Live Review: Kris Barras Band with support from Dea Matrona at Exeter Phoenix on 01-02-23


That's how you do a gig on a school night!

A gig on a school night has been long overdue, and thanks to the cost of living crisis, getting to a gig when you live in Devon is nigh on impossible unless you take out a bank loan for petrol to Bristol and back. But tonight, I’m not in Bristol … I’m in Exeter, just a 15 minute drive into town.

A lot of bands don’t tour this far down the South West peninsula, but seeing as the band’s headliner is a local lad, this is pretty much a homecoming show. I’m here to see former MMA fighter turned rock star Kris Barras and his formidable band rock the roof off the Exeter Phoenix.

This will be the second time I’ve seen Kris play here, the last time being when he made an impromptu stage appearance after being invited to play with blues legend Walter Trout in 2019. But tonight, Kris is the main event and I’m so excited for it! So far this tour he has played sold out gigs in Tavistock, Dover and Oxford and it looks like we’re in for one hell of a night.

The Exeter Phoenix is one of the best venues in the south west and is highly underrated when it comes to booking tours for emerging bands. Those who have been will know what I mean when I say it feels like an arena setting but on a more intimate level.

I’ve brought some friends along for the ride tonight; work colleagues turned good friends and now my gig buddies. I’m including them in this review because this will be their first time seeing the band, and I’m curious to know what they make of the music, having not heard of the Kris Barras Band or support act Dea Matrona. We’ve just been for a bite to eat at Zizzi next door and we’re now at the bar picking up our drinks and about to head in.

Dea Matrona

The stage is all set, the room is packed, there’s an exciting ambience as the spotlights illuminate the instruments in a blue haze. We take our place in the crowd (annoyingly near the back) just as the lights swing into action and Dea Matrona walk out onto the stage and we’re off!

Dea Matrona translates to ‘divine mother goddess’ in Celtic and as Mollie (McGinn) and Orlaith (Forsythe) start playing, I’m totally getting the ‘divine’ part as the first track Stamp On It has me hooked from the off. The intro is a perfect opener and gets the audience clapping along to the beat, which has a little ‘70s glam rock vibe to it, before Mollie strikes the first chord and sings the first verse. Her voice is sultry in a similar style to the likes of Debbie Harry or Caroline Kenyon (Bastette) for a more recent reference. The bass licks from Orlaith and the sweet guitar riffs and licks from Mollie provide a very pleasing fusion of ’70s glam and ’60s psychedelic rock. 

Drummer Jamie Hewitt is a fine replacement for Mamie McGinn, Mollie’s sister who stepped back from the band last year. As the song finishes with a stunning guitar solo from Mollie which has the tones of Hendrix; you can see the audience sit up and take notice and more people rush in from the foyer to see who is making this sweet music.

As they break into their cover of Oh Well (Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac) any stragglers in the audience that were not fully on board are now transfixed and excited for a song they know and can sing along to. As I look around, everyone is singing and dancing along and enjoying themselves. This is one of the songs that made this duo famous on social media when they performed it while busking on the streets of Belfast.

If you blinked, you might have missed the fact that the girls have swapped instruments and now it’s Orlaith’s time to show off her guitar skills as Mollie takes over on bass. Something that is both interesting and unique to see in a band. Both musicians are highly skilled on both instruments and as the evening goes on, you would be forgiven for not keeping up with who is playing what at any given time. 

Third track It’s Only Music starts with big drums and huge energy which gets the crowd clapping and jumping around. Orlaith is still on lead guitar and breaks into a catchy riff reminiscent of something you would expect from Status Quo or AC/DC, and feels very familiar whilst being an original song. Both girls sing and their voices blend really well in the chorus. Dancing around and using the whole stage, it’s very clear that this band is having a great time up there, and it’s infectious.

Swapping guitars for the next track, the set takes a less energetic feel as they go into Get My Mind Off which has a mellow but hypnotic riff which both girls sway along to, and the marching drum styling makes this song impossible not to dance along to. Very catchy and has more Hendrix distortion thrown in for good measure. 

