Review by Harry Paterson and photos by Sean Larkin
Sue Willets cut a vulnerable and forlorn figure and, for the first few songs, that previously sonorous, and much-admired, voice was tiny. Stage-fright, first-night nerves from the band’s extended live lay-off and/or breaking in a new rhythm section, call it what you will; the truth was that for an agonising first ten minutes, Ms Willets simply didn’t project. It was almost as if she wished she wasn’t there and hoped to pass unnoticed.
That the Dante Fox Express avoided crashing from the rails was due to several factors: firstly, the band was blessed with a crystal-clear front-of-house sound that allowed the undeniably classy and uplifting quality of much of their material to shine through in exultant style.
Secondly, guitarist Tim Manford performed a generous holding-operation, visibly supporting his vocalist with encouraging nods and smiles and injecting his own performance with a large degree of the physical energy and movement absent from the early stages of Mz Willet’s contribution.
And finally, technically, Manford was nothing less than a revelation as his PRS, surely the musicians’ magic wand, filled the venue with a rich, lyrical tone. The odd fumbled note simply didn’t matter as solos, fills and appoggiaturas were dispatched with real flair and verve. In all ways his was one of the more impressive performances seen at Rock City in recent times.
For a perilous moment, however, it seemed as though it would be insufficient. When pausing to re-tune, his singer, no doubt intending to be jocular, audibly admonished him; “Any time today, please, Tim” while tapping her fingers impatiently. Really, a performer of Willet’s experience and talent should need no reminder that such moments present an opportunity to communicate with one’s audience. Something else that was, unfortunately, at a premium.
Eventually, thankfully, Ms Willets settled and the voice started to open up. Almost shyly, at first, like a daffodil coyly succumbing to the warming rays of a spring sun. Finally, at last, audience frustrations were soothed as she showed just why Dante Fox are the adored cult band of choice for many. By the final third, she was soaring, swooping and crooning with the aplomb and grace of which we all know she is capable. Per angusta ad augusta? Quite possibly.
Closing your set, though, with a cover seems a misstep. Surely the last thing any band wants is an audience leaving with their final memory that of another artist’s material? It ought to have been the penultimate number. Admittedly, they offered a funkier, faster and rather more furious reading of Stevie Lange’s towering classic, ‘Remember My Name’, with that timeless Hammond organ-style sound imparting an enjoyably brooding and Southern Boogie-flavoured after-taste.
That aside, a positively incendiary couplet of closing songs brought their set to a well-received conclusion. The band has class, great songs and a genuine star in Tim Manford. One hopes that now Mz Willets has tonight behind her, this proficient vocal stylist can relax and go on to the Night Ranger show and deliver in the manner to which we were previously accustomed.
A lack of projection is not a charge one could credibly level at Serpentine’s ebullient front-man, Matt Black. Possessed of an earthy Yorkshire charm and a dryly laconic wit, the young singer’s between-songs banter infused every anecdote and wise-crack with a typically self-deprecating working-class bluntness.
That this contrasted sharply but pleasingly with material that could never be so described, was a contributory factor in what, ultimately, turned out to be a very fine performance indeed.
Certainly, the intimidating ghost of the near-legendary Tony Mills was elsewhere tonight and few paid it more than the barest moment’s notice. Black, for all his apparent youth and down-to-earth, jack-the-lad persona, is a consummate pro and gifted with a voice uniquely suited to this exciting collective. This is his gig now and his command is total.
Serpentine, something of a spear-head for UK melodic rock’s novus ordo seclorum continues to mature and develop and, even at this early stage of the young band’s career, represents one of the UK’s classiest and most impressive outfits. The accolades already garnered for a mere two-album portfolio are quite simply their well-earned due.
In a live setting, though, and like all the best acts, their material comes alive with textures, depths and energies hitherto undiscovered, even on that acclaimed brace, and so it was tonight.
‘Lonely Nights’ sparkled and shone like a diamond under moonbeams and the quintet milked the maximum benefit from a surprisingly and gratifyingly clear and uncluttered mix.
As one might expect, the intricacies of their material allowed the individual musical personalities to flourish and fan-faves like ‘Philadelphia’ have rarely sounded better.
Established earlier during an interview with headliners, White Widdow, was the incontrovertible truth that this sort of music, unlike others, allows for no weak links in the technical merits of the individual musicians; again, certainly not a charge that could be laid at the door of Serpentine, all of whom followed-the-leader in keys-man, Noon’s relaxed but authoritative savoir faire.
When confronted with a display of tonight’s calibre, it seems incredible to imagine the band failing to scale commercial heights equal to the critical acclaim that is already theirs. In a fairer world they’d already be travelling luxury class but, as an increasingly uncertain world continues to hammer the music business, they can only continue to turn in shows like this and keep their fingers crossed.
Life is unfair, the world is cold and fate a cruel and capricious mistress; were it otherwise Serpentine would already be huge. Tonight, they showed they deserve nothing less.
And so, to the main event; much-loved Aussie AOR all-stars, White Widdow.
A heated exchange between two fans posed the question; are they better than Serpentine? Is Serpentine better than them? You may as well ask which the superior fruit is; apples or oranges? Such is the quandary engendered by such a pointless conundrum.
The truth is that despite working in the same genre, the two acts are so disparate as to render comparisons utterly meaningless. Serpentine, it’s fair to say, have the sharper, more contemporary edge. White Widdow’s appeal, on the other hand, owes much to that timeless classic AOR sound. A vibe and an era that is effortlessly and skilfully replicated and manages to sound reassuringly familiar without, remarkably, sounding in any way derivative.
While some bands stand or fall by the bad ass-quotient of their shtick, White Widdow unashamedly offers an inclusive feel-good time that generates happy smiles, dancing punters and an ecstatic joie de vivre. One is left radiating bonhomie and good-will to all men. Party band is a hideous cliché but that really is what we have here. The glorious sunshine raining down on the venue could not have been bettered in perfectly setting the scene for this endearing and increasingly popular act.
Jules Milas, on the back of an excellent Firefest performance, nevertheless demonstrated an exponential improvement to what was already a distinctive and pleasing voice. While his flamboyant and entertaining showmanship has never been in doubt, the vocals are now matching the excellence of their recorded counterparts.
‘Cry Wolf’ signalled the commencement of partying manoeuvres and the subsequent duo of ‘One More Day’ and ‘Strangers’ saw the band hitting their stride in short order, the crowd with them every step of the way.
The hits kept on coming and ‘Tokyo Rain’ was greeted with an exultant roar while Enzio Almanzi put in a dazzling and hugely enjoyable display. His are the kind of solos which, while demonstrating an admirable degree of technical competency, can be hummed, such is their infectious and melodic nature. Phrasing, too, is tastefully and artfully applied and perfectly complements the band’s deliciously infectious material.
Lest all this sounds just too twee and fluffy for words, it must be stated that the Widdows rock plenty hard and, when coupled with that peerless gift for melody, produces a live sound that is irresistible.
There could be no greater soundtrack to a hot summer night and, consequently, the band rode the crest of a wave all the way to the end. That they were rewarded with a reception that could only be described as euphoric was just, perfect and regular.
And you can see more of Sean’s photos here: