Gods of Rap: De La Soul, Public Enemy (Radio), Wu-Tang Clan, Wembley Arena

Public Enemy (Radio), Wu-Tang Clan, Wembley Arena, London, May 10, 2019

I arrive at Wembley Arena as De La Soul is about to go on stage, and I figure I can catch most of their set, but there’s a vast and slow-moving queue outside the arena, and the length of De La Soul’s set is shorter than the size of the line. This hasn’t been well planned, and I’m disappointed to miss out on one of the three acts I’ve paid a substantial amount of money to see. My disappointment diminishes when I later hear that De La Soul mainly played new music and hardly any of the classics (because of a dispute with their record label). Still, it doesn’t change that this was poor planning by Wembley Arena or me, or perhaps both. 

Arriving inside, the stale stench of beer and junk food greets me, and I hurry up the stairs to get inside the arena and away from the smell. Public Enemy, or as they now call themselves, Public Enemy Radio, takes to the stage shortly afterwards, and the excitement is undeniable.

I’m immediately impressed by Chuck D’s vocals – a voice of determination and conviction. It’s a pleasure to hear him rap his way through classics like Don’t Believe the Hype and Fight the Power. Flavor Flav is absent, for, to me, unknown reasons, but though it would have been great to hear the legendary ‘Yeah, booooy’ shoutout, I don’t mind too much that he isn’t there. 

Chuck D once said about him, ‘Flavor is the dude who presents disorder…’ There’s nothing disorderly about Public Enemy (Radio) this evening. Considering the current way of the world and how disorderly our current crop of politicians are, it’s a relief to see that at least some people, if not our politicians, can get straight to the point with no fucking around. Chuck D is well-versed in making articulate, well-informed observations of the world in a, dare I say, orderly fashion. Chuck D is the real deal, and with DJ Lord, emcee Jahi and two of the military-clad S1W-dancers (making understated dance moves), Mr D makes sure to show us all who’s the Boss of Rap. Considering the tour’s name, I should maybe name him God of Rap, but I think that’s a bit excessive.

In between the groups, DJ Premier keeps the beat going and gets the arena singing along to hits like Ready or Not (Here I Come). His enthusiasm seems natural, and he feels present, making the rest of us feel present too – what more can you expect from a DJ?

Then it’s time for Wu-Tang Clan, who we already know is without perhaps their most prominent member, Method Man. Why, no one seems to be sure of – something to do with the money? It’s a shame, but there’s no previous performance to compare with for someone who’s never seen them before, so it doesn’t bother me too much. Anyway, there are nine of them, for God’s sake; who can keep track of all of them? Well, I’m going to try.

GZA, RZA, U-God, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Cappadonna, Masta Killa, Inspectah Deck. The son of the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard – conveniently named Young Dirty Bastard – is part of the line-up. He sounds uncannily like his old man and is also the most animated group member, jumping into the crowd for Shimmy Shimmy Ya.

Though Wu-Tang Clan (most of them) are definitely in the house, Wu-Tang Clan doesn’t feel as present as DJ Premier or Chuck D. At times; the guys simply stroll around the stage waiting for their turn to dominate the mic.

Maybe that’s just the way it is when you’re that many members of a group, all waiting for their turn to shine, but at times it is a bit underwhelming, and sometimes it looks like chaos in slow motion, almost comical. They sound best when not too many shout into their mics simultaneously, again, a numbers thing. I guess it’s harder to coordinate quality control between nine people than four or five people.

Still, they sound great in spurts, and when they sound great, they sound really great, despite Wembley Arena’s less-than-great sound system. The excellence of their musical catalogue can hardly be disputed, with songs like Protect Ya NeckC.R.E.A.M., and Clan in Da Front. They also get the crowd singing along, flashing the lights on their mobile phones and waving their hands in the air, yelling the obligatory ‘Shit yeah,’ ‘Hell yeah,’ ‘Fuck yeah’ – standard band-crowd interaction, nevertheless, an interaction that works.

It would have been best to see tonight’s bands in a smaller venue, but when that many people want to see you, what can you do? It would have been preferable if De La Soul could have played all their songs; if the queues outside the venue had been better managed; if Flavor Flav had been there; Method Man, ditto.

Also, I could have done without Wu-Tang Clan’s rendition of Come Together by The Beatles – it didn’t work. But it was a great evening. Seeing these legendary, sell-proclaimed ‘Gods’ of Rap so late in their careers might not be ideal. But if anyone can get away with calling themselves the Gods of Rap, these three groups might very well be the strongest contenders for the title.

