Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Concert Review--SKILLET with SICK PUPPIES and DEVOUR THE DAY (Marquee Theater in Tempe, AZ, Sunday, March 12, 2017)


Sometimes the unexpected is the most fun.  Case in point; my wife and I were in Surprise, AZ this past weekend to follow my (well, now OUR) beloved Kansas City Royals baseball team at Spring Training.  With an afternoon game on Sunday, we had all evening to find something to do.  As luck would have it, Skillet and their Unleashed Tour were playing in Tempe, AZ that night.  Being a huge fan of the band...as is my wife...we decided to snag tickets and head over to the show, which also featured Sick Puppies, with Devour The Day opening.

For those who have never been there, the Marquee Theater in Tempe is a moderate-sized venue, with a capacity of roughly 2,500 people.  It is also an all-ages venue, despite the fact that there is a full bar set up as soon as you walk into the venue, and the age range for the show was 5-6 years old to mid-fifties, and perhaps even a bit older.  I would estimate the average age of the show was probably about 25 or so.

The extremely long line (it ran almost two full blocks in length) moved very quickly, and the event staff was very professional and very polite, which is always a plus when dealing with security. Despite the fact that we arrived 30 minutes before doors, and a full hour before Devour The Day went on, we found ourselves facing an already packed venue, as we were definitely toward the back of the line to get in.   However, due to the unique layout of The Marquee, there was not a bad position to be standing in in the entire house.  I say standing in because there are absolutely no seats on the main floor (unless there were a few in the bar area that I didn't notice), and only a small handful in the balconies.  Plus, even standing directly behind the sound board, which is where my wife and I situated ourselves, we were no more than 80 or 90 feet from the stage, so this is a great "intimate" environment for a venue that holds this many people.  I was impressed right away.

Devour The Day opened the show, and while I have heard of the band, the only song I could name was "Good Man", and that's only from hearing them on Octane on Sirius/XM.  The band put on an extremely high-energy show, with a lot of crowd interaction...including some crowd surfing from lead singer, Blake Allison.  While many people in the crowd acknowledged that they had not heard of the band or did not own the band's newest album, S.O.A.R., everyone was still very much into the show and got themselves highly involved in the seven song set, which included most of the band's charting songs to this point.  The bass player was extremely active on stage, and I am sure he woke up rather stiff and sore from snapping his neck all over the place for the roughly 35 minutes the band was on stage.  I particularly enjoyed Allison's voice and vocal approach, and the band clearly enjoyed themselves on stage.  My wife became an immediate fan and has informed me she will be owning both S.O.A.R. and their debut disc, Time & Pressure.

Devour The Day's setlist:

  1. S.O.A.R
  2. Good Man **
  3. Save Yourself
  4. Blackout
  5. You And Not Me **
  6. The Bottom
  7. Respect **
** personal favorites from the set

After about a 15 minute stage changeover, Sick Puppies was up next.  This would be the third time I have seen Sick Puppies, but the first since Bryan Scott replaced Shimon Moore as lead singer.  As such, I was far more familiar with this band's material, as was my wife who owns three Sick Puppies discs.  

The band came thundering out to a very large welcome from the crowd, and immediately kicked into "War" and "Riptide", two of the older songs in the set list for the evening.  I particularly like "War" and it's aggressive style, and Scott proved himself very much capable of handling the older material, which I was curious to hear in a live setting.  On the third song of the set, "Stick To Your Guns", Devour The Day's vocalist, Blake, came out for the second verse and the remaining choruses of the song, much to the delight of the crowd, who were obviously won over by his previous performance.  His grittier, harsher vocal style worked very well on this song, and I think it would be interesting to hear him collaborate with Sick Puppies on a future effort (hint, hint).

Bassist, Emma Anzai, presented herself very much as the rock star that she has become, absolutely dominating with both her stage presence and her high levels of musicianship on the bass.  The crowd, which included probably 30% girls/women, were very receptive to Emma throughout the evening, especially on the couple of occasions where she took the mic to address the crowd.  One such occasion was when she introduced the song, "Odd One", which she stated was an autobiographical song about growing up and not fitting in with her peers.  The crowd reacted very positively to the message being delivered here.  Although she has done so occasionally on the band's records, Emma did not take the front-and-center position as the lead vocalist for any of the songs in the set for the evening, although her backing vocals were definitely felt throughout the set.  

Perhaps I am in the minority, but I actually prefer Scott's vocals to those of Moore.  It's not that I have a particular issue with Moore's style or delivery, I just feel that Scott's voice is the more powerful of the two, and he has a stage presence and charisma that serves the band well.  Included in the set were several songs from the album, Fury, which is the first to have Scott as the lead vocalist.  I was particularly happy to hear "Black And Blue" live, as I think that song really showcases the new version of the band about as well as anything they have released to this point.  "Where Do I Begin" from the latest record was also included, and the band wrapped up their set with the catchy and infectious, "You're Going Down".

One interesting note, which I will touch on later, is the fact that several of the band's bigger hits were not included in the set list, including "There's No Going Back" and "Gunfight".

