Steven Tyler & The Loving Mary Band at The Forum, London
Back in the saddle and sounding better than ever, Steven Tyler rocks The London Forum to its core.
By Andy Rawll.
In 2009, the future looked bleak for America’s favourite rock n roll band. The rigours of touring had caught up with both the band’s talismanic front-man and its mercurial guitarist with a succession of injuries and illnesses that threatened to sideline the band for good. Although Joe Perry was soon ready to ‘Let the music do the talkin’ again, Steven Tyler was still struggling for fitness. This would be the first, but not the last time that the band gave serious consideration to recruiting a replacement singer, with names as diverse as Chris Cornell, Sammy Hagar, Miles Kennedy and even Axl Rose, so they could keep the Aero train a rollin’.
Although differences were resolved, this period marked a change in the dynamic of the band, as members felt justified and perhaps liberated to seek out parallel and alternative creative outlets. Perry extended his solo catalogue and as his 2009 album ‘Have guitar will travel’ suggested, toured extensively with his own band. In the meantime, Tyler got his wings and released his debut solo record ‘Love lives’ the closing song of the Japanese Sci-Fi movie ‘Battle Ship Yamato’. However, the momentum to release a full solo album was lost when he made a Faustian pact to join American Idol as a judge on the high-profile US TV show. It would be another seven years until his Nashville-tinged debut solo album ‘We’re all somebody from somewhere’ was finally released to critical acclaim in 2016.
In the meantime, the classic line-up of Aerosmith managed to set aside their differences and get back in the saddle to resume regular touring and released what could be their final studio album ‘Music from another dimension !’ in 2012. Although not quite living up to the promise of the title, this proved to a better than expected collection, if not the perfect epitaph, should there be no sequel.
It was ironic that just as the band was completing its 2017 ‘Aero-viderci’ European tour, both Perry and Tyler were hatching plans of their own to bring their individual bands to the UK for the first time. Joe brought buddies Johnny and Alice along with their good-time covers-band ‘Hollywood Vampires’ and Steve accompanied by ‘Loving Mary’, the Nashville supergroup that performed on his solo album and has already toured extensively in the US and even headlined the Nippon Budokan in April 2017.
And so it came to pass, in the scorching summer of 2018, that Aerosmith fans were able to witness two very different debut shows from two bands, with a common history that stretches back almost fifty years. To my bat ears, Joe’s Vampires bit off more than they could chew with an undersold and uninspiring June 2018 show at the cavernous Wembley Arena. It was a perfectly entertaining set of crowd-pleasing and competently played covers, but the eclectic nature of the set, for example from The Doors to AC/DC to Motorhead to The Who, meant that the overall pacing of the show lacked cohesion and the result was underwhelming.
When Steven Tyler’s show as announced, for many, delight turned to dismay, when fans saw the ticket prices that were almost twice that of the Vampires gig and that the venue chosen was the modestly proportioned O2 Forum, with a capacity of just over 2,000. Also, for fans yearning a fiery and rocking set of Aerosmith songs, the prospect of Nashville-style interpretations of classic songs as well as tracks from the solo album that has had little to no airplay in the UK, had many just pressing pause and not pay or play.
Even in the run-up to the show, the buzz in London’s rock was muted, with rumours of a barely half-sold venue and only cautious anticipation from the faithful few. The Vampires show, despite its flaws was starting to look more and more like one of the best value shows of the summer, particularly given that you had fine supporting sets from ‘The Darkness’ and ‘The Damned’ whereas Tyler’s billed support amounted to an acoustic duo called ‘The Sisterhood Band’.
How wrong they were.
On the night, the venue was completely sold-out, both in the upstairs seated sauna and in the downstairs standing steam-room. The last time that the atmosphere in the Forum was this fervent and infernal was when Kiss played a special charity gig in 2012, and it was truly hotter than hell, even before the pyro kicked-in.
