Gig review: EUROPE, BLACK STAR RIDERS – Shepherds Bush Empire, London, 20 March 2015

A co-headlining double bill of two of classic rock’s most currently prolific touring bands, both with new albums to promote, sounds like a value package made in heaven.

However there were grumbles earlier on the Black Star Riders and Europe tour that the set length for both bands did them an injustice, especially with an opening act (The Amorettes for most of the tour but tax the Heat on this occasion), as David Randall pointed out in his review of the Manchester show.

Fortunately by the time they rolled into London some mid-tour adjustments had been made and the set times tweaked to ensure both had at least an hour and 25 minutes on stage, which could justifiably be called a headline set.

Over the past two years, Black Star Riders have made significant strides towards shedding the Thin Lizzy tag, as they proved by opening with ‘Bound For Glory’ from their first album, even if it does come over as Waiting For An Alibi crossed with Whitesnake’s Guilty of Love!

‘Jailbreak’ was thrown into the set early but their own material formed the bulk of the set, interestingly with more from the first album, perhaps holding back from promoting the new ‘Killer Instinct’ album too heavily until people were more familiar with it,  although both ‘Charlie I Gotta Go’ and ‘Soldiers Town’ impressed.

BLACK STAR RIDERS - Shepherds Bush Empire, London, 20 March 2015

It really is quite remarkable (as the late David Coleman used to say) how well they carry off a Lizzy sound, especially with a primarily American band. The twin lead guitars of the enduring Scott Gorham, now very much a silver fox and Damon Johnson are as ever a delight to hear, while the celtic jiggery on the likes of ‘Kingdom Of The Lost’ and ‘Bloodshot’ are such that a friend of mine who had not seen them before likened them to Lizzy meets the Pogues or the Dubliners.

The cynic in me did wonder though how many different new songs could be recycled out of ‘Emerald’, itself a highlight of the set with a classic swapping of fiery guitar solos.

As the set wore on they dropped in more Lizzy favourites including ‘Are You Ready’ and ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’, surprisingly placed mid set and with Ricky Warwick orchestrating the crowd clapping along. Yet after each Lizzy song they moved straight back into their own material to stop this being a nostalgia trip.

BLACK STAR RIDERS - Shepherds Bush Empire, London, 20 March 2015

 Particularly impressive was very commercial new single ‘Finest Hour’, though it is a sign of the times when the biggest cheer of the set came from Ricky thanking radio 2 for playlisting the song. ‘Rosalie’ was the framework for the usual audience participation and Ricky bringing the balconies to their feet, before they slipped in the title track of the new album which also featured classic Lizzy-esque twin guitars. Given the strong celtic feel of their work, it was fitting that a joyous ‘Whiskey In The Jar’ should round off their set.

My one criticism is that he wall of sound particularly from the rhythm section of Jimmy De Grasso and Robbie Crane, who was swinging his bass at an upright angle, was a bit bludgeoning and lacking the subtlety Lizzy brought to their work. However this was an excellent set reminding us why we must now very much consider BSR less a heritage act and more one of the standard bearers for the current generation of new classic rockers, albeit with a distinguished lineage.

Despite being a well matched pairing, it was noticeable that a large number of BSR fans headed off rather than stay for Europe, judging by the gaps that now appeared on the Empire floor. In the circumstances it was a false start for Europe to come on bathed in white light and opening with the admirable but rather slow burning title track from their new ‘War of Kings’ album and the dry, bluesy sounding ‘Hole In My Pocket’, which probably did not encourage any doubting Thomases to stay.

However after  ‘Last Look at Eden’ picked the pace up, the party really started with a trio of oldies- the anthemic ‘Rock The Night’ (with a snatch of Stevie Wonder) placed unusually early in the set, ‘Ready Or Not’ with its catchy ‘rock me till I hit the floor’ chorus which I was very surprised to see back in the set, and ‘Superstitious’.

EUROPE - Shepherds Bush Empire, London, 20 March 2015

With most of the band quite introverted on stage Joey Tempest is very much the focus of their act and he has weathered  much more gracefully than most of his eighties contemporaries. After a new song in ‘Second Day’ he was bantering with the crowd in his near faultless English before ‘Carrie’,  which saw the Empire turned into something of a drunken Friday night party as grown men swayed arm in arm hoping to avoid spilling their drinks and singing along to the ‘who-oh-oh-oh’s and elongated vowels of the chorus.

But Europe are so much more than a cheesy eighties band, as shown by the frantic ‘Scream of Anger’ and the proggy Purple-esque keyboards and Kashmir-like feel of ‘No Stone Unturned’, while for at least some of us the highlight of the night was an unexpected rendition of first album epic ‘Seven Doors Hotel’ with some Blackmore-esque guitar soling from John Norum.

EUROPE - Shepherds Bush Empire, London, 20 March 2015

As with BSR, what was most impressive was the way the set slipped between classic-era and new material. ‘Firebox’ is now treated like an old friend, getting nearly as good a reaction as ‘Let The Good Times Rock’, and newie ‘Praise You’ had a rich seventies feel. ‘Cherokee’ which is quite simply an eighties classic which should never have been dropped from the set, was surprisingly followed by a new song ‘Days of Rock N Roll’, probably the most straight ahead and even dare I say it danceable song they have recorded since reforming.

By now the 11 0’ clock curfews had long gone, and the set was tipping towards the hour and a half mark, but there had to be time for ‘The Final Countdown’. It may have unfairly pigeonholed Europe but it remains a great live anthem and again the Empire had an end of school term feel as people punched the air and jumped up and down.

In fact, after their slow start I felt Europe just shaded the BSR for my personal enjoyment of the gig. It was a top night all round though and the tweaks to the timing, sadly too late for the rest of the tour, really made a difference.

Review by Andy Nathan
Photos by Neil French

Gig review (Manchester, 13 March 2015)

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