Winger have had more than their share of knockers in the past. In the early 90s they were blasted on an almost weekly basis by cartoon misfits Beavis & Butt-head; members of high profile rock bands weren’t any kinder with their childish jibes, while the music press were often too quick to write them off in the face of a changing musical tide. Such things surely would have hurt, but it doesn’t change the fact that the first three Winger albums are top-notch melodic rock affairs – albums that have aged better than those of some of their peers. Nor does it change the fact that Winger were – and still are – a superb live act.
Less than a week after their appearance at the much-celebrated Download Festival in the UK, Winger’s set at London’s Islington Academy acted as a brilliant celebration of the band’s past and present.
Quite often there’s a sense at gigs that support acts are ill-fitting affairs that just kill time before the main event. During this tour, however, the two supports appear well chosen; both BlackWolf and JettBlack have potential appeal for the melodic rock fan. Bristol’s BlackWolf deliver a seven song set of meaty hard rock tempered with an occasional blues-rock flair. During this brief performance, lead guitarist John Greenhill plays up a storm when leading the band through a near faultless set. As shown by their debut EP and following full-length release, these guys have a solid sound with a decent old-school lead vocal. In the live setting, Scott Sharp’s attempts at falsetto don’t always quite hit their mark, but the solid musical approach certainly makes up for any weaknesses. JettBlack, meanwhile, are far less fortunate. A young band brimming with self-belief, they arrive on stage with their own logo lit up in blue bulbs. This slightly arrogant streak is clearly what’s getting them places – from a big online presence to the countless support slots within the past year – since it’s clearly not their talent. Their drummer spends most of the set struggling to keep time, most of the songs laboured by his thumping and heavy-handed approach (having lights in the drumsticks doesn’t detract from this even slightly), while the rest of the band are somewhere just above competent. There are some tough riffs and a photogenic image, but based on this gig, that’s just not enough to leave a lasting good impression. Many of their songs are one-paced and some better choruses just wouldn’t go amiss. In short, this kind of old time hard rock revival isn’t just JettBlack’s for the taking and as such they really need to up their game. It certainly wouldn’t take you too long to find a band who deliver similar goods far more professionally (there’s Sheffield’s Black Spiders for starters…)
At an early 8.20, Winger take the stage. With no messing, they kick off a ninety minute set with their current album’s opening track ‘Midnight Driver of a Love Machine’. While this track and a few others present on 2014’s ‘Better Days Comin’ are spoilt by a rather thin album mix in their studio form, in the live setting they come across as solid, good time rockers. Halfway through this number, a huge chunk of the crowd are hanging off every word – particularly a young gent in front row centre, who has clearly attended more than one show on the tour. Taking the whole crowd into consideration, the audience is more varied than you’d perhaps expect it to be. Instead of catering to the middle aged gig goers looking for late 80s nostalgia, Winger have pulled a crowd that’s more mixed than most – the nostalgia seeking fifty-something’s are present, of course they are – but they are outnumbered by younger gig goers, those who were too young to catch the band first time around. There is an almost even split between male and female, as well as a reasonable proportion of other races. What this suggests, looking at the broader picture, is that Winger’s music speaks to so many and it’s so obvious that their fans are completely devoted. Rightly so, too, since a huge chunk of the band’s output is fine melodic rock – music that survived fads and fashions.
Three numbers from Winger’s 2009 outing ‘Karma’ – ‘Pull Me Under’, ‘Deal With The Devil’ and ‘Stone Cold Killer – thunder along just as vigorously, with the twin guitars of Reb Beach and John Roth making a great team. Cranking the rock elements of Winger’s oeuvre ever further, ‘Rat Race’ finds the four piece outfit rocking hard and fast – in a manner their detractors are probably unaware the band are able – with mainman Kip Winger’s bass busying along furiously, certainly making a change from his more casual approach on the numbers from the band’s formative years. ‘Down Incognito’ and ‘Blind Revolution Mad’ – two numbers from the much overlooked ‘Pull’ – sound very welcome mixed in with newer material, the twenty one years since their original release not diminishing any of their power.
No Winger show would be complete without any solo spots and at this particular show, Reb Beach’s fretboard frenzy is spectacular. Although only stretching to three minutes, he shows off an array of impressive techniques (alongside a selection of mildly disturbing orgasm faces). Roth’s techniques show more restraint generally, as well as a dabbling with a metal-fuelled bluegrass style, showing him to be a very different performer to Beach, which is perhaps why they work so well together. Rod Morgenstein, meanwhile, fills his slot with a solid drum workout [is it still considered a solo if various samples of guitars act as a backing track?], his veteran status making everything appear effortless. While each of these solo spots are excellent in their own right, perhaps the time may have been better filled with a couple of classic tunes, especially given the absence of fan favourites ‘Junkyard Dog’, ‘Rainbow In The Rose’ and ‘Battle Stations’.
For those older fans coming for a touch of nostaligia Winger deliver the goods on their older material, offering enjoyable performances of ‘Can’t Get Enuff’, the lyrically dubious ‘Seventeen’, ‘Easy Come, Easy Go’ and ‘Hungry’ alongside a slightly wobbly ‘Headed For a Heartbreak’. The real highlight comes in the form of the classic ballad ‘Miles Away’ – although the stage set up with Kip stuck in a corner behind a keyboard makes things appear visually unbalanced. A surprise encore of the Van Halen classic ‘Ain’t Talkin’ ’bout Love’ provides the perfect end to a great night, with an audience member guesting on bass! This act of generosity only further cements any feeling of camaraderie between Winger and their fans.
It’s a real pleasure to see Reb Beach playing alongside Kip Winger, his rightful place on the stage – his talents are half wasted acting as sideman to David Coverdale in Whitesnake. Based on this show, Kip has a voice that shows off his age; a voice that cracks occasionally on a few of the older, more AOR-centric numbers, but it’s a voice with a few more years in it yet. Compared with Beach’s other employer, thankfully Mr. Winger still a man very much in control of his vocal chords: the small imperfections only serve to remind that this is real, after all. With great songs, great stage presence and an all-round friendliness that’s instantly obvious, there’s every reason to catch Winger live…even if you’re one of those fans or admirers who feel the recent studio output doesn’t quite match those glory days.