11 December 2018

Review: Damanek / Southern Empire – The Robin 2, 29th Nov 2018

It’s nice to review a healthy double bill and a bonus as I’d not seen either band LIVE before, well that’s not quite true. Having been on site for HRH Prog 7 mid November, the one band I REALLY wanted to check out was Southern Empire, especially as their current album “Civilisation” is (so far) my album of the year….. I managed the first two tracks in-between interviews with Kindred Spirit and Hawkwind !!! The joys of covering a festival for the station you work for I suppose.

Knowing Southern Empire were playing The Robin 2 on the 29th, I didn’t feel so bad, especially as they were off back to their native Australia on 2nd December. Damanek is very much the brainchild of Guy Manning, a very prolific and incredible musician who has very wisely surrounded himself with a band of wandering minstrels of extremely high calibre, including – Sean Timms on Keys (Unitopia, Southern Empire), Luke Machin on Geeetar (Maschine, The Tangent, Francis Dunnery), Dan Mash on Bass (Maschine) . They were first up and gave a startling performance, but I have to admit, I am not that ofe with the band and on the odd occasion I’ve checked out Guy Manning, I feel his voice is very much an acquired taste and even though it was a joint headline act, I was there primarily for the boys from down under so took onboard what Damanek had to offer, complete with Mr Manning’s varied collection of wacky headgear. In fact, during the first few numbers he wore an Indian head-dress – I thought I was witnessing a Jamiroquai tribute !!! The music soon put paid to that notion….. With thought provoking lyrics, complex construction and impeccable musicianship, personally I like to be entertained, but felt the only guy getting his groove on was ol’ Dan Mash on the Bass who was very obviously into the vibe. Overall, a very competent performance, but I have to admit, it did little for me, sorry Guy !!

So, after the obligatory swap out, the Boys from Oz took to the stage around 9.30 and if you’re familiar with their current musical output (2 albums to date), you’ll know that their songs tend to be a bit on the long side. In fact, Southern Empire hold the record for the longest track I’ve ever played on my show (“The Lost Art” – Every Sunday 4.00-7.00pm on Midlands Metalheads Radio boys’n girls) – “The Crossroads” from their latest album and so it was, during their 75 minute set (plus encore) we had a total of five songs – hell yea !!!

Kicking off with the first track (“Forest Fire”) off their debut album, this was a whole different ball game. I’ve always said a band can rise or fall not so much on the standard and quality of their music, but the calibre of their front man, the vocalist. Have you ever noticed when you’ve been to a gig before, most of the time, everyone’s eyes are on the front man (Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, Jon Anderson to name but a few).In fact, there are bands still doing the rounds where (without going into detail) the front man is the only original member and you know who I’m on about !!! Likewise, there have been times when a band’s vocalist departs (in one way or another) and there’s a public outcry – “It’s not x without y in the band….”

Well, tonight’s performance is took to the next level by Danny Lopresto, who visually comes across more Prodigy than Prog, complete with Mohican, eye liner, shaved head and multiple studs and earrings, a totally radical dude with probably one of the best voices in modern Prog, up there with Ted Leonard as far as I’m concerned, but with a personality and attitude that is sorely lacking in many Prog bands on the scene at the moment. Having been to hundreds if not thousands of gigs over the years, it takes a lot to impress me and keep me interested these days as so many bands take to the stage, play for 70 – 90 mins with an obligatory “thank you” inbetween songs plus the odd intro (“We wrote this song after reading the entire works of Harold Wilson”).

Guys, when we attend a gig, I suppose it’s took as read that you know how to play your instruments and that you know how to play your latest album live, but for me, a live performance should be a show, a memorable few hours that will live in our memories long after we leave the venue half deaf. My wife told me about a Linkin Park gig she went to with my eldest daughter where the band pulled a young lad (not literally) out of the audience, he played guitar on one of their tracks alongside the band, live on stage before hundreds of fans, I think it’s highly likely that lad and everyone in the auditorium will never forget that night, d’ya understand where I’m coming from ??? Basically, it should be about much more than the music (well I think so anyway)……

I’m quoting Steve Wilson here – “…once you get over the initial thrill of actually seeing the musicians up there on stage, it’s not enough. For me, it has to be a show, not a recital”  (I rest my case)

Tonight’s gig, we had a “show”. Six incredible musicians, an awesome setlist and long songs – what more could a dedicated Prog fan want or need !!

Out of the four tracks on the latest album, we had three including the aforementioned epic “The Crossroads” plus the incredible “Goliath’s Moon” which must surely qualify for this year’s Prog Earworm coz once heard, it’s never forgotten and if Spotify is an accurate gauge, their most popular at the moment.

Sean Timms, the mastermind behind it all, stands vigilant at the back of the stage behind a battery of keyboards, happy to let his fellow bandmates (Cam Blokland – Guitars, Brody Green – Drums, Jez Martin – Bass) take the limelight. He may be the brains behind the band, but is both a humble and extremely competent conductor and ringleader. With every member of the band more than capable of handling the vocals, one of the band’s strengths is the close vocal harmonies, evident both live and on the studio albums, but rounded off with a powerful lead vocalist and performer extraordinaire, Danny Lopresto.

In conclusion, all I can say is, this gig has to be one of the highlights of this reviewer’s year. A perfect example of musicianship and showmanship and I think I speak for many when I say, we can’t wait for their return, absolutely superb. Danny, you d’man.……………

(Many thanks to Mark Grocutt for providing the pix !!!)