Accompanying their first release in three years, ‘Defying Gravity’, Mr Big undertook an extensive tour, which also represented their first dates on these shores in the same period.
Always noted for their relatively long sets, on this occasion further value was provided with a pair of support acts well used to headlining in their own right, though the trio made for a diverse bill to put it kindly and were not natural bedfellows.
I arrived at the Empire a couple of songs into Faster Pussycat’s set. Amazingly it was my first time ever seeing the sleaze rockers- though to this day I regret deciding not to see a then rising US band called Guns’ n’ Roses at Hammersmith in 1987, when they were the support.
Now sporting a cowboy hat, singer Taime Downe is the only original member but the band had good stagecraft and were tight if basic. After the Poison ish ballad ‘House of Pain’, they ended with a couple of guttural sleazy classics in ‘Bathroom Wall’ and ‘Babylon’. With a stripped back, souped up take on rock n roll it was kind of appropriate they ended with a brief outro of ‘Ace of Spades’.
In contrast, in the latest phase of their career The Answer have branched out into new musical ambitions with most recent album ‘Solas’, and they opened with the slow burning title track which was probably a tactical mistake.
The set was a mixed bag: ‘Preachin’ whipped up a storm with Paul Mahon’s bluesy slide playing but too often they reverted to earnest but rather plodding blues rock including ‘On And On’ and ‘Spectacular’, surely a song that fails the Trade Descriptions Act.
However they turned things around with ‘Strange Kind Of Nothing’ which showed a new maturity to the band with some original and at times folky melodies. After singer Cormac Neeson paid an emotional tribute to Malcolm Young, who had mentored the band, they did his memory justice with a note perfect version of ’If You Want Blood’, capturing the AC/DC spirit, before a fast and furious ‘Come Follow Me’ from their debut album ‘Rise’.
That moment over a decade ago has never been bettered, which encapsulates The Answer’s dilemma as to how they can break out of their mid-table ranking. Still I enjoyed their varied set.
With a well lit stage show and their iconic giant logo looming over it, Mr. Big opened with ‘Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy’, a perfect showcase for the incredible musicianship of Billy Sheehan and Paul Gilbert in particular, though their playing their electric drills also demonstrated this is delivered with a sense of fun rather than po-faced muso superiority.
There were then a couple of numbers from 2011’s ‘What If’ comeback in a rapid fire ‘American Beauty’ and ‘Undertow’ with the first of many clever, rapid-fingered yet concise solos from Paul. However I was surprised the superior (imo) follow-up ‘Stories We Could Tell’ was completely ignored.
Matt Starr was thwacking an enormous drum kit to give the sound a heavy bottom end, but a massive cheer went up when singer Eric Martin introduced long-time drummer Pat Torpey, now sadly afflicted with Parkinson’s, who tapped away at a smaller percussion kit, though it was poignant to observe that his condition seemed to have worsened significantly since the last tour.
However after the band got into a funky groove on ‘Temperamental’, he was able to play the full kit for just a solitary song, making the great ballad ‘Just Take My Heart’ even more emotional.
Eric sounded great on that one, but on others, notably ‘Alive and Kicking’, his voice was starting to sound tired and raspy compared to the original and on occasion was delivering the lyrics almost in spoken word style. Nevertheless the ever youthful frontman was a genial if at times goofy host, and ‘Green Tinted Sixties Mind’ was superb with some spot on harmony vocals from all five band members.
Very surprisingly it was a full nine songs in before we got any of the new stuff, but ‘Everybody Needs A Little Trouble’ had a great groove to it and ‘Open Your Eyes’ also impressed. After a mid set Paul Gilbert solo interlude, the pace dropped momentarily with both he and Eric donning acoustic guitars to ‘Wild World’ which sparked quite a singalong while newie ‘Damn I’m In Love Again’ was in a similar vein though I couldn’t help singing ‘Love The One You’re With’ to it.
After Eric paid tribute to long standing Mr Big fans, a pair from opposite ends of their career in ‘Rock And Roll Over’ and ‘Around The World’ stepped up the pace before the inevitable solo from Billy Sheehan. Normally a bass solo would feature in anyone’s Room 101 but his incredible playing, almost like an extra lead instrument, justified the self indulgence.
However there was a sense of release when it led into the song where it all started in ‘Addicted To That Rush’, though when Eric stopped the song to spark some audience participation it lost all momentum.
They dispensed with an encore as such, but after band intros Eric sang ‘To Be With You’ , marking its quarter century since it became such a worldwide hit, indeed following it with the self-referential ‘1992’.
The fast and furious ‘Colorado Bulldog’ has long been an encore favourite, but they followed it with the title track of ‘Defying Gravity’, a bold move but one that made sense with its classic Mr Big combination of melodic songwriting and stellar musicianship.
By now at 11pm on a Sunday night a nearby exit door was tempting to beat a rush which was definitely not addictive. A quick glance on my phone at a well-known setlist website confirmed this was the last song of the tour so I headed off into the night, but the absence of other people funnelling out was puzzling and later my worst suspicions were confirmed: I had missed out on an unscheduled encore of ’30 Days in the Hole’, with Cormac Neeson guesting.
I had committed the cardinal sin of leaving early, but the quality and indeed fun of this two hour plus set shows it is far from over for Mr Big.
Review by Andy Nathan
Photos by Paul Clampin
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STEPHEN PEARCY U Only Live Twice Frontiers)
NORTHWARD Timebomb (Nuclear Blast)
MASON HILL Hold On (indie)
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