The Islington Assembly hall seemed as good a place as any to be on a Sunday evening, especially when Magnum come to town. Their latest album 'Escape From The Shadow Garden' came out in March and was more than well received - possibly their finest album yet some have said.
So time to see how the 2014 live show sits in their long and successful career. Before getting onto them, naturally enough the first order of the day was the support, Neonfly. Just a quick word about them - after having their gear half inched in Bradford, they have done well to even make it through the tour.
are without doubt more than competent musicians with a charismatic vocalist, definitely an upgrade on some of the less musically gifted supports that you encounter on occasion. My main gripe with them is the fact they seemed to be missing that spark, that inspiration that grabs your attention. Maybe it was nicked along with their gear.
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The other problem I had is the fact that whilst there were more than a few keyboard / synth parts coming out of the mix, there was neither an instrument nor player of said instrument to be seen anywhere. It may be a personal viewpoint, but that to me is a big no no at a rock gig. Don't let me stop you making up your own minds though - they are worth a second look so go and check them out if they are at a venue near you.
So to the reason everyone was there, and there were a lot. The room was just about packed so it was fortunate the gig was at the Assembly Hall rather than the Academy up the road or there would have been a few disappointed ticketless people.
9pm and Magnum hit the stage and colourful it was too – although musically their talent has been well known for years, their status as fashion icons is not so widely appreciated. Keyboard player Mark Stanway in a natty red shirt, vocalist Bob Catley in a bright blue jacket, bassist Al Barrow bedecked in a long black coat, glistening in the light, guitarist and songwriter Tony Clarkin in black shirt and silver jacket. Drummer Harry James was a little less dazzling in clothage, armed with a black shirt and customary dark glasses, but when it comes to drumming he is about as good as it gets.
The set kicked off with a new one 'Live Til You Die', keyboard leading the way before the rest of the band hit, Bob Catley in the middle of the stage immediately showing he hasn't lost any of his stagecraft – as a frontman he is, to put it simply, just damn good. A couple of songs from 'The Visitation' are next in line for the crowd to feast upon 'Black Skies' and 'Freedom Day'.
They were accompanied by a PA crackle, swiftly sorted out by the engineer and that was about the only unplanned noise all night. 'Dance Of The Black Tattoo' and 'Blood Red Laughter' from the 2012 release 'On The Thirteenth Day' were next to enthral and the crowd lapped it up, making a lot of noise in the process before they went back to the current album for 'Unwritten Sacrifice' and judging by the number of people mouthing the words, the album is one as appreciated as the press said it would be.
Classics corner arrives next in the shape of 'How Far Jerusalem', a live staple since its release in 1985 (is it really that long..ouch). Keyboard wiz Mark Stanway in his element introducing the song musically, Bob Catley leaning on the synth, crowd cheering.
Bob's strains take over, the band in perfect harmony before the chorus to the song signals just about the whole crowd to leap up and down. This song has almost become a showpiece for the guys to show what they can do, a microcosm of the whole show. Bob Catley as mentioned before is a supreme frontman, engaging the crowd with his charisma and natural self without seemingly having to try too hard. As a vocalist he is still up there and has a tone all of his own.
As Bob wanders stage left to divest himself of the blue number (fear not fashion conscious headbangers, his shirt is the height of fashion as well), guitarist, songwriter and all round musical maestro Tony Clarkin takes centre stage with some virtuoso guitar playing. He really is underrated as a guitarist in some quarters due in no small part to the fact that he isn't showy about what he does and his brilliant songwriting garners so much attention.
Those two are of course, and have always been, the backbone to the band but the others on board probably make this the finest incarnation of the band. Keyboard player Mark Stanway debuted with the band in 1980 so is steeped in all things Magnum (ice creams and suspicious moustachioed private investigators aside). He is without doubt one of the finest ivory tinklers on the circuit, mixing the obvious formal training with the rocker inside and the result is about as good as you can get, both musically and feel.
Bassist Al Barrow, a more than accomplished player, patrols the stage with an almost constant smile on his face, pulling the music along and settling back down when required. Last but by no means least of course is drummer Harry James. Over the years this band have had some fine drummers, but Harry is probably the best of the lot – full of power, he can beat the skins with the best of them but to my ears what makes him stand out is the restrain. He doesn't feel the need to draw attention to his art at every given opportunity yet when the need arises and the space is there waiting, boy does he deliver. Not to do him a disservice, but it almost seems far too easy for him and that's what makes it so good.
After the ten minute version of '...Jerusalem', another classic got an airing 'Les Morts Dansant', before they went again to this year's release for 'Falling For The Big Plan'. As they headed for the last half hour the best was yet to come, starting with 'The Spirit', which of course comes from the 'Chase The Dragon' album released way back in 1982. Live this has for a fair few years been a mainly acoustic affair with Bob and Tony in charge of proceedings, with a choir of a thousand.
But after they reinstated the heavier finale to the song, a la studio version, a while back it is even more impressive. 'All My Bridges and 'All England's Eyes' followed before the whole place started shaking almost the instant the keyboard intro to 'Vigilante' hit - it is after all the title track of one of the band's finest albums, released in their pomp and a standout track in its own right, perfectly suited to the live arena.
How on earth do you follow the jaw dropping, crowd stimulating heights of a song like that? Well, quite easily when your first album has 'Kingdom Of Madness' on it. It may be more than 30 years old but it still rocks in a way that a lot of bands can only dream of – it isn't a case of the crowd singing the chorus, the whole song is voiced by most of the crowd and Bob Catley looked genuinely humbled, full of appreciation for what he was seeing and hearing. In fact the whole band had a grin a mile wide on their faces. The audience did too.
So to the encores – 'Too Many Clowns', another one taken from the new album, and then another one off 'Chase The Dragon'. This one was a live staple but hasn't been in the live set recently – I am of course talking about the highly impressive 'Sacred Hour', a song I first heard at school (yes I did go to school) and one that still gets me going in all the right ways now. The keyboard intro is a classic piece on its own, but for this version Mark Stanway has added even more colour to it, a truly memorable way to end a gig. Not so much sacred hour, more sacred hour and fourty minutes.
So that was it for this tour, UK leg at any rate. Having seen the band on numerous occasions over the last 30 years, I can safely say that a fine wine has nothing on this lot. Musically it has all been said, but the aspect that is most impressive is that after all this time, the sheer enthusiasm they all have and the enjoyment they get out of it just doesn't diminish.
No doubt Tony Clarkin has already started work on the next album, such is his way, but for now the band has reverted to the hard working live band (they were straight off from the venue to catch a ferry at 4.30 in the morning to start the Dutch leg of the tour).
For those of you that missed it this time around, do yourself a favour and book a holiday that happens to coincide with one of their gigs abroad, I'm sure the other half will understand.
Just one more thing. I was thinking after the gig how come bands such as Magnum who have been treading the boards for such a long time still deliver in a way that so many of the younger crop can't. Answers on a postcard please.