Sometimes the ancient gods of rock and roll see fit to bring together two outstanding bands and send them forth to tour packed out venues across this fair land. When that happens, it would be rude not to indulge in an evening of sublime riffage, memorable melodies and singalong choruses. Ladies and gentlemen: I give you She Burns Red and South Of Salem.
Rebellion is already straining at the seams and the air is thick with anticipation when I arrive at the venue. Tonight’s show has an early curfew, thanks to a club night to follow, so there is only time to grab a quick pint before She Burns Red burst on to the stage and launch straight into a breathless Touch followed by Rise and Fall, the opening salvo on the band’s debut album Out of Darkness. Straight away it is clear that the crowd are up for it tonight as they embrace the Scottish band’s gloriously riff-laden onslaught. Musically, She Burns Red hit hard and fast with some seriously catchy melodies and memorable hook-laden choruses. Visually, the immediate focus is imposing vocalist/bassist James McCulloch who is a towering presence. Flanking James is vocalist/guitarist Andy Moore who trades vocal duties with James, sometimes even within the same song to impressive effect. On the other side of the stage guitarist Naz Scanferlato brings some flashy licks and crunchy riffs in equal measure, while drummer Scott Hanlon nails everything down with a solid beat.
Sticking to the album’s running order, Killing Time is up next with the backbone of a heavy rhythm section leading into a plaintive vocal melody that spirals ever upwards. Crosshairs is lighter in tone musically, if not in terms of subject matter dealing as it does with a fracturing relationship. James and Andy harmonise seamlessly as Naz delivers a short but sweet solo. There is a change in mood next as the heavier, riffy Heavy is the Head kicks in with a hint of menace and discontent. This track is my favourite from the album and encompasses all that is good about She Burns Red: a driving rhythm underpinning a chunky riff and harmonised, anthemic vocals that build towards a memorable guitar solo.
Run evokes wide open spaces and a sense of losing oneself to the moment. It also features the biggest solo from Naz: with a larger budget at their disposal, you can picture him on a windswept clifftop with the video being filmed from circling helicopters. Sadly, for now at least, they will have to be content with the enthusiastic Rebellion crowd cheering them on. And so we approach the end of the set with the rifftastic Crack the Sky followed by rousing album closer Out of Darkness. Having seen She Burns Red on several occasions over the summer festival season, I’m struck by their growing sense of self confidence. Following the release of the long awaited debut album and having overcome numerous line up and health issues in the preceding years there is a sense that this is now She Burns Red’s time in the spotlight. A headline tour surely looms large in their future.
After a quick turnaround, the now familiar intro tape heralds the arrival of South Of Salem to the stage. They are greeted by a euphoric crowd who are packed tightly at the front of the stage to welcome Let Us Prey, The Hate In Me and Another Nail in My Coffin which are delivered in quick succession. From this point onward the pace barely lets up for a second as the songs come thick and fast and the band are in constant motion. It is pretty clear that they have worked hard on their live performance in order to make everyone in the crowd feel involved and to maximise the feeling that you are up close and personal. From the use of risers at the front to constantly swapping back and forth across the stage, everyone gets some face time with the band. It will be interesting to see if they can pull off this sense of inclusion in the larger venues that they are destined to play.
The first new song of the night is the title track of the forthcoming album, Death of the Party. This is a mid-paced, riff-heavy rocker which features a squealy solo from Denis Sheriff and a chant along chorus perfect for the live setting. The pace continues with Made To Be Mine with its incessant riff driven by Kodi Kasper and woah woah woah chorus which the audience takes on valiantly, if not quite as well as vocalist Joey Draper. Slowing down for the introspective Demons Are Forever, the band reveals a more thoughtful side to their repertoire. Although broadly in keeping with their trademark spooky lyrical hooks, this song speaks to the darker topic of the inner turmoil caused by mental illness. A sobering reminder that anyone can be affected, but that they should not suffer in silence. Next up we have two more news songs, Left For Dead and current single Static. Both continue in a similar vein to the winning formula established on debut album The Sinner Takes It All, while showing progression in the song writing. They are still based on fuzz-heavy riffs and big choruses, but the canvas is larger, the guitar solos are that bit bigger and the lyrics are deeper.
What follows next tells you a lot about South Of Salem and their relationship with their fans. Joey invites a woman from the audience up on stage, telling us that the next song is her favourite and she is going to introduce it. But instead, her boyfriend comes up on stage too and in front of a 400 strong crowd proposes to her. Fortunately she says yes and there is a huge cheer before she leaves the stage stunned, but happy and the band launch into a cover of Rebel Yell. You hear about this sort of thing; but in 40+ years of gig going it is the first time that I have actually seen someone propose on stage. It’s enough to warm the coldest of dead hearts. Speaking of which, we segue into Dead Hearts Don’t Break and then Bad Habits Die Hard at which point Joey tell us that if everyone who bought a ticket for this tour also buys the album upon release they could crack the Top 20. With several new rock bands breaking into the charts over the past year, this is a real possibility.
We have one more treat to come as Chloe McGowan takes to the stage to join the band for Pretty Little Nightmare. Chloe is a gifted young guitarist (check out her videos on Facebook) who has become a familiar face on the gig scene, especially in the North West. If she was nervous, it didn’t show as she absolutely nailed the song and if her grin was anything to go by she loved every minute too. It’s great to see young new talent being nurtured and given the opportunity to shine: don’t be surprised if Chloe pops up with her own band at some point. But tonight it’s all about South Of Salem, and as the evening draws to a close with No Plague Like Home and encore Cold Day In Hell, it is reassuring to know that there are new bands out there with the potential to headline far bigger stages. So if you still want to see South of Salem up close and personal in a small(ish) space then don’t waste too much time.