Home Gigs Gig Review: The Black Crowes with Reef: O2 Apollo, Manchester.

Gig Review: The Black Crowes with Reef: O2 Apollo, Manchester.

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Review by Pete Finn for MPM

This being a Saturday means I don’t have to bunk off work early for the trip to Manchester, it also means we’re not clock watching and leaving in plenty of time.

It’s good to be reunited with MPM Tog and fellow ‘Old Muppet’ Statler Manson, he has been carrying the baton gig-wise, whilst I have been working hard at reducing the Guinness stock levels in Dublin. Manny is in charge of the driving as always, as he points our tour bus north.

Having been here before, I’m also looking forward to a pre-gig pint at The Apsley Cottage, a fabulous old-fashioned boozer next to the venue, where the gig goers meet up beforehand talking rock and previous tours.

After an uneventful drive to the venue, with the exception of the last 5 miles down the A6 just before the venue, a road full of ‘Boy Racer’s’ in BMW’s overtaking by weaving either side of the traffic, the amazing amount of random ‘U’ turners and pedestrians in a live version of ‘Frogger’ crossing the road, thankfully, Manny’s reactions were on par with those of a Formula 1 driver. We park up and head to The Apsley Cottage.

Tonight’s show is another pandemic postponement, it should have been in October 2020, as The Black Crowes celebrate the 30th birthday of their debut album ‘Shake Your Money Maker’. Special guests tonight are Reef, who themselves will be celebrating their 30th birthday next year.

The lady in the box office and the security team were swift and efficient and we’re in. Inside the 3500 capacity Grade II listed building, is an old-style music hall, it has a good slope on the floor down towards the stage, giving everyone a good view, there are crush barriers half way down, and includes a nice sized raised wheelchair viewing platform.

The balcony is all seated with some original features still on display, this is where I’ll be watching the show, I’ve got a great view, the stage has an arcing front, the band have their monitors about 10 feet back. I look around and see lots of people clutching their newly purchased merch, and the demographic of the audience tells me I’m unlikely to see any circle pits or crowd surfers tonight.

Reef were formed during 1993 in Street, a large village that sits two miles away from Glastonbury in Somerset. The band consists of original members Gary Stringer (vocals, acoustic guitar, tambourine) and Jack Bessant (bass guitar, acoustic guitar, keyboard, backing vocals) along with Jesse Wood (guitar), Amy Newton (guitar) and Luke Bullen (drums).

They have released six albums with their debut ‘Replenish’ released in 1995 and the most recent ‘Shoot Me Your Ace’ earlier this year. Their first three albums all reached the Top 10 in the UK, with ‘Glow’ reaching Number 1 in 1997.

The lights go out, and a good cheer welcomes Reef to the stage. The opening track tonight is ‘Shoot Me Your Ace’, which is also the opening and title track from the new album. Gary Stringer’s vocal is instantly recognisable, the track is heavy, the monstrous bass shaking this old building.

Stringer comes out past the line of monitors to the front of the stage, but, it’s almost impossible to see him as no lighting is directed at the front. The track continues with heavy riffs and crushing drums. Gary Stringer holds the final note. What a way to announce yourselves on stage, brilliant.

The stage lighting glows red, Manny will have his work cut out tonight. ‘Stone for Your Love’ was not on a studio album, but was released as part of the ‘93/03 Box Set’ in 2012. Luke Bullen’s drums start, Stringer tambourine in hand is crouched down. It’s slower and steady, but still with a hard driving beat, it has a bit of The Who about it. Amy Newton is headbanging along as Jack Bessant is holding his bass guitar high above his head. A great cheer meets the track finish as Stringer thanks the Manchester audience for their applause.

Stringer has removed his lumberjack shirt/jacket off, but is still wearing the baseball cap. Taken from the 1995 album ‘Replenish’, next we get ‘Naked’. Naked was also the original name of Reef before their record label asked them to change it. A dirty funk/soul beat throughout, a song driven by Stringer’s vocal. Jesse Wood produces a sleazy solo that makes you want more. Stringer’s mic stand must have a ‘Weeble’ bottom, no matter how much he pushes it around it doesn’t tip over, as the track closes the final beats are met by air punches from Stringer.

