Friday, 15 April 2016

Jeff Lynne's ELO - Sublime Symphonic Comeback for Mr. Blue Sky - Metro Radio Arena, Newcastle, 14.04.16

"Good evening Newcastle,” a man dressed in a blue jacket and silver aviator shades announces, a grin across his bearded face threatening to split it in to. “Thanks for coming out, it’s all really wonderful.” Under a mop of shaggy brown hair, Jeff Lynne appears to have stepped out of his time travelling spaceship, fresh from 1977, such is his striking resemblance to his younger self. On closer inspection, his face is more lined and careworn, but that is the only discernible change of almost forty years. It’s almost as if he is in possession of an Elixir of Life or the Holy Grail.

Lynne most definitely does hold the latter, or at least its equivalent in songwriting terms. His band Electric Light Orchestra dominated the charts on both sides of the Atlantic throughout the seventies, thanks to his extraordinary knack for a tune. Combining baroque pop, prog-rock, disco and classical influences, they were a sprawling, multi-faceted outfit whose Beatlesque stylings and Brian Wilson harmonies were dismissed as chart fodder by sneering critics. Their extravagant live performances, at their peak, featuring a hydraulic spaceship prop that was as temperamental as it was overblown, only served to reinforce their reputation as an unnecessary extravagance.
Jeff Lynne's ELO performing live in
Newcastle in 2016. (Courtesy of Newcastle Chronicle.)
But the songcraft of their affable Brummie mainman is, and remains, extraordinary, and in 2014, Lynne resurrected the outfit – under the name Jeff Lynne’s ELO for legal reasons -  to critical and commercial acclaim. Their first reunion date, at London’s Hyde Park, sold out in ninety minutes. Their new album Alone in the Universe was certified Platinum within ten weeks of release. This UK arena tour – that will culminate with a hotly anticipated show in the Legends Slot at Glastonbury Festival – outpaced similar ticket demand for Rihanna and Bruce Springsteen. For the notoriously stage-shy Lynne, it’s a miraculous comeback and he seems genuinely touched by it all.

Unearthly lashings of whirring synthesiser echo around the sold-out Metro Radio Arena, heralding the symphonic bombast of opener Tightrope, as ELO take to the stage under a bank of lasers. Joined by longtime pianist Richard Tandy as the lone surviving member of their heyday, Lynne’s group is a well-drilled unit, with backing singers and a trio of string players in addition to the rhythm section. Together, they create a Spector-brushed Wall of Sound, all lush melodies and orchestral flourishes that add a sparkling grandeur to proceedings. Renditions are note-perfect; they roll out the dancefloor-rock of All Over the World with warm panache, inject a fluid funk undertone to Shine a Little Love and underpin the surging Secret Messages with a frantic electronica rumble.
Jeff Lynne's ELO performing live in Newcastle
in 2016. (Courtesy of Carl Chambers.)
But Lynne is the master of ceremonies, exuding a warm charm with his every gesture. When he doesn’t make it to the microphone for the first line of Evil Woman, he grins endearingly at his faux-pas. Perhaps due to a life lived away from the stage, Lynne’s voice is remarkably well-preserved – when he hammers out Rockaria!’s awesome boogie-down exclamations, and deploys his falsetto over the sublime Livin’ Thing, the venue erupts in deliriously happy dancing. Spine-tingling renditions of Can’t Get It Out of My Head and Steppin’ Out are brushed with a soft, luxurious feel that caresses the senses, and the folk-twinkle of Wild West Hero is a yearning highlight. When he gives a tour debut to 10538 Overture, there is no doubt that Lynne knows how to craft a live show as it rides another crest of euphoria.

