Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Toto - London Review

I have often wondered whether or not it is possible to get all your musical goodness from simply listening to Toto's deep and expansive back catalogue. While, of course, this is not the case - there are few bands which can boast to having created such a varied, yet extremely accessible, body of work. My love affair with the American melodic rock band started sometime in 2010 or 2011 when I heard the seminal Toto IV for the first time, and over the next few years I built a complete collection of their studio albums, as well as also owning most of their live and compilation albums. On the surface, Toto often seem like your average American 1980s AOR band. Poppy melodies and big choruses are always king, but scratch the surface and the band's musical complexities - which come from the band members' histories as session musicians - are apparent. Jazz, blues, soul, pop, rock, and country music can all be found in Toto's rich musical DNA - which is probably why the band have only ever really flirted with the true mainstream, their fans mostly being those who prefer a diverse range of music. I finally managed to see the band for the first time back in 2015, when they played at the famed Hammersmith Apollo in support of their then-new album XIV. The show was fantastic, and one that will live in my memory as one of the best rock shows I have had the pleasure to witness. This is why, about half way through 2017, when the band's 40th anniversary tour was announced, I knew that I had to make one of the few UK shows it included. The show at the Royal Albert Hall in London, one of the most prestigious venues in the UK, seemed the most appropriate option given the fact it was over the Easter bank holiday weekend. I bought tickets the day they went on sale, but opted for the cheapest ones which were high up on the side, and almost level with the stage. Sadly, the view from these seats was not the best, but it was still passable. I had been lucky in being reallocated some excellent seats for Marillion's show at the same venue last October, so I did not mind having a somewhat more compromised view this time around. Unsurprisingly, the show was a sell-out and the crowd's reaction throughout the band's two hour-plus set was excellent.

Although hitting the stage slightly after the designated 7:30pm start, Toto hit the ground running from the off with Alone, the new single from their new career retrospective album 40 Trips Around the Sun. The mid-paced rocker is similar to the material found on the first half of XIV, and immediately felt at home in the set. Frontman Joseph Williams led from the front, his smooth voice really filling the hallowed venue, with sidemen Shem von Schroeck (bass guitar/vocals) and Warren Ham (saxophone/flute/harmonica/vocals) ably providing assistance during the chorus. These three men, with their gorgeous high voices, formed a perfect vocal triumvirate all evening. Vocal harmonies have always been a big part of Toto's sound, and these three men managed to recreate some of the complex vocal arrangements found on the band's albums with relative ease. Being the band's 40th anniversary tour, the band took the opportunity to pull many deep cuts from the vaults, but not before pulling out Hold the Line, one of their biggest hits, extremely early on to really get the crowd going. The smile on Steve Lukather's (vocals/guitar) face was clear even from my position in the 'nosebleeds' as he laid into the song's muscular riff, and the crowd's reaction during the chorus only intensified this. From this point on, the show's first third was mostly made up of lesser-played numbers. David Paich (vocals/keyboards) took the lead for the jazz rock of Lovers in the Night, and another new single Spanish Sea went down surprisingly well despite many in attendance not being familiar with it. One of the early highlights was a gorgeous version of the 1990s ballad I Will Remember, which Lukather dedicated to their fallen bandmates Jeff and Mike Porcaro for the former's birthday. Lukather sung the song with all the bluesy passion he could muster, before launching into the emotional guitar solo with even more intent than usual. It is fair to say that the place was slightly stunned after this heartfelt display, but was soon shaken back into life again with the hard-driving AOR of English Eyes. Another real highlight of this portion of the night for me was the poppy ballad Lea. Written by Steve Porcaro (keyboards) the song is unsurprisingly synth-heavy, but Ham's occasional jazzy saxophone lines really helped to bring the piece to life. Williams sung it beautifully, and seeing the song live has moved it up a few notches in my list of all-time favourite Toto numbers. This portion of the night came to an end with another of the band's biggest hits - Rosanna. Lukather and Williams shared the vocals, and the jazzy outro instrumental section was stretched out to allow plenty more soloing from Lukather, which the crowd lapped up after enjoying singing along to the big choruses.

