Alter Bridge (with the Parallax Orchestra) London Royal Albert Hall
Alter Bridge bring a whole new meaning to ‘classic rock’ with an epic RAH show.
For all its classical history, formal splendour and Cirque du Soleil performances, the Royal Albert Hall has been enticing rock artists for decades. The Rolling Stones played here in 1966. In
’67 Jimi Hendrix rolled up with Pink Floyd and The Move. In 1970
Led Zeppelin made an appearance. Things came to a halt when the hall banned all rock and pop concerts in 1972 (after a particularly disruptive ’71), but rock was swiftly reinstated and the doors opened to the likes of The Who, Robert Plant, Chris Cornell… Now it’s the turn of four guys from Florida, here for two heavily hyped, resoundingly sold-out shows.
Three of them play in other bands as well, and they’re all among the least egotistical people you’ll meet in the industry, but Alter Bridge have become one of this generation’s biggest hard rock bands. They comfortably sell out arenas. Their last three albums hit the UK Top 10. They have armies of devoted fans who’ve followed them around the globe for the last 13 years, right up to these performances at the RAH – their most ambitious gigs yet, teamed with a 52-piece symphony orchestra and mega-scale production.
And it all sprang from the ashes of Creed, the band formed in college by a Detroit-born, Italian-American finance student called Mark Tremonti, with drummer Scott Phillips and bassist Brian Marshall. When Creed called it a day in 2004, the three of them formed Alter Bridge, bringing in former guitar teacher Myles Kennedy (who, through years playing in jazz fusion and rock bands, had discovered he could also sing rather well).
“It feels like we were just kids back in the Creed days,” Tremonti says today. “We were only in college, I was about 19, we got a record deal when I was 23 or 24. When you’re younger you feel like 23 or 24 is mature, but you’re still a baby. Creed feels like my college band. And even the first couple of records with Alter Bridge, we were basically kids when we did them.”
Onstage, Tremonti looks quite ‘hard’, with his dark, serious eyes, big arms and black mohawk. Guitar strapped to his torso, he falls somewhere between a protective older brother and a middleweight boxer. Backstage, however, he’s quite different. After hours of meticulous soundchecking and fan meet-andgreeting, we’re met at his dressing room with a breezy, totally genuine, “Hi! How’s it going? Sorry this room smells like a chemical experiment or something…” Seated in a black hoodie and smiling warmly, the 43-year-old father of two becomes a much softer presence.
It has to be said there are no actual ‘chemical experiments’ (hallucinogenic or otherwise) going on here – just a fridge full of water bottles, a small black sofa and a big mirror with light bulbs round the rim. Staples, perhaps, of a venue more accustomed to classical virtuosos than rock stars. Across the corridor there’s a door marked ‘Tuning Room’ and another marked ‘Vocal
Warm-Up Room’, while round the corner are school-style locker rooms with dressing tables, where the young members of the Parallax Orchestra tend to instruments, sort out hair and chat over snacks.
The band seem calm, but clearly a little awed by their new surroundings. During soundcheck, Kennedy especially appears sweetly star-struck, gazing open-mouthed up at the huge auditorium, his skinny frame draped in a black cardie over a loose white T-shirt and black drainpipe jeans. “It was just taking in the structure,” he explains later. “I have a certain appreciation for architecture and what buildings do to you on a psychological level, and that building was just doing tremendous things for me on a spiritual level!”
Curious to think that in a few hours this almost fragile-looking man will showcase an immense voice that had him poised to
join Led Zeppelin at one point. Before that, however, Kennedy was a young trumpet-player from Spokane, Washington, who found the disciplined worlds of jazz, orchestral playing and guitar teaching long before he became one of rock’s most in-demand vocalists. It makes today’s proceedings almost familiar.
“I remember when I first walked in the room and heard the orchestra warming up, it kinda took me back,” he says. “It brought a certain amount of solace to me in a strange way. Because I spent so much time as a kid in a band environment, with an orchestra or symphonic band, it was very calming.”
Not that this has detracted from the anticipation of the whole occasion. “We’ve played Wembley, we’ve played The O2, we did Rock In Rio, but this is another level,” Tremonti says. “Our families didn’t fly to Rio to see us play, or The O2. This is the show all our families have flown across the ocean to see. They’ve never done that before. It makes us more nervous, but now we’ve sound-checked, it feels good. I’m ready.”
For such a big event it’s all come together remarkably quickly, even if the idea was conceived around November 2016, when Alter Bridge manager Tim Tournier approached Parallax Orchestra conductor/ arranger Simon Dobson. Tournier had been impressed by Parallax’s Albert Hall show with metal megastars
Bring Me The Horizon, and wondered if they could collaborate. Dobson, a “huge rock fan”, jumped at the challenge, so Parallax Orchestra manager/violinist Will Harvey began assembling the best players possible – hand-picked for their blend of technical virtuosity and love of rock and metal. Dobson has spent the last three months writing the orchestral parts, and he, the orchestra and the band have two days together to set up, adjust and rehearse.
Soundchecking earlier, Parallax Orchestra are a visibly young team – average age “about 24, 25”, mostly recent music college graduates – in jeans, Converse and T-shirts. The second they start playing, even without the band, their age becomes irrelevant – they sound brilliant. When the band do join in, it’s an enormous sound.
