By all rights, a concert by the Sweet ought to be a pretty awful experience.
Let’s look at the facts:
· They are one of those bands from the Seventies that have had two separate line-ups touring under the same name at various times over the last years
· They are a band who are best remembered by the general public for their hit singles – but they haven’t had a hit single for thirty years.
· Two of their original members have passed away in recent years including their iconic lead singer, Brian Connolly, one of the most memorable glam-rock figures of the era.
· Only one member of their most famous line-up is still in the band.
· They were the band who recorded such bubblegum hits as “Funny Funny”, Co Co”, “Little Willy” and “Wig Wam Bam”.
· They are occasionally to be spotted on those nostalgia for the Seventies tours with the likes of the Rubettes and Showaddywaddy.
On the face of it then to the uninformed and ill-informed there is little to be excited about when approaching a show like this.
But that expectation couldn’t be further from the truth. On their night, they are one of tightest-organised and exciting rock bands still around from the golden-days of the Seventies. And their recent gig at the Robin 2, Bilston, was one of those nights.
And yes, rock band is the correct designation. As early as 1974 they had outgrown their early lightweight hits. And with the “Sweet Fanny Adams” album, which they are currently revisiting, they had moved out of the Chinn-Chapman songwriting stable and begun to compose their own songs.
The band’s mainstay and heart is Andy Scott who has been in the band since “Funny Funny” and is perhaps one of rock’s great under-rated and sometimes unrecognised lead guitarists. Tonight, he is augmented by Steve Grant on keyboards, guitars and vocals, Bruce Bisland on drums and vocals, and charismatic lead vocalist and bass player, Pete Lincoln. Lincoln is the newest member of the band – his tenure only extending to a few years but the rest of the line-up has been together for well over a decade. This band may not contain all its best known members anymore but it is not either a band that changes its line-up every second minute. They have been working together for a long time and it shows.
If the band has one weakness it is a lack of new material. No new album since 2002’s “SweetLife” so the show is a mixture of album tracks and the later hits with a bubblegum medley thrown in for good measure.
The show opens with “Action”, their 1975 hit. Scott nails the guitar work and Lincoln, whilst being no Connolly, is an excellent choice for front man. Early on in the show, it is already apparent that the backing vocals of Andy Scott and Steve Grant are a very strong part of this show. Sweet and Queen were two UK bands in the mid-Seventies who had soaring rock harmonies. Queen always had difficulty capturing that in their live show as so much of the vocal work on disc relied on Freddie Mercury’s amazing range – and even Freddie could only sing one part in concert. Sweet had no such problems. Their four voices were always equal parts of the overall sound and whilst Brian Connolly, Steve Priest and Mick Tucker are no longer in the band, the guitarist and leader has found veterans who can come pretty close to filling their shoes. Reforming the original band is sadly no longer an option but these guys make a pretty good fist of standing in their stead.
The album tracks, “Burn on the Flame” and “Sweet F.A.” are next. Again, great guitar solos from Scott are the centre of this performance. The audience has gathered from a great distance to see what is an infrequent UK show for the band. They do far better on the continent these days and a tour of Australia is coming up at the end of the year. Consequently, the gathered crowd need little persuading as they enthusiastically and energetically support the band on every number. There are few obscure Sweet songs for diehards like this and the venue resonates to the sound of a triumphant performance.
Andy Scott takes over lead vocals for “Into The Night”. His high-pitched harmonies may not have aged or faded but his lead vocals have matured and deepened. He is more able now to fill this role than he was in the past. Always a good vocalist, he was third choice lead in their heyday after Connolly and Priest. He has grown more suited to this role.
It is also apparent that the band are not going to entirely avoid their Chinn / Chapman hits. Pete Lincoln returns to lead duties as he tells us that the band think that the next song is the ChinniChap song that the band rate the highest. “The Sixteens” wasn’t their highest selling single but in its original form, it was certainly amongst the best and most imaginative arrangements amongst a strong catalogue. Once again, the current line-up has little difficult meeting that blueprint.
