The festival season in the UK and Europe has grown at a rapid pace over the last few decades or so and has become a vitally important part of the live music calendar. Before treading the boards at such big-name festivals as Download, Sweden Rock, Rock AM Ring, Graspop, and Hellfest, it has become the norm for major acts to slot in a few regional headline appearances of their own to hone their skills in preparation for their moment(s) in the sun.
The Download weekend usually brings a surprise small, intimate show or two (special memories of Black Stone Cherry playing to a packed-out club in Glasgow in 2015 before driving to the East Midlands to headline the second stage), and this year’s mammoth four-day weekend saw arena-selling Floridians Alter Bridge making a quick pit stop in Scotland’s capital for what would have been their smallest gig on UK soil for some time now.
Timing is crucial though as no one wants to be playing to an empty hall no matter how small the venue is and no matter how much of a name the artists are. Geezer Butler would testify to that as he found out to his annoyance when he played Glasgow with Deadland Ritual on Saturday of Download weekend 2019 and walked out to a hall with perhaps no more than 40 punters in it. Jeez, he looked pissed. No such concern tonight for either the headliners or the special guests – and fellow Download Festival 2023 performers – Mammoth WVH. Tonight is like what every rock gig should be: packed, hot, and sweaty.
Mammoth WVH is of course the vehicle for Wolf Van Halen to show that the musical talent in the Van Halen family wasn’t solely reserved for his uncle and his much-missed father. After wowing with the acclaimed self-titled debut album in 2021, Mammoth WVH have developed quite a head of steam with plaudits ringing in Wolfgang’s ears from critics and punters alike. And having played every single instrument on the album, himself, he deserved every single bit of praise that rightly came his way. Live is where reputations are made or destroyed though, and with one hell of a live band assembled, Wolf has quickly proven that the material he created on his own in the studio works even better up close and personal in a sweltering venue.
Having opened for Metallica in April, Mammoth WVH are on a bit of a roll right now, and with the familiar line-up of Ronnie Ficarro (bass), the twin guitars of Frank Sidoris and Jon Jourdan, and Garrett Whitlock (drums) alongside him, Wolf looks so much at home under the blazing lights. Chit-chat is kept to a minimum as the band launch into a 9-track setlist that features a handful of tracks aired during the 2022 Alter Bridge UK arena tour (‘Mammoth’, ‘Mr. Ed’, and ‘Epiphany’ are a sublime 1-2-3), but it is the new tracks lifted from the forthcoming new album ‘Mammoth II’ that immediately jump out. ‘Like A Pastime’ is a total banger that features a show-stealing Bonham-like performance from Whitlock, and ‘Another Celebration at the End of the World’ is an utter riot of guitar-driven modern rock and roll that sees Whitlock battering the living daylights out of his kit and all three guitarists locking into one almighty explosion of riffs toward the end of the track as Wolf pays homage to his father with some neat finger-tapping guitar licks. Two support slots in 6 months? Now it is surely time for a headlining trek. Miss this band at your peril.
Who knows, maybe it was the loose nature of the show because it was a festival warm-up, or it was because Alter Bridge were preparing to be main support to Metallica on opening day at Download Festival, but this seemed to be a more relaxed Alter Bridge than the band that played the UK enormo-domes last December. The size of the UK fanbase dictates that Alter Bridge needs to play these vast sheds, but there is something special about catching the band up close in a more personal environment, and the band seems to agree because they never stop smiling throughout the entire evening. And for once, drummer Scott “Flip” Phillips is actually visible rather than hidden at the back in arena darkness!
The trio of openers from 2022 also open the show tonight and ‘Silver Tongue’, ‘Addicted to Pain’ (still such a glorious song to witness live in the flesh), and a romp through the always-magical ‘Ghost of Days Gone By’ (complete with that gorgeous opening guitar tone from Myles Kennedy, and the stunning thumb-picking tones from Facemelter-in-chief Mark Tremonti) has the crowd onboard from the off. Once the opening salvo fades out, the band starts to mix it up and have some fun by going back to the beginning and 2004’s debut album for ‘Broken Wings’ which makes a welcome return to the setlist and has the AB choir in full voice, and ‘Coeur d’Alene’ had those who hadn’t peeked at the setlist or any online footage from the previous gig in Tilburg in raptures. According to Setlist FM, the deep cut from ‘AB III’ is back in the setlist on this run for the first time since 2017, and what a return it is – not only Mark Tremonti at his best but a killer example of how in tune with each other Scott Phillips and bassist Brian Marshall are. Something perhaps missed during an arena show, but this more intimate environment captures how crucial the pair are to the AB sound. Another Alter Bridge classic making its return to the setlist is ‘Watch Over You’ which is played acoustically by a solo Myles Kennedy before Mark Tremonti joins him for an emotional run-through of ‘In Loving Memory’ (many, many people with visible tears during a few minutes that are always the music equivalent of being punched in the chest, repeatedly) and top marks to the audience who seem in perfect tune rather than just shouting the words out aimlessly! How do you follow that up? With ‘Blackbird’ of course. And if you can listen to this without welling up (or marvelling at THAT pair of guitar solos), then brother you have one cold, black heart.
On the home straight now and how about ‘Come to Life’, ‘Stay’, ‘Isolation’, ‘Metalingus’ with its massive hooks (Phillips and Marshall excelling – as usual), and towering set-closer ‘Open Your Eyes’ for one almighty closing twenty minutes or so. An amazing night with two incredible bands and the final word on the gig goes to our photographer Callum – “…the best AB gig I’ve seen…”.
Catch Alter Bridge at Download on Thursday on the Apex Stage at 7:10 pm. Catch Mammoth WVH on the same day and same stage at 3:30 pm.
All Alter Bridge live dates can be found here.
All images – Callum Scott