Picture a brief point of time in the early to mid-eighties. With the New Wave of British Heavy Metal running out of steam, many of its more enlightened musicians turned their ears westwards to the more AOR sounds that then dominated the airwaves, and tried to create a British version of the formula, hoping to emulate the success of their contemporaries Def Leppard stateside.
Two of the earliest and best examples of that period were Airrace’s ‘Shaft of Light’ and Lionheart’s ‘Hot Tonight’, both in 1984. They were superb albums but commercial flops, in common with nearly every subsequent British effort at beating the Yanks at their own game.
You would therefore have got long odds on the two bands sharing a stage together in 2017, but this unlikely story made for a memorable sense of occasion, helped by the fact that as bands with London roots many of their family and old friends were in attendance. Indeed there was a very healthy crowd, higher than most of the numerous melodic rock shows I’ve seen at the Underworld over the years.
The more conventionally AOR of the two bands, Airrace opened proceedings and were more familiar in the sense that they were first to reform in 2009, and have toured on and off since including a number of support slots .
This latest incarnation boasts only genial guitarist Laurie Mansworth from the original line up but he has assembled a fine band (including son Dhani on drums and bassist Rocky Newton, performing an unusual double shift with Lionheart) which does justice to the material, particularly in the hands of singer Adam Payne, the Welshman sounding uncannily similar to his equally slight-framed predecessor Keith Murrell.
They opened with a couple of oldies in ‘Caught In The Game’ and ‘Not Really Me’, which had a hard edge to it both with Laurie’s riffing and even some Hammond organ from Linda Kelsey-Foster, on the keyboards which are a big part of the Airrace sound. Nevertheless the first fruits of the new line up, ‘Eyes Like Ice’, which had some clever twists, already seems to have been established as something of a crowd favourite.
They rolled back the years with the big hooks of ‘Didn’t Wanna Lose Ya’, ‘I Don’t Care’ which had a few people punching the air, and a fan request ‘Promise To Call’ with a typically melodic solo from Laurie.
Nevertheless this was no mere nostalgia trip with some forthcoming material from a 2018 release on Frontiers Records. ‘Come With Us’ had a seventies retro feel with the keyboards in particular reminding me of the Quireboys, while ‘Men From The Boys’ was heavier than traditional Airrace and the same might be said of ‘One Step Ahead’ from their comeback album ‘Back To The Start’, which I was pleased to see represented in the set.
But they saved their best to last with a pair of classic oldies in ‘First One Over The Line’ and ‘Brief Encounter’, both with lengthy keyboard intros, giving way to well-constructed songs that built to big anthemic hooks on the chorus and crisp, clean guitar solos. They are songs I will never tire of hearing, but this set very much demonstrated that the new-look Airrace have a bright future.
The only fleeting glimpse anyone would have had of Lionheart since 1985 was an emotional reunion at last year’s Rockingham. Since then they have finally released a sophomore album in ‘Second Nature’ which combines new songs with ones exhumed from the vaults, and they opened with one such in ‘Give Me The Light’ – which I am sure was on one of the TDK D90 tapes of Friday Rock show sessions that are still boxed up in my ‘man cave’.
New singer Lee Small handles the high notes with ease and was commanding the crowd during ‘Hot Tonight’, even if some of his on stage mannerisms owed more to R’n'B and hip-hop than a traditional rock frontman.
It was followed by more classic oldies in ‘Towers Of Silver’ during which I spotted one of the UK’s top rock journalists headbanging away with a grin borne of disbelief on his face, and ‘Die For Love’ with a massive chorus.
The likes of ‘Prisoner’ showed how well Lee was supported by a big solid wall of harmony vocals from the original trio of members: the aforementioned Rocky Newton and the guitar duo of original Iron Maiden guitarist Dennis Stratton and the flying V wielding Steve Mann. The latter doubled up on keyboards but barely used them- instead twin guitar solos were the dominant theme all night in a way which reminded me of Praying Mantis or even an AOR version of Maiden.
The new album was plugged quite heavily with the likes of ‘Angels With Dirty Faces’ and an autobiographical sounding ‘Thirty Years’, in addition to their cover of ‘Don’t Pay The Ferryman’, which reminded us that Chris De Burgh was once a credible rock artist before the egregious ‘Lady In Red’.
It also played to the band’s sense of fun which manifested itself in Dennis’s geezer-esque quips though after teasing Lee over his Midlands accent, the latter got his revenge with some less than respectful band intros.
The biggest surprise of the set was a cover, after a fashion, of ‘Anytime’, the McAuley Schenker Group’s most commercially successful single which Steve had co-written. Rocky was also an MSG member in those days and was remarkably good when he stepped forward to deliver a line on the chorus.
After Lee had to be corrected by one of my fellow hacks as he stumbled over the title of 1985’s short-lived Channel 4 metal show ECT, the title of ‘Heartbeat Radio‘ was somewhat misleading as it was another hard-hitting twin guitar rromp, before in a set which seemed to rush to a conclusion to meet the 10 o’clock curfew, they ended with an even more NWOBHM-ish number in the eponymous ‘Lionheart’.
In a very different way Lionheart had been just as impressive as Airrace, peddling an almost unique sound. Both bands may have missed their best shot at the big time, but over 30 years later their revival promises to be a lot more fun on the evidence of this heart-warming evening.
Review and Photos by Andy Nathan
David Randall presents a weekly show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio, Sundays at 22:00 BST (GMT+1, repeated on Mondays and Fridays), when he invites listeners to ‘Assume The Position’. This show was first broadcast on 2 August 2020.
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