That crest gets larger and larger as ELO storm through a closing half-hour, delivering hit after hit after hit. Telephone Line leads into Turn to Stone; Don’t Bring Me Down gives way for Sweet Talkin’ Woman. They unsurprisingly close out with the gorgeous, sunshine-kissed Mr. Blue Sky, possibly the most buoyant slice of pop-rock ever committed to record. They depart with a single song encore – their intricately reworked version of Roll Over Beethoven, featuring some nifty fretwork – but not before Lynne gets everyone to take part in a “Geordie selfie” for the scrapbook. It’s a rare show that features no missteps or flaws; but based on the evidence, Glastonbury is going to be in for a hell of a time when Jeff Lynne rolls up on Sunday afternoon.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

RETROSPECTIVE REVIEW - Snow Patrol - Happy, Messy Show from Post-Britpop Pin-Ups - Manchester Evening News Arena, Manchester, 03.02.12

Snow Patrol are only one song into their show at the Manchester Evening News Arena, and already, misfortune has befallen post-Britpop pin-up Gary Lightbody, though thankfully not of a particularly serious nature. “I just spent that entire first song with my flies undone,” he quips cheekily, a touch of self-deprecating embarrassment to his tone. “I hope you didn’t notice. If you did, ladies, I hope you enjoyed it.”

It’s a cheeky-chappie line perhaps more accustomed to the Robbie Williams brand of pop than, say, a Northern Irish six-piece whose commercial success is built upon a serious of soaring lovelorn ballads, all weepy lyrics and epic, lush arrangements. But it suits the cheery Lightbody, a man who seems possessed of not. Snow Patrol are touring behind 2011’s Fallen Empires – a stylistic left-turn into indietronica and power pop – and, judging by the near-sold-out crowd packed around the venue, are still the commercial juggernaut who dominated mid-noughties airwaves on both sides of the Atlantic with a cluster of genre-defining hits.
Snow Patrol perform live on their Fallen Empires Tour
in 2012. (Courtesy of livedesignonline.com)
No expense has been wasted on their stage show either; five large lighting rigs, shaped like eponymous snowflakes, hang from the rafters in front of a twenty-five-foot high curving LED screen upon which pulsing graphics of water drops periodically flash. Bathed in alternating icy blue, warm yellow and fiery orange, Snow Patrol enter to the shuddering electronic-bass of I’ll Never Let Go, and subsequently waste no time flying through a ninety-minute show in a happy, messy clutter.

Happy, because there’s a deftness of touch to the heavy, ponderous ballads and maximum-drive guitar anthems they populate their setlist with – recent cut New York lifts with a nuanced grace on flashes of lighter piano than on record, whilst the thumping alt-rock punch of Hands Open is rendered with a surprisingly laddish charm. Messy, as the band often lack musical sophistication; Crack the Shutters, for all its anthemics, is disorganised and muddied in its keyboard and guitar lines, both off the beat, though rousing regardless. And cluttered, for there are eleven – count it, eleven – players on stage; Lightbody, guitarists Nathan Connolly and Johnny McDaid, drummer Jonny Quinn, bassist Paul Wilson and keyboard player Tom Simpson are joined by five additional musicians, including two more guitarists and another drummer. It’s very Wall of Sound in principle; in execution, it sounds sometimes as everything and the kitchen sink has been thrown at the audience.
Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol, performing live at Manchester
Evening News Arena in 2012. (Courtesy of Getty)
The mix isn’t terrible though, just overpoweringly primal in prolonged flashes. In fact, it works to the advantage of some songs; Fallen Empires is rendered as a sensory overload, all tribal rhythms that pound at the eardrums. Take Back the City struts with an urgent defiance, stirring and strident. Lightbody delivers a braveau vocal performance, that peaks with a spine-tingling rendition of their beautiful breakthrough power ballad Run, reclaimed from the hands of talent-show contestants with a hauntingly desperate cry. It’s arguably their strongest song of many; contrary to critical dismissal as a low-budget Coldplay, Snow Patrol have some superb songs in their catalogue and the admiration of fellow musicians such as Michael Stipe and Bono to boot. For relationship duet Set the Fire to the Fire Bar, he silkily harmonises with the backing vocalist over twinkling, star-strewn melodies, whilst the ubiquitous Chasing Cars is dispatched to a mass singalong chorus with the requisite √©lan.

