Progressively Snakecharmer are leaving behind their origins, celebrating old-school Whitesnake, in the same way Black Star Riders are laying aside the ghost of Thin Lizzy. Four years after the release of their excellent self-titled and self-penned album, this was my first sighting of them since Micky Moody departed just after their last London show 18 months ago, and to my surprise and delight came alongside a follow-up album in ‘Second Skin’.
However, already relegated to the smaller of the Academy’s two rooms, the attendance was disappointingly small. Moreover the omens were not good for a memorable night: not for the first time in recent weeks, a Sunday night gig at the Academy was organised with little consideration for the paying punter: with two supports the headliners took the stage late and many had to leave before the end to catch last Sunday trains.
The first support Knock Out Kaine suffered the indignity of having to play on the floor, with insufficient room for them on the stage. Their dynamic display made light of these challenging circumstances: although their high octane sleazy rock, spearheaded by the rough-edged vocals of Dean Foxx, was a bit by the numbers, ‘Cascades’ and ‘Back Street Romeo’ were good songs and the very Guns N Roses-esque power ballad ‘Coming Home’ also impressed.
Fortunately Rebecca Downes and band were given full use of the stage. The frizzy haired Midlander has several things going for her: a powerful, soulful voice; an engaging down to earth manner; and a seasoned band of sensitive players who really complement her, and her bluesy style was a good musical match for fans of the headliner.
Only three songs in, she gambled somewhat in covering the old standard ‘Piece Of My Heart’ made most famous by Janis Joplin, but it paid off handsomely with my gig companion making the good point that it would only take an appearance on Later with Jools Holland to lift her into the big time. ‘Night Train’ and ‘Messed Up’ had a lovely groove to them, and on the bluesier ‘Long Long Time’ the slide guitar of Steve Birkett and Nigel Darvill’s piano traded lines off each other.
‘Sailing On A Pool of Tears’ had an epic feel, and set closer ‘Believe’ was a real grower, featuring more of the intuitive guitar and organ interplay that was such a big part of the sound. The 40 minute set really whetted my appetite to discover more by this major up and coming talent.
Snakecharmer’s six members finally squeezed onto a crowded stage just gone 930pm, leading to Carry On-style quips about having to rearrange their normal stage positions to accommodate Adam Wakeman’s large organ.
The questions on everyone’s lips were to what extent the new material would displace Whitesnake nostalgia, with bassist Neil Murray the only remaining connection to the band, and how they would move forward without Micky Moody, very much the focal point of the band till now, both visually and with his trademark slide guitar playing. Indeed it was worrying to hear a couple of fans unaware he had left the band.
They opened with a pair of hard rocking new numbers in ‘Follow You Under’, Chris Ousey’s voice soaring confidently with some pitch perfect screams and ‘Are You Ready To Fly’ owing something to ‘ The Green Manalishi’.
The Whitesnake favourites were not totally forgotten and ‘Ready an Willing’ featured some almost seventies funk influenced keyboard playing from Adam, as well as Laurie Wisefield and new boy Simon McBride trading improvised solos. The two made a well matched pair with the very melodic tones of the former Wishbone Ash guitarist (who must keep an ageing portrait in the attic) complemented by the Irishman’s slightly more intricate, dirtier style.
After a trip to the first album in a lively ‘Accident Prone’ with some of the harmony guitar solos they should make more of, Simon got his moment in the spotlight with a sweet solo on the slow burning ‘Where Do We Go From Here’ and again on the Free-like ‘A Little Rock n Roll’, even taking over Micky Moody’s old vocal cameo.
The boogie of ‘Nothing To Lose’ saw both trading solos, but it was the new material that formed the bulk of the set. It went down well even though the audience have not had time to become familiar with the songs, and for all his vocal ability Chris lacks an easy rapport with the crowd.
‘Hell Of A Way To Live’ had a strong riff reminiscent of Thunder, perhaps not surprising with Harry James drumming with his usual direct tightness, both ‘I’ll Take You As You Are’ and ‘That Kind Of Love’ were commercial rockers as befitting Chris Ousey’s long service with Brit AOR-sters like Virginia Wolf and Heartland, supported by Adam’s keyboard textures, while ‘Fade Away’ (after an intro that briefly led me to think ‘Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City’ was coming) featured a long, mellifluous solo from Laurie leading to a spontaneous burst of applause.
When there finally was another Whitesnake oldie, slightly surprisingly it was ‘Crying In The Rain’ but Chris delivered a superb vocal display and a lengthy version saw the players stretch out. However even then they reverted to their own material, with ‘Guilty As Charged’ treated like an old favourite.
However much they leave Whitesnake behind, it was inevitable that ‘Here I Go Again’ was going to close proceedings. There was a danger this could descend into cabaret but it was great to hear the organ intro of the original 1982 version and a twin lead solo.
However it did feel a little forced at times and they earned a black mark for using the 1987 ‘drifter’ lyric. This most traditionally minded of audiences then shouted the original ‘like a hobo’ during the sing-along and I’m sure the band spotted they were being put right.
With the clock now at 11 o’clock I was sure that was the night’s closer, but they squeezed back on stage for an encore, again not an oldie but ‘Dress It Up’ from the new album, a straight ahead rocker with touches of AC/DC and ZZ Top, especially Laurie’s very Gibbons-esque guitar tone.
In unpromising circumstances it would have been easy for Snakecharmer to go through the motions. That they didn’t was to their great credit and indeed, far from spelling their demise, the line-up change seems to have revitalised the band. They have always flown the flag for classic British blues-based rock, but it’s great to see them now doing it primarily on their own terms and walking away from the shadow of the Whitesnake blues.
Review by Andy Nathan
Photos by Paul Clampin
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