De La Soul setlist
Not available

Public Enemy setlist
1. My Uzi Weighs a Ton
2. Louder Than a Bomb
3. I Shall Not Be Moved
4. Can’t Truss It
5. Don’t Believe the Hype
6. Rebel Without a Pause
7. Timebomb
8. Anti-Nigger Machine
9. He Got Game
10. Fight the Power
11. Welcome to the Terrordome
12. Bring the Noise
13. Shut ‘Em Down
14. Black Steel
15. Public Enemy No. 1
16. Harder Than You Think

Wu-Tang Clan setlist

1. Bring Da Ruckus
2. Shame on a Nigga
3. Killa Bees on the Swarm
4. Clan in Da Front
5. Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber
6. Winter Wars (Ghostface Killah song)
7. Can It Be All So Simple
8. Da Mystery of Chessboxin’
9. Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nothing ta F’ Wit
10. C.R.E.A.M.
11. Tearz
12. Protect Ya Neck
13. Come Together (The Beatles cover)
14. Reunited
15. Duel of the Iron Mic
16. Mary Jane (Rick James cover)
17. Ice Cream (Raekwon song)
18. 4th Chamber (GZA/Genius song)
19. Severe Punishment
20. Glaciers of Ice (Raekwon song)
21. Black Jesus (Ghostface Killah song)
22. ’97 Mentality (Cappadonna song)
23. Love Rap
24. Mathematics Set
25. Mighty Healthy (Ghostface Killah song)
26. The Mexican (GZA/Genius song)
27. ODB Tribute
28. Shimmy Shimmy Ya (Ol’ Dirty Bastard song)
29. Got Your Money (Ol’ Dirty Bastard song)
30. Duel to the Death
31. Triumph
32. Gravel Pit
33. Method Man

Hollywood Vampires and The Darkness, Wembley Arena

The Darkness & Hollywood Vampires, Wembley Arena, London, June 20, 2018

It’s only Wednesday, and it’s been a busy week – three evenings, three gigs. So I’m already semi-exhausted before even arriving at Wembley Arena for this evening’s concert with the Hollywood Vampires. I miss out on the first support band, The Stranglers, but take my seat just in time for the second support band, The Darkness. Wembley Arena will never be on the list of my favourite venues, but if the bands you want to see play there, what can you do? For Wembley Arena standards, it’s a reasonably good seat, but still far enough from the stage for me to appreciate the two big screens on both sides of the stage, on which I will be watching at least 50% of the concert.

The Darkness has Opened My Eyes
The Darkness (I didn’t know they still existed) take to the stage. I know the most famous hits from what seems like a long time ago, but I’ve never really thought much about them. So it’s a lovely eye-opener to see how good they are and what a great rock and roll show they put on.

The Darkness

Made to be on stage, frontman Justin Hawkins is a substantial presence. Strutting and posing and pouting while singing his heart out and playing his hands off (or something to that effect). He certainly knows how to work the audience. I catch myself thinking that this is as close as I ever get to see anything a bit like Queen, so it’s funny to find out later that the drummer of The Darkness is Queen’s drummer, Roger Taylor’s son Rufus Taylor. Well, there you go.

I don’t know most of the songs, but it doesn’t matter; they’re all catchy and rocking, and when The Darkness play the two songs I do know, Growing On Me and I Believe In a Thing Called Love, I appreciate both songs more than I ever did before. One could say they’re really growing on me.

The whole band plays well, but my eyes are primarily on Hawkins (he is the frontman after all), not least of all, when he does a handstand on the drum riser and claps his feet together (instead of his hands) – one of the bolder (so much could go wrong) and funnier rock and roll tricks I’ve seen.

Before The Darkness enters the stage, a blond rock and roll-looking dude comes on and introduces the band. The person next to me tells me who it is, the drummer for the Foo Fighters, Taylor Hawkins (no relation to Justin, I’m sure). I guess that’s just the kind of evening this is. Rock stars on the stage and rock stars hanging out backstage, bands playing, and their friends from other bands coming on and introducing them – and why the hell not?

The Coming of the Vampires
After The Darkness leaves the stage – no doubt to go and have a drink or ten with their Foo Fighting friend Taylor, the rest of us wait a while before the stage crew have done whatever it is they need to do, and finally, the lights go down for tonight’s main attraction. From my seat, I can see a big group of silhouettes walking from the backstage area to the back of the stage – the vampires are coming from the shadows and will soon enter the light through a misty haze of white smoke, to the sound of Bela Lugosi’s Dead/The Last Vampire.

