Review by Paul H Birch, photos by Rich Ward.
Winter is upon us, and we’re cut to the quick queuing round the corner and beyond due to unknown delays within KK’S Steel Mill. Maybe they were putting the heating on, as the venue proves surprisingly warm once inside. Getting us into a festive spirit, digitally-created snow dances continuously down the stage’s backdrop, while the name Tony Wright is writ large centrally.
The Terrorvision front man ambles on stage, opening a guitar case to produce tonight’s instrument of choice. He’ll later tell us he had t-shirts made with the words “Acoustic Tour 2020” emblazoned on them, did so the following year, then gave up. Such was covid. While not knowing what to expect, nothing could have prepared me for the 30-minute set that follows.
Wright is accompanied by one Milly Evans on guitar and backing vocals. A tall chap, rather like the biceped blond offspring of Neil from The Young Ones and Olympic swimmer Sharron Davies. Wright himself is sporting wayward long hair and a heavy-browed moustache previously thought mislaid back when Lindisfarne started playing working men’s clubs back in the 70s. Is this what’s become of 90s Britpop, we ask?
As they begin their set, Evans has not only got height, his voice is high and a little off-key initially, taking a few numbers for things to sound right. The musical interplay between the pairing is also somewhat loose and jagged, and I’m finding my cold feet wanting to edge back towards the bar. Then, I start listening to the words coming out of Wright’s northern lips and its plaintive street poetry begins to intrigue. Likewise, between numbers he proves outright funny, even in his own self-depreciation. This laidback warmth, so British in character, suits the mood of those gathered here, and the songs that follow become little character plays set to a busking folk rock groove with intermittent inspired changes and melodies as they and the sound desk get to grips with the venue’s ambiance.
Rightly or wrongly, there may be songs with titles such as ‘It’s A Nightmare When You Wanna Sing The Blues’, about a rich guy failing to match the genre’s down-on-your-luck job description), ‘Buried’, merging murder and power ballads into one, some Gothic country blues, and a number that sums up this set, with the lines: “It takes all sorts to make the world go round, but I do like the fact that opposites attract.” If there were Terrorvison numbers played, I missed ‘em, though there were a fair few vocal fans in the audience, and having been somewhat charmed by the performances on stage I myself am likely to be checking out Tony Wright’s solo material.
The change-over is brief, digital-snow continues to fall across the backdrop but the red cartoon Sweet logo for this, their Unlock The Rock Tour, now adds extra Christmas spirit. Then, darkness descends, spotlights flash on-and-off, here, there and everywhere as ‘Still Got The Rock ‘ plays over the PA as verbal promise, and if last year’s tour was anything to go by, it’s a guarantee they’ll deliver.
Tumultuous power chords and high-pitched vocal harmonies ring out, and the stage is set for ‘Action’, a little bass heavy, speedy, and a snare drum that crackles hard and loud, with Tom Cory taking the first of the evening’s guitar solos. Back at Birmingham Town Hall last year, Andy Scott, the last-standing member of Sweet from their 70s heyday discussed a hand impairment that needed surgery, thoughts that his own playing is diminished prove otherwise tonight, simply that the keyboardist/guitarist he brought into the fold now performs well beyond that of an ancillary role.
However, it’s Bruce Bisland who impresses most tonight. Sitting behind a large kit he strikes out with dexterity and precision, applying unexpected subtlety even as he powers through, and he does so continuously most of the night; only a reddened face some three-quarters of the way through the show an intimation of the physical graft he’s putting in. He leads the way into a cover of Russ Ballard’s ‘New York Groove’ – The more-aged gathered here will recall it as a hit for Hello, heavier-rocked fans via the Ace Frehley rendition, Sweet are faithful to the musical stomp and flag-waving holler of the number, but interject it with bass player Lee Small’s soulful wailing of lines from Alicia Key’s ‘Empire State Of Mind’. The band covered it a few years back, and it’s fair to say most of us aren’t as familiar with such recent recordings; tonight we’ll get a slightly shorter set than back in 2022, but what follows is on the money pretty much with every number.
Some 50 years may have passed since ‘Hell Raiser’ stormed the charts, but with crack of thunder we’re taken back to those days of glam, glitter and widened-flares as Scott leans into his guitar and delivers its unforgettable chords and riff. Front man Paul Manzi pumps his fist in the air, his voice ranging wide and wild while remaining clear, the audience joining in with a more tonally-challenged manner but with just as much enthusiasm. The song takes on an extended interplay between drums and Scott’s divebombing guitar playing before returning to the chorus hook. The applause that follows its conclusion, worthy of the song’s status.
That they then follow through with the B-side ‘Burn On The Flame’ may surprise all but those who turned those seven-inchers of yesteryear over to discover Sweet were often closet Deep Purple freaks. This one, less so, but it’s another full-on assault one-minute, tight stop-start musical interactions the next and a harmony guitar solo slotted in between to boot. Scott had introduced that number, noting how the West Midlands could lay claim to being the bastion of British hard rock with bands as diverse as Slade and Judas Priest. While he changes guitar for the next one, Manzi asks: “Do you think Andy’s on fire tonight?” Agreement is given, and he then ask if anyone’s old enough to remember the 70s. It must be said, the age-demographic isn’t all one-sided, though I’d always assumed the Chinn/Chapman song-writing epic A-side to the previous number that is ‘The Six Teens’ was about greasy cafes and the birth of seaside rock and roll in the late 50s. Keyboards and guitar inlay elegiac lines prior to chugging rhythm on one side of the stage and near-flamenco electrified motifs played out across the way from Scott. Manzi narrates objectively in verse, imbuing it with impassioned consideration for the trials and tribulations that young love will traverse – You don’t get to pass go on Bon Jovi’s ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’ without stopping here first. Even as Manzi reaches piercing operatic vocalisations the song turns on its head, the tempo’s pace quickening with group harmonies unfolding over an emboldened climaxing beat.
