“Do you know anything about this new record? God, I fuckin’ hope so…” Duff McKagan says, greeting the crowd and strapping on his acoustic guitar as he leads Shooter Jennings and his band back onto the stage. As McKagan’s latest album, Tenderness, was recorded with them, he’s got them performing the songs alongside him but before that, Jennings has run through his own back catalogue to open proceedings.
It’s a clever move and given the flavourings of Tenderness, a more perfect fit you’d be hard pushed to find. With both fiddle and keys given more of an emphasis, by the time Jennings and his band have kicked off the night, Manchester’s Academy 3 is already relatively full. Threading the needle between Southern rock and country, it shows all the flavours this particular genre and its subtleties. At points it feels like The Quireboys’ odd foray into the same territory and at others, would be the perfect touring partner for Blackberry Smoke. Regardless of the sea of Guns N’ Roses and related shirts, there’s a rousing response after every song and this grows with every number. There’s a definite feel that not only is Jennings and his band winning people over, there’s some genuine fans in the crowd. Alongside that, he keeps the banter to a minimum, letting the music do the talking. Overall, it’s a masterclass in how to run a support slot and by the time he finishes his 45 minute set, people are demanding more.
Given the stylings of his latest solo album and the fact the band are accompanying McKagan for it, it’s obvious this isn’t going to be your typical rock show. Jennings and his band have replaced the more country look with a smarter, dapper look to match the man himself and it feels like it’s a whole new band has joined the night. As “You Ain’t the First” kicks off his set, he’s setting the tone immediately: it’s him, but not as you know it. Hammering through a handful of songs from the record, he takes plenty of time to talk with the crowd, showing his love for Manchester and also finding time to be serious. As the record discusses the troubles currently facing the human race and society right now, he gives an impassioned speech, declaring that it won’t always be like this and that rock and shows like this shows how music can unite and change the world.
Whilst the Tenderness songs receive a warm welcome, the crowd push harder during the couple of Guns N’ Roses songs such as the aforementioned “You Ain’t the First” and “Dust N’ Bones”. And whilst they’re treated with reverence and recreated faithfully, it’s not like they’re stripped back. The fiddle from Aubrey Richmond, in particular, brings a new twist with its melodies, mingling with Jennings’ keys.
Elsewhere, McKagan dedicates the reinterpretation of “Wasted Heart” to his wife and “Feel” to a number of departed icons such as Scott Weiland, Lemmy, Prince, Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington, all of whom are given hearty cheers. Whilst the album tackles some serious issues, he keeps the tone light throughout when talking with the crowd with several jokes, many along the lines of being “high on steroids” (his words and for his voice) and throws in a couple of dad jokes for good measure and makes fun of The Daily Mail (who can blame him?). And at no point does this feel like McKagan and a backing band, there’s a chemistry between the six of them as he takes time to interact with them all as they perform and each have their own moments in the spotlight. Indeed, he and Jennings jam on the spot to show how quick they can write a song, dedicating it to Manchester but struggle to find something to rhyme with the city which then leads to a lewd joke.
However, it’s the double-barrel shot of “Parkland” and The Clash’s “Clampdown” which leads into the band going for broke. As the former puts shootings in America in the spotlight, there’s a reworking of it to include the recent Wal-Mart events and one which occurred the night before the show. There’s disgust in his eyes and for a good reason as he throws out the words before taking his fury out with “Clampdown”. And between the pair of these songs, it feels like an old-school punk show, despite the acoustic/Americana leanings of the bulk of the night’s material.
Whilst McKagan explains there’s no encore afterwards, this very much feels like it as they rip through “Dead Horse” with Richmond leading the vocals for a portion, the crowd going wild for the Use Your Illusions I number. And “Don’t Look Behind You” feels like the perfect send-off, trading on the same ideal as it closes out the album. It inspires hope and unity with its crescendo, imploring everyone to try and make a difference, to forget what’s happened and make a better tomorrow. But there’s just some more juice in the tank with Mark Lanegan’s “Deepest Shade”. McKagan drops the guitar and climbs down to stand on the barrier, to be right with the crowd to hold hands with them. And if ever there’s a perfect send-off and a metaphor for what Tenderness was all about, then this is it.
Despite filling stadiums for the last few years and playing to millions of people across the globe, there’s a sense McKagan is relishing playing to only a few hundred people. Such a style of music and performance would be lost on playing to a bigger crowd. Instead, it feels like he’s singing only to you and is reminiscent of Ally Dickaty’s solo performances. As the lights go up and the band departs, there’s a great atmosphere in the air and in offering his thoughts on how we can improve ourselves, it hit the mark.
Header image by Jesse DeFlorio