Hollywood Vampires

And there they are, the main vampires being Alice Cooper (of course), Joe Perry (him of Aerosmith) and, gasp, Johnny Depp (the scissor-handed-cry baby-undercover cop-drug-smuggling-pirate-Don Juan in person). The other, less famous, musicians (well, they’re not on the poster) are Tommy Henriksen (guitar), Glen Sobel (drums), Chris Wyse (bass) and Buck Johnson (Keyboards).

The set is a proper rock and roll set of Alice Cooper songs and covers of some of what might have been your favourite rock songs if you’d been a teenager in the seventies. There’s no doubt who the frontman is, this is Alice Cooper, dammit, but a certain middle-aged former heartthrob manages to, unwittingly, garner the most attention from the audience.

Johnny Depp wears an outfit that’s very similar to what he might have worn in Pirates of the Caribbean and plays the guitar, probably proficiently. Still, it’s hard to tell when two other excellent guitarists are at play on the other side of the stage, Joe Perry and Tommy Henriksen. Whatever Johnny Depp’s guitar skills may be, he certainly looks like he belongs in a rock band, and when he takes over the microphone for two songs, first People Who Died by The Jim Carroll Band, and later, Heroes by David Bowie, he sings both songs well. Not a bad voice there.

Heroes who die
People Who Died is accompanied by images on a screen of some of the famous contemporaries (and friends) who have died – like the writer of the song, Jim Carroll, David Bowie, Tom Petty, Jim Morrison, Chris Cornell, Kurt Cobain, Joe Strummer etc. The chorus (‘Those are people who died, died…’) might seem a bit crass when shouted by a 70-year-old man in horror makeup and a group of middle-aged men all dressed up like they were still in their 20s, but when listening to the lyrics in the verses, the song is quite moving in a very matter of fact way. 

For a Bowie fan like myself, I am always sceptical about the thought of others singing his songs, and often my scepticism is valid. Still, I have to give in and admit that Hollywood Vampires’ take on Heroes is really good, staying very close to the original version but somehow making it their own.

Main Vamps: Joe Perry, Alice Cooper, Johnny Depp

It’s great to hear some famous rock hits that I’ve listened to on soundtracks or in bars but never heard live before. Like Baba O’Riley (The Who), Ace of Spades (Motorhead) and Sweet Emotion (Aerosmith). All songs are played with appropriate respect for the original artist but still played like they were Hollywood Vampires’ songs. It’s fun, in your face, and importantly, unapologetic, just like rock should be.

Sure, it is a bit ridiculous when they play old Alice Cooper classics like I’m Eighteen (no, you’re not) and the last song of the evening, School’s Out (you haven’t been to school for decades), but it doesn’t matter, this is a proper rock and roll show, and in rock and roll-land no rules apply. Everyone’s young forever (unless they kill themselves or O.D.).

The giant balloons that we’ve all noticed hanging in the ceiling when we entered the arena will have to come down at some point. During School’s Out, the balloons are released. Roughly 50 lucky people will go home with a giant balloon, perhaps symbolic of the concert itself; overblown, without much substance, easy-going and youthful and reckless. And that’s precisely why this evening was so much fun – just a couple of hours of losing oneself in complete and utter carefreeness.

The Darkness setlist
1. Solid Gold
2. Growing on Me
3. Love is Only a Feeling
4. Japanese Prisoner of Love
5. One Way Ticket
6. Barbarian
7. Buccaneers of Hispaniola
8. Get Your Hands Off My Woman
9. I Believe in a Thing Called Love

Hollywood Vampires setlist
(Bela Lugosi’s Dead / The Last Vampire)
1. I Want Mine Now
2. Raise the Dead
3. I Got a Line on You (Spirit cover)
4. 7 and 7 Is (Love cover)
5. My Dead Drunk Friends
6. Five to One / Break on Through (to the Other Side) (The Doors cover)
7. The Jack (AC/DC cover)
8. Ace of Spades (Motörhead cover)
9. Baba O’Riley (The Who cover)
10. As Bad As I Am
11. The Boogie Man Surprise
12. I’m Eighteen (Alice Cooper cover)
13. Stop Messin’ Around (Fleetwood Mac cover)
14. People Who Died (The Jim Carroll Band cover)
15. Sweet Emotion (Aerosmith cover)
16. Bushwackers
17. Heroes (David Bowie cover)
18. Train Kept A’Rollin’ (Tiny Bradshaw cover)
19. School’s Out (Alice Cooper cover)

Arcade Fire, Wembley Arena

Arcade Fire, Wembley Arena, London, April 12, 2018

Arcade Fire makes their arrival marching through the audience towards a boxing ring in the middle of the round of Wembley Arena. This entrance seems familiar for someone who saw U2 on their Popmart-tour, but once the band is on stage, it sure feels different. While U2 undoubtedly is a great and innovative live band, Arcade Fire feels alive on a whole other level. Perhaps because there are so many of them, all running around the ring, one moment playing the guitar, next moment banging a drum. Everyone’s very busy, and it’s hard to keep track – that’s part of the appeal. There’s nothing static about this party disguised as a concert.

