I am ashamed to admit that I had never heard of Anvil until last year when I saw their documentary. And I also admit that for the first 10 minutes of the film, I thought it was Spinal Tap for the 21st Century. It was only as the story unfolded that Steve ‘Lips’ Kudlow and Robb Reiner’s humanity became wholly endearing, and their story, uplifting. The final scenes where they play the Rock Festival in Japan, and you don’t know whether they will have an audience or not, made me cry like a baby.
For that reason alone I am standing in the Slade Rooms tonight, happier to be here with Anvil as headline, than their original position as their support to Ratt at the Wulfrun. I am anxious to see whether Anvil’s warmth and unpretentious attitude is as real as it appeared on film.
However, before Anvil, the support band Heresy bring their own brand of Dudley metal to the proceedings. Winners of April’s Battle of the Bands, they are certainly cock-sure, to a point of arrogance, which does not sit well with me at all. Granted, they are all gifted musicians, but maybe I don’t like being referred to as a ‘muthaf**ka’ between every song. It could also be that they are all just a bit too serious; you will bring a crowd closer to you much more quickly by smiling and looking like you are enjoying yourselves, rather than beating them into submission. The award for ‘MOST POINTLESS BAND MEMBER’ has to go to Heresy’s keyboard player: he had three keyboards and looked like he could really play, but apart from a couple of song intros, I could not hear him at all above the incessant noodling of the lead guitarist, who even turned his volume up part way through the set, despite it already being louder than everything else. But fair play to them, they are tight and well rehearsed and clearly work hard at what they do. I can’t criticise that, but zero kudos for originality: in the Black Country, home of metal, there are dozens of bands churning out this stuff. Which one will rise to the top is anyone’s guess, probably none of them. My only suggestion to Heresy would be, next time don’t sit in the bar while Anvil are playing, stick around and watch the original masters at work, you will learn the invaluable lesson that integrity endures and copycat wannabes will not prosper.
The first time I see Anvil guitarist and singer Steve Kudlow, he is carrying two guitars and shuffling across the stage. I initially think it is a guitar technician or roadie, until I catch sight of his unmistakeable long, thin curly hair. No sign of the rockstar primadonna here, just a real, working musician doing his job. After a few minutes he is joined by life-long friend and world’s best drummer Robb Reiner, (you can see why I thought this had a connection with Spinal Tap) and bassist Glenn Five. No smoke machines or lasers or models of Stonehenge; Anvil don’t need it. What follows is just over an hour of joyous rock music played with passion and juggernaut force, but always with a mile wide grin on the face of the frontman. ‘Lips’ speaks of his dreams coming true tonight playing in Wolverhampton, presumably making the link with this area being the true birthplace of Heavy Rock. When he mentions listening to Black Sabbath records you know he means it and is not just name dropping to curry favour. From the rapturous applause from the half full room, it feels more like our dreams have come true, finally getting to see our heroes in such intimate surroundings. So yeah, maybe the venue isn’t rammed, and maybe some would say that Anvil are still small timers, busting a gut for little return. But success should never be judged on numbers, rather on the amount of real affection created: and Anvil somehow manage to produce this emotion in abundance from their loyal fans.
Anvil perform songs from their 30 year career, including: ‘School Love’, ‘Winged Assassins’, ‘Thumb Hang’, ‘666’, ‘Forged In Fire’ and ‘13’ from their latest album. ‘White Rhino’ contains a stunning drum solo by Mr Reiner, and although these were seen as over-used, irrelevant set-fillers and consigned to the tip by decades of indie-kids, this is actually extremely entertaining. He really lives up to the title, ‘world’s best drummer’ (bestowed on him by Lips by the way). Other highlights of the set are the vibrator guitar solo, where we get to do a call and response with this golden rod and Lips using his guitar pick-up as a microphone… it just sounds great! ‘Metal on Metal’ is also a stand out track as it is just the greatest signature tune of the heaviest, metalist band ever (after all, an anvil is the heaviest metal!), and they storm through the song with pure unabashed energy.
Anvil may have recently reinvented themselves in the public arena as the ultimate under-achiever and the interest they have now been granted comes off the back of the documentary. However, you cannot underestimate that these three men are a great live act. They envelope the audience with their enthusiasm and it is infectious. The fact that they are still genuine decent guys, despite working their nuts off for so long and not finding success, is testament to their unquenchable belief in what they are doing. And I find that completely engaging. So what if 97% of the world has no clue what you do? To me they have more substance than the handful of globally successful bands that followed them. Maybe that is because as an old failed rocker myself, I really identify with the band.
I just hope that Anvil aren’t labelled in music history as the perennial joke support band to the superstar rock band. As music becomes more corporate, more of a device to sell a soft drink, more watered down and less and less about passion, honesty or basic big balls rock and roll, it is inspiring and life-affirming to know Anvil are somewhere out there rocking out on their own terms. I prefer the intimate atmosphere of the Slade rooms to standing in a field of 70000 strangers any day.
Review – Al Neilson
Photos – Katja Ogrin