The second third of the night took on a more stripped-back vibe, with extended snippets of seven songs performed acoustically by the band, interspersed by stories from the band members on the songs' creations. Many of the songs wheeled out during this portion of the set had never been played live until this tour, and there was definitely quite a lot of head-scratching going on near me in the cheap seats by those not so well versed in the band's catalogue. Paich discussed the band's very early days, and punctuated this story with performances of the laid back Miss Sun, a song Toto demoed in the late 1970s but did not release until the mid-1990s (although Boz Scaggs had a hit with a version of it in 1980), and the nursery rhyme-inspired Georgy Porgy. A portion of Porcaro's Human Nature, which of course ended up on the best selling album of all time, was then played; which saw Williams really doing justice to the song vocally. Few are able to sing Michael Jackson songs with any real conviction, but Williams clearly can and demonstrated in the process just what a great singer he is. A highlight for me during this section was the inclusion of the boogie-blues of Holyanna, taken from my favourite Toto album - 1984's Isolation, which managed to incite a bit of dancing down in the stalls with its barroom stylings. Probably the only miss-step of this section was the rather bland No Love from 1999's Mindfields. It has never been a song that has particularly grabbed me, especially given the amount of quality songs from that album that could have been represented in the set, but the truncated nature of this portion of the night meant that it was over as quickly as it started. It did feature some fun bluesy harmonica playing from Ham however, but this sounded more like something that should be heard a country gig - not a Toto show! Things got back on track with snippets of Mushanga and Stop Loving You - both from 1988's The Seventh One - which brought this acoustic section to a triumphant close.

If possible, the third and final section of the main set often dug even deeper into the band's catalogue - and really separated the die-hard fans from the casual listeners! Toto cranked up the sound again with the relatively well-known Goodbye Girl from their 1978 debut album. This anthemic rocker really got the crowd back on their feet after the more sedate acoustic section, and reestablished the party atmosphere. Sticking with the same album, the band elected to give Angela a rare airing. Sung by Williams, rather than Lukather who originally sung it way back in 1978, the somewhat progressive track came across really well. I have to say, it has never been a favourite of mine, but hearing it live gave me a new appreciation of it. The song mixes melancholic sections with driving hard rock sections, and allowed the band to really flex their muscles. This intent to surprise continued with Lion, another offering from my beloved Isolation, which - although downtuned somewhat - still shined like the soaring AOR anthem that it is. Williams sung the song fantastically, and hit the high notes perfectly - with von Shroeck and Ham ably helping out as always. Probably the biggest curve ball of the night however was a portion of their soundtrack for the 1984 David Lynch film Dune. The sci-fi progressive instrumental sounded unlike anything else in this current setlist, and really allowed both of the band's keyboard players to shine with some excellent retro-sounding synths. Of the two instrumentals played (the more upbeat Jake to the Bone was featured during the first third of the night) Dune (Desert Theme) was the better of the two, and showed the band's musical prowess while still entertaining sonically. Lukather's cover The Beatles' While My Guitar Gently Weeps followed this, before two tracks from the smash-hit album Toto IV brought the main set to a close. Make Believe had not been played live for many years before this tour, and it seemed to be welcomed back in open arms by the crowd. This song really allowed Ham to shine, with plenty of saxophone parts throughout for him to really get his teeth into. It helped get a lot of the crowd back on their feet, before Shannon Forrest (drums) and Lenny Castro (percussion) began to lay down the famous groove to the band's biggest single - Africa. Unsurprisingly this was the best-received song of the evening, and had everyone in the crowd up on their feet and singing along. The chorus in particular had everyone involved, with Castro's explosive percussion solo and William's call-and-response vocal section rounded off a stunning set. There were of course howls for more, and the band complied - trooping back on stage for one more. The ballad The Road Goes On may seem a slightly odd choice for an encore, but the reflective nature of the lyrics seemed to sum up the band's 40th anniversary perfectly. The band took their bows to huge cheers, and the sold out Albert Hall was left to reflect on what had been a wonderful evening of live music from one of America's best bands. The setlist was:

Hold the Line
Lovers in the Night
Spanish Sea
I Will Remember
English Eyes
Jake to the Bone
Miss Sun
Georgy Porgy
Human Nature [Michael Jackson cover]
No Love
Stop Loving You
Girl Goodbye
Dune (Desert Theme)
While My Guitar Gently Weeps [The Beatles cover]
Make Believe
The Road Goes On

Toto have been one of my favourite bands since probably around 2012, which was when I really started to absorb and enjoy their deep catalogue a year or so after first discovering them, and this stunning show only reinforces this fact. This was as good, if not better, than the Hammersmith Apollo show in 2015, as is a concert that will live long in my memory.

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