October 9, 2022

One thing proven by this show is that Uriah Heep have lost none of their fire or appetite for performance, and there can be few bands with anything like a 50-year history delivering at this level

All photos: Andy Cowley

It’s been a long time waiting to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Uriah Heep. It was actually a half-century since the 1970 debut album was released a couple of years ago, but we all know what happened in 2020! A pesky pandemic with no respect for classic rock music decided to shut down most of the world, and the party was postponed. In 2021, things were starting to look up a little, but not enough – so the streamers and party hats were put back in mothballs again. Now finally, with Uriah Heep a far from ‘umble 52 years old, the band have finally been able to invite us to the Magician’s Birthday Party, to give permission for Sweet Lorraine to let the party carry on, and for everybody to toast the fact that ‘you can’t keep a good band down’. And no doubt plenty of other Heep-related phrases, but I’ll leave them to one side! In fact, Heep have had a new album recorded for a while (as confirmed by Mick Box in the interview he did with VT late last year), but they have chosen to give full focus to these anniversary celebrations first – and who can blame them? We’ll all look forward to new Heep music coming available soon, as we always do – but 50 years was simply too important not to be marked in some major way – and as this show proved, they have chosen to do so with some not inconsiderable style, fun, great music and some genuine emotion.

The acoustic opening set

There is no support band for tonight’s programme of entertainment, taking as it does the ‘An Evening With…’ template as its basis. Instead, the first half is a short, 45 minute or so, acoustic set performed by the full band, in front of a temporary curtain and with a minimum of lighting. Preceded by a montage of video clips from many of the great and the good of the classic rock scene, ranging from the serious to the mischievous (Francis Rossi and Alice Cooper) through to the deliciously sarcastic (Ian Anderson, whose hilarious clip was the highlight of the whole sequence), this acoustic segment proves to be an inspired choice, and more of a success than many might have envisaged. Of course, it isn’t fully acoustic, as keyboards and bass are fully ‘plugged’, but the restrained drumwork, Mick Box’s acoustic guitar throughout and Bernie Shaw singing from a seated position for most of the time make it ‘close enough for non-rock-and-roll’, as the cliche may be rewritten. Opening with Circus from the Sweet Freedom album, there are obvious choices here (The Wizard, Come Away Melinda and the expected closer of Lady In Black), but enough left-field choices to leave things more than fresh – Tales is a superb tip of the hat to Ken Hensley, and David Byron’s last contribution to the band in the form of the High And Mighty closer Confession segues into Rain in a classy and respectful way. While The Wizard is a little ragged around the edges, it runs gloriously into Paradise and a fine Circle Of Hands for a Demons And Wizards medley, and things come right up to date to emphasise the full five decades with Waters Flowing from the latest album Living The Dream. All in all, it’s one of the most entertaining acoustic sets I’ve seen for quite some time, and it goes over extremely well.

The band hit the stage for the main set

It is obvious, however, that things are going to go up a considerable number of gears both musically and visually for the main set, and the band most certainly do not disappoint. Following another big-screen slideshow of band photographs through the years, the temporary curtain drops to the floor to reveal the band bathed in spectacular red and yellow light in front of a ’50 year’ backdrop, firing into Against The Odds from 1995’s Sea Of Light album with a ferocity befitting a band of a tenth of their vintage. The sound takes a minute or two to fully resolve itself, but by the end of the song everything is sounding pretty much clear as a bell considering the considerable volume. It’s immediately obvious that this is no ‘legacy band’ going through the payday motions, but a relevant and still-vital heavy rock band at the very top table. The clear decision to shine a spotlight on as many eras of the band as possible is amply illustrated by the second track, an unforseen and excellent version of The Hanging Tree, from the first John Lawton-fronted album Firefly. Soon after that the ante is upped once again as a truly magnificent rendition of Between Two Worlds from the 1998 album Sonic Origami is as welcome as it is unexpected – a song which has been out of the band’s set as a regular for nearly 20 years and which, to these ears, is a high point of the whole set. This is a start and no mistake, and the audience is on their feet and ready to go after waiting two long years for the party doors to open.

Mick Box – a smile and a wah-wah pedal. As always!

From that point many of the expected old warhorses start to appear, with every 1970s album except Wonderworld, Return To Fantasy and 1980’s less-missed Conquest represented in at least one of the two sets. Of course, there is room for Gypsy, July Morning, Easy Livin’, Rainbow Demon, and Stealin’ – how could there not be? However there are still some surprises peppering the set – Traveller In Time is an unexpected addition from Demons And Wizards, the appropriately party-centric Sweet Lorraine is back in after quite some time absent as any sort of regular, while few would have expected the crushingly heavy Free And Easy from the Lawton-era Innocent Victim album to be included. The somewhat underachieving 1980s are represented by Too Scared To Run from the ‘comeback’ Abominog album, while the 2000s get in on the action via the Wake The Sleeper highlight What Kind Of God. The set is streamlined without any fat to be trimmed, and there is no room for any shows of grandstanding ego-gratification in the form of extended drum, guitar or keyboard solos. Every member of the band is onstage for the whole set, and it’s pretty short on low points for anyone craving a bathroom break! All in all, it’s a very well-planned and for the most part brilliantly executed set.

Of course, there will always be personal preferences and the odd complaint, but they are few tonight. Sunrise misfires somewhat, with Shaw taking a little too much liberty with the phrasing and eroding some of the dramatic effect of the track as a result, but that is probably the only complaint which could be levelled at any of the performances tonight. The absence of Look At Yourself is a surprise, but then again there will be few in attendance who have not seen it performed multiple times, so its omission is certainly not a fatal blow. From a purely personal standpoint, I would have loved to see Return To Fantasy reinstated to the set, but that is obviously a subjective view. More unlikely items on my wishlist would have included Sweet Freedom, Pilgrim, Wonderworld or Choices, but not for one moment would I have expected them outside of my own ‘Ideal Heepworld’!

It’s very very hard to imagine any Heep fan being disappointed with this show overall, either from a performance or set-list point of view, as it ticked all of the reasonable boxes in what must have been a very tricky selection process. One thing proven by this show is that Uriah Heep have lost none of their fire or appetite for performance, and there can be few bands with anything like a 50-year history delivering at this level. As a nice touch, before the encore there is another photo montage, this time showing each and every one of the members who have passed through the band’s ranks over those five decades, namechecked and pictured individually, as the Return To Fantasy track Your Turn To Remember plays in the background. Naturally, the biggest ovations are reserved for those legends lost over the years – notably Gary Thain, John Lawton, Trevor Bolder and – perhaps most of all – the ‘classic era’ triumvirate of Lee Kerslake, Ken Hensley and David Byron. One would romantically like to think that they might have been looking down on the performance, and at those particular moments such an idea did not seem quite so fanciful, just for a second or two.

Uriah Heep – you really can’t keep a good band down, and for anyone doubting that – well, there will be a certain 60-year milestone coming along in just eight years’ time. And on this form, would anyone really bet against the band being back again to celebrate it? Personally, I’m already wondering what venues they’ll be playing and whether Look At Yourself will be back in! See you all there…