Exactly eleven months later than planned, Black Stone Cherry were able to return to the O2 Apollo Manchester for the 6th night of their 16 date UK tour. With it being 2021 and the world still not being back to normal yet, each attendee had to start the evening by proving they don’t have the dreaded COVID-19 before they were allowed to enter the venue. However, the additional formalities on the way in didn’t prevent my excitement of finally being back in a gig venue in Manchester for the first time in 581 days.
With fans pouring into the stunning art deco venue, tonight’s support band Kris Barras Band took to the massive stage to start their set. Taking the possibly risky option of opening with a brand-new track “Dead Horses” released less than a week ago, their gamble seemed to have paid off as there were a few people on the barrier singing along and those that had yet to hear the new track were nodding their heads along to the beat. That was until technical difficulties hit towards the end of the song when lead vocalist Kris Barras’s microphone and guitar suddenly stopped working. Acting like a true professional Barras made light of the situation stating, “I just thought you thought we were shit” and joking that someone had forgotten to pay the electricity bill. Within a minute everything was fixed, and the band were able to continue. Throughout the rest of the bands set they treated us to renditions of tracks from their previous three albums as well as several new tracks and even threw in a cover of “Going Down” by The Alabama State Troupers from good measure.
Highlights of the set were the new track “My Parade” which is sure to be a feature of their sets for years to come when it is released next month and arguably the bands biggest track ‘Hail Mary’ which had the crowd singing the title of the track when instructed to, getting progressively louder with each chorus. Barras mentioned that he and the band will be returning to Manchester next March on their own headline tour. If you couldn’t see them on tour with Black Stone Cherry this time around, I would highly recommend getting a ticket.
Before Black Stone Cherry even took to the stage, the audience were proving that they were ready for a night of providing backing vocals as they joined in with the tracks while the crew finished setting up the stage. Crowd favourites were Iron Maiden’s “Run to the hills”, Tenacious D’s “Tribute” and “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” by the Darkness. One thing that became apparent to me stood at the edge of the stage during this wait for the set to start was just how far back the microphones has been set up from the edge of the stage. I can only assume that this is due to the size of the Apollo’s stage.
There has been a major change to Black Stone Cherry since the last time they toured the UK. Unfortunately, original bass player Jon Lawhon has recently left the band due to family commitments, and his spot in the band is currently being filled back Otis member Steve Jewell. However, it was clear as soon at the band arrived on stage that he is a brilliant fit for the band, with fans taking an instant liking to him and becoming part of the Black Stone Cherry brotherhood. In fact, Jewell was showing off a shiny new bass guitar this evening gifted to him by drummer Jon-Fred Young earlier in the day.
Even though Black Stone Cherry released their new album The Human Condition in 2020, tonight wasn’t all about their latest tracks, it was more of a greatest-hits, or welcome back tour with only three tracks of their latest album appearing on the setlist.
Kicking off with the mighty “Me and Mary Jane” the crowd instantly went wild, bouncing along, the past 18 months fast becoming a distant memory, at least for tonight. The fact that the stage equipment had been set back from the crowd didn’t deter the band from getting closer the crowd with guitarist Ben Well and Jewell instantly leaving their mic stand behind and heading to the front of the stage to encourage the crowd to jump and get their arms in the air.
After a full throttle first few songs, the pace slowed for a little for sing-along track, “In My Blood”, during which vocalist Chris Robertson seemed a little shocked at the volume of the Manchester crowd singing back at him, making the statement, “Holy shit! You are fucking beautiful!”.
Throughout the night both Robertson and Wells made mentions of how happy they were to be able to return to the UK for this tour which is their first outside the USA since all the lockdowns begin last year. It also appeared to be the first concert since COVID for most of the audience, due to the size of the cheer when Wells asked, “Is this the first concert for anyone back live tonight?” Throughout tracks “Like I Roll” and “Hell & High Water” you could tell that the band were truly grateful to be back on the road, taking a moment to simply stand on the edge of the stage to watch the sell-out crowd singing back their songs to them.
There were multiple times throughout the night where Young needed the assistance of his drum tech and the unofficial fifth member of the band Geoffrey to replace snares and symbols that hadn’t been able to stand up to his aggressive/ passionate drumming style. Although the kit did make it through a very impressive drum solo without breaking anything.
Having seen some spoiler videos on the Cherry Heads Facebook page of dates earlier in the tour I knew “Things My Father Said” would be on the setlist. This has always been a very emotional song, however, knowing that Robertson’s father had recently passed away he admitted that even though he wrote the song he “didn’t know what it really meant until recently” which really brought home the true power of music. Robertson may have been the only person on stage, but with the entire venue supporting him, he made it through the track with only a small break in his voice. By the end of the song, I am sure there wasn’t a dry eye in the building.
In complete contrast to the previous song, the rest of the set was filled with sing-along anthems that ensured the party atmosphere returned. Starting with new track “In Love with the Pain” the band continued with some of the bigger tracks from their early career “Blind Man”, “Blame It on The Boom Boom”, “White Trash Millionaire” and “Lonely Train” played back-to-back.
With a brief trip off stage Robertson and Wells returned to start to speak to the crowd prior to the one song encore. They recapped how difficult the past 18 months had been for both of them not being able to tour. Robertson stated that although we were able to attend shows again, it is a possibility that rock n roll could all be taken away from us again and requested that we sing this last song “like this is the last time we’ll ever be at a rock show”. This honesty and gratitude certainly fired up the crowd as the final song “Peace Is Free” began. The entire venue filled with the voices singing the words “You better sing your song and sing it loud! But you better do it here and you better do it now!”, was enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
Having spent the last 18 months substituting live music in venues full of people for live steams on my computer in my living room, it was brilliant to be back in one of Manchester’s most iconic venues with the four Black Stone Cherry guys and a few thousand Cherry Heads. I’m sure in years to come people will talk about what their first gig post-COVID was, I will be more than happy to say, “Mine was Black Stone Cherry”.