Uriah Heep was formed in 1969 and were contemporaries of Led Zepplin, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple. They were probably closest in sound to Deep Purple: both have Hammond organ and guitar leading the sound; both had dalliances with orchestras; and both have a similar hard rock sound although Uriah Heep leaned more to the progressive end of the rock spectrum. They went through an incredible number of members in their early days before settling on a combination in 1986 that stayed steady for twenty-one years. There have been a few changes recently (tragically, they lost their bass player to cancer and their drummer to ill-health) but the core of the longest running version of the band remains, with Phil Lanzon on keyboards, Bernie Shaw on vocals and Mick Box (the only constant through all the band’s incarnations) on guitar. As a band with more than 45 years in the business and 24 studio albums – they must be doing something right.
Live At Koko is a three disc package with two CDs and a DVD of a concert recorded on 4 March 2014. The eighteen tracks on the two CDs cover pretty much the whole concert and, as a bonus, you also get a DVD of the event all for around £10 – not bad value I think.
So, does Live At Koko give a good idea of what the band is about? I think it does. There is reasonable coverage of their 40 plus years of back catalogue albeit with a bias to their classic years and their most recent output. (Nine songs from the 70s, two from the 90s, one from the 00s and five from the 10s). It lets you hear where they have come from as well as where they are now. The running order is well put together: starting with a couple of their newer ones, then some from the 70s, a bunch of newer ones in the middle and then a block at the end with their big hits from their early days. They are experienced musicians, showing what they can do and delivering great, old style rock. Essentially, I like this album but I have have one issue with it that I’ll get out of the way first before I talk about some of my favourite tracks.
I love live albums, and while I realise it will never be the same as actually being there, I want a live recording to give me something of the sense of the concert. I like to hear the roar of the crowd as the band takes the stage; the to and fro between the audience and the vocalist; the off-key singing from the fans as they bellow out their favourite songs with more enthusiasm than skill; in other words, I want to know it is an event and not just a performance. Unfortunately, the way this album has been put together is more than a little problematic. The issues start right with the first track which doesn’t begin with a cheer of recognition, an introduction, or even a, “Hello London!”. Instead, we get thrown straight in to the opening song with no preamble. It is not even clear you are listening to a live recording. Thankfully the track ends with a, “Good evening Koko! How you doing?” as well as some crowd noise. This continues over into the next track and you begin to feel like you are listing to a concert… but it is just lulling you into a false sense of security. At the end of the second track, there is a bit of banter then a rapid fade to silence before, bang, straight into the next track. Bizarre! There you are, in the concert and suddenly, a fraction of a second of silence wrenches you out of the moment. There are only a couple of tracks where it flows from one into the other with some crowd noise between because but at the end of almost every track, there is a fade to silence. Nasty, and not clear why it is necessary. My second year pupils could do a better editing job!
Major complaint out of the way, how is the sound quality? In general pretty good. The bass is perhaps a bit muddy but the drums punch through, the interplay between organ and guitar is good and Bernie’s vocals are clear and strong. (I did hear someone complain that Bernie Shaw is not as good as was at his peak. I don’t have a history with the band as a point of comparison but he, hit the high notes and sounded great to me.)
There’s not a duff track on the album and I like both the old and the new songs. Of the newer material, I would rate the two tracks from Outsider, their most recent studio album. “Can’t Take That Away” starts with some jangly guitar and showcases what a tight rock outfit Uriah Heep is. In one of the rare occasions with no fade to silence, “Can’t Take That Away” flows seemlessly into “One Minute”, the second track from Outsider. “One Minute” starts quietly with Bernie singing over the piano about a young boy setting out to make his fortune but as he contemplates the possibility of his dreams coming true the guitar kicks in, the pace picks up and we are launched into another belter of a tune with a message that exhorts us to persevere:
You gotta give it one minute, one hour, one more day!
What is impressive is how well the new stuff stands up against the old. This is not a band resting on its laurels but one that is striving to keep delivering the good stuff!
As for classic Uriah Heep, “Stealin'” from 1972 is a great example. It has a throbbing bass line for an introduction a slow build to a sing-a-long chorus and then an impressive guitar solo from Mick Box. Add to that Bernie Shaw stirring up the audience to scream, ”Stealin'” in the closing section and you have a song with, “crowd pleaser” written all over it. And talking of crowd pleasers, it doesn’t get much better than the track that closes the concert: “Easy Livin'”. Even if you are unfamiliar with Uriah Heep, you are likely to recognise this track. They must have played it umpteen times in their 45 year career but it still sounds fresh and exciting. If you are still not sure whether you are interested in Uriah Heep or not, start with this track: if you are a fan of rock, it should convince you to give the rest of the album a try!
Live A Koko is an outstanding album from a band that deserves to be described as “classic”.