‘I Would Have Left You’ is from the 1997 Number 1 album ‘Glow’, Gary Stringer is at the stage front, again in near darkness. This has a real 90’s sound to it, and it’s sounding brilliant. Slow and heavy with the jangling guitar of the era. Jack Bessant is slapping the bass strings, as Bullen’s fast/slow drums keep the track moody and dirty. Stringer is prowling and dancing around the stage as he gets the Apollo crowd cheering. Bessant and Newton rocking out together, the track finishes with Stringer crouched down in front of the drum kit.

The iconic ‘Place Your Hands’ from ‘Glow’ is next. Gary Stringer is serenading the crowd. Everyone in here knows the words and are singing them with enthusiasm. As we reach the chorus, the crowd are ‘putting their hands on’, it’s a fabulous spectacle. Jesse Wood delivers a squealing solo, it’s sounding fantastic. At the end Gary Stringer takes a photo of the audience.

After the previous classic, we leap forward, ‘Precious Metal’ is taken from 2018’s ‘Revelation’, this is a track that has many elements of styles and sounds, it draws you in, you’re waiting to see which way it turns next. Heavy beats, funk beats, chanting lyrics, harmonies and crashing guitars. The spinning lights above the band, give the impression of a Sci-Fi film teleporter. The band are sounding great, their performance tight. The finish is spot on.

Stringer comes to the front of stage darkness again, “Thank you, it’s great to be back in this fine city, are you excited about The Black Crowes?”. The Apollo’s response is deafening.

‘Lucky Number’ was not released on a studio album, but, was on the 2003 ‘Together’ Greatest Hits compilation. It starts slower, Stringer’s vocal is direct and softer. Amy Newton crashes out a solo. The sound is velvety smooth.

We go back to ‘Glow’ for ‘Don’t You Like It?’, Jesse Wood plays a strong circular riff, Stringer is growling again as he shakes his tambourine. Jack Bessant is hopping as he smacks his bass, he stops and has his foot up on the monitor with his bass around his ankle. Stringer is shouting like an angry parent “Hey You, get over here”. Jesse Wood is smashing out the solo as Stringer is now in the pit, and up on the barrier. This is awesome. Jack Bessant is kneeling facing his amp. The response from the crowd at the end indicates they are of the same opinion.

Another favourite from 1999’s ‘Rides’ is next, it’s ‘New Bird’. It’s starts as Jesse Wood crashes out a heavy riff, Stringer joins in narrating his lyrics. The mid-section has a solo from Bessant that shakes your fillings, the rest of the band join in as the Apollo is subjected to an explosion of sound.

The final track of what has been an awesome but, far too short set, is not surprisingly taken from the Number 1 album ‘Glow’. It could be mine and Manny’s theme tune, it’s ‘Yer Old’. The jangling guitar has Manchester on their toes bouncing and punching the air. Gary Stringer is firing out the lyrics as he calls for hands and claps, the rhythm sections beats giving them momentum. The track is full of power.

The band finish to a wall of cheers and whistling, they take a bow and leave the stage. It’s been a cracking set and I loved it.

It’s been a while since I last saw Reef, I make a note for myself not to leave it as long next time. I’ve been missing out. Their sound was amazing, it was just a shame about the front of stage lighting.

Setlist: Shoot Me Your Ace, Stone for Your Love, Naked, I Would Have Left You, Place Your Hands, Precious Metal, Lucky Number, Don’t You Like it? New Bird, Yer Old.

The crews are on and start swapping the stage over.

The Black Crowes were formed in 1989, they are an American blues and Southern rock band that draws huge comparisons with the Rolling Stones and the Faces, coming from Atlanta, Georgia.

Originally formed under the name Mr. Crowe’s Garden in 1984, the earliest incarnation took influence from local act R.E.M, 1960’s psychedelia, and classic rock. Though the band had undergone many changes over its history, brothers Chris and Rich Robinson have remained at the core of The Black Crowes sound. In 1989 following a successful demo the band signed to the Def American label, who issued The Black Crowes’ debut album ‘Shake Your Money Maker’ in 1990.

The current band line-up includes Chris Robinson (lead vocals), Rich Robinson (guitar, backing vocals) and Sven Pipien (bass). On tour they have with them Brian Griffin (drums), Isaiah Mitchell (guitar) and Erik Deutsch (keyboards), also on backing vocals are Mackenzie Adams and Leslie Grant.

