Thunder + Reef + Tax the Heat @ Barclaycard Arena, 13th March 2015

Thunder + Reef + Tax the Heat @ Barclaycard Arena, 13th March 2015Thunder + Reef + Tax the Heat @ Barclaycard Arena, 13th March 2015Thunder + Reef + Tax the Heat @ Barclaycard Arena, 13th March 2015Thunder + Reef + Tax the Heat @ Barclaycard Arena, 13th March 2015Thunder + Reef + Tax the Heat @ Barclaycard Arena, 13th March 2015Thunder + Reef + Tax the Heat @ Barclaycard Arena, 13th March 2015Thunder + Reef + Tax the Heat @ Barclaycard Arena, 13th March 2015Thunder + Reef + Tax the Heat @ Barclaycard Arena, 13th March 2015

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Apart from Status Quo, it’s tough to think of a band quite as bad at splitting up as Thunder; since their most recent farewell show in Wolverhampton in 2009, there have been festival slots, Christmas shows, a new album and now a headline arena tour. Not that this is a bad thing – it’s the opposite in fact. They’ve spent 25 years building a reputation as one of the best live rock bands you could ever wish to see, and it’s great that people still want them to come back for more. And for one member of Thunder in particular, this latest tour is extra special.

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Opening things up is Bristol foursome Tax the Heat. Dressed in dapper suits they look sharp and it’s a style that matches their slick rhythm and blues sound – if they’d announced on stage that they’d actually built a time machine and were visiting us from the 1970’s you would absolutely believe them. They don’t seem daunted by the size of the room they’re playing to – in fact, they just look like they’re having an absolute blast. They ooze confidence, sound great and it’s tough not to at least tap your foot along to their thumping beats. A solid set that earned them a rousing response and undoubtedly a load of new fans.

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Main support tonight comes from Reef – yes, the very same band who put out one of the best songs of the last 20 years in Place Your Hands – who are themselves a few years into a return, having originally called it quits in 2003. One thing that is apparent very early on in their set is they’ve slowed down a lot since their late 90s pomp; there is a decidedly laid back groove to all of their songs, which just about works for the most part – although the previously bombastic Come Back Brighter is perhaps not so well suited. Vocalist Gary Stringer is the same pouting, grunting unique talent, just far more bearded these days. Actually, that’s an understatement…he looks like a rabbi in baggy jeans. They groove on through their set and the crowd seems to be into it, especially when cuts from their seminal album Glow make an appearance. They’re also confident enough to pop their big hit right in the middle of the set, which does a great job of capturing any attentions that might have started to waive. Like Tax the Heat before them, Reef are clearly having a ball and they are very easy to watch – even if they’re not as hard hitting as you may remember them. That said, a stomping run through of Yer Old to close their set does, appropriately, show they can still kick in when they feel like it.

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And so to Thunder – jokes about their inability to retire aside, this arena does have an extra poignancy for the veteran fivepiece, as it marks the return to action of guitarist Ben Matthews following successful treatment for cancer. Matthews’ illness means his band’s tour has been limited to three dates, meaning some of their fans have travelled from far and wide to be here tonight – something for which vocalist Danny Bowes apologises for and sarcastically says “it’s his fault” whilst pointing to his bandmate.

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But not even cancer can keep this good band down, and they are immediately in the zone with opening number Wonder Days, which despite having only come out a matter of weeks ago on the album of the same name, the crowd sings back word for word. From a new classic, they launch straight into an old one with a River of Pain, which Bowes uses as an invitation for the crowd to “have a jiggle” and from then onwards Thunder are flying, as they always do when you put them on a stage.

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The setlist is loaded with cuts from the aforementioned Wonder Days, giving fans a chance to devour them in a live environment for the first time. They all sound great, with Broken and When the Music Played especially standing out. Filling in the gaps is a veritable selection from the rest of Thunder’s back catalogue; when you hear a band capable of pulling out songs as good as Empty City, The Devil Made Me Do It and the evergreen Backstreet Symphony, it’s difficult to see why Thunder never made it into the really big leagues of the rock world or why they haven’t been headlining arenas their entire career.

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The good songs just keep coming, led by the boundless Bowes and his grinning bandmates, with the duo of Love Walked In and I Love You More Than Rock n Roll perfectly leading them into an encore. It’s this encore that really underlines what Thunder are about and the legacy they’ll leave when they do eventually stop for good. The spine-tingling ballad Low Life in High Places leads into the pounding Higher Ground, before they finish with the rousing feel good anthem of Dirty Love.

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Thunder have once again shown why they are still essential viewing for any band wanting to know how to put on a great show, and it is fabulous that they decided to come back for more. But beyond that, it’s even more fabulous to see them do it with their “resident cancer sufferer” Ben Matthews on stage for the ride, joining the rest of his band in sending an arena full of joyous fans off into the night singing “na na nah na na nah nah”. Great to have you back Thunder – it’s almost like you never went away!

 

Review and photography – Dave Musson

 

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