Wham bam. For about an hour, this was a fearsome, supercharged r ‘n’ b pummelling. Nine Below Zero, classic line-up back together to tour their first three – and most influential – albums, came out pumped and with all guns blazing.
High velocity opening salvo, ‘Don’t Point Your Finger at the Guitar Man’, was a whirlwind of growling riffs and dirty bass lines. For my money the band’s best self-penned track and smashed out here with gusto and verve. ‘True Love is a Crime’ and ‘Three Times Enough’ followed in similar vein.
A bloke next to me was shaking his head manically from side to side in time to Mickey Burkey’s infectious beats, sweat spraying from his bald pate like a dog shaking out the rain. But he couldn’t keep up with the relentless ‘Three Times Enough’ and had a rest.
Dennis Greaves’ guitar sounded beautifully fluid and crystal clear, driving a stripped back sound and an animated, direct stage presence. Brian Bethell, stage left, on bass was cool in a cerise suit and a big quiff so sharp that you could open a tin of beans with it. Mark Feltham on lead and rhythm harmonica (how often do you get to say that!) was hidden under hat and behind shades all night, whistling out sublime aural nectar.
Greaves and Feltham exchanged some wonderful licks during ‘Treat Her Right’ and ‘Doghouse’. The pair on some kind of telepathic wavelength. Live, the band made their classic albums ‘Don’t Point Your Finger and ‘Third Degree’, from where the majority of the material was culled, sound thin and under-produced.
Feltham is by far the best harp player I’ve ever heard, adding depth and spice to tracks like ‘Johnny Weekend’ and ‘Sugar Beat’.
Greaves is no mug either. His playing was of the highest order. When it comes to the pantheon of great rock guitarists, Greaves will probably have to beat the door down with his Gibson semi-acoustic just to get on the back row. If he could wring out the emotional solo he produced in ‘Stormy Monday’’ every night though, they’d throw the gates wide open for him. Wonderful stuff.
Then things somehow slackened. During an instrumental passage, Greavesy slipped back stage and returned in a suit, ruffled shirt and sunglasses. I’m not blaming the cabaret attire entirely for the changed mood, but it was a striking coincidence.
Where we had pace and rawness, we now got cliché and cheap covers. Material like ‘Got My Mojo Working’, ‘Woolly Bully’ and ‘Hoochie Coochie Coo’ are pub blues rock standards and to see their inclusion here was a bit disappointing, however well played. If these were poor choices then The Temptations’ ‘Sugar Pie Honey Bunch’ was criminal. Yes, these are the tracks that built the band’s reputation back in the ‘Live from the Marquee’ days, but the approach hasn’t worn well. Nevertheless, it’s fair to say that plenty in the audience did not agree with me!
This section of the show also aired some of the band’s own weaker material. ‘Helen’ sounding like a piece of light pop with its ‘moon-in-June’ lyrics; and ‘Mystery Man’ was hard work, only rescued by some more brilliant interplay between Greaves and Feltham.
At least it didn’t end on a low note. The bands main hit, ‘11+11’ picked up the pace again and ‘Driving Down a One Way Street’ was back to the band’s riveting best. The show closed with the excellent, almost tender ‘Why Don’t You Try Me’.
All in all, this was a great gig, despite it running out of steam for a while. When NBZ are good, they are very good. They enjoyed themselves tonight and sent home some very happy fans. Long may the classic line up live.
Review by Dave Atkinson
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