30 min read

Review by Darren Smith for MPM

Saturday 24th July 2021 will live long in my memory as that was the day I properly returned to the live music environment after the Covid pandemic that had brought life to a standstill in March 2020. I had awoken in the morning with those same sorts of feelings that children have on Christmas Day.

This was the day I had been waiting for, for what seemed like an eternity and I was going to get a much sought after present, and that present was live music. Those feelings stayed with me all day and as the time got closer for me to leave, my excitement levels rose with the anticipation of the great night ahead. Oh man, I had waited for this for so long and I was going to enjoy every single moment to the max.

First things first though, I had to navigate my first real motorway journey since before Covid and I did that successfully, thank god. I arrived at the venue, some 2 hours early, with my head spinning and my stomach churning with an excitement that I had almost forgotten existed.

This was clearly going to be a night to not only celebrate the return of live music but also to support the fabulous promotors at The Rock Co-Operative who had worked tirelessly over the last 16 months to host Covid safe gigs whenever and however the rules allowed, and to also support the venue, Leo’s Red Lion, which like all other live music venues around the country had seen their business and lifeblood abruptly stopped in March last year.

Ashen Reach were first band up and had the honour of being the first band to grace the indoor stage at this legendary Kent venue post Covid. I have to say they were a new band on me but what an introduction it was. They were given just over an hour on stage which meant that they could play the whole of their 2020 debut album ‘Homecoming’.

They took to the stage with an atmospheric intro playing through the PA and that just helped build the already electrically charged atmosphere inside as the crowd waited patiently. Opening track ‘Fighting For My Life’ set the power and pace for an incendiary set from the Merseyside rockers.

As I stood there watching on I was in heaven and realised how much I had missed the feel of the bass and the kick drum powering through my chest. The band then went straight into ‘Tear It Down’ which very early on got the crowd participation going as frontman Kyle Stanley commanded the stage and their attention. Two songs in and that already electric atmosphere was becoming supercharged it was amazing there wasn’t a powercut so to speak.

Jump, Bop, Mosh, Headbang” was the demand from Stanley as the band went into ‘Heir To The Throne’ and he followed that up with “When I say jump, I want see everybody jump”, did anybody want to disappoint him, I think not.

The song is a massively meaty slice of metal played out to the crowd by a band clearly loving being back on stage again and a frontman who knows how to control the crowd as he paces the stage like a tiger who has been freed from a long bout of captivity….well actually he has. This is proper modern metal which gives Jess Stanley, the powerhouse on drums the chance to drill the Herculean beat straight into peoples heads and through their bodies.

Latest single ‘Epiphany’, a slower paced, brooding, beast of a track gives the crowd the chance for a little respite inside the already hot and sweaty venue, whilst giving lead guitarist Paddy Cummins his first real opportunity in the solo spotlight to show the Gravesend faithful his six string skills with a blissful solo. ‘Prey’ a track about a man obsessed with a woman follows.

I am finding it hard to take my eyes off the band as the performance from each and everyone of them is totally captivating but especially frontman Stanley whose movements around the stage at times visually tell you the emotions of the lyrics you are hearing….spellbinding. The song gets yet another great reception as it finishes and the crowd are told that they “Are all fucking incredible”. You can sense the band are feeding off the energy from the crowd and the crowd are lapping up the high quality music being performed to them, both parties having waited for this moment for so long.

This leads into ‘Here I Go’, a song we are told the band do not normally play live, but they are going to tonight as it is a special occasion, this is after all a post-Covid party as such and they have travelled all the way down from the North West to play it. With the crowd raising their drinks, lighters or phone torches in the air, Ashen Reach treat them to a sublimely beautiful rendition of the softer ballad like number that starts off with a haunting, harmonious vocal intro and ends with another blistering hot solo from Paddy Cummins. ‘Hole In The Sky’ follows, a track resplendently memorable for its heavenly and emotive guitar parts, some exquisite time changes that move it from beauty to beast in one foul swoop and a driving beat that inspires much banging of the head.