Others have moments in the spotlight too; Connolly’s spiralling work on Chocolate is a highlight, whilst Wilson propels the melancholy In The End forward on driving bass. They close out their main set with the power-pop-rock of You’re All I Have, before returning for a three song encore that opens with their most serious misstep, the leaden drag of Lifening, an insipid ballad that floats on the album but sinks in the arena. They rescue momentum with panache though; the slow-build surge of Open Your Eyes notches up the tension before bursting into joyous, life-affirming melody. They roll out one final song – the floor-filling electropop of Just Say Yes, their singular dance anthem and party closer originally penned for Gwen Stefani. It’s loud, bubbly and a surprisingly tight performance. Snow Patrol clearly know how to play then; but with a touch of refinement, they could become all-time live greats.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Muse - Devonshire Trio Go Full Metal Floyd on Wagnerian Scale - Manchester Arena, Manchester, 08.04.16

Midway through their near-two-hour show at Manchester Arena, Muse vanish from their venue-spanning stage setup again whilst video footage of John F. Kennedy is projected over a series of descending banners, flung from the rafters to form a makeshift screen. It evokes a disturbing feeling, as the late president slowly enunciates the horrors of war and the shadows of treachery over a slowly rising guitar chug. Then, it erupts into the distinctive bass intro of the heavy, dirty swaggering Hysteria and 16,000 people leap to their feet in unison, hollering along.

Muse aren’t a band known for their subtleties. They return to this venue in support of a concept album, Drones, that trades in frontman Matt Bellamy’s favourite topics; conspiracies, corruption, and war, backed up by bombastic, gothic Wagnerian chords. OTT is their bread and butter. Before they even play a note, a choral mass of chanting vocals and churchy organ is piped in as glass spheres float ominously around, like see-through Christmas baubles. The stage is situated in the middle of the floor, a rotating circular behemoth with two walkways to platforms at opposite ends, vaguely resembling a TIE Fighter. The lack of Stonehenge is only because it’s been done before; Spinal Tap would nod approvingly.
Muse performing live at Manchester Arena,
2016. (Courtesy of Joel Goodman).
All this overblown excess – a U2 staging for the twenty-first century – would not hold the attention if Muse couldn’t cut it as a live band as well. Thankfully, the Devonshire trio are one of the finest in the business, an efficiently-drilled cohort who are as good as they’ve ever been. Despite this, their wall-of-sound approach to live performance lacks any bite initially. They open with the Roudhouse Blues-riffing roar of the violent Psycho and follow it up with the RATM-tinged Reapers that sees Bellamy’s guitar histrionics squeak and tremble in strange organic patterns – but neither feel as threatening as they really should. Clad in black, Bellamy and bassist Chris Wolstenholme preen and strut around, sneering as they deliver crunching blockbuster noises; but it lacks the genuine hostility or pantomime villainy that it would benefit from, no actual menace or knowing wink. Instead, it’s played straight and consequently suffers for a lack of fun.

They divert briefly into fan-favourite Bliss before delivering the electro-rock of Dead Inside and hi-def video game charge of The Handler, where Bellamy starts to come alive as graphics of puppet masters grapple with him as he prances down the walkway. Vocally, his elastic caterwauling is surprisingly unable to reach the notes he can on record – but when he shifts to his falsetto for the funk-laden Supermassive Black Hole, he hits his stride and suddenly Muse find their mojo, as touring keyboardist Morgan Nicholls dances wildly whilst the floating globes rotate like a neon-tinged planetarium. They follow rapidly with glittering pop song Starlight, as Wolstenholme pops giant, confetti-filled balloons with the end of his bass to cheers, and from there, they never let up.
Matt Bellamy of Muse, performing live at
Manchester Arena, 2016. (Courtesy of Joel Goodman).
Some tracks work better than others; the harsh, new prog of Time Is Running Out is sublime, whilst Bellamy vamps up the piano for a gorgeously frenzied-rendition of Feeling Good. The glam-stomp of Uprising feels underpowered by a lack of dual guitar work until halfway through, whilst Dominic Howard’s superb drumming on Map of the Problematique is lost somewhere underneath the rumbling bass in a sound mix that could have been a touch better. But on the whole, it’s superbly enjoyable as the band loosen up and enjoy themselves. They wander into ponderous, Orwellian territory for set-closer The Globalist; a sprawling ten-minute plus track that goes Full Metal Floyd, complete with an inflatable spy plane that recalls Roger Waters’ legendary pigs, but recover themselves nicely with a thrilling encore of Take a Bow and Mercy. As Wolstenholme picks out the notes to the theme from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly on harmonica, it gives way to the finally charging gallop of the Thin Lizzy-indebted Knights of Cydonia, the band at their ridiculously overblown best. Muse have reached a critical mass of prog-influenced soundscapes and thrilling theatre to easily stake a claim as the best live band in the world; if they played it more often with a sense of levity, they probably would be.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Weezer - Power Pop Stalwarts Hit The Sweet Spot - Manchester Academy, Manchester, 03.04.16

