Thunder gigs come in all shapes and sizes, from the crowd pleasing festival appearances, to their semi-legendary Christmas shows, to the recent ‘Please Remain Seated’ semi-unplugged tour. Since their latest reformation for a third spell they have even played arena sized venues like Wembley for the first time.
However, in contrast, to launch a band curated Greatest Hits package, and raise money for children’s charities into the bargain, they announced a one off club date at the Highbury Garage. I did not even bother trying for tickets such was the demand, but was delighted when days before a friend kindly signposted me to a Facebook announcement from the band that a few extra tickets had been found down the back of the proverbial sofa.
The venue was suitably hot and sticky, though reasonably comfortable from my vantage point in a corner, but the atmosphere very special. Thunder gigs have always been raucous affairs, assisted by Danny Bowes’ remarkable ability to whip up a crowd, but the noise here as the band hit a cramped and rather dimly lit stage was deafening.
A launch of a Greatest Hits album meant that the setlist was guaranteed to follow that template, but it was done in a not entirely predictable way. The easy way would have been to focus on the glory days of the first three albums when they were surprise Top of the Pops regulars in the first half of the nineties.
Instead a much more balanced set drew on virtually every album from all three phases of their chequered recording career, the continuity helped by the fact they have never greatly deviated from their musical template of traditional British bluesy hard rock.
So ‘Loser’ opened the set – one of the few songs where Ben Matthews, who surprisingly took a near equal share of the guitar solos early on, retreated to play a mid-song keyboard solo, before giving way to ‘River Of Pain’, and perennial first album favourite ‘Higher Ground’, in their usual place near the start of the set, with Danny getting the crowd to bounce up and down, but they were followed by the nearest to an obscurity in ‘On The Radio’.
The sight of an acoustic guitar being brought on for Luke Morley to strum the intro could only mean ‘Low Life In High Places’, Danny taking to its limits his shtick of pausing for maximum effect for the crowd to roar. Yet his cheeky chappie persona shouldn’t be allowed to overlook the fact that his soulful blues-rock voice never once seems to falter in the live arena for all his physical energy.
Most of the set was suitably up tempo including the fun ‘The Devil Made Me Do It’, with its ‘Highway To Hell’ inspired-riff, the autobiographical ‘Wonder Days’ which I view as their modern ‘epic’ with Luke Morley’s typical combination of riffs and melodies, and the fast-paced bounce of ‘The Thing I Want’.
The notable exception was the most recent song on view ‘In Another Life’, showing a radically different style with Ben on piano and a gently rolling, almost jazzy groove, owing much to ‘Albatross’ and ‘Black Velvet’.
However it is always those favourites from the debut ‘Backstreet Symphony’ that hold a special place in Thunder fans hearts and they featured strongly in the latter part of the set, beginning with the title track then the immense ‘Love Walked In’, a textbook example of how to build a power ballad from restrained beginnings to a flurry of soloing. I was in such a good mood that, as Ben banged out a cowbell, I joined in the crowd participating spirit of the Stonesy ‘I Love You More than Rock’nRoll’ which has never been a favourite of mine.
I suspected I knew the final encore but was curious what the first might be. Appropriately on this night they went back to their very first single, the now relatively rarely played ‘She’s So Fine’. I was trying to imagine what it would have been like to hear this when it was released all of 30 years ago, and its dry, retro sound was totally different to what the likes of Jovi, Leppard and Guns’n’ Roses were tearing up the rock charts with (though having followed their previous band Terraplane I remember being sceptical myself at the time!)
It was great to hear it again, and though the songwriting was much more basic than their subsequent efforts, it built impressively to a furious climax with Luke soloing away, before the inevitable crowd pleasing closer of ‘Dirty Love’ and the crowd bouncing to the ‘na-na-na’ refrain. For once Danny stuck closely to the recorded version rather than drag out an audience call and response and the stopwatch that usually tips well over ten minutes came in at a mere six.
On a purely musical level, there may have been more spectacular or adventurous Thunder shows, but to hear their old favourites at such close quarters and among such a raucous atmosphere made this one of my favourites of the countless times I have seen them.
Review and photos by Andy Nathan
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Pete Feenstra celebrated his 300th show in October 2019. Pete heads up a five-hour blues rock marathon when “Tuesday is Bluesday” from 19:00 GMT. Listen out also for his interview-based Feature show on Sundays (20:00 GMT)
Power Plays w/c 11 November (Mon-Fri)
MILES NIELSEN AND THE RUSTED HEARTS Hands Up (indie)
THE FARGO RAILROAD COMPANY Something In The Water (indie)
THE DARK ELEMENT If I Had A Heart (Frontiers)
LIBERTY LIES A Thousand People (indie)
DIRTY SHIRLEY Here Comes The King (Frontiers)
CARRY THE CROWN Runaway (indie)
Featured Albums w/c 11 November (Mon-Fri)
09:00-12:00 WORK OF ART Exhibits (Frontiers)
12:00-13:00 SIGN X Like A Fire (Pride & Joy Music)
14:00-16:00 JACK BROADBENT Moonshine Blue (Creature Records)
Albums That Time Forgot (Mon-Fri)
MAGNUM Sleepwalking (1992)
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