Live Review: Tonight Alive, Manchester Academy, 29th Nov 2014

Tonight Alive - Manchester Academy - 29th November 002
Photo (C) Graeme Blackwell/Skin Back Alley

I’m going to be completely honest with you, as I am sure you would want me to be.

I had no idea who Tonight Alive were before this summer.

Somehow, despite their growing stature, relentless touring, a song on the soundtrack of this year’s new Spiderman film and a Sony Music marketing budget, they simply hadn’t appeared on my radar. Their core fan base seemingly skewing towards a younger generation, perhaps I’m just too old.

Nevertheless, at the behest of a computer algorithm’s “…you might like…’ suggestion of all things, I streamed their most recent album, 2013’s The Other Side, whilst staring at the ceiling one hot summer night, unable to sleep.

The album made a significant impression and became a staple of my listening over the next few weeks. In a sea of ‘pop-punk’ bands and their teenage advocates, Tonight Alive’s sound seemed to be more accomplished, more sophisticated. Importantly for my tastes, it also had a distinctly metal edge. And lyrically, there were meaty themes documented in poetic ways. This was more than just, “he loves me, he loves me not.”

And so it is that I find myself at Manchester Academy on a relatively mild winter’s evening, shuffling along in the queue to get in to a sold out show with a crowd set to be 2,500 strong. I do feel a little aged when, having made it in to the building, and despite the capacity crowd, the bars are empty and the merch booths rammed. I could easily pass myself off as nearly every one of these kids’ parents.

But when the headline set starts, I simply couldn’t care less.

Opening with some well-staged back-lighting and a helpfully placed curtain, the first bars of the aforementioned Spidey song “The Edge” ring out. Bursts of light show the band poised behind the curtain ready to let rip. The tension grows, the audience scream and, just at the right moment, the curtain drops and the show sets course for the stratosphere.

From the get-go, the band’s energy and stagecraft impress. Jenna McDougall struts, moshes, throws convincing shapes AND manages to deliver a vocal performance that any singer would be hugely proud of. Her relatively small frame is capable of producing an enormous sound that doesn’t waver or fade despite the on-stage athletics.

The rest of the band is entirely on-point, too. The music sounds tight, practiced, HUGE and thrilling in a live setting. Whakaio Taahi’s and Jake Hardy’s guitar interplay delivers seamless sonic power, with Cam Adler’s bass and drummer Matt Best bringing the big beats – particularly when the sound crew make Best’s snare sound like the impact of an Exocet missile at just the right moments.

The band barely pause for breath as they whip through just as up-beat renditions of “The Fire”, “Don’t Wish”, “Hell and Back” and “The Ocean.” Jenna chats for just long enough between songs to let the Mancunian crowd know that they are acknowledged and loved. Carefully considered or not, the sentiments feel truthful and authentic, and have the audience baying for more.

After the belting blast of The Other Side’s “Bathwater”, the lights go down and the band walks off stage. A few of the audience look around in alarm, but they needn’t worry. In just a few moments Jenna is back with just an acoustic guitar and a mic, perching herself on the edge of the stage and communing with the superfans in the front row.

Not just a chance to usher in a more intimate moment in the show, this central section of the gig also allows Jenna the opportunity to revisit a time in her life prior to joining Tonight Alive when she was writing for herself and her acoustic six-string. She lets it be known that this show is Tonight Alive’s biggest headline show ever, anywhere in the world, before asking the audience to put away their phones and enjoy the moment with her. They oblige with little fuss as she sings beautifully stripped back versions of “Let It Land” and then “Amelia”, the latter of which she says she wants us to think of as a celebration of life, not a reminder of death. And it feels just that.

The tempo ramps up again for a confident, triumphant run through more material from The Other Side and select tracks from earlier LP What Are You So Scared Of? The set is punctuated by a delightful surprise in a mean rendition of Rage Against The Machine classic “Killing In The Name Of” that bristles with urgent anger, but falls short of that song’s most infamous refrain. It’s a shame that it gets pulled up without that particular punch, but Jenna clearly knows her crowd.