Sick Puppies setlist:
  1. War **
  2. Riptide
  3. Stick To Your Guns
  4. Odd One
  5. Let Me Live **
  6. Maybe
  7. All The Same
  8. Where Do I Begin
  9. Black And Blue **
  10. You're Going Down **
**personal faves from the set

There was roughly a 20-30 minute intermission as the set was changed over for Skillet.  This included clearing away the other bands' equipment and setting up some rather unique-looking stands and sets of stairs running up to an elevated drum kit.  

Shortly after set up, the lights began to pulsate and an extended introduction for Skillet's "Invincible" kicked off, as the band burst onto the stage and launched themselves head-first through a 17 song set that covered pretty much every hit and single released by the band from 2004's Collide, 2006's Comatose, 2009's Awake, 2013's Rise, and the new album, and tour's namesake, 2016's Unleashed.  

How John Cooper, the band's leader, lead singer, bassist, and sole remaining founder, is able to move the day after a show is beyond me.  I have been to any number of hard rock and metal shows throughout the years, but it is a very small number of performers that exude as much sheer energy and physical output in a single performance.  The way he throws himself into every song is absolutely amazing to me, and yet he still manages to connect with the crowd in a very intimate way.  In fact, he stopped the show several times to acknowledge people in the crowd by name (granted, he got the name wrong a couple of times), to explain the meaning of certain songs, to dedicate the song "Hero" to his "own personal hero, Jesus Christ", and even to allow one young man to propose to his now-fiancee.  Truly great stuff from a band that was obviously the main reason for the vast majority of the crowd's attendance at this show.

Skillet's light show is definitely top-notch, with various different color schemes used throughout the night, and multiple lasers, strobes, and spots used in different combinations on each song.  There were also several pre-recorded intros and outros for several songs, and there is no doubt that some pre-recorded backing vocals were used in spots, although drummer, Jen Ledger, and guitar player/keyboard player, Korey Cooper, also could be heard to add their live backing and co-lead vocals to several songs.  Do not mistake this for me saying that any portion of the show was lip-synched, for I do not believe that to be the case at all, as John personalized lyrics in several spots and altered the vocal delivery patterns from the records on numerous occasions.  I have also heard people knocking John for his change in vocal styles throughout the years, saying that he no longer sings, but rather shouts throughout all of the band's songs now.  That could not be farther from the truth, in my opinion, as he proved he is more than capable of singing...when the song calls for it...as is the case with the band's current hit single, "Stars", which he  emotionally dedicated to a mother in the crowd who had unexpectedly lost her son whom she had promised to take to a Skillet show.  

The guitar tandem of Korey Cooper and Seth Morrison is a formidable one, with the former handling most of the rhythm work, while the latter ripped through solo after solo all through the evening.  I also found it to be a cool touch that the band, who is known for incorporating synthesized string sections in many of their songs, also brought out an unnamed, and masked, cellist to play along with many of their biggest hits.  For my wife, the amazing part of the evening was the ability of Ledger to be able to sing along while drumming in such a high-energy, borderline violent manner.  Ledger was also brought out from behind the kit to share co-lead vocals for one song, with a guest drummer (I'm guessing the band's drum tech) filling in very capably.  

I had wanted to see Skillet live for some time, and to say I was impressed would be an understatement.  I would not hesitate to go see the band again, even on this tour, as they put on that good of a show.  So glad we had the opportunity to attend...

Skillet's setlist:
  1. Invincible
  2. Whispers In The Dark **
  3. Sick Of It
  4. Rise
  5. Back From The Dead
  6. Awake And Alive
  7. Not Gonna Die
  8. Hero **
  9. Those Nights
  10. Undefeated **
  11. Comatose **
  12. The Last Night **
  13. Stars
  14. Out Of Hell
  15. Monster
  16. Rebirthing **
  17. The Revolution (encore) **
** personal faves from the set

One final note on something I alluded to earlier.  The Unleashed Tour is definitely family friendly, as there were little children scattered throughout the venue, and, as expected, a large number of people who were wearing various Christian rock t-shirts.  Not a single swear word was uttered from the stage, which I have told is something that Skillet insists upon, although I cannot verify that at all.  If it is the case, that would explain the absence of a couple of Sick Puppies' bigger songs, as they both contain f*bombs in the lyrics.  I must say, it was extremely refreshing to hear all of the bands, including Devour The Day and Sick Puppies, expressing positive energy and putting positive spins on some of their most well-known songs, with no swearing or negativity coming from anyone.  I'm not a prude by any means, but it was definitely cool to be able to be surrounded by so many people without anyone being offended by anything coming from the stage....or from anyone around me, for that matter.

