Concert Reviews

Concert Review: Black Stone Cherry / The Darkness – Leeds, UK

First Direct Arena, Leeds | 3rd February 2023

Black Stone Cherry / The Darkness – First Direct Arena, Leeds – 3rd February 2023

Review by Kristal Harpur | Photos by Jack Barker

Once we found the Box office around the side of the First Direct Arena in Leeds, I have to say the security staff made entry to the venue very easy and smooth, so hats off to them as arenas can sometimes be the complete opposite experience!

When I found my seat, I was pleased to see the number of people who had turned up early ready to see the first act, Danko Jones. I’ll be honest and say they were a new band to me (despite the band nearly being as old as me), and I have a feeling new for a lot of the crowd too, however towards the final few songs of the set, the ever-growing crowd were clapping along to each song, with some helpful prompts from bass player John Calabrese. Lead vocalist and guitarist, Danko Jones (the man himself) didn’t need any flashy pyro to put on a great show, keeping it all about the music and his obvious love for the rock and roll/ blues punk genre.

Without leaving too much time for talking, Jones announced that as a trio they had performed at a venue legendary local venue The Cockpit a few times and stressed how much they loved the city of Leeds. Drummer Rich Knox looked like he was particularly enjoying himself during ‘Full of Regret’ from their album Below the Belt. Jones had the crowd laughing during a speech near the end of the set before playing ‘Lovercall’ where he got so enthusiastic, he forgot what the next song was, followed by “well it’s a good one… we wrote it!”. The trio oozed confidence with many power poses and did a brilliant job getting the crowd warmed up for what was to come.

With a steady stream of people filing in, it was a great time to do some crowd-watching to see the different styles of both The Darkness fans and Black Stone Cherry fans with this being a co-headline tour. Now before anyone says anything, I’m not saying that you can’t be a big fan of both bands given their different rock subgenres! One person in the crowd definitely wanted to stand out, wearing an almost neon green suit (one might say taking inspiration from The Darkness’ own bass player Frankie Poullain with his signature turquoise suit from this tour).

With many phones in the air ready to record, I could hardly blame anyone with some amazing pyro to start the show during the first song ‘Growing on Me’. Now Justin Hawkins on lead vocals and guitar is someone that I could literally write pages and pages about. The non-stop energy and boundless confidence of someone who is unapologetically extravagant is mesmerizing to see, whether it is your 1st Darkness show or your 10th.

Before ‘One Way Ticket’ Poullain was ready with a cowbell for the intro, however, and had the crowd laughing delaying the start of the song and holding back the beat, with Justin laughing and shouting across the stage to get started. Justin took time in this song to play with the crowd singing one line of “One-way ticket to” with the crowd, followed by “Hell and back”. Before ‘Solid Gold’ Justin noticed a sign on the barrier reading “It’s my 17th birthday, can I play the drums?”, to which Justin replied, “No you fucking can’t but happy birthday!”, which received a massive round of laughter from the crowd, however, he did give them a couple of picks during the song. Feeling slightly bad for being mean, they actually pulled the kid on stage during ‘Japanese Prisoner of Love’ and with a few words of advice saying “All this stuff explodes” while pointing to various parts of the stage where pyro was set to explode. I have never seen someone enjoy playing the cowbell more than Jay (the birthday boy). He left the stage after being given drumsticks by his idol Rufus Taylor while Justin had run off stage to change into his signature catsuit.

Before the band played their most famous song ‘I Believe in a Thing Called Love’ Justin said, “We’ll only play it if you all put your phones away and focus on what is happening in this room”, which surprisingly a large majority actually obeyed! From above in the seats, it felt like the entire floor was bouncing throughout the whole song. For the last song of the set “Love on the Rocks With No Ice” Justin went for a ride through the crowd on the shoulders of who I assume was his security guard from one side of the room to the other through the crowd while continuing to play his guitar.

There was only one thing missing from the stunning show of their greatest hits, which was ‘Christmas Time, Don’t Let The Bells End’, although a Friday night in February might not have been the most appropriate time for this festival tune.

As with a lot of co-headline tours I’ve been to, there was a mass migration of fans switching places, The Darkness fans moving further back to make way for the ‘Cherryheads’ to take the front spots. With a large screen to cover the stage changes, I always love when some thought has gone into the music while the stage techs work their magic. A loud singalong to Tenacious D’s ‘Tribute’ kept the crowd entertained while waiting for Black Stone Cherry to take the stage. I am intrigued if there’s a reason behind the choice of Sam Smiths ‘Unholy’ as their entry song though as the genre is very different.

To massive cheers from the crowd when the band appeared in shadows behind the curtain, Black Stone Cherry burst into ‘Me and Mary Jane’ with energy that didn’t falter throughout their entire set. Whenever guitarist Ben Wells is on the stage, he’s like the Duracell bunny! From the first note to the last, he dives around the stage, constantly standing up on the risers encouraging the crowd, and kicking his legs impressively high in the air.

I love how relative newcomer Steve Jewell has seamlessly fit into the band and how they all look so comfortable on stage together. Never to leave drummer John Fred Young alone for long, all three other band members made sure to spend time up on the staging set up next to his drum kit. Throwing it back to ‘Soul Creek’ and ‘Blind Man’ from the 2008 Folklore and Superstition album, it was clear how many long-term fans were in the audience singing along as loud as they could.

‘In My Blood’ is one of my favourite Black Stone Cherry songs, however, Lead vocalist and guitarist Chris Robertson had the crowd laughing towards the end of the song after a slight muddle of words, saying “Not only did I sing the wrong line, but I did it when no one else was playing”. Debuting their newest song on this tour ‘Out of Pocket’, I was impressed by how many people were singing along, even to just the chorus, considering it was only released on the 12th of January this year.

Justin Hawkins clearly plays the frontman role in The Darkness, for Black Stone Cherry while Roberston clearly commands the stage, Wells over the years has become more comfortable with a more 50/50 split of duties when it comes to speaking to the crowd between songs and introducing the next tracks.

‘Cheaper to Drink Alone’ saw one of Young’s infamous drum solos giving him the chance to really show his skills (even if it does normally end in some breakages to the kit by the end of it!). Following this with the tear-jerker ‘Things My Father Said’ it’s amazing to me to see the difference in performance between 2021 when the band last toured shortly after Robertson had sadly lost his father. He acknowledged this by saying “When we did this song in 2021, you guys let me heal in a way I didn’t think was possible” and this really shows the power of music. I also noticed that during the line “At night I go to sleep and pray he’s watching over me” Robertson changes the word “pray” to “know” and this gave me goosebumps.

No matter the size of the stage, whether more intimate venues like Dolan’s Warehouse in Limerick where we saw the band back in 2018, or large arenas like this tour, Black Stone Cherry always manages to captivate their audience. Making every member of the audience feel a part of the show.

With the set drawing to a close, picking up the pace again, it had to be time for ‘White Trash Millionaire’ and ‘Blame It on the Boom Boom’ to keep the atmosphere alive. Now for something I have never seen at a Black Story Cherry Gig… there was a pit during ‘Lonely Train’! Finishing their set on a cover of the Electric Light Orchestra’s ‘Don’t Bring me Down’ it ended the evening with a party atmosphere that got everyone dancing along.

Photos by Jack Barker

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