42 min read

Review & Photography by Manny Manson for MPM

Jumping in the motor and heading off to Wolverhampton again this afternoon fills me with a sense of excitement yet again.

Since deciding to venture a bit further afield to cover gigs, and not be restricted to my local, although, great venues, I’ve discovered a Gem of a place in the middle of Kipper Tie country. I now look and see if a band is playing locally in one of the small venues and then see if it’s playing KK’s if it is then that is now my destination of choice.

Tonight, is an exception as the headline band are only playing a select few UK venues. They’re aren’t venturing anywhere near my beloved Rock City so into the West Mid’s I travel.

The hateful M6 never lets you down, no sooner have I joined this snake of a carpark, yes, we’re at a standstill. This happened several times on the 17mile section I have to cover. I’m glad I’m picking an old ‘tog’ mate up as I bail off the motorway earlier than usual.

Collection made we sit in the car as the heavens opens, we’re sat just up from the venue but we can hear the sound check underway.

With 30minutes until doors we head off in the drizzle, bloody UK weather at its finest. To top it off, while writing this up, I’ve just taken a swill of my cup of tea to find the bag had split and I’ve now got a mouth full of tea leaves, oh my life!

A brief wait in the rain and we’re in. Rich Tice Taylor has sent me a copy of the set times for tonight, I see we have three bands not just the two I thought previously. Grabbing our passes as quickly as possible we dart into the venue to be held back by security as a sound check finishes, crikey, it’s going to be a loud one. I recognise the guitarist on stage as ‘Bucket’ Fantastic the guys a legend and a good mate of a mutual friend of both Waldorf and Myself.

‘Tice’ rolls back the barricade and lets us in. We’re like the start of the grand national, we race to get on the crush barrier. Tonight, we have to shoot from the crowd as the ‘pit’ is reserved for video cameras and the great John McMurtrie, photographer to the great Iron Maiden and Babymetal amongst other. A great photographer and It has to be said, very accommodating to us ‘lesser’ togs in the crowd.

Right so up first we have Buckets Rebel Heart. Bucket has been around for a number of years and has played with the greats. His resume says he’s played on 7 Bad Company albums, toured with them for 14 years, as well as playing with Frankie Millers Full House and Humble Pie to name a few. A formidable guitarist with a great CV.

20 Good Summers is Bucket’s second album and one he has said should have been written 35 years ago with his long-standing friend and drummer, Paul ‘Taff” Edwards, the album was recorded in various locations but finally mixed in Nashville. It was released in March 2018.

Opening with the title track ‘20 Good Summers’ we are greeted with tune that seems like we’ve known it for years. A steady melodic beat from the drums allows Paul Manzi to deliver a controlled lyric as Bucket delivers a steady grinding solo, this drops into ‘The Bridge’ which again feels like a well-worn pair of slippers, keys rattle through the intro as the bass thumps from smiling ex Quireboys Dave Boyce, iLO is solid on backing vocals standing between keys and Dave on bass.

This tune has a country feel but without the twang, a solid ballad type tune that leads into a vocal from iLO that brings back memories of Floyds ‘great gig in the sky.

The B-side to Iron Maidens ‘Wasted Years’ single, written by ‘Bucket’ gets an airing tonight, a great idea as the ‘A’ side gets a visit too. With its riffing intro, bucket leads the crowd as the song builds full of promise.

This American style tune is not what you’d imagine Iron Maiden to perform, but it was sung by Adrian Smith with Bruce on BV’s. A pleasant departure, and a respectful version to the original that surprisingly goes down well with the crowd.

It’s a short set finished off with the rousing Whiskeyland. This tune is full of down and dirty guitar riffs and has to be my song of the set.

A prominent driving bassline pushes the tune along. Guitar screaming as Manzi’s vocal oozes around the melody as ‘Love takes you by the hand and back to Whiskeyland’.

Buckets solo is the man on form full of highs and lows, harmonised picking as this tune gets the full treatment, Manzi holds the last word showboating why he is the man behind early Cats in Space and ‘The Sweet’.

Set list: 20 Good Summers, The Bridge, Chasing Satellites, St Jude, Reach Out, Time Served, Whiskeyland.

N.W.O.C.R. The Dust Coda take over from where Buckets Rebel Heart left off. John Drake stands confident behind the mic as the band kick off with ‘The More It Fades’ with a grooving bass line from Tony Ho and a screaming LP Gold Top on stage left having its neck wrung by Adam Mackie stands way over on stage left, he has a large area to himself now the previous bands drum kit has gone.

