December 2022 Cardinal Black played two emotional sets at the intimate setting of The Patriot, Crumlin. Nights to celebrate their achievements and reflect on a year that had seen their stock rise exponentially. Well, if 2022 saw them rise, this show, inside the walls of the historic Tudor castle, standing proudly on the English / Welsh border, above the banks of the winding River Wye, saw the culmination of another eight months where superlatives have well and truly been exhausted.
Chepstow Castle – 24 August 2023
Words and Photography: Paul Hutchings
A balmy, if slightly cool, evening saw over 500 fans gather in the unique venue to witness a triumphant finale to their 2023 touring so far. Cardinal Black are, quite simply, stunning.
Their mix of hard rock and ethereal pop echoes around the castle, drawing gasps as their music washed across the valley. A perfected headline set comprised songs from their catalogue, showcasing the quality that they possess, and proved that, with the right winds behind them, the next time they play such a show, there will surely be a bigger clamour to grab tickets.
They arrived off the back of a Mediterranean Blues cruise, where they shared the stage with no less than Blues God Joe Bonamassa. Such is the level of their stock that they no doubt slotted into the lineup without a batted eyelid.
Tonight, they are at full strength, their delicate and precise delivery tugging at the heartstrings. They build atmosphere, drench you with sensation, and with the band now at full strength, simply blow any remaining questions into the nearby river and sweep it away.
It’s almost impossible to know where to start. The set is beautifully paced, ebbing and flowing like the tide below the imposing structure they perform within.
The rich, soulful vocals of Tom Hollister drive deep, pushing into the heart, as he delivers in an impassioned manner. This is a voice that could make statues weep, such is the raw and heartfelt feeling that surges through every word. He’s also great at a bit of banter, with his perfectly attuned ability to read the crowd.
Tom is backed by the sweet harmonies of Tay Cousins, now a permanent feature of the band, whose addition has added another dimension to their sound. She’s elfin in appearance but packs the necessary punch where required.
They draw deeply from their debut album, January Came Close. From the anthem Rise Up through to the touching deepness of Tell Me How It Feels, it’s totally magical. The latter receives the required audience participation, with Hollister visibly moved by the feedback from the crowd.
And then we have Chris Buck. His playing is superb. From subtle flicks to full-on guitar hero, Buck possesses everything you need. If you could build your own guitar player, Buck would surely be it. He’s so gentle and unassuming, yet those searing lead breaks possess a fire and passion that is demonstrated by the steely determination that has driven him forward through the past decade and more, from the early days of Buck & Evans and the time as a trio with Tom and drummer Adam Roberts.
Roberts keeps the engine moving, locking in with bassist Sam Williams with the ease that only comes with many shows and plenty of practice. They are impressively good musicians.
There are elements of Yes and of Floyd in Buck’s playing, but there is something extra special about his fluid, organic style that mesmerises.
Neat additional keyboards from Greg Hollister have fleshed out and added layers to the band’s sound, which is rich, warming, and compelling.
They can slow it right down, too, as Tom explains in On My Own, poignantly reflecting on the pain of missing his child’s third birthday due to their touring commitments. If you think being a musician is easy, you should think again.
But the hard work is paying off, and Cardinal Black now has momentum to maintain.
The sun has long set, and the stage is lit up against the castle walls. As Cardinal Black move into their final numbers, the time to savour such experiences is now. They’ve played many great venues, the Royal Albert Hall and Cardiff Castle amongst them, yet this feels like a special, intimate show.
The location may be grandiose, a reflection of a bygone time, but for Cardinal Black, their Welsh roots remain firmly in place. The ovation as they take the applause at the end of the set may be something they are becoming a little bit more familiar with, but this is deserved.
Every note that echoed around the walls of the majestic ruin deserves a cheer. It’s nights like these that really make you appreciate perfection when you hear it.