Review by Paul H Birch, Photos by Lisa Billingham
Tonight there’s a good vibe in Wolverhampton and inside its Civic Theatre FM kick off promptly, giving us the one-two punch of Tough Love and I Belong To the Night as Steve Overland’s voice echoes outside to be heard by those yet to be let in. Don’t Stop rocks out with the crowd singing along during the chorus, then awash with Jem Davis’ keyboard sweeps embellished by an explosion of Pete Jupp’s drums they slow things down with a ballad, Closer To Heaven. Effects laden keyboards are then joined by Merv Goldsworthy’s pumping bass before the front line chugs down on their guitars to deliver the main staccato chord sequence to That Girl and layer it with strong harmonies as Jim Kirkpatrick takes the song to its conclusion with a fluid guitar solo that rides over echo effect driven drum punctuations, then extends with a brief duet between him and Overland before they move onto their hardiest rocker of the night with Crosstown Train.
Over bluesy power chords Davis blows into a harmonica, the crowd clapping along. In between retiring then reforming a few years back FM have maintained a strong loyal fan base who have positioned themselves near the front, and this classy British AOR band have what it takes for those who don’t know their work to get on board and enjoy tonight. There’s some sweet riffing as they fire into a lengthy Burning My Heart Down, Overland taking the first guitar solo, Patrick the next and Davis moving between harmonica and keyboards throughout. After seven strong songs; they smile, wave goodbye and leave the stage; not outstaying their welcome, and already setting the bar high tonight.
Europe’s backdrop takes on a calming effect as the imagery of rocks hurling through space is distilled in its anger by a stream of blue lights, then as the crowd thickens the lights go down and over the PA a mash-up of African drums, strange sounds and key vocal phrases from popular rock songs informs us the band are about to stride on, or in vocalist Joey Tempest’s case leap on, swing a microphone stand round in circles, then run across the stage still looking twenty years younger than he ought to!
They open with Riches To Rags, John Norum’s guitar wailing out and it’s noticeable already that what was a decent PA sound for FM has just gone up an extra notch. Wild symphonic lines rise from Mic Micaheli’s keyboards as Norum switches from Gibson Les Paul to Flying V and cuts into the riff to Firebox and they veer between hard rock and heavy metal territory. Digging into their back catalogue for Superstitious, Tempest works the stage and Norum picks out melodious notes on an extended solo – headlining in Birmingham last year, his playing was workmanlike; tonight he sounds inspired – then as the song slows down Tempest throws in a couplet or two from Led Zeppelin’s All of My Love. Ian Haugland thwacks his drum kit hard as Norum goes into a swirling solo, then a smiling John Leven’s bass bolsters the sound as a hard blues riff grinds out Let The Good Time Rock. Next, as Tempest strums on a guitar, Micaheli ensures there is No Stone Unturned, inserting effects that hint at Terry Riley’s A Rainbow in Curved Air and reach their high point with a symphony of orchestrated musicality as Norum’s guitar layers in distortion before rising epically.
White lights cascade down on Tempest and Micaheli as things slow down for Carrie, the houselights coming on as the crowd sing along to the hit ballad. Not a track I’m partial to, but I’m in a minority here. “How am ya?” calls out the Swedish singer, affecting Black Country colloquialisms, before they race into the Deep Purple styled rocker that is Scream of Anger, with Norum particularly animated on guitar, followed by a spine-tingling keyboard introduction to an offbeat slab of hard rock in Sign of the Times, the 80’s AOR of Rock the Night gets a bluesy makeover, the crowd fully animated, as Europe extend the song with Norum torturing notes out of his guitar in virtuoso form, before Tempest concludes it, shouting out “Fantastic! Thank you!” The singer’s been running round this whole set, singing in fine form and swinging that microphone stand round in between, the former poodle rocker’s hair’s drenched and the only concession he’s made all night was to quickly change from a black leather shirt to a blue/grey silk one.
A heavy Wagnerian symphony with some strong vocal harmonies ensues as they step forward collectively to deliver Last Look At Eden and it would have made a powerful statement to end their set on, but there’s that big hit single yet to make its appearance, and as the trumpeting keyboards herald its commencement it gets a little sad as everyone plucks out their mobiles to record it for prosterity. With The Final Countdown Tempest and Leven are jumping up and down while Norum prowls either side of the stage, the crowd giving it large. Love it or hate it, live it’s what it is: a joyous celebration of humanity, and also a bit of a laugh as a guy in a pair of red shorts and a makeshift black cloak dive bombs on stage, racing round, hugging the band and playing air guitar. “This is the last gig of the tour and you made it special!” cries out a euphoric Tempest, “Wolverhampton rocks, baby!” And it does: I’m spending my evening beside folk from neighbouring Wednesbury, swopping stories about Steel Panther and Black Stone Cherry and feeling right at home in their company.
As the house lights go down yet again the crowd let out an almighty roar, and as if on cue blue spotlights skirt over the audience as if looking for escaped prisoners, then keyboards play out to strong effect, tempered by drums as the stage is bathed in green and white light and over the PA a voice commands us: “Ladies and gentlemen, will you please welcome… Foreigner!”
