Review: Sweet – Robin 2, Bilston December 18 2017

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For the Midlands-based rock fan, the ever-advancing spirit of Christmas can only mean two things: (a) the enforcement of widespread communal silliness, and (b) another Sweet gig to round off an excellent run of pre-seasonal glam stompers at the Robin. Quite frankly, I dislike the so-called ‘festive season’ a little more each year, and that doesn’t look likely to change any time soon: however, if it bestows upon me my annual chance to experience this band at full throttle, I suppose I can live with it…

Besides, there’s no such thing as ‘just another’ Sweet gig: no two shows are ever exactly the same. Like Alice Cooper, Hawkwind and Ian Anderson, they always manage to juxtapose their designated quota of the ‘expected’ with a few genuine surprises: the joy, as ever, is in recognising them when they come. That, and being able to witness, in an intimate setting, live interpretations of some of the finest glam rock, AOR and proto-metal songs ever written. Ironically, my most recent encounter with them, opening for Rainbow on the vast stage of the 02 Arena, had been the very opposite of intimate: though I was undoubtedly glad to see them finally playing a major festival again, many of their finer points felt lost in the cavernous melee, and whilst, in an ideal world, they’d be as much of a household name as Aerosmith, I always feel more comfortable when observing my favourite bands at closer quarters.

Here, in the warm environs of the Robin, such issues are irrelevant: true, I’d be happy to watch almost anything here, but regardless, it remains the ideal venue for bands of this stature. One thing in particular that never ceases to amaze me is the sheer diversity of attendees it attracts, especially to Sweet gigs: for every fifty-something couple out for a nostalgic bop, there’ll be two or three classic rockers, Metalheads and sleaze-glammies who’ve come especially to hear their favourite B-sides and album tracks: cast around and you’ll also see a few punks and skins, the odd Goth, a couple of trans people, a stray Mod or two obviously hoping to hear The Juicer (they went home disappointed this time, I’ll wager) and a smattering of bearded, NOBWOB-collecting doomy types who’ve clearly discovered the band through heavier artists’ covers of their deep cuts. Hell, there’s even one beautiful redhead, whose acquaintance I simply can’t resist making, dressed in the full garb of a Dickensian prostitute!!

Yet for all their disparity, these seemingly unconnected people have come here for one reason only: to pay respects to, and worship at the unholy church of, Andy Scott. At 68, with his brush with cancer (hopefully) behind him for good and a healthy mane of (genuine) silver hair cascading across his shoulders, the man is a true hero: a superb if perpetually underrated guitarist and songwriter, a master, right from the opening chug of Action to the jagged twangs of closer Ballroom Blitz, of the hard rock riff, a fine lead vocalist in his own right (as amply demonstrated on acoustic solo spot Lady Starlight) and most of all, a survivor. Sure, bassist Steve Priest is still alive too, leading a rival lineup somewhere in LA and (allegedly) not returning Scott’s emails, but the true spirit of Sweet- the one that never quit, even as Brian Connolly and Mick Tucker fell first from grace and then from life itself- has always lain with the Welsh wonder. And, though regular work on both the ‘serious’ rock and more ‘nostalgia’ based circuits does indeed make a lucrative living for the quartet, looking at them up there tonight only helps to reinforce the reason why he – and they – still do it after all these years. Put simply, it’s because they love it.

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A couple of years ago, shortly after his scare, Scott was threatening to retire the name: when he didn’t, it wasn’t only because his health had improved, but because, as he pointed out on this very stage, “what else would I fucking do now? Get a day job? I am a musician, I play rock music. And so it- and Sweet- shall continue.” And, with a lineup as tight as this one – almost, barring a brief blip or two, into its tenth year and thus in danger of overtaking the ‘classic’ formation as the longest-lived, he has every reason to hold himself to that statement. Though admittedly not as stratospheric as when I first saw them in the 90s (or indeed promoted them in the 00s) their harmonies are still pitch perfect: Scott’s guitars, alongside that of rhythm axeman/keyboardist/second vocalist Tony O’Hora, are still sharp enough to slice raw meat off bone, and all three singers, completed by the huskier tones of bassist/frontman Peter Lincoln, display complete command of their respective ranges.

Up on the drum-riser, Bruce Bisland (a regular fixture for over two decades now) is still capable of destroying most young pretenders in a single paradiddle: he even throws a brief cover of Cozy Powell’s Dance With The Devil into his solo spot, but it’s his relentless timekeeping during the Sweet Fanny Adams triumvirate of Peppermint Twist, Set Me Free and AC DC that shines brightest, to say nothing of his crunching bubblegum thump on New York Groove. Of course, there are those that might suggest the band should be inserting another of their own tunes into that slot rather than covering Hello’s hit yet again- but it never did Kiss any harm, did it? Besides, the aforementioned acoustic interlude (continuing from …Starlight into Lost Angels and then onto beautifully understated and subtle reworkings of Co Co, Funny Funny and Poppa Joe) more than adequately scratches that itch. A decade ago, it was these very tunes the band were keen to run screaming from: yet stripped to the bare bones and divested of their former saccharine trappings, they re-emerge as things of fragile beauty, every harmonious “aaaaah” hanging tantalisingly in the air like frost from trees.

Though admittedly, my own list of requests would be long enough to fill a weekend convention (I personally won’t be sated until I’ve seen either the aforementioned SFA, or Level Headed, performed live in their entirety followed by a selection of B-sides) I’m still convinced that the balance, as it stands right now, is almost perfect: sure, I can proudly boast about having once promoted gigs that included such gems as Cockroach and Windy City in their set lists, but the current selection, especially when geared towards harder-edged hits such as Hellraiser, Teenage Rampage and Fox On The Run, or even the more cerebrally-inclined Six Teens and Love Is Like Oxygen is ideal for a Christmas show. There’s something here for everyone – and more to the point, it’s an even bigger ‘everyone’ than last year. Maybe people are finally starting to wake up to their seminal importance after all…

Though Scott himself only joined 48 years ago, 2018 marks the band’s 50th anniversary: talks of a commemorative Albert Hall show, augmented by long-term friends such as Joe Elliott and Suzi Quatro (also part of the brilliant QSP project, featuring Scott and Slade drummer Don Powell) are very much in the air, and true to form, the guitarist takes every possible opportunity to humorously plug the as-yet-unconfirmed event whilst simultaneously admitting that “the audiences down there aren’t a patch on the ones up here”. He’s right as well: even though the classic Sweet featured two North-West Londoners, a Welsh guitarist and a Scottish frontman, they’ve always been loved in the Midlands. Again, one gets the feeling that here, in the birthplace of heavy rock, audiences acknowledge them almost as much as they do local heroes like Sabbath, Slade or Priest – tonight’s rapturous response certainly reinforces that contention, and, though the thing I’d love to see most would be a new studio album, if it takes another ostentatious show ‘dahn Sahf’ to drum the importance of this band, whatever the incarnation, into everybody else’s heads, I’m all for it. Just so long as they don’t stop playing this place once a year, of course…

Sweet 2017: simply astounding.

DARIUS DREWE