Chatting to two excellent songsmiths recently – Blue October’s Justin Furstenfeld and Dan Reed – I suggested to them that modern songcraft isn’t what it used to be and that we were unlikely to be whistling many contemporary tunes in 20 or 30 years time.
Both disagreed, pointing to several current artists that – even if you didn’t like them or their style – were putting out quality song material, such as Ed Sheeran, or even Justin Bieber. Dan mentioned the band (and label mates) Inglorious (who release their second album this May), and we could also add tonight’s special guests Vega to the list of melodic rockers who are bucking the trend.
The band have consolidated their early appeal (and previous album ‘Stereo Messiah’) with last year’s ‘Who We Are’ which was voted by the GRTR! review team ‘Best Album’ of 2016.
The Martin brothers, James and Tom, are the band’s secret weapon(s) and certainly know how to pen an anthemic tune or two (which they’ve also done for artists like Joe Lynn Turner and House Of Lords) whilst their lyricist Nick Workman is an energetic frontman and excellent vocalist. Songs like ‘White Flag’ and ‘White Knuckle Ride’ are standouts whilst ‘Every Little Monster’ and ‘Saving Grace’ hark back to prime time Def Leppard and even U2.
By its nature, this was an economical set that majored on the band’s six single releases and the current album. There is much to like about Vega although for my tastes there is not enough darkness with most of ‘Who We Are’ – and indeed their set – fairly one-paced and major key-heavy.
It’s perhaps understandable too that Vega have been toiling since 2009 with many a support slot and festival, and their profile isn’t helped by the lack of mainstream radio or TV exposure. Tunes fail to imprint in the same way as a Thin Lizzy or a Def Leppard track in days of old.
Strangely, perhaps, I don’t remember much mainstream exposure for Dan Reed Network back in the day – and even in their homeland they confused radio stations with their multi-racial and genre bending music freely mixing heavy rock, funk and metal.
However, there is no doubting that the band’s core material is remarkably durable and classic and – as Dan Reed has demonstrated touring acoustically – capable of being stripped back to the bare essentials and still sounding convincing.
There is always the novelty of rediscovering the band’s original music but in June of last year they showed that they could deliver a super album 25 years later and tonight we could savour their promotional tour for ‘Fight Another Day’.
The album features a number of highlights – not least the recent single ‘Champion’ aired tonight together with ‘Divided’, ‘The Brave’ and ‘Infected’ - but the rocky ‘Give It Love’ (surely a live favourite in waiting?) and electronica-fused ‘Sharp Turn’ will sadly be left to ‘Fight Another Day’.
The setlist naturally majored on the core material which when played as well and as energetically as this remains fresh and compulsive. And whilst Dan Reed wouldn’t want ‘Tiger In A Dress’ to define the band there is no doubt that it is a major highlight of a set that also included the rousing ‘Resurrect’ and a surprise ‘Seven Sisters Road’.
The band are evidently enjoying their reformation and – refreshingly – don’t take themselves too seriously. It’s like they can’t really believe that they are enjoying renewed attention 25 years after they split. But that says as much about a somewhat moribund music scene as a reflection on a classy band who arguably sound better now than in 1991.
The authentic DRN sound is augmented by the only non-original band member, keyboard player Rob Daiker, who was given a brief solo spot promoting his new album ‘Binary Affairs’. The diminutive guitarist Brion James keeps bees and makes honey when not churning out endlessly funky licks and bassist Melvyn Brannon II moonlights with the legendary Booker T. Dan Pred completes the line-up and provoked an amusing interaction with Dan Reed who queried whether – after fluffing an intro – he had “given up” on the Network like Richie Sambora with Bon Jovi.
Dan Reed had told me that they invite suggestions for songs from the audience and even if we only hear a few bars of the piece (usually because of a lack of familiarity with the lyrics or simply being put on the spot) it is a brave gesture and somewhat endearing.
The only risk, with this glorious non-conformist approach to a setlist, is the band playing crowd personal favourites and actually overlooking other songs that some would find more meritorious.
After our chat, I had taken up the challenge and text Dan about considering Rufus’ ‘Ain’t Nobody’ but maybe my long exposition and that song suggestion was a step too far, although in the early 1980s Rufus (and Chaka Khan) were paving the way for DRN’s irresistible meld of rock and funk.
They influenced two guys Mik Murphy and David Frank who as ‘The System’ in turn influenced DRN in the mid-1980s (and who also contributed to Chaka Khan’s best selling solo album ‘I Feel For You’ in 1984).
As it turned out, the band freely referenced their influences with a medley of eighties stuff incorporated in ‘Baby Now I’ including ‘I Was Made For Lovin’ You’, ‘Relax’, ‘Let’s Groove’ and even ‘Enter Sandman’
The majority of the crowd were shouting for the old faithfuls. After an hour-and-a-half long set the band left us with a volley of the tried, the tested and the terrific: ‘Ritual’, ‘Stronger Than Steel’ and a glorious ‘Tiger’.
Dan Reed Network’s second coming is a shining recent example of an audience keeping the faith and a band rediscovering its mojo. Long may they, and their loyal followers, prosper.
Review and photos by David Randall
David Randall presents ‘Assume The Position’ on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio every Sunday at 22:00 GMT.
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