O2 Academy, Bristol (Mon 5 Dec)
When a band has been around as long as Uriah Heep, it's easy to get lost in the statistics. It's 43 years since their first gigs as Spice at Covent Garden's groovy hippy hangout Middle Earth. Twenty-three albums and six drummers later, Heep's current global trek has been going since February, taking in 22 countries. But as our indefatigable elder rockingfolk become ever more grizzled, another phenomenon has emerged. In many cases, the big success followed by slow creative and commercial decline has been replaced by a series of peaks and troughs. Neil Young and Yes are probably the best examples. But Heep are also going through a purple patch – their third by my reckoning – with two successive albums that are as good as anything they've done since the early 70s. The road-hardened quintet are also on incredible form live, nailing each and every one of those complex five-part harmonies, without which there would have been no Queen.
It helps, of course, that they appear absolutely delighted to be on stage in Bristol on a chilly Monday night in December. Bernie Shaw, now Heep's longest-serving vocalist, positively beams with pleasure as he introduces the four songs from current album 'Into the Wild'. Interestingly, many younger members of the audience respond more enthusiastically to these than to the 70s classics craved by oldsters. Phil Lanzon's massive organ continues to dominate, missus, underpinning Heep's status as the grandfathers of prog-metal, though perennially under-rated sole surviving founder member Mick Box grabs the spotlight for an effortlessly brilliant acoustic guitar solo. (There's also a drum solo, as if to remind us that not everything about 70s prog and metal is an unalloyed joy.) And it's hard to argue with a set list that takes in 'Return to Fantasy', 'Gypsy', 'July Morning', 'Stealin'', 'The Wizard', 'Lady in Black' and an absolutely breathtaking 'Rainbow Demon'. Come encore time, the frisky veterans even invite ladies from the audience to leap on stage and jig about with them. Remarkably, there's no shortage of takers. "The best thing about this part of the show," quips Box, who receives a peck on the cheek from each amateur gyrator, "is that it's the bit you know will be on YouTube tomorrow morning." (Robin Askew)
Copyright Robin Askew 2011