BLACK STAR RIDERS
Harlow's, Sacramento, California
May 12th 2014
Scott Gorham has a point to prove, and he's proving it.
It's a small club, and the stage is smaller yet. The band has half their gear onstage, their soundman is not their own, and it's a Monday night crowd. This could discourage a lesser band, but Black Star Riders performed as if it was the biggest arena in the world and this was the only audience that ever mattered. I've not often seen a band so intent, so committed to their performance - Black Star Riders came and conquered.
I had spent the afternoon hanging out with Scott Gorham at the band's hotel, and our conversation was a great precursor for the gig. This is Black Star Riders' first major headlining tour in America, and Gorham readily admitted that it was going to be a tough six weeks, dealing with the sheer size of the country and attempting to re-brand a band in which he's been a part of for 40 years. He is now is the sole remnant of the band's classic line-up, and it's no longer Thin Lizzy, but it retains much of what was great about Phil Lynott, and their legacy.
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The key seems to lie in the fact that the first requisite for membership is a tremendous desire to be in this band. For guitarists, it's an everyman's dream to be Gorham's right hand man. No band exemplifies the dual guitar ethic more than Thin Lizzy. There are, of course, the classic tight harmonies - no band ever did it better, and their distinctive, signature sound separate them from every other two guitar outfit.
However, there's another side to the classic Lizzy sound that often gets overlooked, that Black Star Riders has mastered, and that is the band's incredible rhythms. You've got drums that both pound out the band's primal Irish heartbeat, but swing ferociously at the same time, married to the ever flowing textures of Gorham's state of the art rhythm guitars (is there a better rhythm man in rock than Gorham? I put him up there with Keith, Townshend, Lennon, and Rudolf Schenker as an archetypical rock right hand), and they are cemented by the deft and deceptive efficiency of Lynott's no nonsense basslines.
Yes, to play in a band with this lineage is to drink from the fountain of eternal rock worship. Gorham might not always get it, but I do, and I'll tell you this - if you ever picked up an instrument and rock was your game, you'd give your eyeteeth to play this music with this man.
Back to the gig - this was a co-headline show featuring BSR and Skid Row, but I must be honest. After seeing the glory that was Black Star Riders, I opted out of sticking around for Skid Row - I gave one song an ear, and quite frankly, why would I stay for a cheeseburger when I'd just had prime rib?
I'm sure they have great reasons for not wanting to work with Sebastian Bach, but without him, they seem very pedestrian to my ears and eyes. The lead singer seemed rock club competent, but I'd just seen the charismatic and passionate Ricky Warwick own a club and an audience, so why stick around for merely competent?
It's funny - many of the fans I spoke with leading up to this show didn't even realize that Bach was not going to be with the band, even after all these years. For me, that's pretty telling. I hope they find their way back to Bach, and give their fans what they really want before it's too late in the day.
Before Gorham's gang hit the stage there was a cracking set by the East Bay's SpiralArms. If you haven't come across this bunch, they've recently released their sophomore effort, Freedom, on SPV Records - check it out, this bunch rocks, rocks, and rocks some more. Melodic and powerful, SpiralArms will definitely be a band to watch. Frontman Tim Narducci, guitarist Craig Locicero, and drummer Andy Galeon have star power in spades.
The crowd was a little thin, this being a Monday evening, but when the lights went down and the intro music began, things got noisy quick - a small crowd, but the right crowd.
When the band cracked open 'All Hell Breaks Loose', it did - the audience was in the band's hands, and the band knew just what to do. Mixing seven tunes from their 2013 debut with eight tested, true, and tried Thin Lizzy classics seemed to be the perfect approach - the new tunes did not pale when stood beside such classics as 'The Boys Are Back In Town', the intelligently restructured 'Cowboy Song', 'Jailbreak', and 'Emerald', and that speaks volumes for the talents and hearts of Ricky Warwick and guitarist Damon Johnson.
What I was surprised by, but probably shouldn't have been, was the sheer ferocity of this band. They played like there were no tomorrows, and like their lives were on the line. Newcomer Jimmy DeGrasso performed heroically, driving the band at every turn, occasionally being powerful enough to make Ricky Warwick take notice as the fury of the beat and the proximity necessitated by the tiny stage nearly propelled him off the stage. Still, Warwick never flinched, and he's as passionate frontman as I've seen in many a moon. He owned the stage on this night, and his charm, charisma, and great vocals made the crowd fall in love.
Damon Johnson left a great gig when he walked away from Alice Cooper's band, but when you see the joy in his face, and hear what he brings to the party, you know he made the right choice. He's picture perfect on the classics, and he is a great foil for Gorham on the new material (much of which he has written). Marco Mendoza is never less than exemplary on bass and background vocals - he's a guy with some of the most impressive chops you're likely to see flying off a bass guitar, but when he does a hard rock turn like this, or his previous standout work with Whitesnake, he's the consummate 'in the pocket', playing for the song kind of guy.
However, and the end of the day (or night), this was Scott Gorham's party. He told me the band had some things to prove, and boy did they prove it. Watching the band interact and listening to the setlist transpire, it became apparent just how large looms this guitarist's place in rock history, and the adulation and respect that this band has for this man.
He played as if he was possessed - he had sermonized at length during our earlier chat about still feeling like he had something to prove, and it's incredibly precious to watch a sixty-three year old man work that hard at his craft, and for his fans and friends. He never stopped once, never laid back, and when Damon Johnson was taking a solo, he was working his ass off to play just what was needed to support in brother-in-arms.
Watching him play the riffs he wrote for 'Jailbreak', 'The Boys Are Back In Town', and 'Emerald' like he was playing them for the first time was awe inspiring. Someone please tell me why this band is not in the Rock 'N' Roll Hall Of Fame. Talk about your travesties...
And, so it was that on this warm Monday evening in Northern California that Thin Lizzy passed the reigns on to Black Star Riders - it will take a few tours, maybe another record (the band is going into the studio in the fall with main Leppard Joe Elliott at the desk - Gorham told me that the band would be spending significant time rehearsing for this record, and taking their time in the studio this time), but make no error, this is a band of its own, and not one that will have to depend on the legacy of the past for long, though the circle will remain unbroken.
I'm quite certain, and I'm smiling when I say that Phil Lynott would heartily approve. His partner in crime, Scott Gorham has stayed the course, and taken the legend to the next stage, and one hopes the fun has only just begun.
1) All Hell Breaks Loose
2) Are You Ready?
4) Bad Reputation
5) Hoodoo Voodoo
7) Kingdom Of The Lost
8) Whiskey In The Jar
9) Hey Judas
11) Valley Of The Stones
13) Bound For Glory
14) Cowboy Song
15) The Boys Are Back In Town