The house lights go out, a few seconds later the stage is illuminated, it’s a bar scene, the band are stood at the bar being served by a smartly dressed bartender, a girl walks over to the Wurlitzer jukebox and selects a tune, it’s Elmore James’ 1961 song ‘Shake Your Moneymaker” …

The band take up their positions, Rich Robinson walks out, shortly followed by brother Chris, he’s wearing a silver jacket, humbug striped socks, a hat and carrying an umbrella. The guitar riff intro is for ‘Twice as Hard’, the opening track of the set. The beat is steady with a fabulous chugging blues riff bouncing underneath. Chris Robinson’s vocals crystal clear and razor sharp. The heads are nodding, Isaiah Mitchell’s guitar sounding rich and dirty. Chris is doing the ‘Monster Mash’ dance, the band build to a big heavy finish. Wow! Manchester Apollo goes bonkers.

“It’s Saturday night, let’s rock n’ roll!” screams Chris. A quicker tempo brings the sounds of ‘Jealous Again’ reverberating around the room. Chris Robinson is bouncing as much as the balcony that I’m sat on. The piano like keys from Erik Deutsch standing out. There are some great melody changes that keep’s the song fresh in the ears. The Robinson brothers duet into Chris’ microphone, Isaiah Mitchell is bending his guitar strings.

“It’s nice to see everyone at a Shake Your Moneymaker rock n’ roll show”, says a grinning Chris. Rich Robinson’s guitar announces the arrival of ‘Sister Luck’, brother Chris lyrics are reflective in mood, careful and precise. There’s a feel of real emotion. The bouncing and nodding crowd has calmed, they are now swaying in time with singers Adams and Grant as their vocals add depth. The guitar solo from Mitchell is rich and full, the sound of the band is all encompassing as it swirls around, caressing the senses.

Chris Robinson tells us the next song is about the “trials and tribulations of young rock n’ rollers”, it’s ‘Could I’ve Been So Blind’, Brian Griffin’s drum beat is prominent and hard, the famous cartoon crows on the bass drum appear to be nodding in time, the keys of Erik Deutsch have a rock ‘n’ roll feel. The guitars of Mitchell and Robinson are pure classic rock, growling and powerful. Sven Pipien’s bass steering the track perfectly.

Chris, centre stage tell us, “Saturday night is wasted unless you wake up feeling shit, after a good night out, the next song is about waking up with blurry eyes.” The slower, and ballad like ‘Seeing Things’ is next. A gentle and delicate beat with Chris Robinsons spoken lyrics. The guitars are subtle carrying the vocals through the track. The keys of Erik Deutsch producing a rich Hammond organ sound. The stage awash with bright white light. The track leads into a big anthemic finish. A cracking track to listen to in a darken room, relaxing in your chair. Soothing, but full of passion. The crowd around me on the balcony are on their feet cheering.

Next, is arguably the most famous track on the album, the cover of Otis Redding’s 1968 song ‘Hard to Handle’. The intro brings the hairs on the back of your neck to attention. The rock/funk track is legendary, the crowd are bouncing. This track has swagger and presence, everyone in here is singing along, including myself as Chris Robinson has his microphone held high pointing at the crowd. The room has just exploded.

“This is a rock n’ roll show, so let’s rock”, demands Chris. The Quo/rock ‘n’ roll combo of ‘Thick n’ Thin’ is our next treat, this gets everyone bouncing again instantly. Quick beats, riffs and vocals, pure energy and great fun. If it wasn’t so packed in here, I’m sure most of the crowd would be jiving along.

We gather our breath, as Rich Robinson’s gentle strumming of his acoustic guitar starts ‘She Talks to Angels’. Chris’ vocals slower and emotional. The band behind producing a full supportive sound. Mitchell is stroking the licks and riffs from his guitar, Griffin’s metronome beats keeping perfect time. This track receives a massive around of applause on its conclusion.

I look to the back of the stage, the bartender is his powder blue jacket and black bow tie is still cleaning the glasses, alert and ready to serve.

Up next, it’s ‘Struttin’ Blues’ a good old fashioned prog sound from Erik Deutsch’s keyboards, a pumping beat from Pipien and Griffin, with chugging riffs and squealing lead breaks from the dual guitars of Rich Robinson and Isaiah Mitchell, topped off with Chris Robinson’s rasping lyrics, this has all the finest ingredients, which results in an absolutely belting track. There’s a heavy jam outro.

