‘The Carnival of Madness’, a well known USA touring concept which brings together three or four like-minded bands from the newer generation, was making a first trip to these shores, but the personnel involved were in very familiar circumstances.
Black Stone Cherry were on a second arena tour in just 15 months, after headlining a similar triple bill with Airbourne and Theory of a Deadman, while Shinedown and Halestorm have been regular visitors to these shores, both in their own right and together as the undercard to Alter Bridge in 2013. Familiarity has yet to bring contempt as while the 12000 capacity former Empire Pool was far from full there was still a respectable turnout and most encouragingly with a wide range of ages.
The new boys on the bill, Highly Suspect, opened proceedings but to these ears the three piece from Massachusetts peddled a very dull brand of alternative rock, verging on jam band territory, and an uninspiring set lasted a very long half an hour.
Halestorm are established live performers and the presence of so many of their T-shirts guaranteed that there would be a better atmosphere than usual during an act third on the bill. Lzzy Hale is a charismatic presence with a powerful voice but the biggest downside with this set is that their upward career trajectory has been marred by a very disappointing third album in ‘Into the Wild Life’.
Although ‘Apocalyptic’ was a decent opener, followed by a suitably frenetic ‘Love Bites (So Do I)’, and ‘Amen’ and ‘Mayhem’ both have space for infectious hooks that a live crowd can get off on, too many of the new songs are ordinary and to focus on them at the expense of the debut which did not get a look in, weakened the strength of the set.
Lzzy even played a 12 string on the semi-ballad ‘I Am The Fire’ but a low point was that a 40 minute set still contained a drum solo from livewire, and brother of Lzzy, Arejay whose blonde crop now gives him an unfortunately Bieber- esque tinge. At least ‘Freak Like Me’ got people bobbing up and down, and another of the many classics from their sophomore ‘The Strange Case Of’ album in ‘I Miss The Misery’ ended an all too short, extended with some soloing from guitarist Joe Hottinger who was more animated than I have ever seen him.
Shinedown were next up and opened in rather unusual fashion, Eric Bass playing piano to a very stripped down, slow burning ‘Black Cadillac’ before ‘Diamond Eyes’ combined brutal heaviness with a catchy bridge leading into its ‘Boom Lay’ chant.
There is an elephant in the room as far as Shinedown are concerned, which makes me feel uneasy, namely that while the use of backing tapes is seen as par for the course for live dance and modern pop shows, the rock world still holds to a perhaps dated belief that the ability to play wholly ‘live’ is paramount, save for the odd intro or sound effect. The sound made by the band’s three instrumentalists is only a small part of that which burst out of the speakers.
However on the plus side they are an extraordinary live act thanks largely to the charisma of singer Brent Smith. In his peak cap, trim figure and booming voice he could pass for a fitness instructor in the US Marines, but he has a great if at times cheesy gift for commanding an audience. He came down the centre of the arena and had no difficulty in commanding those on the floor to jump up and down and even got those in the usually staid seated upper tiers to their feet.
It also helps that they cover a wide range of bases in contemporary rock, from massive ballads with recorded strings as people sang along to their massive US hit ‘Second Chance’ and waved cellphone lights to ‘I’ll Follow You’ alongside the more brutal, almost nu-metal influenced rhythms of ‘Cut The Cord’ and ‘Enemies’ and the catchy almost dance-like ‘State Of My Head’. However in a 50 minute set, as with Halestorm, their early days and particularly their heavier early albums were ignored.
A memorable moment was the way Brent’s powerful voice and Zach Myers acoustic guitar turned a stark version of the Skynyrd classic ‘Simple Man’ into a brilliant anthem that managed to hold an arena crowd’s attention, before an aggressive ‘Sound Of Madness’ ended the set in complete contrast.
Their stage craft demonstrated exactly why they have graduated in America to festival headliners and, though a ‘marmite’ act, for many they were the band of the night and are sure to return as headliners.
Our transatlantic cousins would have been surprised to see Black Stone Cherry, the quintessential mid-afternoon band on festival bills in their native USA, headlining above Shinedown. However nearly a decade’s hard touring in this country has paid off as the Kentucky foursome have gradually graduated to arena status.
Their blue collar work ethic is admirable, epitomised by gruff singer and lead guitarist Chris Robertson’s plaid shirt and the energy with which rhythm guitarist Ben Wells and bassist Jon Lawhon, both sporting shorter hair these days, cover every inch of the stage including a platform above the drum riser.
A storming start also helped with an instantly recognisable trio of the sludgy ‘Me and Mary Jane’ and the lead off songs from both their first two albums, ‘Rain Wizard’ and ‘Blind Man’. ‘In My Blood’ and ‘Soulcreek’ were among other anthems treated as old favourites but it was encouraging that a setlist that arguably had become stale was freshened up by a couple of different old favourites every night of the tour.
This time the Wembley crowd got ‘The Ghost of Floyd Collins’, one of the many great ‘story songs’ from their best album ‘Folklore and Superstition’ and a trip right back to their earliest days with ‘Yeah Man’ which references their influences perhaps to closely from a Roadhouse Blues intro to a rhythm that always reminds me of ZZ Top’s ‘Arrested for Driving While Blind’.
However the stage show lacked the visual impact of Shinedown’s, not least with a rather dull backdrop, and the gig did sag somewhat with ‘Holding On To Letting Go’ a reminder that their last album ‘Magic Mountain’ was a dull turkey (thankfully most of it now dropped from the set) and the jury was still out on a first listen of a new song ‘In Our Dreams’.
However after a drum – and harmonica – solo from John Fred Young they showed their individuality, first with Chris cracking with emotion as he played ‘Things My Father Said’ with only a crowd choir for company, then he and Ben joined forces for another acoustic number ‘The Rambler’ from the upcoming album – a quite brilliant piece of country blues that even a Johnny Cash would have been proud of.
It was then downhill all the way – during another arm-waver in ‘Peace Is Free’, Lzzy Hale sauntered on midway through to duet before a double hit of ‘White Trash Millionaire’ and ‘Blame It On The Boom Boom’- lacking the reflective lyrics of their best material perhaps, but both sure-fire classic modern rock anthems that turned the Arena floor into a mass of bodies rocking out and punching the air.
As usual, the frenetic debut album song ‘Lonely Train’ was the encore, but as it neared its conclusion, Chris went straight into a very authentic cover of ‘Ace of Spades’, at which point I beat a swift retreat from the mosh pit that swiftly formed in the middle.
It was a symbolic indication that the baton of classic rock is having to pass to a new generation before our eyes. On this thoroughly enjoyable night, in their very different ways, all three acts showed they have the right mix of showmanship, heaviness and good songs to prove that they can remain a live force for years to come.
Review and Photos by Andy Nathan
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