Nearing the close of 2019, Black Star Riders are on a high. Their fourth album ‘Another State of Grace’ has gained very positive reviews and their current UK tour has been really pulling in the crowds.
This evening at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire, it’s busy without being uncomfortably so and a surprisingly polite crowd are in great spirits. Before the arrival of the night’s headliners, it’s already felt like a good value night out with a strong set from Wayward Sons (marred a little by sound issues, but with a great energy coming from the stage) and a superb performance from Stone Broken – a band you really need to catch live; frontman Rich Moss has a terrific voice and very natural stage presence.
Awaiting the headliners, there’s a great feeling in the venue as people mill around, laughing and chatting. Classic rock gigs are a great opportunity for people watching and tonight does not disappoint: an Edgar Winter lookalike has dusted off his best denim jacket; there’s a man at the bar who could be a short Joey Belladonna; Lindsay from The Fast Show appears to have off-roaded his way into the venue, complete will small baseball cap…and somewhere near the back, a middle aged man has decided to come dressed as Where’s Wally? All brilliant characters, though none quite summon the sheer delight of spotting match the full-on Nutkins hair-at a Little Angels gig a few years back.
Eventually, with the house lights dropping and the stage bathed in red light, there’s a strong feeling of anticipation as Black Star Riders the stage. Frontman Ricky Warwick has already promised a big setlist, so that means there’s no time to lose and without a word, the band breaks into the title track from the new album. It’s a move of sheer confidence to open a headline show with a new song, but their faith in the faithful is not at all misplaced and the front of the audience erupts. New guitarist Christian Martucci (sometime of Stone Sour) has a very animated stage presence, almost the opposite of Scott Gorham’s, but between them it really works…and watching them meet halfway for the track’s twin leads gives a glimpse of things to come. The sound is a little muddy, occasionally losing the finer points of the track, but in terms of energy, things are off to a good start. Sliding into the fabulous ‘Killer Instinct’, the gears are cranked further. Warwick is in absolutely classic voice and with the sound levels tweaked, the Thin Lizzy styled twin leads are heard with real clarity. They really help to power one of the best melodic rock tracks of the past few years. Taking a step back to the beginning, ‘All Hell Breaks Loose’ gives the audience more of opportunity to belt out their lungs before Warwick takes on the mantle of a preacher, rousing the crowd with a speech about the powers of rock, leading the band into ‘Testify or Say Goodbye’, where the band and crowd continue to share the enjoyment of a great performance, with the venue very much acting like a protective bubble from the outside world, currently full of political and social turmoil.
Even at this early stage, it’s clear that Black Star Riders know the value in structuring their set: they’ve delivered some great rockers, but already plugged all four of their albums. Revisiting the strongest track from the debut album, ‘Hey Judas’ shows Warwick in absolutely amazing form – one of the most natural performers, he spends half the night throwing shapes with his mic stand, the other lending extra muscle on third guitar’ – and another new song ‘Tonight The Moonlight Has Let Me Down’ comes with extra power. The album recording comes across like a lighter version of an old Almighty tune augmented with Gorham’s easily recognisable tones; tonight, it’s a genuine crowd pleaser, sounding like something we’ve known forever. Gorham, by now really hitting his stride, looks like a man who’s relishing the chance to play for a slightly more intimate audience and while his physical presence is a reminder that age comes to every one of us, his musical chops are as fine as ever.
The crowd gets a huge opportunity to cut loose on a rousing rendition of the Celtic themed ‘Soldierstown’, while Warwick and Martucci don’t pull any punches with their performance. In contrast, the ballad ‘Why Do You Love Your Guns?’ comes with a frightening realism and emotional pull as Warwick takes a stand against the US’s lax gun laws (“It’s a song that’s got me into a bit of trouble”, he says, but its message is vital). The second half begins with a double whammy of ‘Blindsided’ and ‘Bloodshot’; BSR show absolutely no sign of running out of steam and at the point most classic rock acts would saunter off stage to let the lead guitarist or drummer fill a four minute solo spot, the whole band stays firm, hell bent on performing as much of their back-cat as possible. If it weren’t clear before, this isn’t about money, fame, or going through the motions – these five guys love playing together.
A recent single ‘Ain’t That The End of The World’ continues to show why BSR are going from strength to strength, and a pre-amble about the current state of “releasing a single” also prompts a heart warming tale of parenthood. Ricky addresses the huge crowd as if he’s playing to twenty people; his natural flair still comes across some three decades into his career. There’s no predicted “set sag” in these later stages, either: ‘When The Night Comes In’ is delivered with a superb punch and the still shiny, new ‘Underneath The Afterglow’ sounds great – a natural fit among the more familiar material. Ricky introduces the band, giving extra credit to drummer Chad Szeliga (formerly of Breaking Benjamin) who has worked his arse off throughout the evening. In turn, announcing Ricky Warwick, Gorham tells everyone how much he loves him, before giving him a hug. It’s a lovely moment. Pulling into the final leg, the absolutely fantastic ‘Finest Hour’ encourages a mass sing-along. The excitement stretches to near the back of the venue too, with a man at the bar jumping up and down with his air guitar, while four friends link arms, form a circle and bounce while sporting beaming grins. The album recording is a genuine mood enhancer; the live performance brings four minutes of pure joy. Via a flawless ‘Kingdom of The Lost’, the set comes to a close with plenty of fire as the band takes everyone back to the start with fan favourite ‘Bound For Glory’.
Even after the house lights come back on, the band are still on stage. Warwick is grinning and sweating while slapping hands with the front row. Gorham is offering the biggest smile to everyone, especially those in the balcony just above him. It’s a been a great gig…and he knows it.
After one of the tightest classic rock sets, there surely won’t be many people going home disappointed tonight – maybe one or two, perhaps expecting a Lizzy track or two in an encore, but they’ve been at the wrong gig… With nineteen songs, no flab, no extended solos, and absolutely no playing for time, Black Star Riders truly value the importance of giving their fans value for money.