The southern blues sounds of ‘Stare It Cold’ are next. I’m not quite sure if this is classed as the last track on the album, I have a version that has ‘Don’t Wake Me’, there is one with “hidden” tracks ‘Live Too Fast Blues/Mercy, Sweet Moan’ amongst others. No matter, this is a foot stomping boogie of a track. Quick beats, fast riffs and slide guitar complimented with rapid keys. The Apollo is jumping.

At the end and over the noise of the cheers, Chris Robinson says, “Ladies and Gentlemen, that was Shake Your Moneymaker.” The Manchester Apollo erupts again.

We move away from ‘Shake Your Money Maker’ to ‘My Morning Song’ which is from the 1992 album ‘The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion’. The stage floor looks like it’s covered in soap suds. The band walk to their respective mics in a line. This is a heavy track, the ladies on backing vocals exercising their lungs as they join in. Mitchell rips out a solo, before the guitars take on a more jangly sound. Chris Robinson is dancing in front of the drum riser as the band rock out. That was epic.

Next, from the 1999 album ‘By Your Side’ is ‘Kickin’ My Heart Around’ this is a cross between heavy rock and rock n’ roll, combining the best elements of both genres. This is banging. Rich Robinson fires out a solo, Chris Robinson has his harmonica out. Another Rich Robinson solo leads us to the outro. Brilliant energy.

We continue to ease our way back along The Black Crowes timeline, we arrive at 1994 for ‘Wiser Time’ which is off the ‘Amorica’ release. It’s more laid-back blues with some nicely joined guitar licks, the gaps in the beats are filled with Chris Robinson’s lyrics bonding the track together. Griffin is tickling the cowbell and hi-hat, Erik Deutsch’s piano sounds clear and crisp as Mitchell once again is bending his guitar strings. The track finishes as Rich Robinson and Isaiah Mitchell tag-team guitar solos.

Chris Robinson then introduces the band to us, each getting a great cheer of appreciation. Including, the bartender who he introduced as ‘The Love Boat’s, Isaac Washington.

Another track from ‘The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion’ album is ‘Thorn in My Pride’. It starts with gentle strumming and soft drum beats, the vocal is moody, gradually the tempo builds as the other instruments join in, the track evolves and gets heavier in the middle, with a big Rich Robinson solo. Adams and Grant their harmonies tying things together. We get a great jam session, and each band member performs a brief solo. Chris Robinson has the harmonica out again, then the track slows as it glides to a finish. The crowd are on their feet again, wildly cheering and clapping.

When the crowd hear the first note there is a huge cheer, an obvious favourite. Staying with the previous album we have ‘Remedy’. This is pure Black Crowes, clever lyrics and a variety of intricate individual notes sewn together to produce a welcoming comfort blanket. Chris Robinson is twirling his mic stand and dancing. This is a great track and it leads to a big finish. The cheer is that loud, they would have heard it across the city in the Manchester Arena where the Heavyweight Title Fight was taking place.

The band thank the crowd who are cheering and whistling their appreciation and leave the stage flicking picks into the crowd.

This time it feels like we’re waiting ages for the band to return, maybe, a sign of how much I’ve enjoyed it. The encore is dedicated by Chris to the bands hailing from Manchester, it’s the suitably titled ‘Rock n’ Roll’, a cover from the 1970 Velvet Underground album ‘Loaded’. Again, it’s bouncy and upbeat, the crowd are dancing and swaying, Mitchell fires out his final solo of the evening. The sounds build towards the big crescendo of a finish. Chris Robinson has put his hat back on as he applauds the crowd, the band fist pump and hug each other before lining up and waving to the audience as they leave the stage.

It’s been an absolute belter of a night, with two great bands who’ve put on a fantastic show, well worth the trip to Manchester, including that heart stopping thrill ride down the A6.

Setlist: Twice as Hard, Jealous Again, Sister Luck, Could I’ve Been So Blind, Seeing Things, Hard to Handle, Thick n’ Thin, She Talks to Angels, Struttin’ Blues, Stare It Cold, My Morning Song, Kickin’ My Heart Around, Wiser Time, Thorn in My Pride, Remedy, Rock ‘n Roll.

Photography by Manny Manson for MPM

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