Magnum, with support from Vega
Friday 27th May 2016 – Limelight 1, Belfast
This was a show I was really looking forward to. Like many of those gathered tonight, I was a fan of Magnum in their 1980’s heyday – especially their breakthrough album ‘On a Storyteller’s Night’ (featuring one of the best album covers of all time) and the two follow up albums, ‘Vigilante’ and ‘Wings of Heaven’ – all of which made a decent dent in the charts. But, to my shame, I stopped following the band in the 90’s and although I have been aware that they have kept touring and kept releasing albums, I have not kept up with them. I know the band have a large cult following in NI and many fans have had to schlep to the mainland to get their fix of the Brummie Hard (but smooth) Rockers. So, given that the band had finally taken the time and trouble to come back to Belfast (25 years or so after their last visit), it was only right that we were in attendance.
But first, the appetizer – fellow English band – Vega. I have to admit, I know very little about these guys (yes, where have I been?). But, if the point of getting a great support slot on a bigger name band’s is to show what you can to do a bigger and more varied audience in the hope of gaining new fans, then I can say with assurance that Vega will have done exactly that – myself included. Sure, they sound and act like Def Leppard in many ways, but it’s not a slavish copycat act – they have their own personality and, if this oh-too-short set is anything to go by – a very decent batch of songs. A tad late, I came in while the band were cranking through the immediately catchy, ‘Every Little Monster’ and already my interest is piqued and my head is nodding. From then the quality of song does not waiver. The band is tight, assured and, horror of horrors, the 5 lads actually look like they are enjoying themselves. Nick Workman’s vocals are simply outstanding – none better exemplified by show closer/stopper ‘Saving Grace’ where the bent note ending to the chorus is not only refreshingly different but also excellently executed. I will spend a day or two plundering their back catalogue (4 albums?!?).
But of course we are here to see Magnum. After a short interval, during which time the hall has rapidly filled almost to capacity, on the veterans come to massive cheers. Those who check setlists beforehand already knew the show would contain a bit of everything – the very old, the ‘prime years’ and the newer material. This is a tour supporting their latest album ‘Sacred Blood & Divine Lies’ after all, not solely a ‘greatest hits’ show. This may disappoint some (there is nothing from the ‘Wings of Heaven’ album for example – despite its commercial success) but those that criticise are missing the point. Magnum are a working band who have continued to record albums and tour for their small but dedicated fan base and do not pander to those who lost interest in 1988 (guilty). So the set list must, by necessity change from tour to tour while still containing the essential tracks. I think this is something to be admired.
‘Soldier of the Line’ kicks the show off from their third album, ‘Chase The Dragon’, and already the crowd are liking what they hear – but second song ‘On A Storyteller’s Night’ is where the crowd really do come alive. Not being one of those who knew the setlist, I was surprised that a ‘biggie’ (if not THE biggie) came so soon in the set. The crowd are singing along to the ‘keep your nightlight burning..’ chorus. One thing, unfortunately, that the power of the band and the enthusiasm of the crowd cannot cover over is that Bob Catley’s voice is struggling a bit. For those who may not know, in his heyday, Cately had one of the finest voices in the genre – with an amazing ability to be bombastic one moment and gentle the next. Tonight though, be it the strain of the tour or too many birthday’s, his voice is a tad one-dimensional and gutteral. Don’t get me wrong, an underpar Cately still kicks the ass of many other singers on their best days, but as the concert progresses is does become my one small disappointment.
But voice aside, Cately is still a showman supreme, and he does so by actually doing little more than using his hands and arms as his means of expressing the lyrics to the songs – like a puppeteer pulling the strings, or the pied piper enchanting his listeners – we are captivated by his movements – only distracted briefly when bassist, Al Barrow, makes a jaunt across stage, or when Cately concedes ground to Barrow, Clarkin and James to let them do their musician thing such as the instrumental section in the middle of the awe-inspiring ‘How Far Jerusalem’.
The musicianship, as you would expect from a band of the class and pedigree of these guys, is flawless but not soulless. The aforementioned Barrow is all grins and shape-pulling, Tony (no longer ‘The Hat’) Clarkin is his usual understated efficiency and Harry James hasn’t played for the bands he has without being the consummate professional. But what sets Magnum apart from many of their peers who only played at having a keyboard player because some A&R man told them to, is the legend himself – Mark Stanway. He is the band’s Wakeman. His keyboard riser takes up a good proportion of the stage, elevating him higher that the rest of the band, and his lush, dextrous keyboard work gives Magnum its trademark atmosphere and texture – again look no further than the immediately recognisable intro to ‘How Far Jerusalem?’, that literally thrums in our guts. Goosebumps time.
What is clear, and this is the other pleasing aspect to tonight’s show is that the material from ‘Sacred Blood..’, while not as well known as the likes of the barnstorming show closer, ‘Vigilante’, which had everyone bouncing, including the deceptively spry Cately, is still strong material. Only unfamiliarity on the behalf of some of the audience causes the less strong response. But, you cannot blame the audience to reserve their biggest cheers and strongest response to songs they grew up with and have loved for over 2 decades. For me, my highlight was ‘Les Morts Dansant’, which I believe is one of the best songs ever written about warfare and has added poignancy in this centenary year of the Battle of the Somme. Once again, Cately acts out the part of the soldier ‘like a ragged old scarecrow’ ‘on the wire’ waiting for the enemy to ‘dispatch their precious cargo’.
After the briefest of time for a towel down (and change of jacket for Cately) the band is back for its well-earned encore. ‘The Spirit’ begins in laid back fashion but finishes with gusto and then the band take us right back to when it all began with a rousing version of ‘Kingdom of Madness’ from their debut album. In two years time it will be the 40th Anniversary of the release of that album. Does the band have many more years left in the tank? I don’t know. But I, and the rest of the Limelight faithful are mighty glad to have been here tonight to witness this truly great, and mightily underrated and unheralded, British Rock band.