|Europe/Black Star Riders/The Amorettes - Belfast, Ulster Hall - 3rd March 2015|
|Written by Mark Ashby|
|Thursday, 12 March 2015 04:00|
Ahh, you could just smell it as soon as you walked through the door - the unmistakeable aroma of stale sweat, spilled beer and well-weathered leather… it was just like it was 1988 all over again!
It had been quite some time since that most venerable of Belfast musical institutions, the Ulster Hall, had hosted a good old-fashioned rawk ‘n’ roll shindig, but the ‘Grand Dame of Bedford Street’ more than made amends with this double-whammy of a co-headline show, with Europe fulfilling a promise made to this reviewer last summer to return to the city after an absence of almost three decades, and one veteran guitar player also retreading boards upon which he frequently had performed in the venue’s heyday, when it was an essential stop-off point for any self-respecting touring band (a far cry from these modern times, when most acts seem to think that a “UK tour” doesn’t involve venturing any further north than Watford).
Although they look dwarfed on the massive stage, with not one but two drum kits and the venue’s iconic Grand Organ behind them, The Amorettes are instantly at home and obviously among many friends who have made the point of turning up early. The feisty Scottish trio easily prove why they are one of the best rising female groups on these isles, as they ‘Grab The Bull By The Horns’ and get those earlycomers dancing and singing along to their tearaway DC-meets-The-Runaways vibe, with new single ‘Fire At Will’ possessing an instant hookability, and the girls ‘Shoot From The Riff’ as they lay it down ‘Hot And Heavy’.
Talking of feeling at home, this is very much a hometown show for Black Star Riders frontman Ricky Warwick, and this is his biggest yet since the band transmogrified and emerged, Phoenix-like from the ashes of the final, re-invigorated, re-incarnation of Thin Lizzy. As the house lights dim and the intro music fades, the opening dual salvo of ‘Bound For Glory’ and ‘Jailbreak’ shows that the Riders are lean, mean, confident, energetic and vibrant as they launch into the second night of their mammoth touring schedule to promote their new album, ‘The Killer Instinct’, which had debuted at number 13 in the UK album charts just a few days’ earlier. With Warwick bouncing virtually non-stop, Scott Gorham stands stoical to his left, but plays with the vitality and enthusiasm of a musician half his age - as, indeed, does drummer Jimmy DiGrasso.
Four songs in, ‘Charlie I Gotta Go’ is a slightly surprising choice for the first to be debuted from the new album outside of the title track itself, but its staccato riff and Warwick’s almost breathless deliver ensure its live interpretation is as fiery as it is stomping. ‘Soldierstown’ is a more understandable choice, as it swells and sweeps around the venue, building into a majestic and anthemic foot-stomper. ‘Through The Motions’ is another surprising inclusion, especially as to this reviewer it is one of the weaker, filler songs on the album, but tonight it sounds like it may have been written with one ear on the live environment, especially with Robbie Crane’s crunching bass line; indeed, the bassist’s rapid integration into the BSR family had been highlighted just one song earlier, with his fantastic interpretation of ‘Dancing In The Moonlight’, which also featured a sublime solo from Gorham.
There are plenty of Lizzy favourites to keep diehard fans happy, and the songs all sound as fresh and as vibrant as ever - even more so in places, as the band are clearly enjoying playing them - with the likes of ‘Rosalie’ even having those in the posh seats - ie the balcony - standing and clapping along. The Riders may never move fully out of the of the shadow of Lynott - and nor would they want to, or apparently be allowed to - and the new album may lack something of ‘The Killer Instinct’, but live the five guys most definitely retain that quality and are one of the best hard rock bands around, bar none. In the words of Warwick himself: “Someone said rock ‘n’ roll is dead… not in fucking Belfast it’s not!”
You could almost taste the anticipation - and especially that of those of us of a certain, shall we say, vintage - in the air, as the houselights dimmed once again and Europe’s intro music rumbled from the speaker stacks. As his bandmates took up their positions at the front of the stage, the ever-youthful looking Joey Tempest immediately rolled back the years as he bounded onto the stage with the same enthusiasm and zest he had done all those years ago, greeting the audience in the local vernacular of “What about ye, what’s the craic” - a nice touch from a consummate professional fully aware of his audience. But, Europe most definitely are not a band stuck in the past, or living on past glories, as they take the brave step of opening with two songs from their new ‘War Of Kings’ album - the title track and ‘Hole In My Pocket’. It’s a slow build start to the set, and an atmospheric one, and dominated by a bottom heavy sound.
Three more new songs are premiered as the set progresses – ‘The Second Day’, an intense slice of white-lit melodrama, ‘Praise You’, soulful and elegiac with an underlying punch, and the rollicking ‘Days Of Rock N Roll’, with Tempest on second guitar – which all showcase a strong and vibrant album from a band very much enjoying their renaissance.
‘Last Look At Eden’ shows that the band have carefully chosen what nuggets to play from their back catalogue during their 70 minute set: appropriately, the ‘Out Of The World’ album (which they were promoting the last time they graced this historic stage) gets a double hit, in the shape of ‘Superstitious’ - although the call-and-return middle section somewhat kills the momentum the quintet have built up by this stage - and ‘Sign Of The Times’. Another album to get a double hit is the more recent ‘Bag Of Bones’, with the back-to-back presentation of ‘Riches To Rags’ and ‘Firebox’, while they also plunge right back into their discography for a majestic ‘Scream Of Anger’, which features the first of series of huge, soaring solos from John Norum.
And it is Norum who provides one of the highlights of the evening: midway through the set, Tempest talks about the band watching a video of Gary Moore recorded in this same venue: Norum always has been a fan of the ‘Belfast Boy’ and pays his hero no bigger tribute than producing the cream Stratocaster the local hero played that very night, on which he (and the rest of the band, of course) rips through a suitably fiery version of ‘Nuclear Attack’, which again demonstrates what an under-estimated and under-valued guitarist the Swede himself is – as he later emphasizes on a lengthy workout during ‘Rock The Night’.
Of course, there can be only one way to end a Europe set… and, right on cue - on the stroke of the curfew, in fact - the unmistakeable keyboard intro of ‘The Final Countdown’ swells through the arena and, not for the first time, gets people all over the arena dancing around like lunatics and singing into their empty beer bottles: even the balcony is shaking as Tempest takes his final bow, grinning from ear to ear and obviously relishing the occasion as much as the audience, leaving with a promise to return an awful lot quicker than this time around.
Photographs by Darren McVeigh/Metalplanet Belfast