Four figures leap out, most of them brandishing guitars like menacing weapons as they run collectively to the front of the stage as if to attack us, and they do indeed achieve that musically as they thrash – yes thrash! – out Double Vision. Wearing shades, a trim goatee beard and loosened purple shirt singer Kelly Hansen prowls and jumps about the stage like Steve Tyler or the late Steve Lee, of Gotthard. His vocals are strong and so are the harmonies. It’s been a night for great singers it seems, including the crowd participation. Without respite they hurl into a crisp chorded rendition of Head Games, multi-instrumentalist Thom Gimbel taking a clear lead guitar break followed by a longer rock ’n’ roll styled one by a man I assume to be Bruce Watson as they extend the song and the pace quickens, manically reaching its end. “I’ve had a lot of English breakfasts and I’m gonna work them off,” jokes Hansen. He also get us to give a big hand for bass player Jeff Pilson, now dressed in more appropriate attire than during his appearance as “The Caped Crusader” when he jumped on stage with Europe.
However, as Gimbel moves to play additional keyboards for Cold As Ice, there’s a white elephant in the room, because someone is missing. Regardless, there’s some meaty synthesiser playing, powerful backing harmonies and Hansen slaps hands with people down the front as we hear yet another rearrangement towards the song’s conclusion to keep us on our toes and despite its changing line-up we accept this is no covers band. And for a band who’ve just had an album out subtitled All The Ballads, they’re starting with the hard rock that established the brand, and, having got the crowd by the balls, they slow things down with Waiting For A Girl Like You, giving it a creeping blues feel as only the backing vocals keep its recorded pop qualities, while its lyrics now seem a little more sinister, as if sung by a stalker akin to Sting’s intentions for The Police’s Every Breath You Take. But it’s not a female I’m looking round for: I wanna know where Mick Jones is? If he’s the only guy left from that original slab of vinyl up in my loft where is he? And it’s at that point that Hansen gives a big introduction, and the man strides on, decked in white with a sparkly waistcoat like a trim, low-key, white-haired Elvis, and maybe a little frail, but he smiles and he parts his legs as centre stage he delivers the opening riff to Feels Like The First Time and the years fade away; Pilson inserting some lovely melodic bass notes and Jones digging in old school style, feeding notes into the song and hitting the high ones as the song peaks.
That the founder member then moves to the side to play keyboards is again disconcerting, as all the band pump hard into That Was Yesterday, Hansen hitting a few notes off key but bringing himself back in almost immediately, and on the song’s conclusion asks: “How many wild and crazy women are in the house tonight?” as girls and women of a certain vintage scream out regardless; thus Jones has strapped a guitar back on and all three axe-men crank out Dirty White Boy, trading riffs before Gimbel switches to saxophone. It’s been a pretty much full on set already, and I’m beginning to rationalise things: As I recall Jones had been seriously unwell a while back, the band may well have done gigs without him entirely, but him coming on stage a handful of numbers into the set is akin to the old blues greats like B.B. King, it’s also a way of establishing this version of Foreigner, from the other line-ups we’ve seen down the years.
But enough of that for now, Jones is up at the microphone, an acoustic guitar wrapped round his neck: “I’ve got a message from Robert Plant. He wanted to say the Wolves are on their way back!” and the football fans cheer. He further intimates that he might’ve been smoking substances when he wrote the next number for the band’s debut album and pulls Starrider out for an airing, taking the main vocals himself. Harkening back to Jones and fellow original band member Ian McDonald’s more progressive rock roots it’s unknown territory for a lot of the audience here tonight, but the keyboard style affected is a modern one, then as Jones swops to an electric guitar chords rush in powerfully and Hansen takes over the lead vocals with big harmonies from the others, the song extended again with big rolling drums from Chris Frazier before concluding with orchestral pomp and ceremony.
There’s no let up and Jones’ guitar takes a solo introduction for Urgent, his axe giving way as Gimbel’s sax takes up the lead theme. Again, an altered arrangement, for while Pilson and keyboard player Michael Bluestein are giving it some disco-funk rhythm, the front line is transforming this mostly R ‘n’ B bopper into an all out rocker. All the more interesting as Hansen’s looser voice has a natural soul edge to it. Gimbel prowls the stage and people are lapping it up but it feels a little too Bruce Springsteen for my personal tastes. Next there’s a keyboards and drums solo, or more precisely duet, but we need a guitar, “…Just one chord” hollers Hansen and Jones and his boys give us Juke Box Hero, Pilson pummelling the sound forth that the guitarists layer sound over for Jones’ own six string to embellish and play chicken-scratch style while pulling in rock ‘n’ roll licks; the band picking up the beat to double time as they expand the song, Jones at front centre stage pulling off left hand tremolos and power chords, taking in a different high end solo to the recorded version, then all three guitarists soloing as they race towards the finishing line, and Jones reprising the song’s concluding signature solo as it all ends with thunderous applause.
Come the encores there’s no short changing going on, “Let’s rock!” smiles Jones and they’re into Long Way From Home. When it ends Hansen goes into a long rap; he’s been teasing the audience about its collective age all night, and tells those seated in the circle that they’re “Lazy bastards in the seats… Show your grandchild you can stand!” All as the band are playing an extended funk groove, then he tells us to reach out and hug the person next to them, and as they groove into an 80s Philly sounding I Wanna Know What Love Is it becomes one great big love-in with FM and Europe walking on stage to become what’s probably the best backing vocal group in the world, while moving the song away from its overwrought gospel version. As the guests leave the stage, Jones works in riffs with chord play and they deliver one final rocker in Hot Blooded, Pilson & Bluestein swopping musical roles half-way through, and then it’s over.
A great bill, each band complimenting the other and the intensity building all night long. In Hansen and Pilson Foreigner have moved aside from the stylistically creative debt they owed to Bad Co/Free and expanded that musical vocabulary, and it does hold great potential for the band. For this Foreigner invites you to celebrate its past party style, but delivers more in return.