Dobson doesn’t fit the stereotypical image of a conductor: young and skinny in black jeans, leather jacket, spacers in his ears and a part-shorn head, enthusing about rock and metal. “We pride ourselves on being an alternative orchestra,” he says pre-show. “There are players in our orchestra who play Mahler and Beethoven and Mozart, but also we specifically hunt out those players who are into rock and metal bands. So to get that kind of aggression and attitude from the orchestra is not hard, because they’re into it anyway.”
“We’ve played pretty much every song… once,” Tremonti says, with a slightly nervous smile, “maybe twice some of them, so we really haven’t rehearsed very much. We had scheduled two days and we thought we’d come in and blow through the set a few times each day, but the first day took tons of setting up and getting everything right. And you can’t just fly by the seat of your pants with an orchestra – a lot of the songs we’ve done over the years we’ve strayed from the album version, without really realising it.” “Alter Bridge’s music is so utterly raging that there are certain things I just know are going to work,” Dobson enthuses. “For example, if they’re chugging along on some gnarly half-time riff we just join them and it makes everything sound twice as big. Whereas if they’re doing something more like a ballad we can make everything wider. So our job really is to amplify what the songs already are.
“I suppose I’ve added a little bit because I’m a composer and I can’t help but do that, but our job is really to make whatever they do… just bigger.”
And ‘bigger’ they make it. The Albert Hall is stuffed from the floor to the nosebleed gallery seats with Alter Bridge fans of all ages. We see parents with children, bouncy 20-somethings and everything in between. Many are in T-shirts from previous tours. Those who forked out for the VIP Gold Package were treated to a private soundcheck performance, plus photos and hugs with the band. One fan has her wheelchair decorated with the artwork for latest album The Last Hero. The band are friendly and engaged, Kennedy quieter than the others to save his voice for those huge notes later on.
“I’ve always been a little neurotic about it,” he admits, “because I kind of live to deliver, and when I can’t, it’s… it’s a challenge for me. When you’re on a stage and people have paid to see a show, they have high expectations of you.”
Tonight’s songs have been picked for their suitability for orchestration, including more layered tracks that seldom feature on their regular set-lists these days. “That’s why tonight’s gonna be… a little stressful for us,” Tremonti smiles nervously backstage, “because a lot of these songs we hardly ever play.”
Things kick off with Slip To The Void. Its atmospheric opening and pensive structure come layered with haunting strings and strains of brass, woodwind and kettle drums. It’s a captivating scene-setter. Not that there aren’t any no-nonsense powerhouses, mind you. Second number Addicted To Pain offers more guitar-chugging fun, before the band hit new cinematic levels with Before Tomorrow Comes, the orchestra adapting seamlessly to fit and magnify.
For Dobson, it’s a dream gig. A trumpeter and arranger who graduated from the Royal College Of Music, he’s played in a range of brass and wind groups, and funk, rock and punk bands. “I always knew my music theory, I was always having music lessons when everyone else was at parties,” he tells us. “But then I was always into rock bands. So the two parts of me were able to meet in Parallax Orchestra.”
After a 25-minute intermission, the likes of The
End Is Here acquire a mystical, Kashmir-ish quality. Kennedy has an acoustic spotlit moment with Wonderful Life and Watch Over You – a reminder that his is the voice to beat in modern rock. But it’s the powerful Words Darker Than Their Wings, long missed from their set, that’s so heartily cheered it all feels quite emotional. It’s magnificent, embellished to epic effect by the orchestra, the band pouring every ounce they have into its rousing tones.
As the set progresses and the band relax into it, their excited, disbelieving grins and glances round the cavernous space whisper that they’re nailing it – and they know they’re nailing it. “This has been unbelievable,” Kennedy says, before they close with a superb Blackbird and Open Your Eyes.
After the show, having thrown picks and drumsticks into the whooping crowd, the band disappear to spend time with their families.
“My mum and dad came – it was the first time they’ve ever been over to this part of the world,” says Kennedy, buzzing post-show. “I mean, even my guitar instructor from when I grew up showed up for the show! I think we all collectively feel a sense of relief that it seemed to go smoothly, and though we had a limited amount of time with the orchestra to rehearse, it turned out to be enough fortunately. So we were really thrilled when it was all said and done. I don’t think it’s something we’ll ever forget.”
Going forward, having been such a resounding success here, the Parallax Orchestra hope to do many more collaborations like this. “We want to work with big-ass rock bands, and we want to show people that orchestras are not just some po-faced elitist thing,” says Dobson earnestly. “Some people think they are, but we want to change things.”
As for Alter Bridge, “We would be thrilled to get to do this again,” enthuses Kennedy. “I think all four of us felt like those shows were probably the most memorable experiences of our career. We had no idea it was gonna go that well.”
Alter Bridge won’t go down in history as hellraisers. For fans, their relatability, the sense that Kennedy and co. are ‘their guys’ is profoundly appealing. What’s more, sometimes ordinary men can be extraordinary – and when they are, as we saw tonight, it’s tremendous to behold.
With the live orchestra, Alter Bridge add another string to their bow. ‘It’s magnificent, embellished to epic effect by the orchestra.’
Hall or nothing: warming up in the iconic venue. Meeting fans before the show. We’re a happy family: band, conductor and orchestra get ready to rock. Cocktail dresses and devil horns from some of the string section.
Conductor Simon Dobson enjoys some of the spotlight. Alter boy: Myles Kennedy. In the gorgeous surroundings of the Albert Hall the show is an audiovisual extravaganza. Brian Marshall and Mark Tremonti.