30 min read

Review & Photography by Darren Smith for MPM

There are five very unassuming guys living in the garden of England, who much like those famous superheroes that we see on our TV’s and at the cinema, have done so much over the last 18 months to safely allow people to attend and witness some fantastic live music.

Just like Batman, Superman, Captain America etc when it comes to the time for them to go to work, they become united as one, under the monicker of The Rock Co-operative and don their superhero uniforms of blue jeans and Rock Co-Operative t-shirts and make sure that for the next few hours, Leo’s Red Lion and all those inside it are kept safe from viruses and leave afterwards knowing that these five men have once again just supplied them with the suitable resources, by way of outstanding live performances, to get them through the next working week.

This time it was the turn of Blackwater Conspiracy and These Wicked Rivers to protect themselves under The Rock Co-operative cape and entertain those that had managed to make it through the sudden fuel crisis and get to the legendary venue set in the industrial heartland of Gravesend.

Opening act, These Wicked Rivers are a band I have been lucky enough to see before, when they played an outstanding set in Ramsgate in 2018 as part of Kaiser Bill 5 and I was definitely excited to see them again. Since that performance, they have released their debut album ‘Eden’ and added a keyboard player Rich Wilson to their line-up which has definitely added another luscious layer to their already lavish music and live shows.

From the opening guitar burst from Arran Day, I immediately got the feeling that this was going to be another night of sumptuous and exhilarating live music in this legendary venue, and I was not wrong. These Wicked Rivers arrived in Gravesend with an ever-increasing reputation.

It was one they had started building well before Covid hit and put the buffers up right in front of the train that was rolling along nicely for them. This UK wide tour as support to Blackwater Conspiracy has undoubtedly given them the chance to pick up where they left off and with that debut album now in the bag and safely transported to houses around the UK, they are here to promote it and promote it in style.

Opening up with ‘Shine On’ from ‘Eden’, they showed early on to the uninitiated exactly what they are about. In lead guitarist Day, they have a truly captivating six string maestro, who is as entertaining visually as he is audibly.

The partnership he has with frontman John Hartnell is just palatial and between Day’s lead guitar and Hartnell’s rhythm they create some of the most wonderful hard edged blues guitar music that allows the truly enthralling frontman Hartnell to ply his vocal parts in an intriguing and gripping way.

When The War Is Won’ is a beautiful out and out blues number from their second EP, with Day’s guitar just bleeding with rich and regal tones. It contains a solo from Day that is so reminiscent of the late great Gary Moore and maybe just maybe, here in front of the Leo’s faithful is quite possibly that man’s successor. The guitar work is so mesmerising, you almost don’t notice bassist Sam Williams, looking like a young and well-manicured Dusty Hill, jumping off stage for what can only have been an ill forgotten pre-set comfort break.

The rocking ‘Evergreen’ is definitely a more straight-ahead hard rocker, with the aforementioned Williams and drummer Dan Southall laying down a powerful and infectious beat behind yet more scintillating guitar work from Day. I would honestly pay the entrance fee just to watch him play, I think he is that good. Between tracks, frontman Hartnell asks the crowd who has seen them before and then says “if we have not met you yet, come find us, just look for the twats in hats”. Maybe, if they ever need a monicker to play a secret gig sometime, they could use that as their pseudonym.

A blistering red hot riff and a rifling drum beat are the cornerstones of ‘Floyd’. A stunning track with some seductive time changes, man these guys can write a tune. It is now getting towards the end of These Wicked Rivers time on stage but they have two more numbers to continue building the great atmosphere inside the venue.

Testify’ starts out with another dazzling Day solo intro that sees him balanced at the front of the stage as he creates more heavenly sounds. Swirling guitars, some scrumptious harmonica from Wilson and some raw, emotive vocals from Hartnell make this plundering number a really memorable moment. It honestly wouldn’t sound out of place in some of those old smoke filled, whiskey drenched bars in the USA’s deep south. There’s a bit of everything, rock, blues, soul and would surely tempt anybody walking past to stop and enter.

The last song of the bands 40-minute set is ‘Don’t Pray For Me’, a towering way to finish that gives Hartnell the perfect vehicle to pour his heart out and into with some blissfully heartfelt and emotive lyrics. Day continues to draw every last sinew out of the six strings in his hands with yet another gorgeously stirring solo. He really does make his guitar speak! What a fantastic set that was, I could have listened and watched them for so much longer and hopefully they will come back to Leo’s at some point and treat us all to a headline set.

