Review by Gary Spiller for MPM
Out on the icy streets a brumal wind cuts with a razor-sharp kukri-like keenness. Under the glitzy shimmer of the festive illuminations hordes of shoppers swarm the plentiful shops homing in upon their desired. Slipping down into the otherworldly magical environs of the cobblestoned Gandy Street we head towards Exeter’s Phoenix venue.
Looking down, from its perch, upon the vibrant vista of colourful doorways and windows bursting with kaleidoscopes of warming light the Phoenix, one of Exeter’s premium venues, casts an inspiring presence. This evening the keys are handed over to legendary heritage rockers The Sweet who have headed into town with their Unlock The Rock Tour.
The heady, lofty days of the 70s might be fading in the rear-view mirror but this is a band who rightfully have garnered affection and are rightfully regarded as a national treasure. Under the guidance of Andy Scott, sole remaining member of the ‘classic’ line-up, The Sweet has endured to ensure that the rich legacy lives on in the 21st Century.
It’s a tour that kicked off a couple of weeks prior in Newcastle and has trucked up and down the length of England and Scotland before hurtling into the Westcountry. A veritable blitz of hitz.
Whilst The Sweet are, it’s fair to say, in the twilight of their rock n’ roll career they appear to have their finger upon the pulse of the current underground scene. This evening they have invited the highly exciting and extremely conflagrant talents of Kira Mac to share the stage with them.
This is a band that exploded into the public eye this summer. Festival appearances at the likes of Steelhouse and Rock & Blues Custom catapulted them into the spotlight. Labelled as ones to watch their highly flammable cross-over of countrified blues and Southern rock ignited stages as they celebrated the release of their highly exalted debut album ‘Chaos Is Calling’ with a nationwide headline tour in November.
“Normally there’s five of us” notes Kira as she perches on her stool alongside her guitarist and song-writing partner Joe Worrall. It’s a stripped back acoustic affair tonight “When The Sweet come asking you to do an acoustic set you don’t say no” the Stoke-born songstress adds.
Their half-hour set is perfectly bookended with two covers that bare the soul of the song writing and craft possessed herein. A sublime rendition of wild horse Warren Zeiders’ snarling ‘Ride The Lightning’ kicks off matters. The powerfully delivered lyrics “I was born on the wild side” are certainly defining on a personal level.
An enthralling set-ending cover of Chris Stapleton’s collaboration with Justin Timberlake ‘Say Something’ breaths sparks into the night skies whilst in-between Kira entwines the associated stories of tracks that both made the cut for their debut album and those that were pipped at the line.
“We’ve normally got everything turned up to eleven” explains Kira as she relates the experiences of recording in Liverpool and winding up with two tracks entitled ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Imagine.’
The former, a rarefied Eagles-fringed country ballad, became ‘Robyn’s Song,’ delivered with touches of Extreme and Skid Row, somehow didn’t quite make it. The latter did so, expanding its title to ‘Imagine What We Could’ve Been.’ This particular rocket queen roars out of the heartlands even its acoustic form.
The bourbon swigging ‘Hellfire & Holy Water’ burns an eternal whisky-drenched flame. “This one gives Dave a lot of ‘grief’ as Layla (his granddaughter) sings this at the top of her voice” jokes Kira spotting a couple of familiar faces near the front.
However mid-song Kira, spotting someone in medical distress in the crowd, halts the track and gets the houselights swiftly on. Not only does this beautiful soul have an affinity with her music but with her audience too. Unphased by the sudden break Joe and Kira, once medical attention had been received, pick up the thread to continue with Joe’s chopping acoustic guiding.
There’s comfort in the chaos with ‘Back For More’ which goes down a storm with the crowd. An eagle upon the graceful wing ‘Bad’ is strongarm yet simultaneously soothing. Its southern rock laments “No good comes of bad boys and broken hearts.” Guess demons have a way of looking like angels after all, whatever the score one thing’s for sure Kira Mac are gonna leave town with more fans onside following this highly emotive performance.
Worldwide album sales well in excess of 50 million and a lengthy list of hit singles The Sweet are a rock institution of high quality. Through the course of their glittering 80 or so minutes up on stage we’re treated to all bar one of their top ten 7”s mixed up with some album cuts and a couple of recent slices and a couple of “Borises” as Andy Scott puts it.
