Thursday, September 13, 2018

Wales of Delight: With Terrific Career-Spanning Set, Stereophonics Show Why They're UK Superstars, Personal Favorites -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

w/ opening act The Ramona Flowers
The Vic Theater, Chicago 
September 11, 2018

I love many of the biggest artists in rock history, across all eras: Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, AC/DC, Prince, Nirvana, Green Day and hundreds more.

An avid concertgoer, just this year I've attended several shows by "household names" (or close to it): U2, Pearl Jam, Foo Fighters, Billy Joel, Journey, Def Leppard, Robert Plant, Neil Young, Radiohead, ELO, Jethro Tull, Steve Winwood, Depeche Mode, David Byrne, The Killers, Arcade Fire, Smashing Pumpkins, even Taylor Swift.

But like everyone--or at least everyone who takes music somewhat seriously, as borne out by virtually every iTunes library I've ever seen--I also cherish several rock acts that can be considered more personal favorites.

Obviously, the music other people may know and appreciate varies greatly and is hard to presume or generalize, but I'm guessing there are many music lovers today who have never heard of The Zombies, The Jam, Dinosaur Jr. or Bob Mould, let alone Alejandro Escovedo, Willie Nile, Maximo Park, Ash or The Wildhearts.

Hailing from Wales, the Stereophonics are likely my #1 still active "personal favorite," a recognition they only enhanced with a fantastic concert Tuesday night at the Vic Theatre in Chicago.

Around the year 2000, with new rock seemingly in a doldrums--it still is, but that's another story--I did a bit of internet searching for bands who were popular in Britain but unknown to me and much of the U.S.

There have been many of these over the years, from the Move to the Jam to Suede, Blur, Pulp and dozens of others I once compiled into a Hidden in the Isles box set.

Presumably with the aid of Napster, I instantly fell in love with what I heard from the second Stereophonics album, 1999's Performance and Cocktails, including "Roll Up and Shine" and "The Bartender and the Thief."

I soon bought it, and then also got the band's 1997's debut, Word Gets Around, which I liked even more.

At the time, and ever since, Stereophonics have been playing arenas & stadiums at home--they've had six #1 albums in the UK--and headlining huge British festivals like Glastonbury, Reading and the Isle of Wight. 

But for whatever reason, they've never made much of a dent in the U.S.

I first saw them do an acoustic show at Chicago's Double Door in 2001, have seen them three times at Metro, attended a show at the Congress Theater that they co-headlined with Howie Day and in December 2003--within a few days of their playing a massive gig at Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales--I saw them play a WXRT holiday concert at the Cubby Bear.

Thanks to my friend Josh knowing someone from WXRT Radio, after that show we were able hang out with the band upstairs, and I met singer/guitarist/songwriter Kelly Jones and bassist Richard Jones, who is not related.

A thrill for me, yes, but I've always wondered how the Stereophonics have dealt with the vast dichotomy of fame on both sides of the Atlantic.

To be honest, I haven't liked any of the Stereophonics eight subsequent studio albums as much as the first two, and though there have been some great songs over the years--"Maybe Tomorrow," "Have a Nice Day," "Dakota," "Bank Holiday Monday," "Indian Summer," "Mr. and Mrs. Smith"--my fervor had waned a bit. (I ranked Stereophonics #19 among my all-time favorite rock bands in 2005, but dropped them to #41 in 2015.)

Still, in buying tickets to their Vic show as soon as it went on sale in March--it wound up being well short of sold out--I was surprised that it had been 10 years since I last saw the Stereophonics live.

My common concert pal Paolo was happy to join me, and Josh and his wife--who I credit myself for converting to a rabid fan--happened to get seats right nearby.

The show was opened by a British band I hadn't heard of called the Ramona Flowers, and Paolo and I instantly agreed that they had a nice sound that reminded of the New Romantic mid-'80's era--Spandau Ballet, OMD, Culture Club, Psychedelic Furs, etc.--without being outright derivative.

With slicked-back hair and black suit, singer Steve Bird conjured up Spandau Ballet's Tony Hadley, as well as Bryan Ferry, at times alternating nicely between croon and falsetto.

I can't name any of the songs they played, but enjoyed several, and you can find The Ramona Flowers on Spotify.

At 8:30pm, the Stereophonics took the stage with a song called "C'est La Vie," and though Kelly Jones' voice has always had a bit of Rod Stewart raspiness to it, at age 44, it still sounds great.

After "Caught by the Wind," the opener of 2017's Scream Above the Sounds, came "A Thousand Trees," from Word Gets Around and still the most powerful song I've ever heard broach the topic of child molestation.

Thirty songs would be played across a robust 2-1/2 hours, with at least one from all 10 studio albums.

Quite pleasing to me, nine tunes came off the first two Stereophonics albums--including "Too Many Sandwiches," "Plastic California," "Same Size Feet," "Traffic" and "Just Looking"--and even a few more would have been welcome.

But although I started to sense a bit of sameness to some of the material midway through, in full the Stereophonics accomplished everything a great concert should.

There was a stellar opening act and the headliners played a generous but not overindulgent show, without repeating exactly what had been played the night before in Toronto.

Songs I knowingly love sounded fantastic, including "A Thousand Trees," "Have a Nice Day," the closing "Dakota" and the phenomenal "Local Boy in the Photograph," a deceptively blistering yet wistful rocker about a young man who threw himself in front of a train.

Songs I only kinda knew--"Geronimo," "I Wanna Get Lost With You," "Sunny"--came across well, and a few I had never known or long-forgotten--"Daisy Lane," "Drowning," "Live 'n' Love"--were passionately delivered in a way that had me looking them up afterward.

Kelly Jones let the crowd--including presumably numerous UK expats who knew the material well--sing along lustily to enhance "Maybe Tomorrow," while drummer Jamie Morrison (the band's third) delectably powered through a few extended codas.

And while I expected the Stereophonics to savor the set-ending applause at about the 2-hour mark, encore with "Dakota" and call it a night, they had the chutzpah to play four slower songs first and have them all sound great. (See the setlist here.)

They even then, after "Dakota," rocked through "Sweet Home Chicago" in a way so surprising it didn't feel trite or pandering.

Just in case the band reads this, I'll cite a couple of other tunes I would've relished hearing--"Roll Up and Shine" and "Billy Davey's Daughter"--but this is meant only as a wish for next time and in no way a gripe.

I wound up a wonderful night with no reason not to award @@@@@ on my 5@ scale, and although I sense this show may not be at the very top of my Best of 2018, there is something special about one of your personal favorite bands proving one's affinity well-warranted all these years down the road.

And even amplifying it anew. 

Here's "Local Boy in the Photograph," from Tuesday night, as found on YouTube:

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