A great venue that I would recommend to anyone, and a killer concert that I encourage everyone to try to get out and see.  I will be seeing Skillet live again, no question.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

TOKYO MOTOR FIST "Tokyo Motor Fist"

(c) 2017 Frontiers Records

  1. Pickin' Up The Pieces
  2. Love Me Insane
  3. Shameless
  4. Love
  5. Black And Blue
  6. You're My Revolution
  7. Don't Let Me Go
  8. Put Me To Shame
  9. Done To Me
  10. Get You Off My Mind
  11. Fallin' Apart
Ted Poley--Lead Vocals
Steve Brown--Guitars, Vocals
Greg Smith--Bass
Chuck Burgi--Drums

When I was first sent this album for review, I have to admit to being rather underwhelmed at the prospects.  Ted Poley is a fun guy to meet and a really good singer, but outside of a handful of songs, I was never much of a Danger Danger fan.  A lot of the songs just didn't do anything for me.  And Steve Brown was always, in my mind, a really, really good guitar player in the talented, but not overly memorable Trixter.  I liked them more than Danger Danger, and their 2015 effort was a surprisingly good return for Trixter, but there were too many moments in the band's catalog where I felt like the songs were thrown together around Brown's prodigious guitar soloing and lacked much in the way of substance or originality.  And both Smith and Burgi are accomplished musicians in their own right, but both have been supporting roll players, to be fair, and didn't do anything to up my enthusiasm at the idea of a "supergroup" forming here.  I was anticipating a rather bland, derivative sounding band with some rehashed guitar licks and overly-cliched lyrics

Yeah...wrong.

Rather than sounding like Poley fronting Trixter, Tokyo Motor Fist (do I want to know what the name means???) is a hard-hitting, melodic rock monster that bears more than a passing resemblance to the best stuff that Trixter ever recorded, with a healthy dose of Nelson, Bon Jovi, and even Hysteria-era Def Leppard thrown into the mix.  Take for example the huge, arena-shaking opener, "Picking Up The Pieces".  Big, pulsating drums, a catchy riff, sweeping guitar solo, and sing-along chorus were the perfect combination for a massive MTV hit in the late 80s/early 90s, and they work exceptionally well here, also.  Yet, despite the fact that this should sound dated, it absolutely doesn't.  Yeah, yeah, this isn't the type of rock hitting the radio waves these days, but this doesn't sound like a cutting room floor leftover track, as it is injected with so much power and punch...along with a modern crispness to the production that wasn't to be found in those glory days gone by.   

"Love" does have something of a Danger Danger feel to it, but it is mixed with a Def Leppard vibe, as well, creating a very well-executed ballad that doesn't get too airy or dreamy in the production, nor does Poley come across as too sugary or sappy in his vocal approach.  If this song comes out in 1989 and not 2017, it is guaranteed that "Love" would have been included in every Monster Ballads compilation ever made, and Zippos would have threatened the fire codes of every venue the band would have played in.  "Don't Let Me Go" rivals its album-mate for best ballad here, with its emotional chorus, sweeping guitar solo, and heartfelt acoustic guitar line that really serve to enhance one of the best performances I have ever heard from Poley on a ballad.  Color me impressed here.

"Get You Off My Mind" spans the gap between balladry and rocker here, and reminds me of so much of the best mid-tempo stuff Def Leppard did on Hysteria and Adrenalize.  There's the nice, slow build, the big melodic hook, the layered vocals, a tasty little solo, and a sing along chorus very much in the same vein as "Hysteria", "Animal", "Have You Ever Needed Someone So Bad", etc.  Really, really good stuff here.
  
As far as the rockers go, there are so many great ones to choose from here, it is actually hard to pin down just one or two as favorites.  "Love Me Insane" is definitely a contender for me, with its big hook, ripping solo, and some of the best vocal work I have ever heard from Poley, all wrapped into one song.  "Black N Blue" is a nice rocker with a bit of a guitar punch, and I already mentioned the album opener which really sets the stage, in my opinion.  But if forced to nail down one track as the pinnacle for me, I think "You're My Revolution" would be my choice, as it is one of the most driving tracks on the record, with some really good drum work given a bit more punch here than on some of the other tracks, and the guitars are charging hard right out of the gate.  "Put Me To Shame" gets some serious consideration, also, with its early Leppard guitar tone...not to mention the COMPLETELY Leppard-esque backing vocals on the chorus...colliding with a song that would've fit in as one of the better Danger Danger songs from the first two records.  I also really enjoy "Shameless", which, like several other tracks here, would've been all over MTV and radio 25 years ago.

To my mind, this has the feel of a best of record, because there is no truly weak song here.  I would venture to guess the band recorded a LOT of songs before selecting these 11 as the ones to represent the band on this debut record.  The flow is flawless, there are no weak songs, and the musicianship is top notch.  And as to Poley, I do not think he has ever sounded better anywhere, including the Danger Danger or Poley/Rivera releases, which is saying something, in my mind.  The production is crystal clear, the mix is stellar...I honestly don't have much negative to say about Tokyo Motor Fist other than I have no clue what the name means!

Mine is a digital review copy, so I cannot make any comments on packaging at this time.

Rating:  Definitely a crank-worthy effort from a band I really, REALLY hope is more than a one-album-supergroup!  Crank this to 9!

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