John Parr had been due to open up for Foreigner at this prestigious gig, but had to cancel and Deborah Bonham stepped up at short notice. The younger sister of the infamous Led Zep sticksman has a powerful set of pipes giving rise to a fulsome, bluesy voice. Bonham left nothing behind in a sincere and compelling performance.
The trouble here was that she was fronting a thin-sounding three-piece of semi-acoustic guitar and keyboards. Without bass and drums and her regular band, the impact was a little underwhelming. When stripped back, songs like ‘What We’ve Got’ and ‘Grace’ didn’t stand up to scrutiny.
The ballads ‘Hold On’ and ‘Hole In My Heart’ fared better and showed another more soulful side to Bonham’s singing, with a hint of Elkie Brooks around the edges.
This was a tough ask, standing in at the last moment and the audience responded well to the abbreviated set. Bonham came across as a warm and engaging performer. She left on a high with a rousing rendition of the 60’s track ‘Stay With Me Baby’, one of her brother’s favourites.
The main act bounced onto stage and looked assured from the outset. Foreigner ripped into a muscular ‘Double Vision’, followed by a piledriving ‘Head Games’ with wonderful twin-lead solos.
‘Feels Like The First Time’ came and went before the band drew breath. The three-guitar attack and a cranked-up bass gave the sound a delicious hefty wallop and there is nothing more primevally appealing than four grown men strung out across the front of the stage sawing away on their weapons and belting out the riffs. Unreconstructed joy.
Mick Jones, the Grandaddy of this current six-piece line up, held centre stage with a dignified, proprietorial and even understated air. The energy and industry were left primarily to Kelly Hansen on lead vocals and chief cheerleader Jeff Pilson on bass. Enough quirky enthusiasm to make a box of frogs look restrained.
It worked. Two songs in and everyone in this plush old venue was up and out of their cushioned seats, singing along to ‘Cold As Ice’. Jones was now behind a roll-along keyboard (with tasty mirror tiles on the legs), still front and centre and directing the melodies. The lush vocal harmonies were as fresh as the day they were penned.
Jones remained with his keyboard for ‘Waiting For A Girl Like You’, which again had the audience in full voice. And then a mild surprise as the ballad ‘That Was Yesterday’ was dusted off and given a welcome airing. Hansen did fine justice to the song’s soaring, regretful vocal. Pilson’s bass came through strongly here too, giving a bottom end chug underneath the floaty keyboards. A welcome, sophisticated addition to the set.
Back to the rockers and ‘Dirty White Boy’ flew out of the PA powered by proper chunky guitars and a sizzling drum track from (yet another) extrovert tub-thumper, Chris Frazier. This had lots of passion and bite and was maybe the best track played all night.
Then the time came to break the set open. ‘Say You Will’ was delivered in a cosy acoustic grouping at the front of the stage. Guitarist and sax player Tom Gimbel played a flute intro and the band produced a surprisingly layered sound for something so stripped back.
The intimacy of Hansen’s delivery was only slightly marred by the spotlight’s orange filter that made him look like an extra on TOWIE. The singer’s easy West Coast patter is perfectly suited to fronting this band. Introducing the members, he draped an arm over multi-instrumentalist Gimbel and glanced around the stalls when he said, “This man can play anything. There’s a couple of g-strings out here he’d like to pluck!” Agent Provacateur in shock double entendre…
Passing over the distinctly proggy and probably overly-long keyboard and drum solos (though the crowd lapped it up, to be fair), ‘Juke Box Hero’ closed the main set. Great song, given a theatrical twist with Jones flanked in close order by his two protégés bathed in dramatic red light, dealing flashy licks by turn.
The first song in the encore was another surprise. ‘Long, Long Way From Home’ from their debut album was introduced by Jones with a hint of sentimentality in his tone. The sax underpinning the track was well-placed and seemed to added to the intense, heavy feel.
Next up, of course, was that song. ‘I Want To Know What Love Is’ was turned into a huge love-in. Hansen’s cheesy and laboured set-up was, on this occasion, too much. ‘Just play the song’, people were yelling whilst he was insisting that we all held hands or some such.
This minor quibble aside, the band gave their biggest hit the full production number. If you want to melt even the hardest heart, bring out the kids. The choir from Notting Hill Prep entered stage right and wedged themselves between the drum kit and keyboards to tug the emotional strings on the big chorus. Even Debs Bonham was wheeled out for a refrain or two. Everyone hugged, kissed and applauded everyone else and we all felt lovely.
Thank the Lord there was one final blast of riffage to wash away the schmalz. ‘Hot Blooded’ was a wonderful show stopper, ripped out with pace and vigour.
A classy show that emphasised the vital importance of quality tunes. Foreigner have those in abundance and they know exactly what to do with them. Great entertainment.
Review by Dave Atkinson
Photos by Paul Clampin
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