Sunday, 19 March 2017

Black Star Riders - Birmingham Review

With three albums now under their belts, Black Star Riders are stepping out of Thin Lizzy's shadow. Formed in 2012 when Ricky Warwick (vocals/guitar), Scott Gorham (guitar/vocals), and Damon Johnson (guitar/vocals) from the latest touring incarnation of the legendary Irish hard rockers Thin Lizzy want to write and record some new material together. The decision to form a new band for this new material was the right move, and Black Star Riders have fast become one of the most successful new hard rock bands in recent years. Each album has received better commercial success than the previous one, and the band have gone from strength to strength on stage. These are songs that are meant to be heard live and the band has grown in confidence over the course of their five years in te business. 2016 saw no live activity from the band at all, but the year was spend wisely writing and recording their third album Heavy Fire (which I reviewed here) which was released last month. The album has been an instant hit for Black Star Riders, reaching number 6 in the Official UK Album Charts, and has received excellent reviews from all corners of the rock community. To support the album's release, the band announced their first UK headline tour for two years which boasted an generous run of dates that covered almost all of the UK. Despite the band playing closer to home than Birmingham, the weekend date meant that Birmingham was easier to organise around work commitments. The O2 Institute in Digbeth is not a regular haunt of mine, but it is not a bad venue and probably better than the O2 Academy which is around 20 minutes walk away. The sound is definitely much clearer at the Institute, although the large balcony can cause the same restricted views for those near the back as the Academy.

Scottish rockers Gun opened the evening with a 30 minute set of polished rock music that, while certainly melodic, lacked bite. Brothers Dante (vocals) and Jools Gizzi (guitar/vocals) are the backbone of Gun, and they led the five-piece band through an enjoyable set that was well-received by the large crowd. New guitarist Tommy Gentry also impressed throughout with lots of melodic soloing, and his driving riffs that mixed well with Jools Gizzi's playing certainly upped the energy on the new number She Knows. Their cover of Cameo's Word Up! was, unsurprisingly, greeted with big cheers from the crowd. There were clearly many Gun fans in the audience, as all of the songs were greeted like old friends and Dante Gizzi often held out the microphone for the crowd to sing for him. They ended their set with Shame on You, from their 1989 debut album, which saw a good injection of energy late on. While Gun are a little tame for my liking, their set was certainly enjoyable and displayed all the experience of a band celebrating their 30th anniversary this year!

I was looking forward to Sweden's Backyard Babies. I saw guitarist Dregen with Michael Monroe back in 2011, so I was expecting music in that up-tempo, punky vein. Sadly I have to say I was disappointed and Backyard Babies never really seemed to get going throughout their 40 minutes on stage. Crowd reaction was fairly muted, and a muddy sound mix really did not help. There were good moments however, and the song Painkiller that was played early on in their set stood out with it's strong hooks and anthemic chorus. Towards the end of their set they played a couple of faster numbers which were more akin to the sort of music that I pictured in my head when imagining what the band might sound like. This managed to whip up sections of the crowd towards the end but it was too late by this point sadly.

After half an hour or so the house lights went down, and the sound of an air raid siren filled the venue as Black Star Riders hit the stage with the title track from their latest album Heavy Fire. From then on, the pace never let up for the following 90 minutes as the band played straight through, without an encore break, with set that had a generous helping of all three of their albums plus a Thin Lizzy classic thrown in for good measure. I am glad that the Thin Lizzy element of the band's set is almost seen as an optional extra now, and this shows the band have confidence in their own material - and they should! The heavy Bloodshot and The Killer Instinct really got the crowd going early on, with Gorham and Johnson trading muscular riffs and solos with ease. Dancing with the Wrong Girl, which has a seriously laid-back Thin Lizzy vibe, was probably the song that impressed me the most early on with a great dual-guitar solo and some excellent soulful vocals from Warwick. There was little time for banter and on-stage messing about throughout, as the band let the music do the talking. Hey Judas, now a golden-oldie according to Warwick, was greeted like an old friend by the crowd, before the simple hard rock of newbie When the Night Comes In whipped up a storm with it's AC/DC-esque riffage. All Hell Breaks Loose seguing into the all-time classic The Boys are Back in Town worked wonders in the middle of the set, but it is perhaps telling that the Thin Lizzy classic was not greeted with any more of a cheer than most of the other material played. Black Star Riders have definitely become their own entity now, and that is great to see! The gorgeous ballad Blindsided from the band's last album, which I had not heard live before, was another personal highlight. Warwick sung it with real passion and Johnson's emotional solo was perfect. The two have formed such a great chemistry over the past few years and they have written some of their best ever songs together for Black Star Riders. The last four songs of the set felt like an extended victory lap. Testify or Say Goodbye, which was recently Single of the Week on BBC Radio 2, is a future classic in the making, and the three that followed are already bona fide modern hard rock classics. Kingdom of the Lost really comes alive on stage and packs more of a punch than the more laid-back album version; before both Bound for Glory and Finest Hour had the crowd singing at the top of their voices as Warwick thrashed his acoustic guitar as he sung the words with a real fire. The roar of the crowd when the band were done speaks wonders, and it is clear that Black Star Riders, despite their relatively short time together, have already become household names in the rock world and are sure to only rise from here. The setlist was:

Heavy Fire
The Killer Instinct
Dancing with the Wrong Girl
Hey Judas
When the Night Comes In
Cold War Love
All Hell Breaks Loose
The Boys are Back in Town [Thin Lizzy cover]
Hoodoo Voodoo
Who Rides the Tiger
Thinking About You Could Get Me Killed
Testify or Say Goodbye
Kingdom of the Lost
Bound for Glory
Finest Hour

Overall this was fine display of modern hard rock from one of the best live bands on the circuit at the moment. With a busy festival schedule all over Europe in the summer, this will hopefully expose the band to even more people, and I look forward to their next UK shows eagerly.

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