In the second biggest “will they, won’t they” moment of the night, Tonight Alive bring things to a close with a rousing version of hit song and fan favourite “Lonely Girl”, which looked in danger of being overlooked, before stalking off stage to rapturous applause. Within seconds thousands of voices are chanting “We want more!”, and the TA crew oblige with a three-song encore. The small matter of a band and crowd selfie dealt with, Jenna and Co. seem reluctant to make the final bow, but they do, blowing kisses as they go.

Seeing Tonight Alive in a live setting is almost akin to the contemporary pop-rock equivalent of The Boss. Here is a band that work their proverbial butts off, seemingly take nothing for granted, ooze an air of positivity and radiate gratitude, warmth, compassion and concern towards their fans. More cynical or hardened hearts could point towards the shows big moments as being well rehearsed rather than spontaneously off-the-cuff, but it’s only in being so well drilled that Tonight Alive can deliver spur of the moment surprises when they come.

As the fans leave the Academy and disappear in to the night, it’s apparent that these Aussie rockers have stepped up to their biggest hour with a fine performance. They’ve delivered and it’s true: tonight we feel alive.

Tonight Alive - Manchester Academy - 29th November 005
Photo (C) Graeme Blackwell/Skin Back Alley

Tonight Alive played:

“The Edge”
“The Fire”
“Don’t Wish”
“Hell and Back”
“The Ocean”
“Wasting Away”
“Let It Land” (acoustic)
“Amelia” (acoustic)
“No Different”
“Killing In The Name Of” (Rage Against the Machine cover)
“What Are You So Scared Of?”
“Lonely Girl”

“Eject, Eject, Eject!”
“Breaking & Entering”
“The Other Side”

You can watch fan-shot footage of the band performing “Listening” at the Manchester Academy show below:

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Live Review: The Wildhearts, Manchester Academy, 10th April

The Wildhearts - Manchester Academy April 2014

There are many musicians in the world today who claim to be the hardest working in rock. Many others, too, claim to be geniuses. The fact that Ginger Wildheart doesn’t claim to be either – yet may well qualify to be both – makes him all the more worthy of the titles.

He appears for the first time this evening at Manchester Academy in a pair of shades as part of one of his many projects, Hey!Hello!, a relatively incognito presence stage-right. Despite Ginger’s legendary status for the fans out-front, it makes absolute sense that Victoria Liedtke takes centre stage for the set, as her unending enthusiasm and enigmatic way with words and a melody soon engage the crowd and have them cheering, pogoing and baying for the band’s brand of upbeat, tune-centric rock n’ roll. A majority of the group’s eponymous debut album gets an energetic airing during the 30 minutes they’re on stage. It’s a fine opening and sets the scene for the rest of what proves to be a memorable night.

On UK shores, Von Hertzen Brothers are still a relatively unknown quantity. After their frankly astounding 40 minute set tonight, however, the Finnish siblings will no doubt have a few hundred more converts for their cause. Their’s is a particular brand of rock that somehow wouldn’t seem out of place on classic rock, prog or heavy metal bills. Try to imagine Rage Against The Machine crossed with Pink Floyd, and somehow filtered through the lens of Crosby, Stills and Nash. Tracks such as ‘Flowers and Rust’, ‘Insomniac’ and ‘Coming Home’ from their recent Nine Lives album are delivered with commitment, passion and – almost – show-stealing style. They deserve to be heard.

But let’s not be disingenuous. The vast majority of the crowd are here to see one band, and if there’s any band who could deliver the goods following the opening acts’ two brilliant performances, it’s The Wildhearts.

Their’s is a well-told and familiar story to a hardcore group of fans who have remained loyal to Ginger and Co. over the last 20 years or so. Bursting on to the scene in the early 90’s with a very British brand of lyrical wit and hugely melodic, guitar-centric, glam-tinged punk rock, they soon built a rabid fan-base, managed to sell enough to sneak in to the charts, and then somehow fell from favour amidst tales of difficult relationships with press, record labels, drugs and each other.

The atmosphere in the Academy shifts tangibly up a gear as Ginger, CJ, Ritch and Scott amble on to stage, plug in and immediately set about the intro of old-school fan favourite ‘Nothing Ever Changes But The Shoes.’ A cheer goes up as the crowd recognise the song, and a triumphant set begins.

It’s obvious everyone here knows every word to every song, the audience providing on-tap gang-chant vocals for the likes of ‘TV Tan,’ ‘Nita Nitro’ and ‘Caffeine Bomb.’

“Thank you Manchester, it’s nice to get a positive audience reaction. It’s been a while!,” quips Ginger after the barrage of opening tracks that sees their public raising hands and playing air guitar to song after song after song. It’s possibly a knowing reference to early reports from the preceding two gigs in Bristol and Wolverhampton that suggested sound problems and a lukewarm reaction.

A mix of better and lesser known songs keeps coming as the night draws on: ‘Someone That Won’t Let Me Go,’ ‘I Wanna Go Where The People Go,’ ‘Tim Smith,’ ‘Junkenstein,’ ‘The Jackson Whites’ and ‘Chutzpah!’ all get outings.

Ginger regularly checks with the crowd, “Is it okay if we play some stuff that WE like?,” before cranking out b-sides and more obscure album tracks. What could be construed as a clever artist’s conceit – getting the audience to be complicit in indulging the band’s need to play what they want to play, rather than what the audience may want or expect – soon proves to be an unnecessary tool, if that’s what it is. Every single song is met with nothing but love, rapture and mass sing-a-longs.

Scott takes lead vocals for a rendition of ‘The Only One’ that he dedicates to his wife, apparently watching from the wings on her first trip to the UK, and CJ gets a shot too, delivering an impassioned cover of Helmet’s ‘Unsung.’

The grins on both audience and band faces alike have just been growing and growing as the 11:00pm curfew draws nigh, but as Ginger announces that they still have time for two more songs, ‘You Took The Sunshine From New York’ and stone-cold classic ’29 x The Pain’ metaphorically destroy what is left of the Academy’s PA.

“Thank you, Manchester, we needed this,” says Ginger, visibly beaming.

So did we, Ginger. So did we.

The Wildhearts Strike Back 2014 UK Tour with Von Hertzen Brothers and Hey!Hello! continues until the 17th April, with dates as follows: 12th April @ Nottingham Rock City, 13th April @ Newcastle O2 Academy, 14th April @ Glasgow O2 ABC, 16th April @ Cambridge Junction and 17th April @ London Electric Ballroom.

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Live review: The Hold Steady | Manchester Academy, 10/12/08

THSMAIs Craig Finn the most energetic and enthusiastic thirty-something front man in rock? Last night’s gig at Manchester Academy suggested as much. Flailing, bouncing, jiterring, jumping and ocasionally mincing around the stage, spewing forth literary lyrics like his life depended on it, rock n roll showmanship like his hasn’t been seen since the mid-seventies on America’s New Jersey shore.

If guitarist Tad Kubler was feeling any ill effects following his hospitalisation earlier in the year for pancreatities, he wasn’t showing it. The blistering guitar solo that rounded out Lord, I’m Discouraged was a crowd pleasing slab of ‘rawk’ that had the fanatical audience baying for more.

An hour and forty-five minutes later, after a show that encompassed a majority of this year’s Stay Positive, the most well known tunes from last year’s Boys and Girls in America, and a couple of story’s about Holly and Charlemagne from first two albums The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me and Separation Sunday, the faithful of Manchester left having been reminded by Finn of the joys of rock n roll and the fact that the band, the crowd – and even the pink gorilla that stormed the stage during the encore – are all a part of the musical commune that is The Hold Steady.

Since The Hold Steady were last in the UK, America have elected a new President. On the back of the positive power of their dedication to the cause of rock n roll, and Finn’s acknowledgement towards the close of the show that the band were glad to welcome Barack Obama to office, it seems that the President-elect would do well to declare The Hold Steady America’s first band. But then ‘rock n roll means well….’ and The Hold Steady would do well to remain faithful first and foremost to their music.