There’s a special kind of fevered anticipation that you can sense on momentous occasions and at special gigs. It’s like the intangible energy you can feel before an electrical storm or the hushed reverence that precedes an act of superhuman daring. Somehow, you just knew that something very special was about to happen.
What we didn’t expect is the form that it would take at the start of the show.
After the pleasant west-coast folk of ‘TSB’ breezed past, nothing could have prepared the audience for the unbilled, unplugged and utterly unhinged version of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, performed by five-piece London festival favourites ‘The London Essentials’. The combination of flamboyant stage moves and pitch-perfect harmonies struck a real power-chord with the crowd by the third ‘Mama’ and by the time that Beelzebub was proving his fandango skills, the whole was reverberating in a cacophony of mass karaoke.
No sooner had the group left the stage to rapturous acclaim that a short video montage is played, showing clips of Tyler, the rock peacock, through the ages, with some great sound clips and memorable quotes, particularly his philosophy at the time that ‘it’s all about the pretty girls in the front row’.
The kings and queens of Nashville that form the six-piece ‘Loving Mary Band’ that Tyler has adopted as his own, strutted onto the stage, led by the hypnotically psychedelic riff for ‘Sweet Emotion’ and accompanied by amazingly rich harmonies. It was immediately clear that this was no ordinary band of hired hands. The main clue was in the de facto bandleader, a certain Marti Frederiksen, a familiar name to Aerosmith fans, if not a known face. A long-standing studio collaborator of the band, whose production and songwriting prowess has enabled him to attract some of Nashville’s most successful writers and performers to form what he intended to be a little like a modern Fleetwood Mac. Their feel for the music is fine-tuned and exquisite as the outro expands and extends into a swampy stomp, reminiscent of Led Zep’s ‘Misty mountain hop’.
To the delight of the crowd, the sound is loud and clear and the vibe only just a little bit country, but a whole lotta rock n roll as the sweet opener segues into ‘Cryin’. This classic break-up song already has a rural feel to it, to which Steven adds a brilliantly soulful vocal, made more poignant when he steps to the side of the stage, mid-song to kiss his grand-daughter.
The set follows a similar path to that trodden by previous tours with a judicious mix of covers and solo material embellishing the solid gold core of Aerosmith songs. English eyes are soon smiling with the beautiful Beatles medley that includes a raucous ‘Oh darling’ and a wonderfully soulful take on ‘Come together’, played with a Free style groove and enhanced by Andrew McTaggart’s lithe Kossoff-meets-Green guitar lines. It also reveals Rebecca Howard’s agile bass playing to be more than a match to her astounding vocal talent, which Steven generously showcased on a driving acapella rendition of Janice’s ‘Mercedes Benz’ and a powerful duet of her signature song ‘Piece of my heart’. In the words of JJ, we knew she got it, and it made us feel good.
Yet, there was no mistaking the shooting star of the show. From the sweet familiar sound of the opening song to the fully ledded finale, the #demonofscreamin was in immaculate form. His unique voice still retains that signature combination of Jagger’s drawl and Plant’s howl, swooping, soaring, seducing with boundless emotion and range.
It’s a shame that there was only room for original two songs from his solo record, as there at least twice as many songs, good enough to feature in the set. As it was the choice of the angelic ‘Only Heaven’ showcased now well the Nashville-tinged sound suits his style, particularly when his voice is complemented by his vocal co-conspirators, with Suzi McNeil excelling on the album title track, with husband Andrew again supreme on guitar.
The presence of Rebecca’s partner, multi-instrumentalist Elisha Hoffman in the band, further reinforces the claims of Loving Mary Band as Nashville’s Fleetwood Mac. Judging by their collective performance together, the two couples make loving fun and provide a rootsy sonic bedrock upon which Tyler’s voice thrives. There’s a definite irony in the way he sings ‘Jaded’, when clearly he’s having the time of his life and even at the grand age of 70 performs and delivers like a man half his age, although these days ‘Living on the edge’ is limited to being a song-title rather than a lifestyle choice.