After a short break, it was time for tonight’s headline act, all the way from Northern Ireland, Blackwater Conspiracy. Formed in 2015 and with two albums under their belt, in 2017’s ‘Shootin’ The Breeze’ and 2020’s ‘Two Tails & The Dirty Truth Of Love & Revolution’, which reached a high of Number 3 on the Official UK Rock and Metal Album Chart, they have quite literally got the show back on the road post covid and all the lockdowns.

The five piece have already graced the stages of some of the UK’s biggest rock festivals, with performances at Download, Steelhouse and at Ramblin Man in 2017 and again in 2019. I had somehow managed to miss both of their sets at Ramblin Man so was looking forward to breaking my Blackwater Conspiracy duck and taking in first hand what I read and heard about their live performances.

Twin guitars, pummelling drums and some tasty, raspy, gravelly vocals twinned with harmonious backing vocals set the tone early for the delicious 90 minutes that lay ahead. ‘Say Goodbye To Yesterday’ from their 2nd album opened the bands set, like it does the album its from.

To my ear it has a real southern rock swagger to it and set an early high bar to my levels of expectation. From there they went straight into ‘Monday Club’ and more of the same. This is really high-quality stuff. The piano parts from Aaron Connelly, really gives the music a boogie vibe that just makes you want to dance.

The Leo’s crowd are lapping this up, and why not. Here in front of them, on their stage is a band who have whipped up a storm at those big festivals and up and down the country on this tour. John Hartnell said during the These Wicked Rivers set that Blackwater Conspiracy were on fire and he was not wrong, this is just imperious stuff. The crowd raise their glasses stage-wards at the end of that in honour of a blistering opening double salvo.

Waiting On Hollywood’ follows with some delectable piano and a monster Phil Conalane riff to get it going. The dual vocals are just divine on a number that is full of swagger, grit and includes a beautifully rich bluesy guitar solo from lead guitarist Brian Mallon. Drummer Fionn O’ Hagain is providing the perfect beat to every track and with his beard and wavy hair flowing, resembles the Leo’s Red Lion logo that is emblazoned on the wall behind him. Three songs in and I more than impressed I have to say.

Frontman Conalane takes a quick moment to thank These Wicked Rivers for providing the support on the tour, describing them as “good fun, having good banter and playing good music”. The bluesy intro to next track ‘Blackwater Swagger’ is just heavenly. The song itself, which is about their home, Northern Ireland, is a slower paced majestic track but it lacks no less power than the previous numbers and gives frontman Conalane the perfect platform to really give it some welly and make sure those vocal chords are still intact, which he does admirably.

Penny For Your Dirty Mind’ is one of those songs that entices you to fling your arm around your partner, your mate or the random person next to you and just sway. It has a distinctly appealing vibe that you can do nothing but get lost in the moment with. Then there is the solo from lead guitarist Mallon which is quite simply, other worldly. I could wax lyrical about his guitar work for ever and a day. Full of rich tone, subtle touch and celestial sounds it is the stuff that dreams are made of and when you add it to the wonderful work from Arran Day earlier on, you realise that those in attendance have been treated to something really special tonight.

All Wired Wrong’, the first track that Planet Rock played from the bands 2nd album is a real slice of classy 70’s influenced hard rock. It is real hip shaking stuff and the Leo’s faithful are doing just that as the band play this gem of a track that has more than a hint of bar room boogie to it. The 70’s influences that clearly inspire the bands sound really shine through on this impressive track and left me thinking that those connections really give Blackwater Conspiracy a head start when it comes to selling themselves to new crowds and those unfamiliar with their work as you can hear so many great and classic bands in their music.

Soul Revolutionary’ the song the band had included on the NWOCR 2cd set in the summer is up next, complete with yet another succulent meaty riff from Phil Conolane, before ‘Shootin’ The Breeze’ the title track of the bands debut album gets an airing. The song brings a moment of placidity to tonight’s proceedings in a truly serene way. There is a regal quality about the track that is full of hooks, melody and some luscious harmonious vocals that feature 4/5 of the band.