With the slower stuff done with, the band then hype up the ever engaging audience with some tracks to headbang and mosh to as they draw their set to a close. What is clearly evident from Kyle Stanley is that he can sing, he can shout, he can growl and he can hold an audience in the palm of his hand.

Everything he has asked the audience to do, they have done and he and the rest of Ashen Reach have gone down a storm tonight. Anyway, back to their set. They finish up with three bruising numbers, first of which is the ferocious ‘Broken Column’, complete with some properly growly vocals and some unified onstage headbanging. Next up comes ‘Homecoming’, their albums title track which had a fiendishly intense finish that pummelled that the inner chasms of you body with its power.

That leaves ‘Alive Again’ to close out what has been a phenomenal hour. It has everything from a harmonious, choral like intro over some delicate guitar work, to moments of monstrous and vigorous brutality that stretches the stamina of the Leo’s audience as they are told that “we want the whole place to fucking erupt”. What a way to leave a permanent scar on the memory and maybe the limbs of the audience in front of you. In my opinion Ashen Reach had made their journey down from the North a very worthwhile one and by the size of the queue at their merch table after I was not the only one to think that.

So, on to tonight’s main act, the fabulous Dead Man’s Whiskey. I first came across them in 2018 at Hard Rock Hell AOR in Wales and have been a fan ever since, so to have them as the headliners on my first post covid trip out for Metal Planet Music was a winner all round for me.

The familiar intro tape of ‘The ballad of Jack McCall’ welcomes the band on to the Leo’s stage before frontman Nico Rogers, complete with a new hairstyle for 2021, screams out “We are Dead Man’s Whiskey” and the band head full throttle into ‘Live, Loud & Ready’.

The band, who are playing their first live gig since February 2020, are quickly into their stride with a sensational rendition of this blistering track, with Elliott D’Alvarez and James Titley occupying stage left like they owned it and Nico prowling around like his life depended on it. The crowd are instantly lapping this up and are in full voice straight away. This is ELECTRIC – INCENDIARY – FULL VELOCITY!

From that opening salvo you would have thought you were watching a band who had been regularly treading the boards over the last 16 months, not one that has been on an imposed hiatus. Next up is ‘Raising Hell’, a thundering, smouldering rocker that is driven by the thunderous rhythm section of Titley and drummer Charlie Gray, who for whom, this is a hometown gig.

The crowd participation throughout is a sign of how much these guys are loved and in particular when lead guitarist Billy Kons gives them a whiff of his immense talent with a delectable bluesy guitar piece. It dawned on me watching him, that if you stuck a top hat on his head you could easily be mistaken into thinking you were watching a certain guitarist from the self proclaimed “most dangerous band in the world”. High praise I know, but he is that good.

After Nico tells us that this has just been “the longest, shittiest interval in music history” the band launch into ‘My Year’. Normally this is a celebration of all things DMW but this time it is played as a “Fuck You Covid”. As I rocked along to the track I remember thinking how hard it is to take photographs whilst trying to sing along to each and every impassioned word and line. The atmosphere is incredible, the venue is really heating up and our erstwhile frontman takes on board some much needed fluid.

It is clearly obvious how much the band are loving this from the looks on their faces and the banter between them, the crowd and with Ashen Reach as Nico proclaims “Thanks for setting the bar unreasonable high you bastards”. The setlist continues with the ballsy, rocking ‘This Fight’. Angst ridden lyrics flow as Nico belts out line after line with one foot on the monitor, as he stares out at the expectant crowd.

This is followed by a raucous and meaty cover of ‘Kiss From A Rose’ before we get the bands latest single ‘Breakout’, which was released only 3 days before the gig. Getting it’s first ever live airing tonight, it appears to have a real AC/DC vibe to it with some dirty guitar work from Mr Kons, some raspy vocals from Mr Rogers and a crowd pleasing sing-a-long chorus. Got a feeling that this may well become a new crowd favourite as the band play more and more gigs in the months to come.

War Machine”, a song about a giant robot with a jukebox gives DMW a chance to have even more fun as they play out little snippets of some massive chart hits from The Spice Girls, Dexys Midnight Runners, Bon Jovi and Rick Astley to let said robot have his share of the limelight.