He makes full use of the space. ‘Let Me Go’ and ‘Breakdown’ follow. Full of driving drums and percussive snare flams, the vocals are on point as Drake continues to deliver a striking vocal which is matched by the guitar, dark and brooding of Mackie.

‘Sweet Love is Gone’ starts with what sounds like a noodle from Mackie, Drake has guitar aside as he prepares to sing this great tune, his voice is full of expressive angst as he starts. Falsetto voice kicks in as he grabs the microphone, free arm expressive as it waves around.

The band join in as he continues with a stunning performance, the band allowing the vocal performance to dominate and rightly so, it’s tight and on point. Mackie’s solo is durty! The Gold Top is hanging low, striking the strings at his knee as he rocks out a steady solo.

The tune continues to build to the point it stops and Drake carries on, in falsetto ‘Sweet love is Gone’ to finish this stunning track and my set favourite.

‘Best Believe’, a faster track full of grit and determination is next with its slight Zep edge to it. The lights are going over time as they flash and swirl in the eyes of the gathered crowd of just over 1000 who don’t seem to mind as they are rocking along to the band. We have hair flying everywhere from Ho on his 5 string Bass, he’s used most of them tonight.

Scott Miller on drums has had a solid night too, as this song lets him cut loose, the smile on his face showing he’s in the pocket and driving the song with a powerhouse performance again. The song soars as it builds to an ultimate guitar furry final stop at which point, drummer, Miller is up on his feet, arms outstretched as he soaks up the cheers from the crowd. A great track.

‘Limbo Man’ closes their brief set, this is a heavier more brutal tune, guitars are crunching in over time, a walking drum beat pushes the song along, a dirty sleazy lead guitar is being held high by Mackie, he’s strumming the strings on the neck as the body hangs around his knees, he sticks his tongue out at Drake as they banter and the guitar builds, Drakes vocal screams over the solo as they all jam out front of the stage, the crowd are enjoying this as they cheer over the crash cymbals that finish the song off.

Set List: The More It Fades, Let Me Go, Breakdown, Sweet Love Is Gone, Best Believe It, Limbo Man.

Adrian Smith and Ritchie Kotzen have put a little something together back in March 2021 with the release of their first Smith/Kotzen album. This was quickly followed by a 4 track EP, known as ‘Better Days’ released in the November of the same year. Now we have restrictions a lot more relaxed we see the band venturing from the States to Blighty to show what the fuss is about. The set consists of the album and the EP with a couple thrown in from their individual, formidable, back catalogues.

Tonight, is the 10th live show that the band have performed. To complete the line-up, we have Ritchie’s wife of 5 years, Julia Lage on Bass duties, Julia has been seen taking over the bass duties in girl band Vixen. And new to me, a young-looking Bruno Valverde on drums who completes the four piece.

Opening with ‘Taking My Chances’ we have a solid guitar start, Smith is sporting a hat which I’m informed stays on for the entire set and a loose red scarf, A Charvel guitar, naturally hangs from his strap. He opens the singing with a surprisingly strong voice, Kotzen then takes over with his dirtier, rougher vocal, standing stage left he is close to the mic as he sing’s he finger pics the melody on his Fender Telecaster, his white Victory amp stack towering behind.

The solo see’s Smith move to stage front and centre as he delivers a classic Maiden style solo performance, this is followed by Kotzen with his finger picking style. They both play to the tour photographer who, apart from the two video camera guys, is still the only one in the pit tonight.

‘Better Days’ follows from the November EP. Again, this is kicked off with Smith on vocals. He eventually joins Lage, who’s face is beaming, for a quick ZZ Shuffle in front of the drums, as Kotzen rips out a classic Kotzen style solo and then it’s back to vocals.

Young looking Valverde on the kit is doing a great job as he thumps his way along while Kotzen, again, shows his ability on the guitar, a tasteful jazz inspired solo which brings them back to the chorus, and then Smith is away again wringing the white Charvel’s neck as they trades riffs back and forth. The two queue each other into the final note, Smith pouting and kicking he kicks his foot into the air as he does so. The crowd are ecstatic as the tune finishes.

Smith introduces ‘Some People’ with its dark drum beat and brooding bass line. Kotzen starts this one as Smith rocks back and forth, Julia is dancing around with the bass, mouthing the words as she flings her hair and smiles through bright red lips! The bass is solid and hits you square in the chest.

