. There are a few too many Jackanory moments.

Not that this bothered the thirty or so anoraks (and I mean that in a nice way) down the front who knew all the words to all the songs, including some pretty obscure oldies. Finn, I think, was impressed, as well as delighted. Although occasionally he seems to forget the rest of us, singing some of his vocals off mike and straight at his select group down the front.

Kubler digs out a huge twin-necked twelve-string guitar for another slow one 'Lord I'm Discouraged' but then the set picks up pace again towards the end and it's a storming finish, 'Your Little Hoodrat Friend', 'Sequestered In Memphis', 'Chips Ahoy' and 'Slapped Actress' to finish.

Finn lost faith with music back when he was at his supposed peak but later rediscovered it, realising it was all just meant to be fun and formed the Hold Steady. This aspect comes across in bucket loads in the band performance, they are a band who clearly love what they do.

They return to play another jewel from 'Girls And Boys In America' with 'Stuck Between Stations' before 'Navy Sheets' and the 'First Night' closes the show.

Finn says he's not living the life he thought he would at his age, he's almost as much of an oldie as me, although he's not yet gone over 'that hill'. For that, he says, he is thankful. Something for us all to aspire to.

Tuesday 2 December 2008

Kings Of Leon, Nottingham Arena

I would like to offer some quip that the M83 runs from Kilmarnock to East Kilbride (or some other equally obscure locations) but it does not. I would also like to say what an uninteresting straight road with little distractions it is, but I'm not even sure there is an M83 motorway at all. There is however, a band, who could be very like that fictional road.

They take the stage just as we arrive at Nottingham's Ice Arena, the place feeling every bit like an ice rink tonight. It's around zero outside and probably colder inside. Anthony Gonzalez seems to agree; he keeps his scarf and coat on for a least the first half of M83's 45 minutes set. They make a promising start with a powerful opening with a lively instrumental track but there after it all sounds a bit samey. M83 are a French electronica band who were once a duo but now consist of just Gonzalez together with session musicians. Tonight there's a guitarist, a drummer, Gonzalez on keyboards and also the keyboards of his female companion, with whom he shares vocal duty. He keeps her in her place, sideways to us, so that we can't even see her face. He describes his music as something from the shoegazing genre but I don't see that, shoegazing was all guitar. Anyhow, his music is more 80's than 90's, I think secretly he wants to be Jean Michel Jarre.

Despite the obvious musical talent up on stage, for the uninitiated, which must be at least 99% of the audience tonight, it's easy to get lost, overpowered and with many songs blurring into one another, well bored really. Sorry.

It appears that the bigger a band gets the more roadies they acquire. Kings Of Leon have so many, that they don't know what to do with themselves. I mean the bands equipment still consists of just three guitars and a drum kit. How hard can it be to set that lot up? Thankfully there's all the lights to fiddle with and luckily one bank of lighting isn't working, so they can all cluster around that and give it a good prod.

The Followill boys take the stage to the sound of Mozart’s Requiem (apparently, I'm no expert), until this is replaced by the haunting guitar sound that is the opening of 'Closer', which echoes out across the arena. Game on. A good entrance and they follow the sequence of their latest album, 'Only By the Night', with the heavy bass of 'Crawl'.

The Kings blasted through four or five songs before anything is said to the crowd. Nothing unusual there, the band never have been much for that sort of thing. When they're up there on stage, they spend their time playing music. Nothing wrong there, playing music is what they do best.

That said, Caleb, a man of few words, was positively chatty tonight... 'Hi, we are Kings of Leon'. I look around but I can't see anyone cursing, 'Damn, get your coat love, we're a week early for the Stereophonics'. Caleb mate, that's why we're here.

The three brothers and their first cousin from Tennessee are on fine form tonight, despite the rumours that they're not speaking to each other. Families eh! Named 'Kings Of Leon' because their father and grandfather are both called Leon. Bless. How nice to have dynamic offspring.

It's a pretty good crowd tonight, involved but not too raucous. The beer throwing that often blights the Arena is happily absent tonight.

Caleb urges the crowd to sing along as the intro to their number one single, the wonderfully seductive 'Sex on Fire' rings out. It's interesting to watch his facial expressions; we're close enough to the front to do so, as he sings some of his more dubious lines. I notice his eyebrows go up on each double entendre.

The light show is impressive, although fairly incidental and I assume is to keep those at the back of the hall, who can't see the band, amused.

He announces they are going to perform 'a few songs we haven't played in a long time' and introduces an oldie, delighting and confusing the crowd in equal measure as he throws in 'Joe's Head' from their debut album.

As ever the Arena made it sound like they were playing into a bucket at times. If only they'd put a proper ceiling on it, then we'd have something called acoustics. Whilst their newer stuff is undoubtedly designed for such cavernous arenas and festivals, some of the older stuff sounds a bit thin. 'Molly's Chambers' for instance sounds a little bit tamer each time I hear it.

There were plenty of highlights though as the band rummaged into the recesses of all four of their albums. 'Cold Desert' is suitably poignant and 'On Call' suitably brooding. 'The Bucket' goes un-dedicated to the Arena sound system while 'Milk' is just plain terrific and also quite a sing-along, as is current single 'Use Somebody'. This had the audience waving their mobile phones in the air like cigarette lighters. Oh for an air rifle.

Caleb gave everything into every single note of every single song, whilst the rest of the band simply get on with their jobs and did them well.

Caleb's back chatting, being almost humble or well oiled, and repeatedly thanking the crowd for making them bigger than they ever thought they would be. He did seem to genuinely mean it and appeared truly grateful to be up there in front of everyone. Also apologising for playing such a mammoth set. The Kings are certainly value for money tonight.

There's a hint of tension when Jared seems to lay down his bass after 'Slow Night, So Long' or perhaps he's just knackered, this was song number 22 but Caleb talks him into one more. Confounding/delighting (delete as applicable) everyone again by closing with the wonderful 'Trani'. After which Jared seemed to storm off stage whilst the rest of the band milked the applause.

There were no less than five tracks from 'Youth & Young Manhood' tonight, other bands please take note, sending me home a very happy bunny by playing both 'Wasted Time' and 'California Waiting'.

After the marathon main set, the band come back for an encore and a long one naturally. Well it's going to be when it opens with the epic seven minutes that is 'Knocked Up'. As 'Manhattan' is played, I can see several people in the seats, itching towards the exits, desperate to be first out of the car park but not wanting to miss anything. Caleb won't be rushed and screams out 'Charmer'. Pure quality. Time for one more? No one got any kids or baby sitters to get back to then? No? Good. Here's 'Black Thumbnail'. After which the three other band members grab Caleb by the hair and drag him screaming from the stage... no not really. 'We are King Of Leon. Goodnight'. Excellent.

Hang on, Caleb, come back a sec, my partner wants 'Notion'. Someone’s always going to leave without hearing their favourite song and tonight she's with me, but with their long set they made a good attempt at minimising that. Ok if I'm being picky where was 'Red Morning Light' and for that matter, 'Taper Jean Girl'. So that's 30 songs next time, if that's ok with you boys.

They played for a total of two hours. Can a band play too long? Possibly and I'm certainly a fan of short and punchy but I can't really find fault tonight. Although... and I know I say this every time I'm arena-ised but I'll say it again. How good would they have been in more intimate surroundings? Where Caleb could have screeched to his hearts content without all that effort disappearing up the air conditioning. It'll never happen now of course, now that they have their fame and can pull crowds as big as this but wouldn't it nice.

All photos thanks to Jade Skellington