He drifts on, decked out in black, wide-brimmed hat draped down low over his forehead, and it’s not until he heads towards centre stage that folk take notice of this lonesome cowboy, guitar in hand, and mild applause goes up.
This is Troy Redfern, who’s gamely stood in to fulfil the guest slot that Limehouse Lizzy has withdrawn from due to health issues, with Matt Pearce having deputised for a London show.
We’re sung a line about being down in Mexico as Redfern sets a cinematic scene of deals gone wrong, badmen in dark doorways and a little voodoo on the side in the Texas shuffling blues that is ‘Scorpio’. Riding solo, on occasion we’ll get effects offering rhythm guitar support, but pitched at a lower volume it allows him to croon in a more intimate fashion rather than having to shout out over a full band. Roaming the stage he enters into extended soling, the audience quiet but attentive delivering healthy applause when the song concludes.
A cover of ‘John The Revelator’ follows. Impressively his slide playing careers across the fretboard down to the pickup area, with dirty gnarly fretted playing in between.
As he changes guitar, he tells us he’s going to: “Play a few tunes off my new album The Fire Cosmic,” and we get the first single, ‘Waiting For Your Love’ with its staggered chords, slide work and singalong chorus that comes across like a heavy weight T. Rex number, as does following number ‘Sanctify’ wherein during the solo section there’s a rhythmic chugging underneath akin to ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’, as he niggles in deep, squeezing out tortured notes.
The extended workouts mean he only has time for one more number, and it’s the most bluesy version of Hendrix’ ‘Voodoo Chile’ I’ve ever heard.
Earlier he mentioned he’ll be touring with his full band come October next year. He’s also got a couple of other support slots prepared for the first half of the year. If there are nerves about jumping in so quick for this first date, then he hardly shows them, and by this time next year he’ll be well road worn, and no doubt increased his own fan base.
Tonight’s audience looks to be packed with fans of the headline act from back when they were on Top Of The Pops every other week. And, to be serious here, I was a little concerned there were no St John’s Ambulance volunteers in sight. With an equal amount of honesty, I’ve not seen as much life in an audience in donkeys’ years once the band got started.
Music comes over the PA, with a rumbling heartbeat heard as spotlights patrol the circles above, curiously a violin is heard as drummer Bruce Bisland walks on, he’s followed by newish recruits Paul Manzi on lead vocals, Lee Small on bass and vocals, guest keyboard player/second guitarist Tom ‘TC’ Cory, and finally, cocking his head round the PA before walking on to applause, Andy Scott, who’s been lead guitarist with the band since the high times and a few low in between, and what look to be ongoing good times ahead.
From the get-go there’s a three-man full-frontal attack at the microphones, and we’re asked do we want “Action”. The reply is in the affirmative. The drums beat down hard, and it’s Bisland’s playing that my attention will be drawn to often tonight, not in a intrusive manner, but because of what he adds. As Scott’s guitar squeals they go into their cover of the Hello hit ‘New York Groove’ interjected with lines from Alicia Key’s ‘Empire State of Mind’ sung soulfully by Small and drawing admiring looks. A hefty percentage of the audience is now up and dancing, and remain on their feet as Scott serves out the evening’s introductions.
“Good evening, Birmingham!” he calls out in the same building another vocal-heavy band in Uriah Heep made their hit Live album, back while Sweet were doing similar in the singles charts.
“We’re blessed to be playing live tonight” he continues deliberating over our covid lockdown. Dropping his plectrum, he lets out the first of a number of self-cursing expletives, for it transpires there’s a tendon problem he’s suffering and unable to form a fist, but can hold his plectrum. The mishap is a singular event during the evening, and as if to prove that the next number features him soloing with tremolo arm put to good use in duet with the keyboards, then on changing pace as they all gather towards the drums, there’s another burst of solo guitar before it ends bombastically.
Cory is most definitely an asset to the band’s live performance. He and Bisland will add their vocals to the mix during the night, his synthesiser playing during the night has that great powerful 70s sound (as played on record by Scott), and he’ll also ably relieve and support the main man on guitar.
In another case of swopping roles, Scott takes the late Steve Priest’s old high noted interjections on the hit that was ‘Hellraiser’. Again, Bisland draws my attention; hard, heavy, tight and precise, all processed to facilitate the song and kick into higher gear when appropriate as he moves around kit adding tonal changes without being over flash.