Tracks like Nobody’s ChildSo Damn Dangerous and Just Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll provide much more of the same upbeat, riffy, dancey, infectious, melodic music which Dea Matrona are so adept at playing. You can hear all the influences and styles throughout their set but none of them ever feel like an imitation; they are fresh, enjoyable and relevant. Many of the songs lyrics allude to strong independent women enjoying life, having fun and being free spirited, all of which is apparent as you watch them on stage. I imagine that they appeal to a broad audience as I watch people of all ages and genders rocking out with big smiles on their faces.

The guitar solo at the bridge of So Damn Dangerous could go on much longer than it does as it’s gorgeous. If I have any criticism at all, it’s that the solos are too short for my liking, but others may feel that they are just right to keep the momentum of the whole set going. I guess I just wanted more of that sweet sound they do so expertly. 

The acoustic guitar which has been patiently waiting in its stand is finally picked up and gets its time to shine as things slow down for Glory Glory (I’m Free). This is more of a slow folk-style ballad with a beautiful chorus and has that Irish/Celtic tone to it. Throughout the set Orlaith and Mollie’s harmonies have been fantastic but here they really do shine bright. This band could so easily have gone down the folk route but I am so glad they went into the rock arena because they do it so well. But equally, they would seemingly excel at  at either. Glory Glory (I’m Free) provides a welcome change in tempo and is followed up by a cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s Homeward Bound, which again has the audience singing along because they know the words to this one.

We are getting a real treat tonight as we are now nine songs into their set and the high energy returns with Dea Matrona’s latest single Red Button. With an intro similar to Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger this song struts along nicely and has a very catchy sing-along chorus which repeats enough for the audience to pick it up and sing along. The track builds and really comes to life. In comparison to the rest of the set, this song is by far the biggest and most impressive. It’s a total ear worm and one of my favorites of the night (although hard to pick as they are all great)

Just as you think that is the end of the set and leaving us on such a high, there’s time for one more! As the girls thank everyone for being such a great audience (and we were to be fair) they keep the energy going with more requests for hands in the air as they launch into Make You My Star which has all the hallmarks of glam, sleaze and punk rock vibes rolled into one. Joan Jet stylings on the dual vocals and an awesome, distorted riffy solo to the bridge make this a brilliant track to end the night on. The audience is absolutely buzzing as they give Dea Matrona plenty of applause and cheers as they exit the stage.

Overall: Dea Matrona provide a sound which has the best of ’60s and ’70s bluesy rock riffs with the best of ’80s rock vocals on top.  Unique that both girls switch between bass and guitar so effortlessly and clearly very accomplished players that have honed their craft by learning from the great legends of rock. Influences of Fleetwood Mac, Cream, Led Zeppelin, Hendrix, Deep Purple, Thin Lizzy are all evident, but never sounds like a copy and paste at all. Personally, I was already aware of Dea Matrona but after seeing them live, I am now a big fan and will be looking forward to seeing more of them again soon and watching them skyrocket to the mainstream very soon.

But what did my new gig buddies Julie and Anna think of Dea Matrona?

Julie really liked I Just Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll but also enjoyed the final track Make You My Star.

Anna liked Glory Glory (I’m Free).

Both all in all very impressed and wondering how Kris Barras is going to top that performance. We will see, but for a ‘warm up band’, Dea Matrona really lit a fire under us all. In fact, Anna was so hot that she had to go outside to cool down with a cider.

Kris Barras Band

Refreshments bought and bladders emptied, it’s time for the main event. The room starts filling up even more than before and mostly with people wearing Kris Barras t-shirts. Still stuck towards the back, it’s impossible to get any closer, as the room is packed and the balcony seating is sold out. 

The backdrop is lit up with a huge logo and the stage manager is making his final checks. From out of the darkness, figures can be seen making their way to the stage and the hustle and bustle of the crowd dies down before sounds of cheers and whistles fills the room. 