Arcade Fire has perfected the art of performing arena-sized spectacles. Sometimes when a band uses too many gimmicks, it can feel like it’s trying to detract from the fact that the members are not great musicians or singers. But that’s not the case with Arcade Fire.

The boxing ring works wonders as a stage in the arena round. The ropes stay on for a couple of songs to point out that this is a boxing ring where a fight will occur. However, after a couple of songs, the ropes are removed, and this boxing ring is ready to host a party.

I’ll be the first to admit that Arcade Fire’s latest record, Everything Now, is not my favourite, but, to use U2 as an example again, when you’re a great live band, you can tour a less than impressive record and make it work well in your live set. Even songs you don’t care for might end up being one of the highlights when you hear them live. This evening though, my highlight is hearing Crown of Love. I went as far as to request it on Arcade Fire’s Instagram page earlier the same day. Though I doubt my request has anything to do with them playing it, it’s still a very satisfying moment when frontman Win Butler starts singing, ‘They say it fades, if you let it, love was made, to forget it…’

Watching Win’s brother Will, and Richard Reed Parry, both multi-instrumentalists, on stage, is a sight to see indeed. The two of them are probably the most animated band members, barely standing still at any time. I wonder if they practice moving around so much while never missing a beat, or if it just comes naturally to them.

Here Comes the Night-Time is a celebration of the night, and Reflektor is a dark exploration of human behaviour. The song works best with David Bowie’s backing vocals, but since Bowie obviously can’t be here, there’s not much anyone can do about that.

Both Win and fellow bandmember (and wife), Regine, venture into the crowd during the set. Win to sing karaoke-style with lyrics on the screen above the stage, and Regine to dance beneath a big spinning disco ball with those members of the audience who happen to be standing nearby.

The musicianship and showmanship of the band are impressive. Wembley Arena is not a particularly great venue for concerts, and also, a rack of monitors is hanging down at each corner of the stage, obscuring a sliver of the view of the stage. It doesn’t matter when just watching the gig, but it becomes evident when I watch the pictures I took of the concert later. But then again, attending a show is not about the pictures you take on your phone, but the adventure you have, which can’t be captured or reproduced.

This concert is about inclusion, so it feels right that Arcade Fire has invited a guest to join them on stage for a song. When Jarvis Cocker walks onto the stage (formerly boxing ring), the audience greets him with a very vocal welcome. With Arcade Fire as his backing band for the evening, Jarvis sings his song, Cunts Are Still Running the World, and everyone seems more than happy to sing along.

At the end of the evening, support act, jazz-brass-band from New Orleans, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, join Arcade Fire on stage for a stunning rendition of Wake Up. A slightly cruel sentiment when you think about it; why tell us to ‘Wake Up’ and then send us home, where most of us are probably going straight to bed so we can get up for work in the morning?!

Even after the last song, the concert isn’t quite over. After all, the two bands have to leave the stage somehow. What better way to do that than to play David Bowie’s Rebel Rebel on whatever non-electric instruments each musician have handy and leave the stage the same they arrived. They make their way back out through the crowd, like a Second Line parading through the streets of New Orleans, blowing horns and banging drums. All of the rest of us clapping our hands and singing our overjoyed hearts out.

Arcade Fire setlist
1. A Fifth of Beethoven (Walter Murphy song)
2. Everything Now (Continued) (Song played from tape while entering the arena through the crowd)
3. Everything Now
4. Rebellion (Lies)
5. Here Comes the Night Time
6. Haiti
7. No Cars Go
8. Electric Blue
9. Put Your Money on Me
10. Crown of Love
11. Ocean of Noise
12. Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)
13. The Suburbs
14. The Suburbs (Continued)
15. Ready to Start (Damian Taylor Remix outro)
16. Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)
17. Reflektor
18. Afterlife
19. Creature Comfort
20. Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out) (with Give You Power snippet)
21. We Don’t Deserve Love
22. Cunts Are Still Running the World (Jarvis Cocker cover, with Jarvis Cocker)
23. Everything Now (Continued)
24. Wake Up
25. Rebel Rebel (David Bower cover, with Preservation Hall Jazz Band, played while exiting the arena through the crowd)