Heartbreak Today is from the SFA album and acquits itself well. Live For Today is proto-punk and has energy to spare.
Wig Wam Bam and Little Willy were the first two of the band’s hits to be driven by Andy’s guitar. Tonight they’re joined at the hip in a fun and high energy medley which has all the audience singing along. This is good practice for all the memorable hits that are to follow just a little later in the show.
First it is time to dig a little deeper into the band’s repertoire of album tracks with two more from the aforementioned “Sweet Fanny Adams” album with “Restless” and “No, You Don’t”. For the second of these vocal duties are handled by Steve Grant who doesn’t quite match his namesake Mr Priest for camp-ness but has a damn good go.
The band lead the audience into a chant of “We want Sweet!” which was the audience effect that led into the hit version of “Teenage Rampage”. The chant leads in the same direction tonight and this top ten hit is captured with aplomb and the crowd at the front of the stage are getting more and more strident in their singing along.
It’s time to slow things down for a little while. Andy Scott mentions that the band are trying to respond to the requests that have been made on the band’s messageboard for some songs that are not often performed live. Meanwhile, extra mikes are prepared at the front of stage and drummer, Bruce Bisland makes his way forward to add his harmonies to the next number. Bisland has provided a tight beat all night and his sweat-soaked t-shirt is witness to how hard he works. His solo during the latter part of the evening is a highlight: tasteful, not too self-indulgent, few wasted beats. But now he is called upon for his sweet voice as the band move into “Dream On” the gentle opener from 1978’s “Level Headed” album. Scott once more handles the lead vocal.
The second track on that album was the latter-day hit “Love is Like Oxygen” so it is appropriate that it follows here. On the album the second half of the song opens out into some progressive, tasteful guitar noodling. Tonight this is spliced by a version of the ELP hit “Fanfare for the Common Man” and an impromptu rendering of “Happy Birthday” to mark the 60th year of the band’s sole remaining original.
Back in ’73, the band scored an amazing triumvirate of hits with Blockbuster, The Ballroom Blitz and Hell Raiser that really captured the musical spirit of that glammy era. The first and third of these are next with sirens surrounding the Blockbuster opening carrying you back to the day you first heard it.
It is a sign of how many great hits the band have to choose from that they are next able to turn to their 1975 monster hit “Fox On The Run”.
The band has at least two extra encores tonight as they seek to extend the party atmosphere. First, they cover the Blur hit “Parklife” albeit with all re-tooled lyrics which are seemingly spontaneously made up by Steve Grant who handles lead duties on this one. The chorus is remade into “Sweetlife” for the occasion.
A physical resemblance between the later incarnation of Andy’s 60s band “Elastic Band” and the guys from the Kings of Leon is the only justification needed for the band to next leap into “Sex on Fire”. For my money, the guitar riff gets a little bogged down on this one and they might have been better leaving it alone.
There’s more to come. The 80’s big hair glam revival in the States particularly liked Mr Scott’s composition “Set Me Free” and it’s to that song the band turn next. In an impromptu moment the guitar solo which Andy has been known to perform using a beer can is tonight transformed as he lends a digital camera from an unsuspecting audience member and uses the metal casing up and down the frets. Tony O’Hora who preceded Lincoln as lead vocalist is beckoned from the audience to handle the duties on this one.
“Are you ready, Bruce?” doesn’t quite sound quite the same but there are few other flaws in the final performance of the night as “The Ballroom Blitz” is chosen as the final one of the encores. The band leave the stage to rapturous applause at its conclusion.
Whatever your expectations and whatever you might have heard or decided, Sweet remain one of the greatest British live acts. Overcome your worries and capture this institution next time they come to town.
The Sweet are electric.
Andy Scott on guitar
Pete Lincoln on bass
Steve Grant on keyboards
Bruce Bisland on drums