Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Gig Review: Mr Big at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, 20 September 2011

As I’ve mentioned before, I avoided Mr Big for  a full 20 years because of their horrific 1991 smash hit To Be With You, only finally coming into the fold with this year’s release of reunion album What If…, then finally got around to adding breakthrough album Lean Into It to my collection (and found that aside from a certain single it was pretty damn fine).

Like most bands comprised of musicians who could actually play their instruments 1992 effectively saw them banished from the upper reaches of the charts (apart from in Grunge-averse Japan, where they remain superstars to this day), so that album could just as well be subtitled Mr Big’s Greatest Hits as far as most people are concerned. Sure enough the set consisted almost entirely of songs from the two albums I own, so despite being a relative Mr Big novice I was still familiar with a good two-thirds of the material. Which was nice.

Kicking off with three Lean tracks in a row (Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy, Alive and Kickin’ and Green-Tinted Sixties Mind) it seemed the audience was a lively crowd populated with die-hards who were well up for a sing-along. This impression was maintained by first new song Undertow, which was treated like a massive hit. Other What If… tracks didn’t get quite the same reception, but they certainly all went down well.

With absolutely no stage set or other enhancements to speak of, this was all about the music. I’m a sucker for a singing drummer, and drummers who play open-handed, so Pat Torpey has swiftly moved up my list of favourites, while guitarist Paul Gilbert and bassist Billy Sheehan both ably demonstrated why they’re so highly regarded in musicians circles.

Strangely Eric Martin’s voice often sounded like little more than a croak when he was speaking, and he seemed to be suffering from a cold of some sorts, but when he was singing, such concerns vanished and the full power of his voice came rushing back. Tantalising for a massive Toto fan like myself to wonder how things would have panned out had they brought him into the fold instead of Joseph Williams all those years ago.

Mention of Toto is apposite – like them Mr Big also come in for criticism from some quarters for the extended solos that are featured in their live shows, and while I can understand that viewpoint I have to say I’m always more than happy for a spot of virtuosity-for-virtuosity’s-sake in a live setting. That said, Billy Sheehan’s solo did go on a bit longer than necessary, and I’d really have preferred a drum solo in the first place, but this is a minor quibble.

Aside from that the only lowlight was – well, you guessed it. Played as the first song in a 4-song encore, To Be With You still hasn’t grown on me, and I don’t imagine it ever will (really it’s only the chorus I hate, but it’s enough to ruin the whole song) but I guess it’s over soon enough and both the band and the audience as a whole still seem to get a kick out of it.

The band more than made up for it with a very credible cover of Smoke on the Water for which the instruments stayed where they were, but the players all rotated one place (in an anticlockwise motion) for the first half of the song, before further instrument-swaps occurred mid-song, allowing Sheehan to move from lead vocalist to lead guitarist for the solo, and generally allowing the whole band to show off – in a different way to how they had for the rest of the night…as the old saying goes, if you’ve got it, flaunt it. And these guys definitely have it. (8/10)

Mr Big l-r: Paul Gilbert, Pat Torpey, Eric Martin, Billy Sheehan

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