That they’re able to hit ‘Hellraiser’ so early in the set implies they’ve a lot on offer. Indeed, they look comfortable in their own skin, as if they’ve been doing this together for years and that’s not the reality for this line-up. Manzi deserves attention. The former Cats In Space and Arena vocalist proves a good front man; working the stage confidently while expressing diffidence to all that’s gone before, while getting the audience to participate. Vocally, the tonal nuances and range. He has to offer is impressive.
Once more, Scott discusses having had to postponed tours but being determined not to do so again – This despite his own right-hand problem, Small suffering from trapped nerves in his back, and the list of ailments the band’s guitar technician’s suffering. In response, Manzi asks us to remember a time when the world was young and we believed we were invincible.
With a full-blown introduction on keyboards, then a guitar solo arcing the way we’re delivered ‘The Sixteens’ – Its shifting rhythms and evergreen lyrics resound around the hall, guitars and keys together in harmony, full band vocal harmonies likewise, and as the song goes into double time, Manzi implores those of us remaining seated to “Stand up!”, the song getting ever faster, the harmonies astonishing in their clarity.
Scott notes they released The Ultimate Story album five years back, with few hands raised claiming ownership of copies, he jokes that is was “a good job the Germans did!” What follows is an AOR textured number, and about as near as we’re going to get to a ballad tonight with ‘Defender’.
We’ll also get ‘Windy City’ and recent single ‘Everything’ but the whoops and hollers are reserved for ‘Set Me Free’ as it rocks out, with tight soling from Scott, him applying some strange kind of bottleneck, or tin can even, with his right hand, in between Blackmore styled intricate riffing, that probably hurt like hell to achieve but sounded ace. Half way into a set like this and Manzi and Small’s vocal contributions similarly shift into an unexpected higher gear.
There’s a brief downturn as the drunken lady and her party in front of me starts demanding ‘Love Is Like Oxygen’, but Scott dismisses her antics jovially enough and they go into the ‘Everything’, a recent single’s success. Scott hits the high end of his fretboard, pinching notes out, wailing and sustaining over keyboards, and taking in a couple of solos along the way on a mid-paced rocker that falls somewhere between Foreigner and Journey.
Next, as we’re implore to take ourselves back to Thursday nights from long ago, and Top of The Pops reverberated with the chorus shout of “We want Sweet!” The still-standing audience, with hands raised aloft repeat the process as six strings lead the way for a ‘Teenage Rampage’. As Manzi lets out a near operatic scream for the number to end on, there’s little time for applause as they dig even deeper into their treasure chest of hits, delivering ‘Wig Wam Bam’ and ‘Little Willie’ in quick succession. Across the breath of the stage are plenty of smiles on show, partly tongue in cheek perhaps, but beaming with genuine joy and love too.
“I’m quite happy apart from the fucking hand,” expresses Scott, playing a long-haired Victor Meldrew role. “It’s a good unit and we have a good laugh together.” That’s apparent, and now the drunk who’s returned from the bar is in her element as the go into ‘Love is Like Oxygen’, from the album Level Headed album. The synthesiser sound is excellent, Manzi’s vocals ranging from crooning balladeer to 70s rock star and oh the harmonies; all full of pomp and circumstance with bombastic drumming, the hit interspersed with a rocked-up version of Aaron Copeland’s ‘Fanfare For The Common Man’ before returning to the main song.
Band introductions are made, Scott noting Bisland’s been with the band some thirty years and they’re still the best of friends; that he rates Manzi as “the best singer in the country right now, and his involvement being the turning point for the band, with them getting a recent “genuine hit single”; how Cory, whose band The Novatines he’s produced, has admirably stepped up to the plate, and local lad Small “who’s played with nearly everyone” receiving individual female whooping applause, followed by the quip: “You said your mother wasn’t coming!” It’s left for Manzi to sing Scott’s praises and then they’re into a fist-pumping rendition of ‘Fox On The Run’ to end the main set on.
Minutes later, a siren wails over the PA, and with a deep boom and thud they’re back on stage and ploughing into ‘Blockbuster’ with people jumping all over the place. “Have you got any energy left?” asks Manzi. The reply, as it was an hour and a half ago, remains affirmative. “Are you ready, Birmingham? Let’s go…” he hollers as ‘Ballroom Blitz’ moves and grooves like the monster it is.
There’s a lot of love in the town hall tonight, and a lot of talent. “You can’t go wrong with good songs,” says my mate sagely, standing next to me. I nod in agreement, but that they can still achieve such pitch perfect harmonies all night long is what makes this performance something of a Christmas miracle.