After many years as strangers in their home country, Sweet have become a fixture since their well-received support slot to Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow at 2017’s Stone Free Festival. This is the third year running they have played a London show in the capital around this time of year, proving that Slade do not have a Christmas monopoly on seventies glam rock legends.
However there has been a huge amount of churn in the Sweet camp this year with Pete Lincoln and Tony O’Hora both departing after several years’ service, leading the keeper of the flame, guitarist Andy Scott, to assemble a radically different line up.
Paul Manzi, who was standing in as a second vocalist and multi-instrumentalist when I saw them twice last year on the summer festival circuit, was persuaded to leave Cats In Space and become a full time lead singer, while MSG keyboardist and guitarist Steve Mann, briefly a band member some 30 years ago, and his Lionheart bandmate Lee Small on bass and vocals were also drafted in.
The first piece of good news was that the Assembly Hall was pretty packed for their biggest headline show in London for some time. The second was that from the opening chords of ‘Action’ – a song that best combines the pop and hard rock sides of the Sweet repertoire- Andy had chosen well with Paul adapting seamlessly to the front man role.
‘New York Groove’ followed, a cover which Sweet increasingly seem to have made their own, adding a post-chorus bridge that lifts Alicia Keys’ ‘Empire State of Mind’, where Lee’s high-pitched vocals made their first appearance. Generally though, for someone who is one of the UK’s best and most distinctive melodic rock voices, I did think there was scope to use him more than they did.
It struck me as Andy played the opening riff to ‘Hellraiser’ that not only was it ripped off by Motley Crue for ‘Kickstart My Heart’, but that Sweet were a massive influence on the subsequent generation of glam bands. That was reinforced by the big riffing of ‘Burn On The Flame’ which saw Steve crossing the stage to play some twin leads with Andy, both their silver manes flapping – ironically it was a song Paul was all too familiar with as in their early days it was Cats In Space’s encore.
Andy is quite a character, his fruity North Wales burr (at odds incidentally with those high harmonies he can still carry off!) holding forth on everything from his recent 70th birthday to the provenance of his hair and getting in some political digs, seemingly at both sides. Though some of his comments did betray his bitterness that Sweet have been neglected in their home country, the thought occurred he would be a superb alternative to Rick Wakeman as the seventies rock star on shows such as ‘Grumpy Old Men’.
One of my Sweet favourites, ‘The Six Teens’, is normally one of their more sophisticated and yet on this occasion I was struck quite how heavy it sounded in the hands of the new band. That impression was confirmed as they rattled through ‘Peppermint Twist’ and ‘AC/DC’, until the latter was extended by a set piece in which Andy and Steve swapped solos.
Things got even better with the filthy riffing of ‘Turn It Down’, Lee adding the Steve Priest shouts before the chorus, though as Andy reminded us the BBC banned it at the time, it seems inconceivable that phrases like ‘god awful’ and ‘punk’ were still seen as offensive as late as the mid-seventies. The set then reached peak metal with a furious version of the seminal ‘Set Me Free’, with a hilarious moment as Andy used a tin can for his slide guitar solo.
I could have died and gone to heaven at that moment, but the rest of the set returned to the mainstream with a hit filled repertoire, with ‘Teenage Rampage’ and the furthest trips back into their bubblegum period in a 1-2 of ‘Wig Wam Bam’ and ‘Little Willy’ being simply ridiculously good fun.
The new line up did justice to the contrasting ‘Love Is Like Oxygen’, though I wish they would drop the segue into ‘Fanfare For The Common Man’ which was the set’s only low point, before Steve played the keyboard intro to ‘Fox On The Run’, with the crowd roaring along before he again crossed the stage for a brief twin lead break with Andy.
There was no surprise on the encores, as the legendary taped airraid siren led into ‘Blockbuster’, followed by ‘Ballroom Blitz’ (and how great it is that a Sweet singer can again authentically ask ‘are you ready Steve’?) The crowd participation was suitable proof that, at a time of year when pubs are a living hell, packed to the gills with braying work colleagues in Santa hats, this was the best Christmas party in town.
A night of the Sweet’s seventies hits is invariably fun, and doesn’t always need to be enjoyed in a civic hall, eating scampi and chips from a basket while watching other pop acts from the glam era. However my abiding memory of the evening is of a memorable middle section in which this quite brilliant new line up of the band reclaimed Sweet’s often neglected rock legacy.
Review by Andy Nathan
Photos by Paul Clampin
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