Whilst Mike Kerr hails from just along the coast in Worthing and Ben Thatcher is from Rustington a few miles further, as Mike acknowledged this evening, ’collectively’ Royal Blood are a Brighton band.
This homecoming show was a long time coming. With their last visit back in 2017 and their return delayed by the pandemic, it was actually four years since Royal Blood played a gig in Brighton. That being said, back in May they did record a short live set on the Palace Pier as part of BBC’s Big Weekend.
Surprisingly, despite the protracted wait, there were still tickets for sale on the night and sections of the side balcony seating had been curtained off. That astonished me. I fully expected them to have sold out. But the truth is rock music isn’t where it once was, even if Royal Blood’s recently released third album just happened to be their third consecutive UK No 1.
That album, Typhoons, heralded a new funkier musical direction for the band. Having been somewhat underwhelmed by much of 2017’s How Did We Get So Dark? it turns out during the gestation and recording of that sophomore album, Mike was in a bad place, struggling with drink and depression. Fortunately, that’s now behind him.
With his new found sobriety. the long-awaited follow up — much of which was written and recorded in Brighton during lockdown — signalled a welcome return to form. Just how these new songs would integrate with the band’s older material was always going to be intriguing. And would their change of style be limited to just their sound?
On the subject of sound, the fact it’s just Mike on bass and vocals and Ben on drums, the noise this pair produce has always been mightily impressive.
And as soon as they opened their set with the title track of Typhoons, the energy from the stage and in the audience was through the roof. What a difference to my last gig at the same venue a week earlier when I criticised The Specials — all ten of them — for playing way too quietly.
Despite a great start, sonically Royal Blood weren’t always perfect. There were times when, inexplicably, one song sounded superb while the next would be a muddied mess. This inconsistency was one of the niggles that prevented their homecoming from being the showstopper it should have been.
Visually, in terms of stage production, there really wasn’t much going on. Eschewing the now ubiquitous video screen, the band’s presentation relied entirely on lighting for which they continued their penchant for a curved set of vertical lightbars. As most pro photographers will testify to, the lighting director only got creative on the fourth song, and then only intermittently. For much of the time, the power duo were dimly lit in shades of white and gold light. On the few occasions the light bars were put to more expansive use, they gave brief glimpses of how interesting they could be in more creative hands.
And this gig would soon get pretty dark.
Now it’s not often a performance is stopped completely in the middle of a song, but that’s what happened during Little Monsters. I was standing towards the back so it was hard to see exactly what was going on, but fighting broke out near the front of the stage and Mike brought things to a premature halt. “Security, we need some help down here!” he yelled.
Once order was restored, Mike thanked everyone for their patience and they restarted the song from the beginning.
Speaking of order, I don’t think they got the sequencing of songs right. They began on the front foot and ended on a high, but things sagged in the middle with a run of three or four songs that — to me at least— brought the vibe down.
Unfortunately, a degree of indulgence has also crept into Royal Blood’s live performance. First we had a — thankfully brief — drum solo with Ben doing his best Roger Taylor impression on his just acquired black and gold Gretsch Broadkaster kit complete with gong. That he and Mike are long-time Queen fans might explain both the drum solo and Mike’s attempt at a Freddie-like call and response with his guitar.
Of the new songs, the infectious Trouble’s Coming proved to be the evening’s musical apogee. As it features much more than just bass and drums, I was curious as to how they were going to play it live.
When required, two backing singers (Jodie and Zarif) appeared and on some songs they were also augmented by a keyboard player. Even with him, it didn’t sound like all the music was being played live.
In a recent interview, Ben had stated ”We don’t play to click track, any tracks or anything like that. Everything that comes from the stage is completely live.” Now I’m not a musician, but I think that’s being somewhat economical with the truth, or at least how one defines ‘completely live.’
To recreate the new songs, I had it confirmed that Ben triggers additional sounds with Roland pads on his kit. If he does, then surely the entirety of what they’re playing is not completely live. Why does this bother me you may be thinking. I guess it’s because as a two-piece, with just two instruments between them, any additional sound coming from the stage, that isn’t drums or bass, is so much more apparent than it would be were there more musicians onstage.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s always been impressive how Royal Blood have been able to create such an immense live sound from just two instruments, it’s something they’ve done from the very beginning. It was no wonder then that the best reaction they received was when they played Out Of The Black, the song that first got them noticed back in 2014.
Since then they’ve come a long way and established themselves as one of Britain’s best rock bands. Their new-found sound marks an interesting new direction for sure, but for me, they’ve still got a long way to go in how they present themselves live. And there’s reason for optimism. This was their last UK gig of the year and in thanking fans for coming to see them, the band had this to say: “See you in 2022 at our biggest and most budget breaking shows yet.” Who knows, they may even bring an orchestra with them!
Setlist: Typhoons | Boilermaker | Come On Over | Lights Out | Hook, Line & Sinker | I Only Lie When I Love You | Trouble’s Coming | Oblivion | Little Monster | How Did We Get So Dark? | Blood Hands | Loose Change | Ten Tonne Skeleton | Out Of The Black || All We Have Is Now | Limbo | Figure It Out
Behind the shot: All these images were taken with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 using the M Zuiko 75mm 1.8 lens and the camera’s in-built digital zoom. Shooting Royal Blood is always challenging: with just two musicians, one of whom is on drums, there’s very little variety of compositions that you can create, Ben always wears a baseball cap which often means his face is obscured and Mike spends much of the time looking down at his guitar or with his faced pressed against the microphone. On top of that, the duo are rarely brightly lit. I was only able to shoot the first three songs and had to contend with as many as ten other photographers in the pit. With so many shooting the same gig, I wanted my shots to be different from the others. I went for tight portraits and chose to give my images a distinctive look.
Special thanks to James Heward of Pomona PR for arranging the photo pass and review ticket.
About the author: Based in Sussex-by-the-Sea, on England’s south coast, Gary is a creative writer and image-maker. He specialises in out of the ordinary portraits of musicians and people with interesting faces, as well as photographing some of the world’s finest flowers and gardens. With no concerts or major events taking place during lockdown, Gary turned his attention to creatively capturing the landscapes of West Sussex. On the writing side, he also penned deep dives into some of his favourite songs beginning with Bryan Ferry’s ‘These Foolish Things’ ‘Ghost Town’ by The Specials and ‘All The Young Dudes’ by Mott the Hoople. Most recently, he has written a biography of Robert Palmer and the story behind Whitesnake’s ‘Still Of The Night’. All these can be found here on Medium, along with his reviews of gigs and events and chats with musicians.