Bruno is knocking out some great patterns on the kit as the two guitars fly and soar around each other. With frequent looks and smiles at each other its clear that the band are having a riot on stage. ‘Glory Road’ is introduced as someone who seeks fame and fortune.

Smith’s Green Charvel cuts in on rhythm as Kotzen dances around it on his tobacco burst telecaster, he’s close to the mic as he delivers the simple vocal. Smith is dancing around clearly enjoying the tune, he again is dad dancing with the stunning Julia Lage, in front of her Ampeg Bass Stack which is thumping hard.

The guitars trade lead lines back and forth as they again play to their tog in the pit. Smith ventures to far stage right and plays to the crowd as Kotzen does the same to the left for his phrase. The two meet in the middle to finish the tune off to great cheers.

The dirty rocking ‘You Don’t Know Me’ has a gritty guitar intro as, eventually, the band join in. A soaring guitar line draws you in deeper as the vocal unfolds into this classic rock tune. Smith’s voice is on point as Kotzen joins in with his higher pitched voice they harmonise subtly as the guitars scream along like a pair of hell hounds waiting to be unleashed. Bruno on drums, smashes on the bell of the ride cymbal which chimes out like a warning sign of things to come.

This tune cruises through with a familiarity that I can’t put a finger on, but never mind this is another great tune that has followed the similar recipe, as it changes its tempo and switches back and forth between them both. It gallops along, the bass is thumping as, eventually the hell hounds are let loose with a somewhat restrained solo which, is again shared between Kotzen and Smith on this slightly longer than normal track. Lovely!

‘Hate and Love’ starts off with a nod to Bruno and a steady drum beat fires up, again joined with a tight bass from Lage. Kotzen, is riffing away, as they again share the vocals duties. Smith has a great set of pipes on him, as finishes his line and starts marching around the stage again, before they both sing the chorus

Lage is knee bending, head shaking and cracking solid basslines tied in solidly to the drum beat, she and Kotzen come together smiling as Smith is in the zone, arching back we can see his face under the hat he’s worn all tour. Bruno’s head is nodding as he keeps excellent time. Kotzen encourages the crowd before he drops in some scat over the guitar line.

(scat is nonsense improvisation syllables sung by the singer to try and sound like a musical instrument). Lage is in front of the drum riser marching on the spot. The song builds with Kotzen ripping a scorching solo as the crowd nod and cheer in approval, sadly a lot of folk are watching through their phones!

‘I Wanna Stay’ starts off with a melodic guitar riff from Smith that’s joined by Kotzen’s Tele, the song grinds slowly forward, sung harmonies tell of ‘another Time’ and ‘she walked away’ which has a solid southern rock flare to it.

The song swells as the voices swap about. Smith’s vocal is spot on for this tune of lost love. This slow ballad builds to a finger picked solo from Kotzen and then gets darker and heavier as Smith gives it a dusting down with a dynamic run on his Charvel, Lage has come forward and is lent over watching his fingers on the neck as he does so, it’s restrained and in keeping with the sentiment of the song.

The two guitars then stand centre stage as they trade licks back and forth, Kotzen stands back as he visits the dirty end, jerking the neck to get the note as he does so. The song screams with emotion, another great tune, we’ve yet to hear a bad one it has to be said.

This great song leads us in to ‘Til Tomorrow’ with its chanting from Smith and middle eastern style vibe that, again sounds comfortable in its delivery calls out. Bruno with his hair flopped over his eyes is in the pocket as Kotzen noodles a few squealing notes as this song romps along into yet another epic solo from Smith who leans himself against Kotzen who takes the baton with a smile and returns the favour with a howling lead, He watches Smith, contently as he lets rip and with several hip thrusts on the guitar just to make sure he gets that note once again, the song screams to a halt, a great finish to the song.

‘Scars’ is next and is introduced as being about the one that got away. Smith taking the vocals, as Kotzen’s guitar has an almost 12 string edge to it chimes along, this which stops as Kotzen sings. Again, we’re treated to a southern rock type of vibe as these two deliver a powerful performance on this already fan favourite. I put my notes down as I get swept along with the performance. Awesome.

Alcohol driven ‘Got A Hold on Me’ picks the pace up again, solid drum work on the toms from Bruno propels this hard-hitting classic rock tune along. Guitars riffing as they again trade vocal licks. Crash cymbals ring out and the hi hat sizzles as Bruno marks time, the descending lead riff by Smith is followed by some deft finger work from Kotzen as the song screams along, Lage’s bass is bouncing hard as Smith drops an in yet another epic solo, arching his back and screaming out loud as he lets rip, the crowd cheer as he rocks out old school style, holding his pic hand high above his head in defiance as the note decays, Kotzen suddenly catches the crowd with an impromptu squeal from his axe to bring everyone back as they end the song together.