Billy Hammett gets comfortable behind the drum kit, new boy Frazer Kerslake straps into his bass and Josiah J. Manning makes his final adjustments to his Fender Telecaster as the dramatic industrial sounding intro excites the crowd. The cheers and whistles of elation fill the room as the band’s eponymous frontman, Mr Kris Barras walks out onto the stage wearing a cut off Skindred top showing his extensive ink, and wastes no time in dropping the F bomb from the outset, “How we fucking doing?! … It’s great to be back home … Exeter! … make some fucking noise!”

The place erupts and Kris gets the audience clapping along as his guitar tech brings out his beautiful trademark blue Seth Baccus guitar. He straps it on as the band flies into some fantastic high energy rock riffage which has everyone’s attention before it transitions into opening track Hail Mary. Almost as if in some sort of cathedral, everyone in the room sings along to the opening chorus.

As the band and pretty much most of the audience all strut and march to the beat and sing along, Kris exclaims that he already knows from the opening track that “This is gonna be a good one tonight!”

The band waste no time in cracking on with the next song, the first single to be released from latest album Death Valley Paradise, Dead Horses. As the opening riff engulfs the room, the crowd are cheering with delight. I would have left this banger for later in the set but actually, it’s perfectly placed to keep up the pace and has everyone dancing around, waving their hands in the air and singing along to the chorus.

As the lights fade to black a single spotlight is on the band’s new bass player Frazer Kerslake as he plays an atmospheric bass solo on his beautiful six-string bass. Fraser joined the band after Kelpie McKenize decided to leave the band to go traveling ahead of the band’s biggest tour to date. Personally, I think the band is stronger for it. Fraser is a phenomenal bassist and the chemistry in the band is beautiful to see. 

As Kris comes in with the unmistakable riff to Out of Control, soon Josiah and Frazer join the pack and the track erupts into a heavy, headbanging section and once again the audience are there for the ride. As quickly as it starts, the first verse slows things down until the chorus. The highlight of this track for me is the bridge, when all three guitarists join together for some triple guitarmonies.

After all that excitement, Kris takes a little breather as he talks to the audience and explains how their sound has evolved from a bluesy, southern, country rock sound to be much more heavy. Conscious of how certain older tracks might not fit in the set list amongst such rockier songs, the band have rejigged one of their old favorites and given it a heavier feel to bring it right up to date. Kris urges the crowd to get involved and starts everyone clapping along “Exeter … this is a homecoming show, so I want you to represent us and make a lot of noise on this one! ‘Cause this is gonna go off … I want you to get your hands in the air come on! 1, 2, 3, JUMP!”

As the beat kicks in, the familiar Heart On Your Sleeve takes on a completely new life whilst retaining its bluesy southern vibe. But this reimagining is heavier and has a dancey drum beat thrown in which has the band and everyone in the room jumping! The audience joins in on the chorus as the lights illuminate the room. Standing on top of one of the monitors, Kris takes centre stage for an amazing guitar solo which is bordering on something you would expect from Eddie Van Halen. 

At this point, I check in on Anna who has still not returned from the interval. She can’t get back in because the room is so rammed full of people, so she has been watching at the door. She informs me she is fine and loving it so far. 

Kris slows it down with the next track Wake Me When It’s Over and explains how it was written during lockdown and refined in the studio. It sums up his whole experience during lockdown, when all he wanted to do is get out and play to an audience. The track starts off slow and builds into a monster anthem, culminating in an astonishing guitar solo from Josiah J. Manning who, in my humble opinion, is one of the best guitarists in this country. And just when you think the solo was the standout moment of this song, Kris finishes on an astonishing vocal at the end as the instruments fade and all you can hear his his voice to finish the song. You can hear people all around saying “wow!” as the hairs on your neck stand up. I hope Kris wouldn’t mind me saying that he has never professed to be the greatest singer in the world, but it is very clear to me that he has honed his sound and vocally he is the best I have ever heard him. 