This is followed by a Charlie Gray drum solo, which clearly pleases the Medway towns faithful who have arrived in number to cheer on their local hero and vociferously encourage and applaud him throughout. ‘Last Train’, an oldie but goldy that didn’t make the bands debut album or it’s reissue, is driven by a sublime bass riff from James Titley and some sensational swirling guitar work. The crowd are lapping up everything thrown at them, whether it be new, old or borrowed and the band run through the track with power and precision aplenty.

Next up is ‘I Am Here’ another brand new track, that will be on a new EP coming out in October. It goes down like the proverbial storm and shows that the DMW have not rested on their laurels over the last year or so and are going to unleash some incredibly good new music on to the world later this year.

Another musical interlude, gives Nico a chance to catch his breath and take on more much needed fluid….it’s really fecking hot in here now…and lets the rest of the band the chance to showcase their own talents without interruption from the not so shy and retiring frontman.

Breather done, crowd rested and then it’s back to the roisterous scenes of before. ‘Hoe Street’ which is my personal favourite DMW track leaves me with a dilemma, do I put the camera down and slip into the crowd to rock out or do keep working…..working it is! I could listen to this track over and over again as it always get me pumping when I hear it and tonight is no exception.

Remember the kid at Christmas comment, well this is that special present, the deal breaker if you like. Hearing it just sent my pulse racing. The vocal interplay between Rogers and Kons keeps the fun element going onstage and then the crowd get their turn and every man, woman, child participates as one.

Follow that, well they do and do it in style as Pearl Jam’s ‘Alive’ gets the full DMW treatment. It is Nico’s favourite band, fits into the set perfectly and gets the crowd singing at full voice. That leads into a thundering version of ‘Rooster Crows’ that concludes the main part of tonights set. After the crowd are cajoled into asking for more, they weren’t going to say no were they as after all this is a celebration of the return of live music as such, the band launch into ‘Sleep When I’m Dead’ another out and out rocker that will be on the forthcoming EP.

Now for the triple headed finale. First up is ‘Make You Proud’ a truly emotional song and a sing that is so close to Nico Rogers heart as it was written for his Mum. Tonight though, he dedicates it to everyone inside the venue who he says will all at some point been affected by covid and/or mental health issues in the last 18 months or so and he hopes that the band have made the crowd proud.

Nico touches his heart many times throughout the song as it clearly and rightly pulls his heartstrings and touches his emotions every time he sings it. It is an emotive moment, always brings a lump to my throat but is equally always a highlight of any Dead Mans Whiskey live show, tonight is no different.

So how do you top that…you don’t. So how do you follow it, well you let the crowd have both barrels with an action packed, fast paced, foot to the floor rendition of ‘Racing Bullet’. After teaching the crowd their sing-a-long part “I’m outta here like a Racing Bullet’, we are off.

Wow! If the band and crowd are struggling for stamina after nearly 90 minutes in the heat there are no signs of it during this devilishly raucous version that brings the curtain down on the band set. Oh no wait a minute, the crowd are not going to let Dead Man’s Whiskey go just yet.

They have waited over 16 months for tonight and are wanting more, more, more and more is what they got. It comes in the form of AC/DC’s ‘Highway To Hell’ and raises the roof off this legendary Gravesend venue. It is lucky that Leo’s Red Lion is in an industrial part of town as the noise the band and crowd generated to bring the night to a close with the monstrously brilliant rendition would surely have woken any neighbouring households up.

So that was that then. As celebrations go, it was up there with the best. Both bands were exceptional and ticked every possible box for me, so thank you Ashen Reach and Dead Man’s Whiskey. You have made an ageing rocker very happy as there was a point I wondered if I would ever be back down the front at a gig again.

My final words must however go the venue, it’s owners, its staff and the promoters at The Rock Co-Operative who have weathered the covid storm, come out of it the other end and have organised a stellar line up of gigs going forward throughout the rest of 2021 but have taken all the covid related rules, fears and precautions on board and have made sure those gigs will be as safe as possible for everybody to attend. Guys and gals, give yourselves a much deserved pat on the back.

Photography by Darren Smith for MPM

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