Live Review: Alter Bridge and Blackstone Cherry

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You could imagine my anticipation as we raced from Lancaster to the Manchester Evening News arena. The hour-long journey seemed to drag, my excitement building at the prospect of seeing one of my all time favourite bands, Alter Bridge.

Theory of a Dead Man were first up. Their presence could be felt from the off, their massive sound filled the arena and their energy was encapsulating, running back and forth across the stage like they were being chased by a tiger! Theory of a Dead man’s sound was unmistakably similar to Nickelback, but I guess it’s not surprising really considering Chad Kroeger [Nickelback front man] discovered, signed and co-wrote many of the band’s songs on their self titled debut album. Overall their performance was solid and I am sure that they won a good many new fans that night.

Theory of a Dead Man handed Black Stone Cherry the gauntlet; it would be a huge challenge to whip up the crowd into an even bigger frenzy ready for the headliners. The American Rockers from Edmonton, Kentucky had a confident air about them as they strutted on stage, and rightly so. They exploded into their first song, the monstrous ‘Change’, with its syncopated introduction and catchy chorus, they blasted through it with a power and control that only 10 years of gigging can bring. If you thought that the openers were full of energy, then Black Stone Cherry were Olympians, launching themselves in, giving everything, reaching out and connecting with the crowd.

A song with a swagger, ‘Blind Man’ smoothly followed, emphasising just how good a drummer John Fred Young is with his lightening fast fills and perfectly crafted grooves. BSC just launched hit after hit at us, with ‘Soul Creek’ and ‘Rain Wizard’ in quick succession. They finally took it down a notch with ‘Things My Father Said’ a beautiful, heart-warming piece that runs its fingers through your soul. I felt that their set peaked at this point.

Chris Robertson (lead vocals and guitar) introduced the next chapter of the night in his thick southern drawl, a voice that certainly belonged on the big screen. It turned out to be a blues-influenced medley; it was pretty much an instrumental that stretched on a little too long, while it most certainly showed off each of the band members’ great skill, their intensity was lost and so was the attention of many in the crowd. This was not helped by the next track, ‘Peace is Free’, another meaningful sing-along, but I felt that an acoustic version of it was not the best idea here and shouldn’t have been brought out on the road.

Black Stone Cherry tried to pick it up again with the penultimate song, the catchy ‘Blame it on the Boom-Boom’. It was performed brilliantly and went a long way to recapturing the crowd with the simple but entertaining lyrics and that relentless energy we bore witness to right at the beginning. The inevitable encore followed, ‘Lonely Train’ was the closer, a driving song for sure which went down very well. BSC had most definitely earned their after-show pint.

Three albums down the line, this is Alter Bridge’s first headlining arena tour. All 21,000 seats are filled, the lights go out, the room erupts…

The haunting synth introduction and the almost ghostly vocals of ‘Slip to the Void’ immediately drew you in. A song whose sole purpose was to open sets launches everyone on a musical voyage that they will never forget. The strobe lights pulse in perfect harmony with the band as they thundered in together, the floor opens up and the carnage begins. At that moment I felt sorry for the support acts – in an instant they were vaporised from everybody’s head, made to look like amateur school boys.

The band’s presence was instantly felt; the air was electric when ‘Ghost of Days Gone By’ began. A lovely light Mark Tremonti (lead guitar) special kicked the song off, but it soon transforms into that dirty forlorn feel that makes that song so powerful, before Mark leads the way again with a beautiful guitar solo, his face distorting and his cheeks puffing out highlighting just how much he is putting into every single note. ‘I Know it Hurts’ quickly follows with Scott Philips’s intricate hi-hat work and Myles Kennedy’s vocals really shine through here with his brilliantly-crafted lyrics, he certainly got me singing along with this one!

Then it was time for the heavier stuff; the colossal ‘White Knuckles’ never fails to get the sea of people moving, and it was exactly the same at the MEN Arena. A storm was brewing up, controlled by the chuggy guitars of both Tremonti and Kennedy, and you couldn’t help but move about and scream and shout. A clever little extended section in the middle of this song gave Myles time for a little stage craft. He had us under his command, lifting his left arms up above his head to get every single person in the arena to raise their voices. He must have felt like a god. It is not often you find a band with such prowess that they can control so many people with just a single gesture.

Soon it was time for the big one. Myles took a moment to introduce the song with a cool air about him, giving nothing away, “… it means the world to us to know how much this song means to you and had inspired you… This song was written for a friend, he actually sold me my first guitar… I play the intro like I do because he showed me this when I was a kid, this is for my friend Mark.” You could feel the emotion in his voice and knew we were in for a treat. Myles starts to pick out ‘Blackbird’ by the Beatles. Tremonti then steps in with AB’s ‘Blackbird’ and there begun the most encapsulating seven minutes of the night.

Or it would have been if Myles Kennedy hadn’t have sat down with his acoustic guitar and blown my mind with the beautiful heart wrenching ‘Wonderful life’ and ‘Watch Over You’. Usually I’m pretty against the subdued feel in the middle of a show, mainly because it can destroy the intensity and that can be hard to claw back, just as BSC had proven earlier. But what Myles did was truly incredible; all eyes were on him, all ears were listening to him and every voice was with him. He is the textbook definition of how a front man should be. I looked around for a moment to see literally thousands of lighters and phones held up high, it was such a moving moment, it felt as though all 21,000 fans were one.

The final two songs destroyed any reservation I had about the previous ten minutes, the crowd was AB’s through and through. They surged into ‘Ties That Bind’, keeping the room alive, the crowd pumping. As soon as they left the stage, a chant went up, “Al-ter-bridge, Al-ter-bridge”. I knew there was more to come. Myles and Mark embarked on a face melting duelling guitar solo, I was shocked at Mark’s ability to shred and how effortless he made it appear. He’s definitely a master at his art. ‘Rise Today’ closed the night in every bit of style it should have.

The only fault I could really find was the sound quality. While the sound at the MEN has greatly improved, the show was being recorded, so the sound was geared up for that and not for the live experience. A large piece of Perspex was placed in front of the drums, which reflects a large proportion of the cymbal sound and leaves it very low in the mix, but I guess most non-drummers wouldn’t have been too bothered by that!

The whole set was amazing, it had every element you could ever want and need from a gig; I certain had my live music fix, it could well have been the best show of my life. Well, maybe except when I saw Alter Bridge at Manchester Academy back in 2010!

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