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Monday 12 December 2022

A View From The Back Of The Room: Magnum, Vega & Theia (Live Review By Simon Black)

Magnum, Vega & Theia – Tramshed, Cardiff, 07.12.22

We joked over here on these pages through lockdown about how we all had a bunch of tickets for over a year. Well, there wasn’t much else to laugh about in those times, but then one year became two, then three… but finally, 2022 has seen these long-held tickets finally get used up. All bar one that is, which finally got dusted down for this evening. Most of this tour did actually happen finally in Spring of 2022 to be fair, but a combination of her Madge popping her clogs and a bout of Covid in the touring party meant that the last four shows of the tour have only just now finally taken place, with this being the final one out in the suburbs before the band return to their traditional end of tour finale in the West Midlands.

Was it worth the wait? Well, yes, abso-bloody-lutely.

Opening the show are the two brothers who make up Theia (8) Kyle and Ash Lamley. What they lack in physical musicians they make up for in comic banter, with a short but punchy show that’s part Alternative Rock and part comedy stand-up duo. Front man Kyle makes the most of not having to share the micro part of the front of the stage that whoever has to open up always gets stuck with on a three-band set in a club venue, and bounds around full of energy... Or maybe he just needed to get warm, as it was literally freezing outside. The songs are lively, energetic and with plenty for the audience to go “Hoo Woo” to, but sadly this early on a freezing Wednesday night the graveyard shift early doors punters are choosing not to bite, which is a shame, as they played with honesty and a great sense of fun that left me wanting a little bit more.

Vega (7) had the advantages of a much fuller room and an audience more likely to be familiar with their brand of Melodic/AOR Rock. They played expertly, proficiently and with a lot more welly than I expected, coming across way rockier in the flesh than on record. Having only come across a couple of their songs in the past, they are very much in the category of what an old fart like me would have referred to as “radio friendly” back in the day. That extra beef and heaviness live though stands them well with this crowd, and the band put in a strong performance with a crowd that grows in size and appreciation throughout their set. What didn’t quite come off was a decision to close their set with a cover of Def Leppard’s Animal, which is a track I loathe from a band I'd tolerate, but when you’ve got a five-album back catalogue of your own and only seven songs to win a potential new audience over it seemed an odd way to end.

Magnum (10) were absolutely on top form tonight.

With the pent-up energy of all those cancellations and having new songs to air from both the current The Monster Roars and the previous The Serpent Rings album to christen there was plenty of new material mixed in with the classics, although they did choose to open with more established material (Days Of No Trust and Lost On The Road To Eternity) – a wise choice which got the cold (nay freezing) crowd warmed up and lively.

The core of this band remains guitarist/song-writer Tony Clarkin and singer Bob Catley, who have, as Bob reminded us, been working together in this outfit for 50 years. With everyone else in the act being a relatively new face, there’s actually a lot of drive and energy again, but more importantly the dynamic of Magnum has tangibly changed, and for the better.

I would argue that although Lee Morris is a really solid drummer, Harry James’s are a difficult pair of shoes to fill (he went back to Thunder), but what he misses in technical technique and stage antics, he amply gains by feeling like he’s absolutely part of the musical tapestry of the band. The same applies to Dennis Ward on bass (replacing Al Barrow, who emigrated to the USA) and the quite frankly astonishing Rick Benton’s contributions on the keyboards (we won’t mention who he replaced, but he’s a very silly boy). 

Whereas in the past it felt like a case of two session guys supporting the three older members, this time this feels like a cohesive, fluid and joined up band in a way that hasn’t really been seen since the glory days original incarnation of Clarkin/Catley/Lowe/Barker & He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named called it a day in the mid-90’s. With two albums under their belt as a recording team, there’s been plenty of time for that chemistry to gel, despite the impacts of touring of recent years, and this feels like a band reborn in so many ways.

A further word or two on Benton, if you will. I joked with a fellow journalist colleague at the show that we probably wouldn’t hear staple track Sacred Hour in the set, since it was always Benton’s predecessor’s trademark moment, but they surprised us both by not only closing the show with it but also by delivering possibly the best performance of it I have ever seen (and I have seen this band many, many times over the years). 

He really is another level of player than we are used to in this band, and throughout the night I had also noted who he had brought a kind of fluid instrumental meshing between not only Clarkin and himself, but also Ward’s work. These are three really experienced and highly talented musicians who can weave and spar without feeling like they are hogging the lime-light. The end result is the kind of fluid interplay that wouldn’t go amiss in a really tight progressive band, but without changing the fundamental essence of the songs – just enhancing them. It was spectacularly well delivered.

Equally Catley neither looks nor sounds like a 75-year-old man. OK, there’s a few more wrinkles, but he prowls, and even jumps around the stage, owning the audience in the same way he has since I first saw them play live 35 years ago. His voice has also changed over time, having developed more of a husky and bluesy tone that perfectly suits the music, without loosing any of the power and showmanship of yore. If anything, I would say that element has improved with time, and although we do still get some of the trademark hand movements, they don’t distract as they did in the 80’s and his comfortable, relaxed and utterly entrancing performance, matched by a really keen set of ears on the mixing desk bringing absolutely the right balance.

The set list of sixteen tracks was an even fifty-fifty mix of 80’s classics and post reformation modern classics, and half of them again from those two most recent albums, but Magnum’s audience is a dedicated one that has as much love for the old as the new so they can deliver that kind of balanced set with confidence instead of just relying on established songs. Either way, this sacred hour and a half absolutely flies by. I really hope we don’t have to wait that long to see them again.

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