Review: Luke Morley/Hillbilly Vegas – Cathouse, Glasgow

With Hillbilly Vegas it is a case of never judging a book by the cover; the “cover” in this case being the band name itself. “Hillbilly Vegas” gotta be Southern rock, yeah? Or maybe a crossover of Southern and country rock? Wrong on both counts. Although the band does indeed hail from the Southern states (Oklahoma to be precise), and a cursory glance at the old interweb tells us that one of their earlier songs, ‘Little Miss Rough and Tumble’, hung around The National Country Music Charts for 26 weeks, the six-piece shouldn’t be shuffled into either of these particular pigeonholes. They play rock music. Loud, muscular rock music. And they play it well.

After a busy Summer back home opening for Ted Nugent, Hillbilly Vegas are back in the saddle on their maiden full-band voyage to these shores; dubbed ‘The Great British Hustle Tour’ – a mixture of headlining shows and this batch of dates opening for Thunder’s Luke Morley. A perfect match because HBV has a definite British influence on their sound; look closely and you’ll find hints of Free and Bad Company (uncanny because pulling bass duties on this tour is Paul Rodgers/Bad Company Canadian veteran of the music business Todd Ronning). Listen to the engaging, soulful vocals of frontman Steve Harris and it’s hard not to mention him alongside Rodgers, as well as other British icons such as Joe Cocker, Van Morrison, and Scotland’s finest: Frankie Miller (whom Harris spoke warmly about before knocking it out of the park on a glorious cover of Miller’s ‘Down the Honkytonk’ from his essential 1977 album ‘Full House’). For a comparison closer to the US; Bob Seger would make sense, the American legend also happened to pay homage to Miller with a killer rendition of Miller’s ‘Ain’t Got No Money’ on 1978’s ‘Stranger in Town’ album. Vocalists born with the same mix of grit and soul in tough, blue-collar cities: Middlesbrough, Sheffield, Belfast, Glasgow, and Detroit. All here tonight in spirit.

As far as opening acts go, Hillbilly Vegas get a fair crack of the whip. Decent set length, great lights, and perfect sound. The smoke machine that springs to life during Luke Morley’s set is thankfully redundant for the openers, meaning that every smile cracked by the band is there for all to see. And they are having a blast up there onstage. And it is catching. It doesn’t take long for the crowd to warm to the band. Set-opener ‘Mason Jars and Moonlight’ has a fantastic blues shuffle that gets the feet tapping and the instantly memorable chorus is catchy as hell; the almost narrative-like vocals from Harris in places at times recall the maestro himself Phil Lynott. ‘Steady at the Wheel’ packs one almighty punch and it’s on this one that the Free/Bad Company vibes start to seep into the set whereas ‘High Time For a Good Time’ is all about the swagger, and ‘Something Crazy’ (shades of Deep Purple’s ‘Lazy’ here and there) has an irresistible groove. Steve Harris is an experienced frontman and knows how to get a crowd on his side, so being in Glasgow it’s only fitting that drinking and fried food gets a mention (yet to try the deep-fried butter that he mentioned though), these guys love their food and if you ever get a moment then check out their Facebook page for some on-the-road food reviews: whoever suggested they try pickled onion Monster Munch deserves a medal.

It’s a guitar-heavy set with Stacy Thornburg leading the line in fine style with Johnny Reed bringing the crucial non-fussy rhythms to the party, and Geraldo Dominelli finally puts to bed the myth that men cannot multi-task by effortlessly changing between keys and guitar, sometimes both at the same time. It’s all about the songs though: ‘Let it Ride’ has a great howling performance from Harris and features Troy Hollinger in fine form behind his drumkit; ‘Oklahoma 3.2’ and ‘Shake it Like a Hillbilly’ are both great fun; and ‘Hell to Pay’ speeds down the tracks like a runaway train. Hillbilly Vegas perform at this year’s Planet Rock, Winters End weekender this very weekend, and on this form, they are going to give many, many acts a run for their money. Catch them on one of the remaining dates with Luke Morley, or one of their handful of headline dates – all dates can be found here.

