Richie Kotzen - Salting Earth World Tour
Friday 1st September
Islington Assembly Halls , London
What is the definition of a musician who has made it? Being in a famous band? Being part of a super group? Releasing top 20 hits? Having your own signature guitar and amp? Well LA’s Richie Kotzen has done all that and more. Richie Kotzen began playing piano at the age of five. At the age of seven, he was inspired to learn the electric guitar by the band Kiss. He joined local bands and at the age of 21, Kotzen joined Glam-Metal band Poison, co-writing and performing on the album 'Native Tongue'. In 1999, Kotzen replaced Paul Gilbert as guitarist in the mainstream Rock band Mr. Big, performing on their album 'Get Over It' and went on to form the Winery Dogs, a super group that includes such luminaries as Mike Portnoy and Billy Sheehan. But spanning all the aforementioned, and towering above them all, is Richie’s solo career which he describes as a mix of Rock, Blues, Jazz, Fusion, and Soul music. Citing influences as diverse as Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eddie Van Halen, Jason Becker (who produced his first album), Allan Holdsworth, and many other Jazz and Fusion players, he has released over 20 albums with a broad mix of genres proudly defying any pigeon hole you may try to post him into.
The current 'Salting Earth' World Tour sees Richie playing South America, Japan, Singapore, Australia and now Europe. Tonight’s feast is at The Islington’s Assembly Halls and we are lucky to have him as the gruelling schedule has taken its toll. The previous night’s gigs in Germany and Holland have required stand-in singers as a bout of the flu (the proper Man Flu variety obviously) has robbed him of his voice. What he needs is to stay nice and warm. So a night in the warmest room in the world (Gas mark 17 by my reckoning) must surely have helped? No bug could have survived that heat.
The fabulous Assembly Halls in Islington was nicely full for warm up acts Tidal Concerts and The Konincks. They obviously did a fantastic job as the aforementioned cooking levels clearly attested to. So come 9 o’clock, and the entrance of the main man, and the floor was packed. The long haired, leather clad, vest wearing Rock star look has gone to be replaced by a cleaner look. Sporting a white t-shirt with a stylish blue scarf, his shorter hair and trimmed look smacks of a young Bruce Springsteen. Along with that change is a change of amp too. Rather than playing through one of his signature Cornford amps, tonight we are treated to the beautiful tones of the Victory V40 Duchess amp. With signature Fender Telecaster in hand he launches into a set list that is immediately scattered to the four winds as the Orthomyxoviridae nasties do their worst. He’s not a healthy bunny. It’s a testament to Kotzen that he manages to complete 90 minutes of performance as he struggles with his voice, the heat and a few technical gremlins to boot.
But help is at hand. Supporting on bass, and stepping in on vocals whenever needed, is Dylan Wilson who swaps between a regular Fender bass and a funky upright electric bass. If it hadn’t been for DW, the gig would have been over before it started. And completing the trio is percussionist Mike Bennett on both drums and cajon.
Playing a collection of hits, Kotzen and Wilson swap funky rhythms and rocking riffs with amazing dexterity, speed and finesse. Kotzen is famed for his fingerstyle playing but switches between blistering licks with a pick and exquisite finger picking with a deftness of touch that is glorious. The jam moves with Kotzen onto the Wurlitzer keyboard as the revered guitarist shows his ivory tinkling roots. It’s Jazz, it’s Rock, it’s Funk, it’s Soul. His clear voice is showing the strain as he is clearly singing at a lower pitch than normal. And monitor problems aren’t helping either. But launching into the melodic 'My Rock' gives his voice a rest whilst displaying his keyboard prowess. 'Cannon Ball' brings back the funky keyboards, with a clean piano sound, that reminded me of something you might hear from Luther Vandross. Wilson is back on the upright double bass for 'High' and also takes on the singing duties to give Kotzen a break. The crowd are also happy to lend a hand.
A change of tempo again with 'I Would' sees Kotzen playing acoustic guitar and Benett on the cajon box drum – with a cajon drum solo to boot.
Not content with that Bennett launches into a regular drum solo, probably to let Kotzen cool down and recover his strength for the finale.
Kotzen returns for to play 'Fear' on his signature Fender Strat, a strong display of guitar skills which morphs again into a Jazz style jam with Wilson. And as a change of style and pace again, Julia Herzog from the Konings joins them on stage to sing 'Remember'. She has a great voice. Finishing of the set, Kotzen is back on the Telecaster for a funky finale with Wilson slapping the bass like a new born baby on 'Help Me'.
Even in his weakened state, Kotzen is back for an encore on keyboards with 'This Is Life' before switching to the trustee Strat for a final flurry of what we came to see – six string perfection. With a final wave to the audience he virtually falls off stage looking like an extra from The Walking Dead.
It was an evening of surprises on a number of levels. Not what we were expecting. We came expecting the showmanship, skills and artistic brilliance of a true craftsman. What we got was a new looking stalwart who refused to be beaten. The show must go on and it did. Not the usual polished production, but a delightful feast for the ears, in some ways all the better for the fact that it was unpredictable. We may not get that again which made it a gig to treasure. When you are a musician who has made it, you can do what you want and still please the crowd. It was a brave decision to go ahead with the gig, but I’m glad he did. Get well soon Richie.