Fluffrick Gets Rocked.

In my early middle age, I’ve become quite the fan of live music.

Perhaps it’s because I grew up in a small town where the opportunity to see bands just didn’t exist – you occasionally got lucky and saw a bill with local group or two but places like Scarborough, where I grew up, were more attuned to nightclubs of the ‘get drunk as quickly as possible and have a fight’ variety than those offering new bands and live rock n’ roll.

When the opportunity to see a gig comes along these days, I tend to jump at it – which brings me to last night’s revelries with Steel Panther, Motley Crue and Def Leppard at Sheffield’s utterly glamorous* Motorpoint Arena (*I’m guessing that ‘impersonal, freezing cold, overpriced cattle shed-made-good’ wouldn’t fit easily on the venue’s advertising).

Perhaps in a bid to prepare us for the chilly conditions inside the venue, the gig queue for my part of the arena was such that ticket holders were subject to a freezing ten minute wait in the frigid December air, which at least gave me time to behold such incidental joys as the choir of guys behind me who were belting out Journey songs with such Elan that I could have sworn they were auditioning for New Directions, or the fellow in front of me who had chosen this most inopportune  night to don a black leather kilt.  Very glam and on message but it looked absurdly cold.

Getting through the door and eschewing the kind offer of a £15.00 programme – that’s the price of a hardback novel, for Lemmy’s sake! – I took the opportunity to find my seat and avoid a repeat experience of my last visit to the Arena, for Iron Maiden earlier this year, wherein after a right old shambles I found my rightful place amongst the sainted and be-seated elderly massive.

By some quirk of fate, this time I was seated amongst the young set (Facebook fans one and all, judging by their permanently attached iPhones) and that alone surprised me:  I could see them turning up to see openers Steel Panther, but the co-headliners are not exactly in the first flush of youth or that prominent to the ‘Kerrang! TV’ viewers of the world.  Would they really be up to come out and see two bands whose most successful albums were out at least a decade before these guys were born?

Well, as it turns out, age seems to be no barrier to enjoying music and the vintage of these bands wasn’t a factor – Crue and Leppard have been around for as long as they have by putting on fantastic shows and amassing a back catalogue of songs which provide a proverbial jukebox of hits to choose from.

Providing a much-needed boost to the fortunes of hairspray manufacturers, Los Angeles' own Metal Jesters, Steel Panther.

The opening act faced the prospect of playing to a still-filling Arena, but did so with good grace, winning over the crowd progressively with a blend of expertly observed Hair Metal pastiches and ever more ludicrous on-stage, between-song banter.

You know that you’re going to get the odd chuckle from Steel Panther – Their schtick is very much based around single entendre, naughty schoolboy wit married to perfectly observed parodies of the staple Whitesnake, Bon Jovi and Van Halen songs that you know and love.  What you might not guess is that the playing and performance holds up very well live – musically this band is absolutely convincing – guitarist Satchel, in particular, has the guitar chops of Eddie Van Halen and an easy double act chemistry with singer Michael Starr.

Very little of the show seemed to be artificially enhanced and the band’s musicianship was exemplary.

Crue drummer Tommy Lee has been open about ‘not getting’ Steel Panther, which is his prerogative, but this band can’t be faulted on their live performance and shouldn’t be dismissed as a Metal novelty act just because they’re as adept with character comedy as they are with song writing.

I might have doubted that they could pull off the songs live but I needn’t have worried – they’re utterly priceless and well worth a view on their Spring 2012 UK tour.

Behold, the hellions of the Sunset Strip!

Motley Crue, then, are renowned for the spectacle and fury of their live show and they absolutely didn’t disappoint in this slightly streamlined co-headline slot.

The first point to grasp about this band is that this is rock as theatre – the visuals are at least as important as the music and the band don’t miss an opportunity to use the video screens, abrupt pyro explosions or other staging techniques to add to the presentation of their show.

I knew that Crue have been starting with their tune “Wild Side” of late and are believers in the art of beginning with a bang but was still wrong-footed by the fireworks and percussive assault of the opening riff – THIS is how you begin a show.

It helps that the band have that previously alluded-to catalogue of big sing-along hits and party starters to programme their set with.  Other than some arguably lesser-known recent stuff from their “Saints of Los Angeles” record, this was a Greatest Hits package and it would be a hard to win over super fan who couldn’t say that they had heard their favourite tune in the ninety-minute slot allotted to the band.

We got a slightly tetchy performance of the band’s dewy-eyed, road warrior ballad “Home Sweet Home” with Tommy Lee on piano cussing out the crowd for not joining in more, but I felt that it was less likely that the audience weren’t on side but more likely weren’t that familiar with it – it’s not as though the band had a hit over here in the UK with the song in the 80’s and it’s quite probable that most people at the show don’t have the same degree of affection for it as US fans would do.

Plus, if I’m being entirely honest, the song’s more than a little generic, prime ‘wave your Zippo, now’ fare, to be honest.