‘Rise Again’ is the penultimate song on the set list. This again sees a classic rock beat driving out from Bruno, smashing you firmly in the face the three guitars are in front of the drums as the song starts. A slightly jazz fusion leads into Smiths almost spoken vocal as Kotzen and his wife exchange glances and playful taunt each other. The distorted guitar has an almost choked sound to it, the melody has an almost Satriani type fusion feel to it as it rises and falls. With guitar held high by Smith its all brought to an end amidst cheers from the crowd.

The final song is the one everyone’s been waiting for so far, well the ones that haven’t seen a copy of the previous set lists. ‘Solar Flare’ brings the set to a close. Smith asking for hands as Kotzen is driving the rocking tune before hitting the vocals hard. With a backline galloping along Smith takes over the vocal and the song hits the chorus, Smith is off dad dancing robotically as he plays second fiddle to Ritchie’s deft finger work as it screams out, the side of his thumb must be on fire! Smiths solo rips your head of as Kotzen takes over, his finger tapping on the neck makes sure you head stays against the back wall.

The two join up in the middle and riff back n forth, Smith then wanders the stage clapping right before Bruno takes a trip around the kit, Ooosh the kid is hot! As again the guys trade back and forth. Julia is stood at the back with one foot resting on the riser as she watches these two smoking guitarists who are on fire, guitars are screaming like their lives depend on it. Kotzen’s fingers are smoking as he counts the ending in. The crowd are screaming and whistling before the song has stopped.

With screams and cheers the band exit stage left. The cheering continues until Ritchie comes back on stage and picks up his axe. A slow steady picking rings out as he softly sings into the mic, with eyes closed he pics up the pace and the drums and bass join in we have ‘You Can’t Save Me’ from Ritchie’s 2006 album Into the Black.

The crowd are respectfully quiet as this song rings out. Full of highs and lows the steady kick drum beating like a clock keeps time on this stunning Kotzen classic. A stunning emotive song smashes the crowd, a great choice as the screams mark the demise of this beauty.

It segues nicely with the following song, yes Smith is there head down riffing the opening too ‘Wasted Years’ Nico is channelling through young Bruno and Murray is finger style on a telecaster. The crowd are singing along to the hook as Lage’s bass seems to have been turned up to 11 by an invisible Steve Harris, its full of clanking Harris as it cuts through the mix.

The descending bass run is on the money as Smith and Kotzen stand together prior to Smith going stratospheric, Jesus! this is the best Maiden Cover band out there, Ritchie Kotzen is smiling as his friend rocks out and at the crowd going nuts.

Smiths slow arpeggio picking brings the song to a crushing finish, his guitar is held Harris machine gun style as he sweeps the crowd, making sure the togs get their picture. The temperature in the room has gone off the scale after that little number.

The final song of the night falls to ‘Running’. This is heralded as the first song the pair wrote together so a fitting nod to it as being the final song on the set. Again, this follows a quick mention about the pair making another record.

Thank the lord. Crashing drums and a strong driving riff see’s the pair trading vocals back and forth. ‘In the End I Guess I’m Running, Yeah I’m Running from Myself’ It’s sang by the gathered crowd stood around me. We have some solid fans in tonight as this tune crunches along, guitar lines swapping back and forth tastefully.

Bruno is smashing the hell out of his kit, his hair hanging in front of his face as Smith rips out a fat sounding solo, Lage and Kotzen look on smiling as this gun slinger stamps the ending on this epic song.

The band thank the crowd as they form up in a line and take a bow. The fans want more but sadly that’s our lot and the band exit the stage. Within minutes the security are ushering us out of the venue so they can get cleared up. It’s been a most excellent of nights, classic style rock played hard and fast as it should be, in what’s become one of the must play venues on the circuit.

Listening to the fans as we leave, full of excitement and expletives as to how good the nights been, and what a stunning set they played; I hear one old sage mention that he’d of liked it a lot more if they hadn’t of swapped singing duties mid song so often, I kind of get what he meant and maybe that’s something they’ll do on the next outing, who knows. I for one loved the dynamic and band chemistry and thoroughly enjoyed the event, I leave knowing I’ve just witnessed the gig to beat this year!

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