With another change of guitar for Scott, Manzi thanks those who put ‘Everything’ at the top of the Heritage charts. Following another warm guitar and keyboard introduction the song is a mid-paced pump, reminiscent of both Journey and Survivor, Scott soloing thoughtfully throughout most of the number before concluding the number with admirably sustained delay. ‘Windy City’ follows swiftly, the band having caught their breath, Manzi with hands aloft getting the audience to join him in clapping along as the musicians power-up once more, assorted band members jumping up and down, Scott preferring to employ some effects driven fretwork until he and Small face-off each other with Manzi in between, before posing their guitars outwards dramatically amid time signature changes. We get some buzzed-up boogie, a couple of bars that appear to cameo their own ‘Burning’ tracks, while Manzi runs either side of the stage, halting only to unleash another operatic-styled throat-curdling scream, and then it’s straight into ‘Set Me Free’ with Scott and Cory both harmonising then battling away on more personalised licks in rampant solo mode; the senior player then with an odd looking box in his right hand running it up and down his fretboard creating a wall of wailing sound. Manzi continues to scream out like Ian Gillan in his prime while the usually high-pitched Small lets our deep cackles worthy of vintage Alice Cooper.
When it stops, Scott takes time out to thank folk for coming, supporting live music, the venues themselves and most particularly their road crew – Noting that during covid, and because of Brexit, many such had to leave the music business to find work elsewhere, and live music depends on them to function effectively. Worthy as the sermon is, Manzi’s call-to-arms whereby we’re asked to shout out “three lovely words” is what draws the crowd in, “We want Sweet!” comes the chant, and amid equal quantities of melodrama and sheer hard-rocking pizzazz another roaring hit blows the roof off with ‘Teenage Rampage’. Small lift his bass to head-height twirling round with it 360 degrees to face Bisland, and it’s at this point we note he’s red-of-face but still punching out a crisp and hard-beating sound from his kit, while those in the audience look completely wasted, so many of them having danced and waved their arms about like they were teenagers once again. Mind you, even the pension-waiters might pretend the early pop hits that follow were from their elder siblings’ scene and want to relay to them what they’re missing because an avalanche of mobile phones fall out of pockets to record ‘Wig-Wam Bam’, then it’s straight in with all the sexual innuendo it can muster for a hard bottom-ended ‘Little Willy’.
From such simple pleasures we turn towards the sophistication of the Ivor Novello Award winning hit that was ‘Love Is Like Oxygen’. While Manzi asks us to join them in revisiting the 70s nostalgically, a knowing Scott declares: “You might wear AC/DC t-shirts but we know you wanna sing Sweet songs!” Keyboards parp-out in stately manner, drums add a non-aggressive military stance and the audience claps rally-like as Scott’s guitar sets a course of action, with the frontline standing tall as all five of them captivate us with their collective vocal harmonies, before Manzi’s somewhat melancholy lead vocals taking precedence. Cory switches between piano and synthesiser, while across stage Scott’s guitar sustains, feedback intensifying until crashing to conclusion via power chording.
“These guys on stage have done a great job,” exclaims Scott, before introducing the individual band members, the local colloquialism “bostin” being used affectionately. Manzi takes over, thanking Tony Wright, the audience here gathered and Mr Scott himself before a ripple of synthesisers, more crashing drums and further chords blast out in turn but to a different tune as old and young alike raise pointed fingers in the air, singing along to ‘Fox on the Run’ – Middle-aged ladies are jumping up and down, the three younger women to the front of me have been dancing steadily swinging their hips from but a few numbers into the set, and the tall geezer to the left of me, and probably born 20 years after Sweet’s original heydays, is about to blow a gasket with excitement. Sweet stomp hard, spitting out fuzzed-up power chords between Manzi’s voice echoes out proud and defiantly right up to the song’s conclusion.
Gathering to bow collectively, their audience repeats as mantra “We want Sweet!” before the guys on stage have even left the stage. Then, with siren wailing out loud heralding their encore you wonder if they’ll get back on in time for ‘Blockbuster’. Two of the aforementioned middle-aged ladies look like they’re crying as this touchstone to their youth grabs them by the short-and-curlies refusing to let them go. As younger members leap about the stage, a white-haired Scott plays Gandalf with outstretched arms either side of him wavering and I ponder if he’s got a theremin or similar electronic device up there with him.
Meanwhile, the others are still racing about with Small and Cory dodging between each other like knights on a computerised chessboard as Bisland’s shuffling drumbeat slyly drives us into tonight’s final number and Manzi stops running from side-to-side to grab his microphone, enquiring about the availability of everyone on stage, then a final: “Are you ready, KK’s Steel Mill?… Then let’s go!” ‘The Ballroom Blitz’ is unleashed, and it’s like the party’s only just begun with fake snow blowing down from the Mill’s girders adding to the Christmas cheer. Small perches on the edge of the stage his bass’s volume turned up, prior to the collective encircling on the main riff once more, Troy moving across stage as he and Scott solo heavily. Then, in the blink of an eye, that’s it, over and done, plectrums tossed out to lucky recipients one more final bow and we head to the cold reality that awaits outside.
Tonight, Sweet continued to prove you might come here looking for nostalgia – and you can hardly fail with so many hits to hang a reputation on – but you leave having witnessed a really good rock band; one with the best vocal line-up currently working in the music business.
New York Groove
Burn On The Flame
The Six Teens
Set Me Free
Love Is Like Oxygen
Fox on the Run
The Ballroom Blitz