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.

Classic Rock - - Live! - Words: Polly Glass Pho­tos John McMur­trie

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.

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