The lights dim, the stage darkens the fervour shoots upwards. A chant of “We want The Sweet” grows as the expectancy levels ascend with the booming intro tape. With a crashing of cymbals Scott’s long-time musical partner Bruce Blisland announces their arrival. “It’s the longest relationship I’ve had” wisecracks Scott towards the end of their set.
The familiar hellraising strains of 1975 top 20 single ‘Action’ is a certified rouser. Vocalist Paul Manzi (Arena, Cats In Space) punches the air as youthful guitarist Tom ‘TC’ Cory (Novatines) nails a succulent solo. Swiftly into a groove the quintet rolls impulsively into a pulsating version of Russ Ballard’s ‘New York Groove.’ Adding in a Thunder sort of vibe The Sweet suddenly shift gear with bassist Lee Small cheekily slipping in another ode to The Big Apple with Jay-Z’s hip-hop partnering with Alicia Keys ‘Empire State of Mind.’ “Now we’re in Exeter!” receives a loud cheer.
Rolling thunder ‘Hellraiser’ – one of five singles that hit the number two slot (only 13 acts including Elvis, Madonna and Queen have notched up more) – is a timeless rebellious anthem that has the crowd in party mode.
There’s a touch of Deep Purple in the hard rocking overtures of ‘Burn On The Flame’ craned in from the ‘Strung Up’ double album. The Sweet are most certainly not all about the glitter and glam that dominated their charting years. There’s a hard rock nucleus without a shadow of a doubt.
Prowling glamour-cat ‘The Six Teens’ references ‘Destination Boulevard’ – the album it was recorded on – with Andy Scott introduces the track as “We feel this was one of the best [of Chinn and Chapman’s songs]” We all nod in agreement as Manzi points to his head stating, “All of us we’re all sixteen in here!”
Magnum-esque 2021 single ‘Everything’ with its prog-layered keys unleashed by Cory and razor-sharp harmonies ably demonstrates that the quality is undiminished. As a single spotlight captures Scott he shows, even at a nimble 73 years young, he can hammer an outro.
‘Windy City’ is pure classic rock fusing Heep and Purple, Manzi emancipates his inner-Gillan prior to lunging breakneck into freight-train ‘Set Me Free’ which cues up, to precision, the second half of the night. A half that, rammed with no less than seven top ten smashes, cascades with the certainty of a mountain stream.
Introducing the rambunctious ‘Teenage Rampage’ “Mary Whitehouse tried to get this banned” recalls Scott, “She said there was going to be riots on the street and the government would be overthrown” before wistfully adding, to loud approving laughter, “Oh if that were only today!
The buzzsawing of ‘Wig Wam Bam’ and the singalong ‘Little Willy’ – both no. 4 hits in 1972 – are appropriately alloyed together in a glitzy amalgam as the main body of the set is constructed to a crescendo.
Scott chuckles with the Phoenix crowd about Exeter’s traffic “How do you live here?” he asks before further enquiring flippantly “Is it wife swapping at 3 o’clock?” The ELO undercurrents of ‘Love Is Like Oxygen’ – the last Sweet single to gate-crash the top ten – sweeps with majesty ahead of the ‘Fox On The Run.’ A track that pounds along in unmistakable joviality.
This is the 70s Saturday afternoon feelgood feeling of being on the terraces behind the goal at your favourite football ground. All scarves and meat pies if you catch my drift, at this very nothing can better this. “You think you’ve got a pretty face, but the rest of you is out of place” mocks Manzi condescendingly atop the 12-bar beat.
The encore pairing of The Sweet’s solitary UK number single ‘Blockbuster’ and the utterly riotous ‘Ballroom Blitz’ – inspired by the band’s January 1973 performance at Kilmarnock’s Grand Hall which culminated in them being bottled off stage – lift the Phoenix’s roof with absolutely no regard for structural integrity. The air-raid sirens sound and those glorious foot-stomping glam riffs sees the crowd going wild. “We haven’t got a clue what to do” cry the gathering. The Sweet meanwhile, mercifully, have a firm grasp on what to do. Entertainment, complete entertainment via a ‘Blitz of Hitz.’
Photography by Kelly Spiller for MPM