An exceptionally rare opportunity for me: the chance to enjoy a hard rock show without driving an hour or more to do so, with a lineup that was too good to pass up.
In this case, the too-good-to-pass-up aspect was a chance to see Finnish newcomers Santa Cruz. More than four years has passed I first heard (“Anthem For The Young ‘n’ Restless”) these glam-inspired rockers, with a steady stream of increasingly mature but consistently sleazy songs steadily raising my opinion of them. Since I’m not anticipating a trip to Finland any time soon seeing them live was something I didn’t expect was in the cards so to discover they were in direct support for this tour was one of the more exciting opening act announcements I’ve heard in a while.
The danger of having expectations is the risk that they won’t be met. As it turns out … I had nothing to worry about. At all.
I don’t think I’m being unduly immodest to say that I was probably on the very high end of the curve in terms of knowing what to expect when the band took the stage. That meant that, in addition to an expertly crafted set that delivered on nearly all the songs I knew, I also got to watch the crowd go through several stages of realization. From “okay, these guys aren’t bad” to “hey, that’s pretty good” to “damn, this is FUN” to “these guys ROCK”.
Musically sound, very true to their sleaze rock roots without ever once feeling like a parody or overly contrived, my biggest takeaway from a set that could have easily been extended at least 2-3 songs deeper was that the members are individually stronger than I previously realized, having largely thought of them in the collective sense beforehand. Frontman “Archie” Kuosmanen is as adept with a guitar as with a mic, he trades off duties with “Johnny” Parkkonen seemlessly. Bassist “Middy” Toivonen does fine work keeping things on track, while drummer “Taz” Fagerström might just be one of the more underrated stickmen I’ve seen in a while.
My son made an observation that nicely summed up another reaction I had to the set: “these guys are too big for this stage, probably for this room”. In case that is too cryptic to be clear, that’s our way of saying that a band is ready for bigger stages, bigger rooms, bigger crowds. There’s more than enough energy, enthusiasm, personality in their lineup for them to be able to shine even more brightly in an environment that gives them more physical space.
Asses were kicked, fun was had, new fans were made. I don’t know what more an opening act set could possibly be asked to provide than what Santa Cruz gave.
After a relatively short changeover, the evening turned to the headliner of the evening, the esteemed former vocalist of Skid Row and all-around entertainer Sebastian Bach.
When the tour was announced earlier this year, it was billed as “An Evening With Sebastian Bach”. The advance press described it as “two sets for the price of one”, a stripped-down opening portion followed by the full electric portion.
Having seen the set list from the show the night before, I had an idea of what to expect. Or at least I thought I did.
The performance in Athens was pretty much as the pre-tour hype described. The opening portion was about a half dozen songs that included both solo and Skid Row material, with a Jimi Hendrix cover (“Little Wing”) for good measure. Vocally, it was clear that Bach still has the ability that made him famous. It was really only during the short intermission between the sets that I figured out how to describe it,thanks to a comment from another patron
“WTF? What happened to Sebastian Bach? What WAS that? ”
It wasn’t said in anger. It wasn’t as hostile as the words might appear on paper either. Not even disappointment exactly (though pretty close to that). It was … confusion.
The stripped down concept may not have been bad at all on paper. It wasn’t actually terrible in execution even. But when you watch close to a dozen paying customers leave just twenty minutes after that portion of the show by the headliner, simply so put off by what they’d seen that they weren’t interested in remaining to see the rest of a show they’d already paid for, I have to think the outcome might not be what was anticipated.
Upon returning to the stage however … it didn’t take long for things to pick up and reach far loftier heights than where they left off.
Upon returning, Bach performed like a man somewhat possessed. On target and on fire, he hammered the crowd with a high energy performance featuring some of his former band’s rowdiest songs. Among the more telling moments of the set was noticing how fully engaged the audience was — and how enthralled with Bach they were — during songs like “Big Guns” and “The Threat” , neither of which were on Skid Row’s list of big radio hits. When the album cuts have people excited, that’s usually a good sign.
By the time the veteran front man was joined on stage by a clearly enjoying themselves Santa Cruz for “Youth Gone Wild”, the initial partial set was clearly forgiven and forgotten, as a predominantly older audience had one more moment on the checklist they came for.
On the whole, an evening well spent with both acts meeting or exceeding expectations. Can’t beat that.
And, as is my tradition with show reviews, here’s a little bit more of the GBU.
Good — The venue. The Forty Watt Club is legendary but it had been literally decades since I’d been there. If anything, I think I enjoyed it more this time. The sound quality in particular was excellent. I also appreciated the sort of laid back vibe of the place & the crowd in general. Nary a pretentious moment encountered all night, everybody just into enjoying themselves as they saw fit … Also a good thing, an actual hard rock show in Athens, something that’s been scarce during our years here. And not just any old show, but one of truly international caliber … The crowd has to be considered a plus I think, not a full house but nothing remotely embarrassing either. I’d guess somewhere in the 300-350 range, and that’s on a night where I know of at least one other major show in Atlanta that was packed. I’ve been to no shortage of shows that would have loved to have drawn this well … Finally getting a chance to enjoy at least one show “at home” with my newly turned 18 year old before he departs for college in the fall. He’s been my constant concert companion for the last, damn, 14 years now. To get to see at least one show we enjoyed here before he leaves was kind of a bucket list item for both of us I think.
Bad — I’m actually hesitant to put anything here, or at least in how to phrase it. But I’d also feel dishonest if I didn’t say that the stripped down portion of the Bach set was not something that seemed to work particularly well. I’ll acknowledge that the artist certainly knows both his own desire as a performer and has a broader view of what works for the variety of audiences he faces. I’ll just say that, on this night with this particular crowd, it’s hard for me to consider that portion to have really added anything, and indeed, at least threatened to detract from the show. A more traditionally constructed set, with a couple of slower tempo songs mixed into the main set, would have been a better design in my opinion … For me personally, I was disappointed that the Bach set didn’t include anything from either of the two most recent solo albums. particularly 2011’s Kicking & Screaming. I’ll admit that I might be on the short list in attendance that would have been familiar with the material, I’d bet that a majority of the audience would have enjoyed the songs if they heard them … purely personal and relatively minor disappointment that Santa Cruz’ set did not include arguably my favorite song in their catalog (“Relentless Renegades”). It’s a good situation to have though, having more good songs than your set can hold, so I’ll certainly not complain.
Ugly — This section can pretty much remain blank. Nothing I’d call particularly ugly, aside from the misfortune of having the nearest ATM (around the corner) to the venue be out of order, forcing my aging & out of shape self to engage in a hike that was thankfully only uphill in one direction.