Lee’s comments about Steel Panther did come back to bite him in his frequently exposed ass during last night’s set – whatever you might say about the openers, their singer can at least sing (which is kind of essential to the job description, wouldn’t you say?) – at times, Vince Neil’s efforts to hold notes and wail resembled a puppy who has just got his tail trapped in a door and is wailing the place down.  He’s a compelling front man and a ball of energy from first song to curtain call, but his vocals are not what you would call brilliant..

Highlights – clearly the Tommy Lee drum interlude.  He promised a 360 degree drum kit and he delivered – it was an astonishing bit of theatre and more than adequately distracted you from the undeniable fact that you were watching a drum solo, which is usually the cue for any person of reasonable self-respect to head for the merch stand or the bar.  That wasn’t really an option here – Lee does wail on his kit for a few minutes, but there’s a gut-punching dubstep backing track playing along side, so you’re getting a song rather than a Spinal Tap-style, ‘Jazz Odyssey’ instrumental meander.  Added to that are eye-popping video projections and lights which all work brilliantly in tandem.

He deserved the standing ovation that he received from the audience.  Was it style over substance?  Very probably, but many ticket holders last night paid to see Motley Crue deliver a SHOW and that’s what they gave us – very flashy, very theatrical, very over the top and very compelling.

They may not be musical virtuosos or have anything much to say in their lyrics – lots of posturing, lots of middle-finger salutes, not much in terms of constructive solutions to the current global financial malaise – but Motley Crue are master showmen with an unarguable line in classic, snotty-nosed, punk-inflected, banging metal party classics.  I’ve used the line about this show being a hits jukebox once before but there’s no better way to explain it – I may bitch slightly about aspects of their show but the cumulative spectacle is one which was worth the ticket price on its own.  Anecdotally, there were a few conversations going around me after Crue’s set which seemed to suggest that Def Leppard had an uphill battle on their hands to match their Los Angeles’ compatriots performance.

To that point? Never bet against the home town advantage.

Steel City's favourite sons.

Crue had the fury and bluster and effects to distract you from some of the rougher spots in their show but Leppard are known as a band who are synonymous with the word ‘polished’.  There was some concern on my part that they would be a well-rehearsed, standardized machine of a band who were glossy but not more than that.

I’m always delighted when such worries are completely and utterly blown out of the water.

Leppard were always bound to get a heroes reception in their home city and could have coasted on that expectation.  Happily, their show was every bit as exciting and involving as the Crue set, just for different reasons.

Where Nikki Sixx and Tommy Lee are keen to take the audience on an X-rated pantomime ride through the seamier side of rock’s back street dives, the Leppard show is a gleaming, high-tech affair with a deceptively simple stage set – tons of video screens and projections and lighting which is essentially hidden from view until it’s called-upon, wherein you suddenly find yourself getting wholly unexpected Lazik eye surgery from purple spotlights and all manner of visual stimuli.

Both bands are – to be upfront – knocking on a fair bit but Leppard don’t seem to have that memo.

Singer Joe Elliott bounds around the stage and works the crowd in the manner of a band front man who has been doing this kind of thing for thirty years – it’s to his credit that he doesn’t appear to be going through the motions and that his vocals don’t particularly suffer for his exertions.

This extends to the rest of the band – they’re active, crisscrossing the stage and having a fair amount of interplay with the audience.  The songs are also subject to a degree of revision and redrafting – “Bringing on the Heartbreak” is largely rendered acoustically as part of a ten minute segment which sees Elliott, bassist Rick Savage and guitarists Phil Collen and Vivian Campbell taking to a runway which juts out from the main stage.

Leppard don’t go in for as many solos as the other two bands on the bill – though Rick Allen does get a brief and nifty drum interlude which is blessed with brevity and flows organically out of the instrumental “Switch 625”.

You could make the argument that this band’s practiced professionalism doesn’t leave much room for spontaneity or off-the-cuff improvisation but I’m not sure that I care much for the other side of the coin with the current line-up of Guns N’ Roses, say, and their penchant for heading on stage at 11:00pm – the timings for this show were all posted on the venue’s website ahead of time and seemed to be absolutely set in stone.  No room for Axl-esque shenanigans here.

All I know about Leppard is that this home town crowd came truly alive when they arrived on stage – everybody stood in the seated sections, every body danced and – get this – put away their mobile devices for a second.  Nary a tweet was made – and Facebook status updates seemed to momentarily idle.  In this era, that kind of musical alchemy marks this band out as minor miracle workers.  I say ‘minor’ as not even Leppard’s unifying catalogue of back-to-back hits and deep album cuts could seem to inspire the assembled masses to sing in tune.

And yes, I include myself in that assessment – lots of enthusiasm and no discernible vocal talent: This is but one of the reasons that I’m not on stage.

At the end of the night, Joe promised that Leppard would be back in the near future as long as we keep turning out to see them.  I suspect that he and the band doesn’t have to worry about the prospect of not being able to draw a crowd any time soon on the evidence of this excellent show.

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