Somewhat ironically (and if the mists of time are not playing tricks on this reviewer), tonight’s show from Luke Morley is exactly 13 years or so since he last played Glasgow in a non-Thunder capacity. In January 2011 it was alongside Pete Shoulder with The Union for a radio station charity birthday bash, and a few months later Thunder were back together again and all was well with the world. There is no other current British rock band with the same legacy as Thunder, as loved and respected as Thunder, and still producing material as strong as Thunder. The outpouring of help and well wishes that followed the horrific accident that hospitalised Thunder vocalist Danny Bowes with a serious head injury and saw him having to learn to walk again proved how highly regarded the Londoners are. Danny’s road to recovery is going to be a long one, but as Luke mentions later on during the set, he is getting stronger, and the love and support from Thunder fans (and music fans in general) is a major help. We all hope that the finest British rock vocalist of the last few decades makes a full recovery, and send him our warmest wishes.

With that pesky worldwide lockdown of a few years back, Morley had time on his hands and created ‘Songs from the Blue Room’, the long-awaited (we are talking decades here) follow-up to his debut solo album ‘El Gringo Retro’. A million miles away from the day job, ‘Songs from the Blue Room’ was a lovingly crafted album that proved to be a highlight of the year and as expected, the vast majority of tonight’s set is curated from the album that was packed with diversity. Taking to the stage to the strains of Tom Petty piped in through the house PA, Morley and his fine band launch into the album’s opening track ‘I Wanna See The Light’, a gorgeous upbeat track that highlights the Tom Petty influence, with a gorgeous rolling guitar tone from one of the UK’s most underrated musicians and songwriters. ‘Damage’ follows on with Sam Tanner on keyboards controlling the pace, and to these ears at least there is still a smidgeon of Brian May to Morley’s exquisite guitar playing. “Don’t be afraid to raise your hands, Glasgow” mentions Morley as the intro to ‘Killed By Cobain’ begins. One of the highlights of the album, it’s a wry observation of the effect that Grunge had on bands like Thunder. Played with a whimsical Traveling Wilburys-like feel throughout, and a Lennon/McCartney la-la-la fill that hangs around for days after, it’s a gorgeous piece of songwriting from Morley and sounds stunning in a live setting.

With the smoke machine in action, the stage is quite dark and smokey, but the quality of the band that Luke Morley has assembled shines through. Alongside him on bass is Thunder mainstay Chris Childs who forms a solid partnership with Tax The Heat’s Jack Taylor on drums, Sam Tanner is over in the wings behind his keyboard, and then there is Cats in Space guitarist Dean Howard. A long-time friend of Morley (the pair go toe-to-toe later on the set during a killer extended version of the Dire Straits-like ‘Go With the Flow’), Dean should have been with Morley and Bowes in the pre-Terraplane outfit Nuthin’ Fancy, but it never happened and as Morley tells it, he’s sitting watching Top of The Pops on TV one night and there’s Dean at number one with T’Pau, so it all worked out in the end. The tale of how this all happened leads up to ‘This World’ from the ‘El Gringo Retro’ album and it’s uncanny how similar it is to the current material from ‘Songs from the Blue Room’ considering how long it was between albums. Vocally, it’s quite Eaglesesque, musically it’s more hard-nosed.

Played at a waltz-like pace, ‘Errol Flynn’ is another of the highlights from ‘Songs from the Blue Room’, and there are a few in tonight who the tale of an aging lothario who refuses to admit it could be about. One of the more diverse songs on the album, it highlights the strength of Morley’s songwriting. ‘Nobody Cares’ is another diverse moment, an Eastern Europe-by-way-of-America Gogol Bordello sway here and there, a touch of ‘Delilah’ in other places…but not the Tom Jones version, the stripped-of-sheen Alex Harvey version. Showcasing another side to Morley, it is rather good. As is the encore of Thunder’s ‘Better Man’ which is dedicated to Danny Bowes as well as Thunder guitarist Ben Matthews who has also had serious health issues. One of Luke’s finest moments, it’s fantastic being privy to how the song was perhaps birthed, with Luke on vocals. With this and set closer – a throaty version of The Kinks ‘Lola’ – the crowd were given the chance to lend their voices to the evening and they certainly did.

‘Songs from the Blue Room’ is a fantastic collection of songs, and watching Luke Morley and company bring these songs to life on the stage is something special.

Remaining tour dates:

January 30th – Cardiff The Globe
January 31st – London Islington Academy

Ticket information, here

Review – Dave

All images – Dave Jamieson

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