A ravishing slide guitar intro welcomes the hard edged bluesy hard rock of ‘Roll The Dice’. This is just getting better and better for sure. I can’t help but feel that there is a touch of the Bon Scott’s in Conalane’s vocal performance on this number that is as polished as it is raw, and incorporates plenty more piano and boogie time on a number that has a foot controlling beat and goes down exceptionally well with the crowd.

Guitar change time for the frontman and he returns from behind the amplifiers with a stunning red 12 string Epiphone guitar in hand. It is hard not to take your eyes off him and his new weapon of choice as the band perform ‘Take It On The Chin’, a number that reminds me of early Black Crowes. It’s an exquisite number, made all the more appealing by watching Conolane play that magnificent guitar centre stage that just looks so radiant under the Leo’s lighting. A real highpoint of the set for me as it whisked me away to memories of my youth and a time where life seemed so much simpler and carefree. The way the band blend guitars, bass, pianos and drums together is just mind-melting and when you throw their sublime soulful vocal harmonies you get carried along on the crest of the wave the band are creating in font of you.

A subtle piano moment behind a tender vocal welcomes a breath-taking version of ‘In Another Lifetime’. There are yet more of those velvety vocals from the combined trio of Conalane, Mallon and Connelly with the latters’ piano to the forefront throughout. A beautiful, beautiful song, majestic and in many ways mind-blowing that gets a rapturous response from the crowd which is acknowledged by the frontman who says “that is the loudest cheer on tour for that song”. He goes on to thank “everybody for coming out tonight” and clearly has his finger on the crowded gig diary pulse when he says “ I know there are a lot of other things on too”.

Decadent Highway’ takes us back to the ballsy bar room boogie stuff. With such a fantastic vibe running throughout this live performance, you can see why Blackwater Conspiracy are classified as a must see act and how they got invited to those big outdoor festivals. This song is just perfect for standing in a field, on a hot summers day, beer in hand and singing your heart out whilst boogieing on down with some like minded rockers.

We now hit encore time and are treated to not one, not two, but three more magnificent songs. The first is a stripped back version of ‘Bird In A Coalmine’ from the new album. It’s the first song tonight where the frontman has shed himself of his guitar and now stands there with just mic stand in hand. We get a really delicate version of it too as the band supply some simple and subtle backing to what is a truly heartfelt Conalane vocal performance. A performance that sees him open his heart and pour it out through the song to the amassed throng in front of him at Leo’s. Just heavenly!

Asked if they would have the band back again, the crowd give that a resounding thumbs up and I’m sure they all agree with Phil when he says ‘We are on tour again next April, so hopefully Boris will let us come and do our thing”. Hopefully those five men from the Rock Co-Operative also heard it and rebook them after this performance.

The penultimate track is ‘Hanging Tree’, which starts out in a tranquil state before a blast on the skins from drummer ‘O’ Hagain turns this lyrically emotive and thoughtful piece into a more than pleasant rocker that gives lead guitarist Mallon another chance to showcase his mercurial and outstanding talents. There is plenty of audience participation too, on a song that ebbs and flows from quiet to loud and slow to fast but never loses any of its grace or warmth.

That’s it then, we have reached the final song of the night. The band have left the radio friendly rocker ’85 Rockstar’ to close out proceedings. A big organ intro from Connelly and some Conalane inspired clapping make sure things are going to finish with a bang.

The track sums up perfectly what Blackwater Conspiracy, the live band are about as it makes sure everybody is having a dance, a sing, clapping along, whatever is their chosen pastime. It takes four attempts but finally the hardworking frontman gets the crowd singing as one at the volume he wants and makes sure that ’85 Rockstar’ gives the band a suitable send off after a rollicking great night of monumental live music.

After all that I had one line in my head, “Live fast, leave something beautiful”. In many ways that is exactly what Blackwater Conspiracy did tonight as they rolled in to town and put on a stellar 90 minute performance that had finished in the blink of an eye but left an oh so sweet taste in the mouth and the Gravesend air swathed in the serene and luxurious music that had been flowing out into it.

I really hope that both these bands return to Leo’s in 2022 as it will guarantee some more nights of devastatingly spectacular live music in Gravesend. For now though I will relish the memories of another Rock Co-Operative hosted night of live music and look forward to the next outing from our intrepid Kent superheroes.

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