While classic rock may no longer sit in the mainstream, the contemporary scene has continuously been improving and is now arguably at its healthiest for many years, helped by sympathetic radio stations and websites (or both in GRTR!’s case!)
This show was proof of that, with two young bands to watch in Mason Hill and Keylock. Even one of my least favourite venues- the cramped and low staged upstairs of a Camden rock bar which is attracting an increasing number of shows as other venues close- failed to deter me from attending.
But in a nice piece of symmetry, almost unannounced, a veteran of a previous generation opened proceedings. Starting their career in the mid-2000s when few new bands were coming through, least of all peddling their brand of classic bluesy hard rock, The Answer did much of the hard work to lay the foundations for today’s scene where the likes of Mason Hill and Keylock can come through.
The big, blustering vocals of Cormac Neeson were a big part of their sound but this time the frontman was in unplugged mode- accompanied just by a guitarist Andy Toman- with a short set to promote his recent, and more personal, solo album ‘White Feather’. Looking dapper in hat and suit jacket he opened with the title track, then ‘Don’t Wait Up’ on which he added some harmonica.
With gentle dry humour, the Northern Irishman told the story behind some of the songs. While some were up tempo, including ‘Do Something Today’ which betrayed its Nashville recording origins and had a ‘Hey Jude’-style chant for people to join in on, others went into unexpected territory such as ‘Sweet Gentle Love’, about a same sex couple in Chechnya daring to show their love.
After the band’s diversion into celtic music on their last album, it was interesting to hear Cormac add another string to his bow, that great voice now pitched somewhere between Chris Robinson and Van Morrison with the lyrics easy to make out.
Most poignantly personal of all was ‘Broken Wing’ about his young son and his health challenges, the crowd listening in awed silence, while set closer ‘Look Down on Me’ had a distinct gospel feel. While the Answer were often criticised for being a tad predictable, this solo mini-show was anything but.
Next up were Keylock, the new band of eponymous guitarist Aaron. The young six-string prodigy had greatly impressed me with his supercharged blues rock on previous appearances, but I felt he would always be held back by not being a natural singer. His new project, which launched earlier this year, wisely rectifies that with a full-time lead singer in Jonnie Hodson.
The latter had a swaggering self-confidence -not to mention an apparent bromance judging by the number of times he put his arm around the guitarist- which was justified by an impressive opener in ‘Rich Man’s Fool’ with an extremely tong chorus hook that people sang along to.
The new five-piece band is still inspired by the sounds of the seventies long before they were born but the Johnny Winter/Rory Gallagher style influences have given way to a more mainstream sound with the likes of ‘Dopamine’, ‘Trouble Follows Me’ and ‘JuJu’ all having a Bad Company/Free/Humble Pie style groove.
The band’s fashions all added to the sense of going back into a time machine with Jonnie sporting a Van Zant family-style cowboy hat and kaftan, and Aaron in his long lank hair and waistcoat like a young Francis Rossi.
However it was current single ‘Coming Home’ that was simply sensational with a country rock feel and an extended and very special solo from Aaron which the Allman Brothers at their peak could not have bettered. But for an unnecessary snatch of ‘Come Together’ it might have been my song of the year.
They had to drop a song with time running short but ‘Shine On Me’ was an impressive closer with a sassy Faces-like groove and a chorus built for participation. Its early days and not all songs hit the mark equally but I felt the stirrings of something special.
Headliners Mason Hill have a slightly longer pedigree, and were the band that most of a packed room had come to see. I was mighty impressed by them last autumn both at Rockingham and supporting Dan Reed Network. However the young Scots have, to put it politely, been taking their time, recording a new album, funding its release and only now getting back out on the road, though the break has allowed singer Scott Taylor to start growing his hair back.
They opened with the dark, downtuned ‘No Regret’ which had a distinct Audioslave vibe, especially in its ‘Close my eyes’ chorus. While that was familiar, Scott mentioned that this was essentially an album launch and many of the songs were freshly written ,but it front of a loyal audience this hardly mattered.
‘We Pray’ and ‘Survive’ were typically uncompromising while ‘Out of Reach’ was more considered. It was a prime example of how Alter Bridge will obviously be a frequent comparison with their dark, slightly anguished yet always melodic sound, but on the likes of ‘DNA’ and the big hook of ‘Broken Son’ I was reminded of Pop Evil or Shinedown, at least the latter’s more guitar heavy earlier incarnations.
Scott was more extrovert and cheerful than I remembered before while the sheer dynamism and ferocious energy of the band was exhausting just to watch. As the set wore on it returned to more familiar territory in ‘Hold On’ and ‘Now You See Me’, while as Scott orchestrated the fists punching during ‘Against the Wall’ I found myself shaking my head.
They finished an hour long set with a song they will struggle to top however long their career- the moody, brooding but stirring ‘Where I Belong’, stretching to seven minutes and with guitarist James Bird, a rather more studied figure than his exuberant bandmates, stepping centre stage for a superb long solo with an almost Dave Gilmour-like feel.
One of the other pleasures of supporting the scene is to share that passion with people who have become ‘London gig buddies’. One friend, drawing an analogy with the likes of Guns n Roses’ famous shows at the Marquee, claimed this was a show of which thousands of people will subsequently claim that they were here this night.
While I have seen too many bright hopes fail to make it big, with the album now in the can I hope this special act will make the big breakthrough they deserve in 2020 and be the latest members of the New Wave of Classic Rock to make a significant commercial mark.
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)
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