Gig review: WINGER – Islington Academy, London, 21 June 2014

WINGER - Islington Academy, London, 21 June 2014

It’s been four years since Winger last toured the UK, playing this very same venue, but in the intervening years Kip Winger’s solo shows have intensified the loyalty of their following here, and the Academy was pretty full for the last night of a UK tour in support of their fine new ‘Better Days Comin’ album.

It was an excellent value for money bill too with two of the UK’s ever growing crop of rising new bands in support. Bristolians Black Wolf impressed with their heavy sound, blending Zeppelin influences with the more metallic end of early nineties grunge. In particular singer Scott Sharp is a real find with a strong voice that reminded me at times of Myles Kennedy or even Chris Cornell.

Black Wolf - Islington Academy, London, 21 June 2014

‘Relief’ and ‘Sea Of Mercy’ saw an attempt at audience participation although their stage presence needs working on and on first hearing I found the material, with the possible exception of single ‘Keep Moving On’, lacking memorable hooks.

Jettblack have been touring enthusiastically for some years now and it showed as while losing none of their trademark wild eyed enthusiasm, the High Wycombe rockers are an increasingly polished stage act. Swapping both lead guitar duties and vocals interchangeably, Will Stapleton and Jon Dow make quite a team while bassist Tom Wright works the crowd with foot on the monitor fervour.

Jettblack - Islington Academy, London, 21 June 2014

Opening with perhaps their best known songs ‘Get Your Hands Dirty’ (and not even playing the other, ‘Two Hot Girls’) was a brave move, but created space for some unexpectedly metallic songs like ‘Kick In The Teeth’, while ‘Prison Of Love’ was pure melodic rock with a hook Des Child would have been proud of, before they closed with a cheesy but enjoyable ‘Raining Rock’ which summed up their good time approach.

Winger - Islington Academy, London, 21 June 2014

The elephant in the room when it comes to reviewing Winger is the stereotypes that attach to them – as a result of Beavis and Butthead’s ridicule and Metallica’s hostility – they were unfairly seen as symbolising  the ‘hair metal’ genre’s worst insubstantial excesses.

Then as if by way of over compensation, their emphasis on their darker, more musicianly side resulted in some performances – notably their 2006 Firefest headline, but to a degree the 2010 tour – as being intense and humourless.

They confounded the sceptics on a joyful evening. It was Kip’s 53rd birthday, met by a chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’, and there was a celebratory mood all night, perhaps too much so in the early stages when the music was broken up by tributes and thanks all round. I was struck by how much lighter the mood is at a Winger show these days, perhaps reflecting the love Kip feels from the UK audiences.

Winger - Islington Academy, London, 21 June 2014

Opener and new song ‘Midnight Driver of a Love Machine’, both heavy and catchy, would have silenced those who associate them with fluffy ballads, before ‘Easy Come Easy Go’ perhaps came too early into the set for the expected audience reaction, and a taped intro heralded first album favourite ‘Hungry’.

‘Pull Me Under’, emerged as a neglected classic and epitomised more recent Winger work with an aggressive verse, melodic chorus and a great twin lead solo from Reb Beach and John Roth.

It showed how the modern day Winger lineup has morphed into a full two guitar attack and indeed the latter took the solo on Down Incognito before a bluesy solo slot.

After Reb teased with introductory snatches of first album favourites, a trio of recent numbers in ‘Deal With The Devil’, ‘Stone Cold Killer’ and current single ‘Rat Race’ featured razor sharp riffing that ironically would not have disgraced Metallica’s Black album.

Winger - Islington Academy, London, 21 June 2014

Again confounding expectations, keyboards were only used for two songs, John switching to bass to allow Kip to deliver ‘Miles Away’, still one of the best ballads of its age, and ‘Headed For A Heartbreak’, which always surprises me: it was their biggest UK hit single and, especially live, its progressive side comes out as Reb and drummer Rod Morgenstein showed off their paces.

We were now well onto the back nine, as it were, and ‘Can’t Get Enuff’ had the crowd grooving and singing before the band slipped into ‘Blind Revolution Mad’ and ‘Madelaine’, given fresh life as Reb – given so much more freedom with his original band than in his tenure with Whitesnake – showed off his immaculate technique during an extended solo.

There was an unusual moment when ‘You Are The Saint, I Am The Sinner’ was transformed instead into an almost jazz rock instrumental, before traditional favourite ‘Seventeen’, with more guitar improvisation from Reb masking the, now rather embarrassing, lyrics.

Winger - Islington Academy, London, 21 June 2014

Normally that would be the end of the show but Kip asked if there were any musicians in the audience and a chap called Steve stepped forward to take over Kip’s bass and free him for vocal duties and working the crowd on a fun version of ‘Ain’t Talking About Love’. Steve appeared almost scarily assured on the stage while it was interesting that second stringer John took on the Eddie Van Halen solo.

This was probably the most enjoyable Winger show I have seen, sticking two fingers up to the naysayers and further whetting my appetite for Kip’s return solo trip (with Fiona, natch) in the autumn.

Review by Andy Nathan
Photos by Jeff Oram

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