Saturday, June 18, 2011

Uriah Heep - Still 'eavy, Still 'umble - Concert Review

Uriah Heep sounds better today than ever before. Last night in Dayton, Ohio, they had a crowd of almost 4,000 on their feet - singing, shouting, and raising their fists for two hours of incredibly inspiring rock and roll. The band smiled as much as the audience, and it could best be described as a love-fest. This is not a band that rests on its longstanding laurels - their new album is remarkably fresh, and they played with more excitement and energy than bands a third of their age.

Mick Box still leads the band, and is as animated and exciting a guitarist as he was the first time Uriah Heep played in Dayton, back on April 1, 1976. By then, the Heep had been gigging for six years, longer than the lifespan of most rock bands. If you have ever wondered where the name Uriah Heep came from, he is a famous character from Charles Dickens novel David Copperfield, whose signature phrase, "very 'umble," led to the title of the band's first album, Very 'eavy, Very 'umble, back in 1970. Box has been on board since the beginning, and shows no sign whatsoever of slowing down.

The band boldly started the show with I'm Ready, a hard charging rocker off their new Frontiers Records release Into The Wild. From then on, longtime vocalist (25 years) Bernie Shaw put it like this:

"We're gonna spend the next few hours playing some of our new album, and some of our classics, some new, some old, some new, some old...."

Shaw is still seen by many as the new guy in the band, but make no mistake - Bernie is a pro's pro - a great voice, a confident front-man, and a great entertainer. His voice is powerful and crystal clear, not missing a note all evening, nor shying away from even the highest peaks in the band's catalog. The passion that Shaw brings to the table is palpable, as he utilizes every skill he has learned over a long career, including a tremendous amount of sheer horsepower, and a soulful vibrato that rivals the best of the classic British hard rock royalty.

I am amazed to report that the audience seemed not to be able to delineate the old from the new, as they cheered on tunes from the new record with as much enthusiasm as they did on classics such as Rainbow Demon, The Wizard, July Morning, Stealin', Look At Yourself, Lady In Black, and their highest charting single, Easy Livin'. Quite often, a crowd will merely tolerate a seasoned band's new stuff to get to the old - but when the Heep played Kiss Of Freedom, a song off of Into The Wild, the fifty something rocker next to me asked, "Is that old or new?"

The sound of Uriah Heep has remained pretty consistent over the years. Couched upon the thick and sophisticated mix of Box's trademark guitar tone, tasty keyboards, and thundering drums are the band's great harmony vocals, which so wonderfully support the ever melodic efforts of their lead singer. This band is as tight as it gets, an amazingly well oiled machine. This show was the third concert of a tour that will see Box and company play across America for most of the summer.

Bassist Trevor Bolder is still as captivating a performer as he was when he tread the boards with David Bowie as part of Bowie's best band, The Spiders From Mars. His bass playing is the pinnacle of the art. He maintains a very steady bottom end, and his phrasing is fabulous, as he makes great note choices, adds many cool fills, and frequently flies up the fretboard with great daring and dexterity. His performance on the classic July Morning is nothing short of sheer brilliance. My editor and videographer, Libby Sokolowski, filmed this performance, and said that she eventually had to take the camera off Bolder to catch Mick Box's solo, but then she was literally forced back to Bolder by his amazing playing and singing, like a magnet to the steel. Watching Trevor pluck the strings of his well worn P-Bass was a sight to see - his right hand attack making the bass's large strings look like rubber bands. His Ampeg SVT amps must be some of the happiest in the business, as he puts them through the paces.

Bolder also supplies a good deal of the classic Heep harmonies, and he hits every note, every time. My only regret was that the bassist did not sing his song from the new album, Trail Of Diamonds. This song makes me ache for a Bolder solo record. It is a great tune in the UH mold, with the veteran singing as well as any lead vocalist out there, and is reason enough for you to buy Into The Wild, which is as good an album as any in the band's catalog.


One of the recurring high points of the evening was when Bernie Shaw would sidle over to Bolder's microphone. This created a very cool scenario, in which Shaw and Bolder were harmonizing, and just above and behind them stood keyboardist Phil Lanzon (another 25 year veteran), adding a third, or sometimes fourth harmony. These guys sing like birds, and they do it while they are playing their instruments and entertaining 4,000 adoring fans. This is one of the hallmarks of the Uriah Heep sound for these last 40 years, and makes you wonder what rock critics sometimes think, and say. A Rolling Stone reviewer once infamously promised to commit suicide if the band made it big. How opposed to that is this comment from Def Leppard vocalist, Joe Elliott:

"Uriah Heep were the best band that we've ever toured with, either as a headline or support, because there was no ego, no pretentious kind of stuff. They were great, and we learned a lot from them”

While they were never the critic's darlings, the band have remained fan favorites, and I can't tell you how many people I heard, as I passed through the crowd, reminiscing about seeing the band over the last four decades. Stealin', the band's hit single follow up to Easy Livin', had the crowd on their feet and singing, early in the set. It was apparent from the huge smile on Bernie Shaw's face that while the band didn't know what to expect out of a Midwest audience on a sizzling June evening, they were tremendously pleased and gratified. Ever 'umble, Uriah Heep looked like they had just won the lottery. Again, and again Mick Box wore the grin of a school-boy, and he had this to say:

"After tonight, we've a thousand miles to drive for the next show, but the sound of this crowd will ring in our ears the whole way."

The adoration was being passed around like a bottle of Ripple at a hobo's ball - it gets passed, but each party partakes sweetly. I'm not sure who got the better deal, but everybody came away a winner.

Uriah Heep has always been a synergistic entity, with each component serving the greater whole. Drummer Russell Gilbrook is the kid of the band at just 47 years of age. While not quite as seasoned as the rest, he is a tremendously deft drummer, supplying equal parts of power and finesse. A favorite of the European drum clinic crowd, he has also worked with Tony Iommi, Van Morrison, and skiffle legend Lonnie Donnegan, as well as replacing Cozy Powell in the band Bedlam before being chosen to succeed a nearly irreplaceable Lee Kerslake as Heep's kit sitter. He takes a solo early in the set, and had the crowd contributing instantly. This band's love of their audience is always apparent, and they thank their fans repeatedly, and with huge smiles.

Phil Lanzon fills out the roster, and his expertise on the Hammond organ, various synths, and background vocals is astounding. As he whips his hands feverishly across the keyboards, he supplies great harmonies, then slings the microphone away to go back to the ivories. Lanzon is a masterful musician, and his sound is huge - his organ work ranks with the best. He also serves as a great cheerleader from his riser that sits above and behind Shaw and Bolder for most of the show.

After going off to thunderous applause, the band returns for their encores, which include 1977's Free 'n' Easy, a song which sees the band invite some 20 people on to the stage for some old school headbanging. 'Til the very end Heep delivers the goods, giving their fans what they want - a great night of rock and roll by any measure.

And so it was, on this balmy Friday evening in Ohio - a crowd of 4,000 well wishers, a band nowhere near past its prime - all uplifted by the spirit of rock and roll, Uriah Heep style - none more so than myself.

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