As the lights go down and the band regroup, blue strobe lights break the darkness and the sound of police sirens fade in as Kris once again talks to the audience. Talking about the next track, Hostage being the most played song on Planet Rock throughout June, he is met with a lacklustre cheer. “Fuck me! … tough crowd!” he quips as we all cheer loudly to make up for it.  

Following Hostage the band move into Chaos and ironically during this song, I get a message from Anna who is still outside. “There’s been a punch up out here!” As it turns out, a rather inebriated gentleman was removed from the gig and then decided to take a swing at the bouncer outside in the foyer. With his vision not being great from all the booze, he missed completely, spun himself around and crashed into the merch desk; he was promptly ejected. So while there was Chaos on stage, there was also chaos outside too. But this did provide a route for Anna to get back in to join us in the audience, as Kris encourages the crowd to sing along line by line to Devil You Know. Kris comes off the stage and makes his way through the crowd as Billy Hammett pounds away on the kick pedal to this upbeat track with drum and bass vibes and Hendrix style guitar licks from Josiah. Cameras are out as Kris gets up close and personal with everyone in the audience before climbing back on stage.

After all the excitement, the lights go down and Josiah plays a slow toned down melody as Kris talks about his Father who sadly died of cancer and explains how he taught him to play guitar but never got to see his son make it doing the thing he loves most. Watching Over Me is a beautiful tribute to his Dad. It’s a beautiful song and you can feel the emotion emanating from his guitar. You can hear every single note is perfect and this showcases his phenomenal talent. He is playing it to his Dad who is watching over his son on that stage, and it really is a ‘hope you’re proud of me Dad’ moment as lights from everyone’s phones illuminate the room in tribute to the ones they have lost. 

Bringing the mood back up, Kris exclaims that it’s time to show off the amazing band he has playing with him as they launch into a medley of covers kicking off with Rock and Roll by the legendary Led Zeppelin. Everyone dancing and singing and this is the perfect pick me up. The band are having a great time and Frazer and Josiah mess around a bit as they use the full space of the stage, playing back to back and nudging each other. The band then take turns on trying to out-do each other with little licks and fills on their instruments before launching into snippets of Carry On My Wayward Son (Kansas) and Harold Faltermeyer’s Axel F [Beverly Hills Cop theme].

Who Needs Enemies is next on the set list before the final song of the night and the one everyone has been waiting for, My Parade. Most of the audience are singing along to this anthem but just in case anyone wasn’t paying attention, Kris decides to part the room like Moses parting the Red Sea and he jumps off the stage and walks down the middle, splitting us into two sides. Like two rival gangs facing off, we go head to head in who can sing the loudest with one half “This is my parade” and the other half (my side) “Don’t give a fuck what people say!” As we got the swear word, I think we just edged it, but Kris calls it a tie. Climbing back on the stage for the big finish and ending the set, the band walk off as the cries for ‘encore’ start in earnest.

Wasting no time, they are back and obviously end on probably the most well know Kris Barras song Ignite (Light it up) which ends the night perfectly.

This is not only the best I have seen the Kris Barras Band play live, but it’s shown them to be an arena quality band with a brilliant back catalogue of tracks. The sound quality was first class and everyone’s performance was perfect. Without doubt one of the best British rock bands we have today. 

But what did Anna and Julie think?

Julie thought it was amazing and wants to bring her young daughter to see Kris Barras because she would have loved it. She couldn’t believe that she hadn’t heard about this band on mainstream radio or TV because they were so good.

Anna bought the CD at the merch desk and has been playing it ever since in the car. She came into work the next morning singing “don’t give a fuck what people say”, which she couldn’t get out of her head.

So the moral of the story is, if you want to help get new music to more people, invite them to a gig with you. Both Anna and Julie will freely admit, they only came along for a night out and weren’t expecting to enjoy the music that much. Now they are buying merch and inviting others to future gigs. It just goes to show that rock is very much alive and kicking. All you have to do is expose people to its wonderful artists on the live scene. Why not invite your work colleagues for a night out at your next gig night. You might just be surprised.

Exeter Phoenix



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