“Good evening,” bespectacled Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo announces, after his band have delivered the strutting, nostalgia-tinged Back to the Shack with the force of a sledgehammer cracking a nut. “We are Weezer, from California.” He pauses, blinking owlishly, and twiddles with a string on his guitar, as if he’s somewhat abashed. “And you are Weezer fans from Manchester, UK,” he adds after a moment, to a rapturously loud reception, and a small smile quirks his lips fleetingly. “Let’s have a good time.”

Cuomo is not, at first glance, a typical rockstar. He cuts the figure of an eternally bookish student; even at 45, he still gives the impression of being an undergraduate as opposed to a member of one of alt-rock’s biggest bands of the past twenty years. Weezer’s self-titled debut cemented their place in the underground; their early-noughties output saw them conquer the mainstream. Yet he has never lost that outsider feeling; a man possessed by universal fears and anxieties in his lyrics, a relatable human figure with a gift on the fretboard and an ear for ridiculously good melodies.
Weezer performing live in Manchester in
2016. (Courtesy of thefourohfive.com)
Their show at Manchester’s spacious Academy is their first UK gig in five years, and corresponds with the release of their tenth album, and fourth self-titled effort (carrying the moniker of The White Album, after other colour-coded releases Blue, Green and Red). In concept a launch show for the record, it is rather a celebration of the catchy grunge-laden power pop that has been the musical focal point of their career since 1994, a breathless eighty-odd minute rush through a collection of songs that are synonymous with college-alt radio and heart-on-sleeve fun.

They don’t skimp on new material though; of their setlist, they cull a quarter from The White Album. Hailed as a return to form, it’s a batch of sun-kissed, lushly harmonious tracks that are received with as much enthusiasm as older material by the overjoyed audience. Opener California Kids is melancholy summer rock that floats breezily, an enchanting little ditty. Thank God for Girls is a riotous, seventies-esque piano stomp, with shades of Queen flamboyance. The brilliantly titled Do You Wanna Get High? is no stoner jam but instead a superb pop-rock gem, augmented by lashings of regal electric organ.

All this fleet-of-foot pop fun would fall flat in the hands of a lesser band but Weezer deliver a truly complete performance to elevate it superbly. Guitarist Brian Bell imbues the grunge-driven anxiety of jangly early cut My Name is Jonas with a speed-freak thrash and later sings Pinkerton-era B-side You Gave Your Love to Me Softly with pleading intensity. Scott Shriner, on bass, injects a delicious funk-palate that riffs on The Jam’s Town Called Malice during urgent hookup anthem (If You’re Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To, whilst drummer Patrick Wilson delivers a pleasingly laid-back beat for emo cornerstone Say It Ain’t So that anchors it in an almost dreamy fashion.
Rivers Cuomo of Weezer, performing live in
Manchester in 2016. (Courtesy of thefourohfive.com)
Though not particularly extravagant, Cuomo is understandably the focal point of the group, and does not disappoint. During the creeping, crunching riff of Hash Pipe, he delivers an effortless metal falsetto that soars up and down with an edgy unease and emo anthem El Scorcho sees him conduct the crowd with miniscule nods. He pays tribute to local rock legends Oasis during Troublemaker, throwing in a snippet of Champagne Supernova during its scuzzy intro. He may not display his neurosis and eccentricities as much anymore; but Cuomo lets his skills do the talking, in an impressively self-assured display of musicianship.


All three click together superbly during instrumental number The Waste Land, all tremoring notes and moody atmospherics, and bring the house down with a delicately-strummed Undone – The Sweater Song that builds to a violently chaotic climax, as Cuomo and Bell raise their guitars aloft in a silent salute. They encore with the arena-glam-rock of Beverly Hills before bidding a final goodnight with a sweaty, raucous Buddy Holly that ignites Manchester into frenzied dancing. “We’ll be seeing you at Reading, Leeds, Glastonbury, at all your festivals!” Cuomo shouts, a small grin gracing his lips. There’s definitely a feeling that wherever they do end up, they’ll rock just as much there as here.