Alexander's - Chester

Thursday 13 March 2008

A first time venue for me, Alexanders is a small bar tucked away in the pedestrian friendly heart of picturesque Chester. There's outside seating, and inside, a small bar with a few stairs behind leading to an intimate music area with the band set up at the far end; a few tables are scattered around, and there's standing at the rear and to one side.

So much for scene setting. More to the point, this was the first time I'd seen the Man band since late 2004, since touring since then has been less frequent, and shown a reluctance to venture anywhere vaguely northern. (Not counting Germany).

So I was looking forward to it.

And if you weren't already aware, things have changed quite a bit in the interim. George and Josh are leading the guitar attack, and Phil Ryan is back behind the keyboards. Martin Ace remains Master of Ceremonies emeritus, and Bob Richards remains, well, Bob Richards. With a few more flecks of grey, his days of being the new boy are long gone.

The surprises started early, with Love Your Life setting an aggressive, confident tone. Josh took a solo, and Phil chipped in with some very fine Hammond. Martin was troubled by the sound though, and suspected it was his bass which was causing the problems -

"It's mainly when I play the note C...

...and it's one of the few I know..."

The unexpected continued (we should be used to that by now with this band), as they pulled a rabbit out of the hat labelled Welsh Connection, seen as many as one of their weaker albums. Clearly designed to help Phil Ryan get back into the swing of things, Something is Happening is one of his own, and he took lead vocals, while George did a terrific job of handling the licks originally laid down by his dad and Deke; more aggressive than the original, this was turning into a very impressive performance.

The newer material quite rightly started making an appearence: Diamonds and Coal was excellent, and showed these five people were working together as a cohesive unit, very much a band; George threw in some superb lines towards the end, while Josh remains a very unassuming frontman. I have no problem with this: there's no point him trying to compete with his father, is there?

All Alone featured Phil's keyboards higher in the mix than I recall Gareth's ever being permitted; as it was debuted before the CD release of Diamonds and Coal, it almost seems like an old song now - but it was certainly very well received by an enthusiastic crowd. So was Sudden Life, with Josh taking lead vocals on a performance which somehow managed to capture a sense of a bygone age, while still having a contemporary edge. A clever trick.

Man of Misery, another of the newer songs, featured George and Josh swapping lively solos underpinned by Phil's solid keyboards, and I was slightly surprised to hear Manillo still in the set - though it has evolved slighly, and this version fetured a rather denser sound, with a lot more going on musically in the background.

MACBFGU was the weakest point in the set for me. It was solid, nothing wrong with it really, but I just felt it was included for old times sake, and didn't really go anywhere it hasn't been before. And I thought putting it next to Freedom Fries, the weakest of the songs performed from D&C was a mistake as well, though admittedly the closing section was very good. Romain remains an old faithful, and regains a degree of freshness as different voices take over the vocal parts.

The band came back very strongly though, Shit on the World providing a really forceful ending to the main set. Was it me, or did it get louder? No matter. That was a pretty damn good set. Phil has settled back in without much trouble (albeit with the help of a few crib sheets), and the band's enthusiasm was evident.

So what could they pull out for the encore? Something we don't see that often these days, as one Deke Leonard, newly resident in Chester, was invited up on stage, and Josh gracefully gave up his position. I wasn't sure whether Deke planned on staying, since he hadn't taken his coat off, but I doubt whether the crowd would have permitted him to leave. 7171 was familar to everyone, but even so it was good, breathtakingly good in fact. Phil and Deke were swapping grins, there was a game of Whose solo is it anyway?, and using Josh's Gibson, Deke's playing had a beautiful raw edge; it suited him. An old Manband favourite, this performance was better than it had any right to be.

You'd think it was down to good luck... but no. Not by a long chalk. Daughter was just sublime. Deke is still in good voice, and the song provided a fierce climax to a wonderful night. The whole set was good, but these two encores alone were worth the price of admission.

My whole view of the night was probably skewed by Deke's cameo, but setting that aside, one thing is clear: this version of the Manband is on form, and they mean business.

There are pics from this gig in the Gallery.

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