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Live Review: Black Star Riders – O2 Academy, Bristol

I am going to start this review by saying that, before the gig, I was somewhat ambivalent about Black Star Riders. I have a dislike of cover and tribute bands, and in my uninformed mind, Black Star Riders were a Thin Lizzy tribute band trading on past glory. Suffice to say, I was wrong, and on an early spring night in Bristol, Ricky and the ‘Riders gained a convert.

Gun Black Star RidersFirst up, at a rapidly filling venue, were Glaswegian rockers Gun. They pulled all the right poses. Vocalist Dante Gizzi has strong and tuneful vocal chords, guitarists Jools Gizzi and Tommy Gentry played to the crowd and had all the rock star moves, and the rhythm provided by Andy Carr and Paul McManus was tight and neat, but somehow GUN failed to ignite either the crowd or this reviewer. They have some good songs. The cover of ‘Words Up’ got a bit of reaction and ‘Better Days’ is a mighty fine tune, but somehow it felt a bit “corporate” and was missing the energy and danger that a good live show needs.

Backyard Babies Black Star RidersAfter a brief changeover, GUN were followed by Backyard Babies, and as soon as they hit the stage the temperature rose and NOW we were into rock and roll. Looking like Mad Max has picked up a guitar, vocalist Nicke Borg snarled at the crowd, whilst guitarist Dregen, face hidden under his hoodie, rampaged around his side of the stage. At one point, a fellow ‘tog that had been stood next to me trying to catch a moment where Dregen was still, to snap a shot, just turned and shrugged. It wasn’t going to happen, and we needed to up our game. Tattoos, stunningly beautiful guitars (Seriously, look at the pics. I was drooling!), a bassist with blonde hair flailing and Swedish rock god looks (Johan Blomquist), and a drummer with pigtails (Peder Carlsson)… all squeezed into the tiny support stage area… and I loved it! This was what rock music should be. Opener “Th3rteen Or Nothing” started with the dirtiest guitar intro imaginable, and then we were hit with sleazy vocals. I am reminded of early Hanoi Rocks, the same chopping guitar style as Andy McCoy at his best but with a modern edge. My other favourite song in the set was “Minus Celsius” that again showcased everything good about these Swedish rockers. I can’t wait to see them again.

Black Star RidersAs I said in the intro, I went into this gig a little unsure. The reason I wanted to experience it was due to Ramblin’ Man last year, where I saw Ricky Warwick and Damon Johnson perform an engaging set at the pre-show. They were amusing, wonderfully skilled musicians, and played covers of just about every song you can imagine… and some you can’t. As a small pre-show it was great, but the next day was a “Thin Lizzy” show and I found myself elsewhere, mainly due to that apathy towards cover bands and tribute shows. My habit is to take a shot of the set list so that I can remember the songs for these reviews. Only one Lizzy song? Intriguing! The guys hit the stage and proceeded to rip my reservations up and throw them in my face!

Warwick isn’t pretending to be Lynott. He is Warwick. Scott Gorham is a stalker, stood to the side, almost out of the limelight. Damon Johnson is everywhere, smiling and having a bloody good time. Robert Crane, on bass, stays toward the back, hair flying and bass thrusting, and behind them all is some sensational power drumming from Jimmy DeGrasso. The twin (or triple) guitars are lyrical and tuneful, the harmonies divine, but they are millennial, not 70s and 80s. The songs have a nod to Lizzy, but they are fresh and new. Influenced by, rather than copying the band they evolved from. They open with the title track of “Heavy Fire” from the new album. It’s  followed by the almost Celtic intro to “Bloodshot”, then “Killer Instinct”, and as we are removed from the pit, Black Star Riders launch into “Dancing With The Wrong Girl”, also from the new album, which showcases Warwick’s vocals on something a bit slower.

Black Star Riders“Soldierstown” has oodles of those beautiful guitar harmonies and more Celtic influence, before we are treated to “Hey Judas”, and back to the new album with the up tempo “When the Night Comes In”. You can see how proud the band are of the new album by the number of songs so early in the set that feature, Warwick thanking the crowd for getting it to number 6 in the UK album chart. “Cold War Love” is next on the menu, and is one of my favourite songs of the set. A gorgeous cascading guitar line and Warwick’s soft deep vocals creating a real atmosphere, then a total change of pace… the next course is “All Hell Breaks Loose”. Until now, the crowd have been animated but respectful. “The Boys Are Back In Town” puts an end to that, and the place erupts. Yes, it’s a cover, but the energy and verve with which it is delivered make it sound fresh and alive, rather than a relic of the past. There is no way the energy levels are going to drop now. The setlist has been brilliantly put together, and “Hoodoo Voodoo” ramps things up further, along with “Who Rides The Tiger”, which is a track that sounds different to many of those on “Heavy Fire”. It’s more gritty, with different “feel”. “Blindsided” slows things down again, I find myself swaying gently to the vocal and instrumental harmonies. Crane leads with the bass into “Thinking About You Could Get Me Killed”, and then it’s back to the synchronised guitars for “Testify Or Say Goodbye”. More of the gorgeous Celtic lyrical energy is thrown at us for “Kingdom Of The Lost”, and then one of the songs that could easily have been Lizzy at their finest, “Bound For Glory”, and finally, the simply bombastic “Finest Hour”

I went expecting a Thin Lizzy tribute band and instead was treated to an entire set of songs that, whilst being influenced by one of the greatest rock bands of the 70s and early 80s, had a direction and energy all of their own.

My name is Rob – and I’m a convert, and Black Star Riders fan.

Reviews and images: Rob Wilkins

 

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