One of the things I love about guitar-based music is the incredibly wide spectrum of both the fans it attracts and the styles of the bands that they support. A few weeks ago we were in Cardiff, for an arena tour featuring two bands ready to carry the mantle of metal royalty into the future. The crowd was in their teens, the security was tight, tickets were expensive and there was a sound and light spectacular. Tonight we were in Exeter, at the Phoenix theatre, for two bands that are leaving behind a trail of smoking reviews, Broken Witt Rebels and King King.
The crowd were in their 50s, rather than their teens, but the rush to the front as the doors opened was just as frantic. The door staff (I think her name may have been Doris), swapped tickets for a barely visible hand stamp or a day glo wristband that gave access to the balcony (along with a warning from stern faced Doris that “you can party, but no standing up!”). The security guard prevented our tog from accessing the pit as he didn’t have the hallowed yellow wrist band, but relented when it turned out that the venue didn’t actually have any yellow wrist bands and the only other photographer in the pit had bought with her two cuddly toys. The stage was small and the light show minimal, but again, we were here for a tour featuring two bands that have got the musical world talking.
Then the lights went down, Broken Witt Rebels hit the stage with the dirty, raw guitar intro of “Low”, played by James Tranter. Singer Danny Core knocked thirty years off everyone present as his gloriously gruff vocals filled the hall. It doesn’t come as any surprise to hear that these guys are winning awards all over the shop, and have been confirmed for the “Rising” stage at Ramblin’ Man Festival this year, but it does come as a surprise when instead of the Deep South of good ol “Merica, they turn out to have thick Brummy accents. “Low” was followed by “Howlin”, a gentle vocal blasting into some more of that chunky guitar, alongside driving rhythm from Luke David and James Dudley. “Georgia Pine” had an almost Paulo Nuttini vocal vibe to it that was just sublime. “Turn Me On” was followed by my favourite song, “Getaway Man”, a powerful ballad with bucketloads of soul. By the time we got towards the end of the set, the crowd were utterly won over. So much variety and song craft saw to that. “Guns” broke new ground with incredibly catchy chopping rhythms, and set closer “Shake Me Down” where again, Core’s vocals took centre stage in the almost acapella verses, before the chorus burst into life.
As the stage was cleared, the noise and energy levels created by the Broken Witt Rebels’ set didn’t really drop, and when the lights went down for the headliners, King King, it just got louder and hotter. A cheer went up as Wayne Proctor took his seat behind the kit, Bob Fridzema behind the Hammond Organ, and a suited Lindsay Coulson stood ready with his bass, before the imposing, red kilted, figure of Alan Nimmo greeted the crowd and launched into “Lose Control”. Now we have all heard stories of gigs in major arenas being cancelled because the “star” of the show has a splinter in their finger or a bad case of conjunctivitis, but Nimmo was clearly in the middle of a bad bout of Scottish man-flu. Did it hold him back? Not at all! “Wait On Time” drew us in with a delicious guitar break, Nimmo really starting to ramp up the feeling he wrought from the strings, as King King sauntered through some delicious walking blues, augmented with the glorious swirls of the Hammond. Coulson’s bass took us into “Waking Up” as the pace slowed, and then some beautiful electric piano from Fridzema ushered in “Rush Hour” and my favourite solo from Nimmo so far. Sweat already pouring off his face, he led the crowd in some singing and the front row loved every second.
“A Long History of Love” was up next. Now, this was a man in the middle of all sorts of throat problems and a heavy cold, but all it seemed to do was wring even more emotion from what is already an exquisite voice, that crosses between a hoarse growl and a soulful melody. We were also back in Hammond territory as Fridzema and Nimmo swapped melodies back and forth. “More Than I Can Take” is some seriously funky blues before “You Stopped the Rain” took things to a more laid back California vibe, and another glorious solo. In between songs the banter was infectious from one of the most engaging front men I have seen. He thanked a relative who was in the front row (and for the encore brought her out flowers), apologised for the fact that his kilt wasn’t ’t ironed, coughed, spluttered, cracked jokes, and with just a wry smile, found amusement in the fact that he was half-dying on stage and would wreak revenge on the tour personnel that gave it to him (which in the darkness he appears to think is me!).
“Take a Look” was followed by an incendiary version of “All Your Life” that went on and on after Nimmo had introduced the other King King members. Laughing afterwards, Nimmo remarked, “I’m not sure what happened there. We got a bit carried away. We need to have a band meeting about that afterwards” This, for me, was what blues is about. A band in the groove, riffing off each other, trading licks, as the rhythm section keeps things on track and providing a framework. I didn’t know how King King could beat that, but with the room buzzing, Nimmo managed it on final track, “Stranger to Love”, with something I have never seen before. As he solo’d, he slowly took the volume down, matched by the intensity of the rhythm section. What started off as a simply beautiful, low key piece of Blues, got quieter and quieter until he was simply playing his electric guitar un-amplified. Incredibly, the crowd were so quiet you could hear every note. It was a sublime moment. An entire audience barely breathing then erupting into applause as the volume slowly came back up.
“Let Love In” bought King King back to the stage for an encore, as Nimmo told everyone to come and see them after the show. The crowd filed out into a cold, Exeter night, filled with drunken students and alert police, oblivious to what they had just missed in their little provincial theatre.
Review: Danielle Kemp
Photos: Rob Wilkins