A sobering counterpoint to the opening clips, that showed Aerosmith in their 1970s days of toxic excess, is the prominent promotion of Janie’s Fund, the charity endorsed by Steven as ‘A big voice for abused girls’. This message was reinforced by the rearranged and darkly disturbing version of ‘Janie’s got a gun’ that features on his solo album. It builds on a brooding unaccompanied intro into a dark and chilling tale of lost innocence.
From the depths of such despair, only one song could embody the power of hope and redemption to elevate the show towards its finale. Steven Tyler composed ‘Dream on’ as a solo song before he joined Aerosmith, but it became the band’s anthem and remains one of the classic rock’s most enduring and epic songs. Yet again, a subtle rearrangement of the song, through the added melancholy of Elisha’s accordion, softens the familiar bombast of the song and adds poignancy to the lyrics. When the captivated crowd join Steven to ‘sing for the laughter, singer for the tears, sing with me, just for today’, there is a palpable feeling that there’s profound truth to the mantra ‘Dream until your dreams come true’.
The set closed with a further return to the Aerosmith songbook with live favourite ‘Train Kept a-Rollin’ with the band powering at full stream and Suzie adding blistering blues harp
Departing the stage to raucous acclaim, the band soon returned to close this extraordinary with the feral come-hither of ‘Walk this way’, which remains as thrilling in its original 1975 version as the 1984 reboot with Run DMC that signalled the second coming of the band after years of toxic decline. Steven returned to the wings to embrace daughter Liv and offered her to take a few lines of a song, recorded two years before she was even born, which she sang with the power and confidence of her proud father.
Just when you thought that the show could reach further heights, the band shifted gears, racing through a round-robin of solos, before powerhouse drummer Sarah Tomek launched the monumental groove of ‘Whole lotta love’. As it happens, her presence has delicious synchronicity, given that she was the longstanding drummer for popular US tribute band ‘Lez Zeppelin’ and unknown to Tyler, her previous gig was in Bebe Buell’s band, with whom Steve created his Living goddess actress daughter. This was also the cue for ‘The London Essentials’ to bookend their earlier appearance to return to the stage add their sonic, vocal and rhythmic imprint to the celestial crescendo.
This was a show that defied expectations and silenced the cynics. This was pure rock and roll with heart and soul, songs that moved and music that grooved. It didn’t tell us anything new about Steven Tyler, serving only to reaffirm his status as one of the truly great front-man, combining charisma, sex appeal and one of the best voices of any era. Shame on any of us that doubted for a second that this would be nothing short of an exceptional show. The thing is, it was even better than that.
In perspective, Aerosmith’s most recent UK show, their triumphant headline set at last year’s Download festival, is now a jaded memory. It has been usurped by tonight’s performance, that proved the vitality of their songbook when the essence of the music and lyrics was revealed in stunning relief with energy and style. Given that this was the sole UK date on the band’s European tour, I wouldn’t count out the possibility of a more expansive return visit, perhaps with a set-list that further emphasises the strength of Tyler’s solo work.
By the same token, Aerosmith now has a revived, invigorated, and pumped Steve Tyler in their ranks to call upon. The question is whether he is ready yet to walk away from the Mary’s love and return to brother Joe and the good old bad boys of Boston.
I suspect there are a few more tours left in the band before they draw the line. No mirrors required. Going up…
Sweet Emotion (Aerosmith)
I'm Down (The Beatles)
Oh! Darling (The Beatles)
Come Together (The Beatles)
Rattlesnake Shake (Fleetwood Mac)
Only Heaven (Steven Tyler)
Mercedes Benz (Janis Joplin) – Rebecca Howard acapella
Piece of My Heart (Erma Franklin)
We're All Somebody From Somewhere (Steven Tyler)
Livin' on the Edge (Aerosmith)
Janie's Got a Gun (Aerosmith)
Dream On (Aerosmith song)
Train Kept A-Rollin' (Tiny Bradshaw)
Walk This Way (Aerosmith)
Whole Lotta Love (excerpt) (Led Zeppelin)