Gig Review: South of Salem / She Burns Red – KK’s Steel Mill, Wolverhampton (3rd November 2023)

If you’ve even been following the unsigned rock scene in the last couple of years on a very casual basis, it’s highly likely you’ll have seen the name South of Salem on a festival poster. Having released a stellar debut album in the middle of 2020 and tearing up the circuit for the last couple of years, the Samhain Supernova tour taking place over late October/early November (get it?) is the band’s first headline tour. It also acts as the album’s victory lap before they release their second album in January which they’ve been teasing for months with a little preview at SOS Fest back in July. This, the final night of the tour sees us not in the usual room of KK Downing’s gaff as it’s occupied by Yngwie Malmsteen so it’s into the smaller room for the first time.

To make the night (and the entire tour) even sweeter is Scottish upstarts She Burns Red who have just released their own equally magnificent debut album and were on-stage at SOS Fest right before tonight’s headliners – you have to love a bit of happenstance. With only half an hour or so to play with, they manage to cram a mammoth eight of the nine songs which appear on Out of Darkness with “Stronger” as the only omission. Bristling with energy and the adrenaline clearly flowing, the hard rockers grab the quickly growing crowd by the scruff of the neck and drag them along for the ride whether they like it or not.

Quickly amassing their own dedicated following, this is a performance which shows why, plus they have the songs to back it up. As they play the album’s track list in the order it appears, it allows for a faithful rendition with both James McCulloch (bass) and Andy Moore leading the charge by sharing vocals as per the album. With the flashes of alternative and punk layered into their gritty hard rock, it makes for a fast-paced set and the songs have been written with performing them to an audience in mind. As McCulloch’s bass thunders in lock-step with Scott Hanlon’s dynamic drumming and razor sharp guitars of Naz Scanferlato and Moore mean chords and riffs fly freely to create a hefty, full-bodied sound. Whilst there are a number of She Burns Red t-shirts in the crowd, they easily convert a number of people in the audience and there’s a real sense that whilst they’re never a band to give less than their all, tonight is about going that step further, flying on the momentum of the previous seven gigs.

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Now, it’s time for the men of the hour. Having developed their own cult following, minus drinking Kool Aid, South of Salem take their marks, one by one, to a well-earned full house. It’s no surprise tonight is sold out and had it not been for Malmsteen, it’s likely upstairs would have accommodated a lot more people in one of its various configurations. That being said, it’ll be completely unsurprising on their next headline run when they play in bigger rooms, especially on the strength of their performances on this tour, coupled with an excellent debut album and some teases of new songs which sound like they’ll be equally good, if not, better.

Exuding power and confidence without straying into arrogance, the significance of the night and the tour isn’t lost on them. It’s explicitly highlighted when vocalist Joey Draper points out that everyone in the band has made the album come to life in more ways than simply performing on it, such is the nature of the unsigned/grassroots scene – everyone’s got to wear multiple hats. But for the most part, the band let the music do the talking other than some song intros. And when you’ve got material this strong, it doesn’t talk for you, it shouts for you. As the band straddle that line between hard rock and metal with a good dose of hard charging punk without the snottiness, it speaks to a wide range of fans as seen in the room.

Unsurprisingly, given the tear they’ve been on the last couple of years, they’ve got the crowd in the palm of their hand, cultivating a passionate fanbase who know the words inside out and the only time they’re quiet is on the few new numbers they break out. But even then they’re keen to join in with clapping and call and response when asked of them. Furthermore, the packed room has seen the band before and when asked who’s never seen them before, only a handful of people respond. This is the kind of band we’re watching – a known quantity but one that has quality in spades. There’s excellent stagecraft combined with an edgier sound than the homogeneous type (many of these bands are great for what it’s worth) that has been doing the rounds for the past few years and allows them to stand out from the crowd. New single “Static” is unveiled and is filth with its brutal riffs and gargantuan bass line. Meanwhile, their cover of “Rebel Yell” (which also featured as SOS Fest) is dusted off and makes a welcome change from the usual suspects being covered, sounding grittier and heavier than the original yet still keeping it faithful.

With swagger and sleaze built into the music with a hint of the menace which comes from horror punk, it’s a non-stop thrill live which barely stops for breath, other than on “Demons Are Forever” which many people in the crowd can relate to. It’s a set which balances passion and power, and there are few bands around right now which deserve a bigger stage but South of Salem are one of them.

However, the real highlight comes in the encore when “Cold Day in Hell” has everyone singing along and sees She Burns Red join them for the night’s finale. It’s a special sight to see the nine of them together and the camaraderie between the two bands isn’t just for show – you can feel the authenticity. Bigger and even more anthemic than it appears on the album, there’s a reason why you keep this song for last. Indeed, you can feel the ambition from the band and there’s definitely a sense that not only did we witness a special hour, but this is simply the beginning. When you’ve got kids who look like they’re definitely past their bedtime on their parent’s shoulders and a healthy mix of generations throughout the venue, then you’re doing something right. With their sound, engaging performances on a sonic and visual level, and the fact it’s done so well by a band clearly investing as much time and money into the live set, then it won’t be long until the bigger stages are calling.

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Header image by Scott Chalmers

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