Friday, June 17, 2011

Live At Last - Black Country Communion in Indy

Black Country Communion took Indianapolis by storm last night, delivering a fantastic live offering of a host of tunes from the band's two albums, and a couple of classic nuggets. They sound like a mature band that has been gigging for years, not just a few shows. Glenn Hughes and Joe Bonamassa may be leading the charge from out front, but drummer Jason Bonham, and keyboardist Derek Sherinian are clearly two facets of this hard rock diamond.

The Voice of Rock, Glenn Hughes sings the lion's share of the material, while Bonamassa sings a few tunes and supplies an endless barrage of cutting edge rock guitar work. This is a super-group full of love and respect - there are no apparent issues of ego, or one-upmanship. When Bonamassa performs his solo classic, The Ballad of John Henry, Hughes works the audience magnificently, and sings every word of the song as he roams, smiling beatifically at the young guitar star. The entire band looks as if they are having a blast, and having collectively played with an amazing array of rock and roll royalty, they know they are a very powerful machine at work.

Derek Sherinian may be the least well known member of BCC to the casual listener or fan. The keyboardist has 10 albums of his own under his belt, and a resume that includes Dream Theater, Billy Idol, Alice Cooper, KISS, Al DiMeola, and practically every major rock guitarist of the last 20 years. On BCC's first record, many fans complained that the keyboards were under-utilized, and under mixed. This has been more than rectified on the band's new album, which is out this week and garnering near unanimous rave reviews.  The record heavily features Sherinian's awesome skills at both playing and arranging. On stage, Sherinian is as loud as Joe and Glenn, and actually has the only unaccompanied solo of the show, which was loud, dynamic, and allowed Sherinian to flex his musical muscle.

The show kicked off with the band's self titled opener, Black Country. Glenn Hughes's performance gave great credence to my habit of late, that of describing him as "the last rock star." I'm hard pressed to name another 70s rocker who is still in as fine a voice, or as energetic on stage. In an age where many have lost some high range, and a step or two on the boards, Hughes is still hitting every note of the 1973 Deep Purple classic track, Burn. Watching him run the stage is like viewing someone ice skating on a cliff. Before the show, Hughes had this to say:

"On the stage, I am fearless. This isn't arrogance, or ego, I'm like anyone else - I have fears all day long. But they disappear the moment I walk on stage."

Fearless indeed! The man never once retreats from a high note, or a low growl - the dynamics of his vocals go in an instant from a tender whisper to an impassioned wail. In this band, Hughes has chosen to keep the focal point on the songs, and the band. His incredible histrionics are kept to a minimum, and his melodicism is maximized. Even the hardest rockers in the set have their fair share of melodic beauty.

Guitarist Joe Bonamassa continues to evolve before the public eye. In his role here as axe star and occasional vocalist, the six stringer seems to relish the role of full time rock guitar hero. His solos are incendiary and masterful in their technical wizardry, but for me, where he is shining the most is in his sophisticated rhythm work, his single string song signatures, and his writing. His composition, The Battle For Hadrian's Wall, off the band's new album is a great example, as Joe switches seamlessly between the necks of his custom Music Man Doubleneck 6/12. This song has it all, and a great vocal from Joe as well.

On The Ballad of John Henry, the tune Total Guitar Magazine named as one of the ten best riffs of the last decade, Bonamassa takes a solo that is completely unhinged, as he effortlessly spits out volleys of rapid fire modal forays that end with howling bends of the lower strings, before he takes on his theramin with what I can only describe as heavy metal bliss. His aggression and verve even made the guitarist himself smile,  as his wizardry is thrown around the room in stereo by long time tour manager, and extraordinary live sound-man, Warren Cracknell. Cracknell has been expertly mixing Bonamassa shows for years, but now he's dealing with the sophisticated effects required by the new band's records, and the added burden of starting fresh each night on a new P.A. - far from the luxury of having his custom designed solo Bonamassa rig. The mix was great - vocals were crystal clear, the keyboards were prominent in the mix, and of course, the guitars sounded like a aural text-book of classic tube amp tones.

Before the show, Bonamassa kindly took the time to carefully walk me through his self designed rig (completely re-tooled for BCC). Then, after a tour of his guitar selection, he took apart his newly acquired 1959 Gibson Les Paul Junior double cut to remedy a noisy potentiometer. Joe knows his rig inside out, and spends endless hours making his magic seem effortless. He's joined in his mission for tone by long-time stage crew member Colin Moody, who has now assumed the role of guitar tech to the chief. You can see the confidence Bonamassa has in Moody, and they even agree to work together the next day installing a Hip Shot Bass Xtender machine head on Hughes's new acquired Rickenbacker 4001 bass (in a stunning azureglo blue finish). Bonamassa also talks Glenn into trying a Way Huge overdrive pedal with his bass rig - this guy is all about the never ending search for killer tones.

Some of the shows best moments are when the seasoned bassist jousts with the blues rock icon (that's Brick to the band). Hughes prods the guitarist to ever dizzying heights of daring do, and Bonamassa rises to the occasion - and on several of these occasions Hughes looks both pleased and amused by his cohort. The magic between these two is as palpable as the respect that they both confide when the other is not around. These guys fairly gush about the pleasure they are deriving from this partnership, hardly the hallmark of super-groups past.

Jason Bonham does not dodge Bonamassa and Hughes's effusive praise, either. The axeman reckons that the drum gods are smiling down upon him - he has the thunderous Tal Bergman in his solo band, and now has Bonham playing the best drums of his career in BCC. He drives the band mightily from behind his see-through yellow DW drum kit, and acts as a constant cheerleader for the band. Smiles are not off the faces of this bunch for long - they know what they are, and how good they sound. All ready, arrangements are stretching out as the band begins to gel.

The evening ended with a two song encore. The Man In The Middle is the band's lead video/single, and you couldn't ask for a funkier driving rocker. This is a staccato rhythm machine, and again you get a big sweet, melodic hook of the sort that Hughes writes so effortlessly. Once more, the enthusiastic crowd goes wild. The night then comes full circle as Bonamassa rips through the intro of the aforementioned Deep Purple classic, Burn, and the audience is again off their feet, singing, screaming, and thrusting fists. Bonamassa improvises a hot solo, and then proceeds to feed the adoring crowd Blackmore's famed arpeggios,as Sherinian contributes a huge slice of Hammond B3, also nailing the tone and feel of the Cal Jam classic. Hughes is brilliant right to the very end. I can't imagine a better ending to a fantastic show. It is scary to think what these guys will sound like in a month at High Voltage - England, prepare to be invaded.

There are other highlights throughout the show, with tunes such as Cold, or One Last Soul that are sure to become BCC classics, but I'll let you discover them for yourself. A wealth of quality clips have shown up on Youtube this week, and should sufficiently wet your whistles.

Everyone in Black Country Communion is at the top of their game, and with two excellent albums under their belt they are primed to make the world of hard rock their own. Producer Kevin Shirley was right, "This band is viral."

This was one of the best hard rock shows I have ever seen, and judging from the enthusiastic response from the packed house, I'm not alone in that opinion. The band still has three shows in the Eastern US before heading off to 25 shows in Europe, including that prestigious High Voltage Festival in London, England on July 24th. God bless Black Country Communion.

Live at last. I first wrote about Black Country Communion before a note had been recorded. I spoke with Glenn Hughes before a single note had been sung. I reviewed the first record first, and am now more convinced than ever that indeed BCC may well be the most exciting and important thing to happen to real rock music in the last twenty years.

All photos provided by Libby Sokolowski.

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