Monday 16 February 2015

Live Review: BLACK LABEL SOCIETY + Black Tusk + Crobot @ Leeds O2 Academy, Sunday 15th February 2015

Having visited the Academy for Machine Head back in December 2014, I knew that the venue was well run, had good acoustics and had a balcony. Having never actually seen Zakk Wyle play, despite having been listening to his playing since “No More Tears” in 1992 (!), I thought a seated gig would be the right option. Coupled with an annoying head cold and a Sunday night, seating really did turn out to be the way forward. I arrived at the venue just after Crobot's set started. The band is a hard rock combo; think Whitesnake or The Answer or similar. They were good and tight, but not for me; I have to confess that I spent most of the set in the bar.

Following them, I took my seat for Black Tusk. I had seen Black Tusk a year or two ago at the Barfly in London and they ripped it up big time that night. Now, of course, without their bass player and de facto front-man/talisman Athon following a tragic motorbike crash last year. Nonetheless, the band has recruited Corey Barhorst for touring duties in order to bring their power trio Savannah sound to the masses.

The Leeds crowd, although filling the hall, did not seem to really know what to make of them at first. For the uninitiated, they are kind of like a sludge Motorhead or a prime numbers Mastodon. They were good and tight with Andrew Fidler playing driving guitar and nailing his vocal parts and Jamie May on drums filling in for Athon's vocal parts admirably. I hope that Black Tusk continue past this tour, as I enjoy their music hugely and wish them nothing but the best. It is testament to their determination that they had won over a good portion of the crowd by the time they finished. No mean feat, considering the crowd was an odd mix of metallers, rock fans and... people who looked like they had never been to a gig in their lives!

After that, the atmosphere grew with a sense of anticipation for genuine metal royalty. Zakk is now 48 years old (we looked it up afterwards) and has been playing at the top level for nearly thirty years! The skull and rocker flag that covered the front of the stage as a curtain ratcheted up the tension and the mash-up intro of Whole Lotta Love/War Pigs set the tone and stamped Wylde's lineage on the night. When the band started to play ‘The Beginning...At Last’ from ‘Sonic Brew’ and the curtain fell, I knew what I was in for: professional American metal, delivered at a volume so loud that even though I was wearing ear plugs, my ears are ringing today. I have seen Motorhead many times and most extreme bands of note you can name, but this was easily the loudest gig I have ever attended. Ear splitting does not cover it. The stage was lined with six full Marshall stacks (2 x cabs, 2 x heads) with a further four cabs at the front of the drum riser. In short, it looked formidable and incredibly metal. This was to be a SHOW, a proper gig with showmanship, dry ice, lights and all the bombast you would expect from a man who looks exactly like a cartoon Viking.

I think that ‘Funeral Bell’ followed, thenBleed For Me’ (from the excellent ‘1919 Eternal’). Heavy does not cover it; on record, yes it is metal and on the Pantera spectrum of heavy, perhaps... Live, and with the level of power on stage, this was monumentally crushing. Wylde played with full commitment; he had a box step next to his mic, so he could be seen from the back ripping out the solos. He was ringmaster to this circus of power and insanity. The best (ie heavier) material from ‘Catacombs of the Black Vatican’ opus of 2014 followed. It is an album that has not really grown on me over time- solid but just not full on enough for my liking. Live, though, the selections made sense. ‘Suicide Messiah’ nearly took the roof off: pure power and tight playing. Around two thirds of the way through the set, Zakk ripped out a solo of perhaps 6-8 minutes in length, the crowd lapping it up as he took centre stage alone to demonstrate exactly why you pay your money. Metal these days is missing characters- Wylde is one who is known to a lot of people, and generally recognised as a superb guitar player (particularly his picking hand, so I am told). 

As an interviewee/persona, many find him boorish and his tough guy/biker schtick can seem rather too... aggressive for some tastes. In a live setting it all makes sense; it's entertainment, larger than life and twice as loud. The band positively SHREDDED ‘Godspeed Hellbound’ from the underrated “Order of The Black” album of 2010. It was relentlessly powerful and expertly played, the band backing Wylde may be devoid of big names like Robert Trujillo these days, but they were undoubtedly world class. Dario Lorina made an admirable foil for Wylde on guitar (covering superbly, when Wylde broke a string) and Jeff Fabb played superb drums- technical and tight with fluidity around the kit and excellent hand/foot interplay. John DeServio rounded out the band with lots of showmanship on bass.

Wylde got to flex yet more musical muscle with a piano solo (!) and a now obligatory version of ‘In This River’ (complete with Dime flags over the amps). A surprising and pleasing version of ‘The Blessed Hellride’ made use of 12 string guitars before a weighty ‘Concrete Jungle’ and ‘Still Born’ finished off the set and everyone's hearing. The show was superbly put together, expertly played and vastly entertaining. Wylde cut an imposing and engaging figure throughout, he looked EXACTLY as the music sounded: muscular, brash, large, bombastic and over the top. There are not too many rock stars any more, but as long as Zakk Wylde is still playing there will always be at least one! One of the best gigs I have ever been to, no doubt.