If there’s one thing that tonight’s gig, along with another recent one, has taught me it’s that siblings (or other relations) of more famous musicians don’t necessarily pull in an audience.
When we arrived at the Duchess tonight Scream Arena were already on stage – start times seem to be getting earlier – and we only caught the last three songs of their set. The first opened with a heavy bass and drum but soon morphed into something sounding more like Led Zeppelin, while Forever and Knave Of Hearts each seemed to increase the “rock” sound. Each song was punctuated by guitar solos from, I think, Alex Mullings who also provided some nice backing vocals, along with drummer Mario Bennison, over Andy Paul’s at time impressively ear-splitting screamed vocals. I’ve seen this band a couple of time before but not for over two years and, although I recognised the name, I didn’t recognise them. Looking back at past reviews, it seems that they were growing on me and, while three songs perhaps isn’t quite enough to form a full opinion, there was nothing in tonight’s performance to suggest that they won’t continue to do so. I’m hoping it won’t be two more years before I see them again. At least three brought along a few of their own fans, without whom the place would have been very empty.
Steve Rodgers is the son of Paul (formerly of Free, Bad Company and, in my opinion, an ill-advised attempt to keep the Queen brand live) and, in terms of looks, you can tell. A carpet had been laid out after Scream Arena had left the stage and Rodgers performed the vast majority of his set seated on a chair in the middle of it, with a single glitter lamp adding to the slight “hippy” feel of the layout. After his first song, Freedom, Rodgers introduced his backing band and, making light of the rather sparse audience, asked, “who are you?” The ballad 100 Times was followed by The River, which showcased an apparent spiritual side as Rodgers introduced it as about “the river of life”. The song itself has a nice, almost gentle, rhythm throughout the first section before it suddenly gets livelier. A switch to electric guitar gave Runaway Train a more Bluesy sound, after which Rodgers continued to engage with the audience, asking what was worth seeing in York. Strangely, nobody seemed to be able to recommend anything. Sticking with the electric, Rodgers changed to a finger-picking style of playing for the next song which, with his drummer on shaker and tom-tom and minimal bass showcased his distinctive vocals and, once again, built beautifully. It was back to acoustic for the next song – the first of two that were introduced as “this is called…” before the title was mumbled away from the microphone. Rodgers had a relaxed style and an easy rapport with the, to him, near-invisible audience. After a couple of slower, gentler songs, the next was faster and vocally, with it’s repeated lyric “went down to the river”, had a slightly Gospel sound, while Sunshine had a sort of Indian feel to it, reminiscent of sitar and tantric chanting and, again, giving the act a hippy air. The final song of the set saw Rodgers finally standing up and singing acapella, with more Gospel style vocals and all three musicians clapping along to the rhythm. Rodgers’ easy-going style and strong vocals and the variances in terms of music style, made his set enjoyable but, for me, there was nothing stand-out enough for me to buy the CD that was on sale tonight. Having said that, I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing him again.
I have a reasonably vivid (for me) memory of when I first came across Deborah Bonham. It was 1985 in the sadly-missed Red Rhino Records in York and the sleeve of her debut album, For You And The Moon, leapt out at me in a combination of attractive young woman on the sleeve and a surname that just had to mean she was related to Led Zeppelin’s John. This was, of course, before the days of the internet and, even after buying (and enjoying) the album, it was many years before I found out that she was, in fact, his younger sister. Despite not having played the album for an even longer time (I haven’t had the means to play vinyl for years) her name stayed on my radar and I was disappointed when an advertised support slot at The Duchess last year was soon cancelled. Tonight she was headlining the same venue, her first ever performance in York, and there was little that was going to keep me away. Sadly, there didn’t seem to be the same attraction for many locals and, while the audience had by now swelled slightly, there was still room for some of its members to move chairs up to the stage barrier.
At first glance you could be forgiven for thinking that Ms Bonham is a British, albeit taller, version of Stevie Nicks – the faux-medieval style dress (long and comprised of crushed velvet with flouncy sleeves), the long blonde hair, the bare feet (hence, presumably, the carpet). Once she starts performing, however, there is a big difference. Bonham’s style is Blues-based rock (and nearly a world away from the more mainstream debut album), which shouldn’t have surprised me given the number of times Chantel McGregor has mentioned performing with her at Blues festivals. After a short, rocky opener, she took time to acknowledge the audience, seemingly not phased by the lack of numbers. She seemed quite happy that people had turned out at all and certain that there would be more next time she played York. Since For You And The Moon Bonham has only released three albums, the latest, Spirit, so far only available on this tour. Feel So Alive, from it, and Jack Past 8 from her last album, the appropriately titled (for tonight, anyway) Duchess saw Bonham energetically dancing around the carpet, arms waving and apparently directing her drummer. Pretty Thing was dedicated to a member of the audience who had sent Bonham a card and some wine then there was a change in tone, with I Need Love not only slowing the pace but being much more soulful and emotional both on terms of the vocals and Bonham’s physical performance. It also included a great bass line from Ian Rowley, one of the most chilled out bass players I have come across, playing perhaps the most beautiful bass guitar I have ever seen. Rowley moved to mandolin for Fly, another track from the new album and it was during this song that I noticed that Bonham’s necklace was in the three-circle shape of her brother’s Led Zeppelin sigil. Spirit In Me saw the instrument “musical chairs” continue, with keyboard player Gerald Louis briefly moving to acoustic guitar, while Painbirds saw him back on keyboards which were both more prominent and haunting. Bonham was clearly enjoying herself, flashing wide smiles (and sipping whisky) between songs, frequently reaffirming her gratitude that we had made the effort to come out to see her and explaining the background to some of the tracks. Take Me Down was written years ago but the full version, featured on Spirit, was so liked by the band that they decided to release it as a single, with a video and were excited and pleased to find out that it was number one in Reverbnation’s rock chart, despite feeling that it had more of a country style and by her own admission, not actually knowing what being number one on Reverbnation meant. Grace saw another change in style, this time to a more heavy Blues sound and it became noticeable that Bonham wasn’t afraid to back off to allow band members room to showcase their solos. The brilliant No Angel was a return to the more soulful vocals, this time over Blues music – it was both mellow and passionate somehow mixed into one with Bonham kneeling and pulling the microphone stand down towards her one minute then standing and stamping the rhythm as her vocals got more powerful towards the end of the song. Duchess was the only song that could be said to reinforce the Stevie Nicks image, heavily featuring Louis’s keyboards and powerful drumming while Devil’s In New Orleans was more upbeat and catchy, almost poppy, with Bonham, on tambourine, and those of the band who were free to move about making full use of the stage area. The almost raucous ending of that song was counterpointed by the final song of the set. The Old Hyde, named after the farm she grew up on, was written for lost family members, to celebrate their lives. “C’mon Bonzo,” came a shout from the audience as the keyboard-drenched opening led into powerfully emotional vocals. This truly was a song to lose yourself in and you could almost have heard a pin drop as Bonham, eyes closed, swayed along to a short, subtle guitar interlude. The mood was lifted once again with the encore with the drummer recreating John Bonham’s most famous introduction as the band launched into Led Zeppelin’s Rock And Roll, a fitting tribute performed with unrestrained vocals.
The small crowd proved to be a slight bonus at the end of the night. After a few minutes, Bonham came out to sign CDs for anybody who wanted her to, greeting each person with a hug and taking time to chat with them properly, her only complaint being the lack of light near the merchandise table. A brilliant performance from a true professional and thoroughly nice lady, I hope that she does return to York and that, if she does, more people make the effort to see her.