Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Gig Review: Mr Big at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, 20 September 2011

As I’ve mentioned before, I avoided Mr Big for  a full 20 years because of their horrific 1991 smash hit To Be With You, only finally coming into the fold with this year’s release of reunion album What If…, then finally got around to adding breakthrough album Lean Into It to my collection (and found that aside from a certain single it was pretty damn fine).

Like most bands comprised of musicians who could actually play their instruments 1992 effectively saw them banished from the upper reaches of the charts (apart from in Grunge-averse Japan, where they remain superstars to this day), so that album could just as well be subtitled Mr Big’s Greatest Hits as far as most people are concerned. Sure enough the set consisted almost entirely of songs from the two albums I own, so despite being a relative Mr Big novice I was still familiar with a good two-thirds of the material. Which was nice.

Kicking off with three Lean tracks in a row (Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy, Alive and Kickin’ and Green-Tinted Sixties Mind) it seemed the audience was a lively crowd populated with die-hards who were well up for a sing-along. This impression was maintained by first new song Undertow, which was treated like a massive hit. Other What If… tracks didn’t get quite the same reception, but they certainly all went down well.

With absolutely no stage set or other enhancements to speak of, this was all about the music. I’m a sucker for a singing drummer, and drummers who play open-handed, so Pat Torpey has swiftly moved up my list of favourites, while guitarist Paul Gilbert and bassist Billy Sheehan both ably demonstrated why they’re so highly regarded in musicians circles.

Strangely Eric Martin’s voice often sounded like little more than a croak when he was speaking, and he seemed to be suffering from a cold of some sorts, but when he was singing, such concerns vanished and the full power of his voice came rushing back. Tantalising for a massive Toto fan like myself to wonder how things would have panned out had they brought him into the fold instead of Joseph Williams all those years ago.

Mention of Toto is apposite – like them Mr Big also come in for criticism from some quarters for the extended solos that are featured in their live shows, and while I can understand that viewpoint I have to say I’m always more than happy for a spot of virtuosity-for-virtuosity’s-sake in a live setting. That said, Billy Sheehan’s solo did go on a bit longer than necessary, and I’d really have preferred a drum solo in the first place, but this is a minor quibble.

Aside from that the only lowlight was – well, you guessed it. Played as the first song in a 4-song encore, To Be With You still hasn’t grown on me, and I don’t imagine it ever will (really it’s only the chorus I hate, but it’s enough to ruin the whole song) but I guess it’s over soon enough and both the band and the audience as a whole still seem to get a kick out of it.

The band more than made up for it with a very credible cover of Smoke on the Water for which the instruments stayed where they were, but the players all rotated one place (in an anticlockwise motion) for the first half of the song, before further instrument-swaps occurred mid-song, allowing Sheehan to move from lead vocalist to lead guitarist for the solo, and generally allowing the whole band to show off – in a different way to how they had for the rest of the night…as the old saying goes, if you’ve got it, flaunt it. And these guys definitely have it. (8/10)

Mr Big l-r: Paul Gilbert, Pat Torpey, Eric Martin, Billy Sheehan

Monday, 5 September 2011

September’s First 5ive: A Rough Rebound in Stereo


Time for another completely random snapshot of the hordes of tunes currently living on me ipod…for September 2011, the first 5 songs out of a possible 11011 are:
1.       Toto – Gift of Faith (Live)
2.       Marc Hunter – Get So Rough
3.       Genesis – Down and Out
4.       Uriah Heep – On the Rebound
5.       The Cars – Moving in Stereo
Toto – Gift of Faith (Live) (from Falling in Between Live – 2008)
Recorded at the beginning of what would turn out to be Toto’s last full tour before their initial split, this rocking track from 1995’s Tambu was featured in the career-spanning medley/jam that was the centrepiece of the latter half of the show. As such we only get two and a half minutes from a song that was originally over seven minutes long, so it isn’t great out of context of that medley. Musically, as always with anything Toto-related, this is a fabulous performance, but Steve Lukather’s lead vocals are pretty rough (Greg Phillanganes part at the end makes this even more obvious) and this whole era just looks like a weird footnote in the overall history of the band these days – something I wouldn’t have said at the time, I admit.(7/10)
Marc Hunter – Get So Rough (from Talks to Strangers – 1994)
The opening cut from Hunter’s final solo album (He managed one more with Dragon the following year, before tragically succumbing to throat cancer in 1998). Hunter remains New Zealand’s best-ever rock vocalist and his early death left a gaping void that will likely never be filled. This is a perfect example of the way he could lend his voice to a fairly lightweight number and imbue it with a sense of passion that lifts it far above the realms of the mediocre. But you don’t need to take my word for it, check out the promotional clip below…(8/10)

Genesis – Down and Out (from And Then There Were Three… – 1978)
Strange, I love this song when I hear it, but aside from big single Follow You, Follow Me, the only track from this album that I can ever manage to play in my head is Deep in the Motherlode, which was the other side opener. Ah well. (9/10)

Uriah Heep – On the Rebound (from Abominog – 1982)
I’m sure I’m not alone in losing track of Uriah Heep’s many and varied configurations from throughout the years, but here we have a cut from 4th (I think) vocalist Pete Goalby’s first of three albums as their frontman. A cover of a track writer Russ Ballard had reached US#58 with two years before, this became the album’s lead single in the UK, which the band weren’t too pleased about. Heep were never a singles-oriented band anyway, so the fact that their version failed to chart was hardly a shock for the new line-up (who were probably happy enough in receiving their best reviews and album sales since Return to Fantasy in 1975). Nor was it a reflection on the quality of the recording – in fact, it should have been a hit, it sure sounds like one – far more than Ballard’s original in fact – compare them below and see what you think…  (9/10)

The Cars – Moving in Stereo (from The Cars – 1978)
The Cars debut is widely considered amongst the best first-albums in rock history, and while I’m not prone to agreeing with rock critics, I’ll concede that it is a very strong album indeed. This track was never a single, but received a decent amount of airplay at the time (before mine, of course!) , playing it’s part in the mass success of the album (certified at least 6-times platinum in the US)  (9/10)

So, another strong showing with an average score of 8.2, just a shade below the score from the last first five, from June. Hopefully this trend will continue next time (whenever that may be!).