Ah, the start of the summer concert season is finally here. Now if only someone would tell Auckland’s weather that. There’s an equal measure of shorts and black jeans packed into Spark Arena on an inclement Auckland evening to catch the long-awaited return of English rock duo Royal Blood. Packed, at least, into half of the arena. One of the underappreciated features of Spark is the ability to bring the stage forward to roughly where the midcourt line is for the Breakers home games, making it a more intimate space without losing any of the lighting and sound gear that fill up an arena show. This night, they also kept the lower tier of side seating open and accessible to GA ticket holders, a great way of keeping the prices consistent but allowing for those of us who like to sit down after a while somewhere to do so. That’s not something I recall ever seeing before at a large gig, and I applaud it.
The seats were full enough, but the floor was packed, singing along to every word of a band they’d obviously been waiting more than just the couple of hours since the doors opened to see. Over 90 minutes, they got what they came for, with a set pretty much evenly covering all four albums to date, in reverse order – 2023’s Mountains at Midnight opening the show, and debut single Out of The Black closing things out before the encore.
For those less familiar, Royal Blood are Mike Kerr on Bass Guitar and vocals, and Ben Thatcher on Drums. That’s it. Bass and drums. Ok, for live shows nowadays they also have Darren James, playing Keyboards, Synths, some percussion and backing vocals, but he’s very much a background player, even if tonight happened to be his birthday.
Bass and drums. That’s just a rhythm section, right?
Not when you play the bass like Mike Kerr, no.
Kerr runs his bass through all manner of effects and amps to produce a sound that’s somewhere between the crunch of a heavy metal rhythm guitar section and the howl of a blues lead. It’s a jackhammer of a noise, taking up more sonic space that most entire bands.
Hearing him described as “just a bass player”, I’m reminded of the liner notes on Rage Against The Machine’s debut album which went to great pains to state “no synthesisers were used in the making of this record”. Good to know, but when Tom Morello’s guitar is passing through more circuits than a formula one car before we hear it, it’s not exactly an unplugged album, is it?
His sound IS the band. Ben Thatcher is a great drummer, as his solo leading into How Did we Get So Dark? hammers home, but even he gets a little lost behind the wall of sound emanating from the bass amps.
The obvious comparison is the White Stripes, who also made more of a racket with two instruments than most six-piece bands could dream of. This is heavier music, but still clearly comes from the belly of the blues; a throwback to the stomp and drive of the earliest street corner bluesmen, albeit augmented by layers of technology they couldn’t have dreamed of.
However, despite the talent, the gadgetry and the sheer volume, the original question of “isn’t this just a rhythm section?” has some merit. There is a limit to the dynamic range you can accomplish with two instruments, and over the course of a headline set, those limits start to show. Eventually one fuzzed-out power riff over a breakbeat tom-tom starts to sound a bit like the last, and the next. The energy never wanes, but it never varies either, and, for me, the songs start to blur into each other as the night goes on.
I suspect the front row fans singing along right up until the final power chord would disagree, or just not care. They knew what they were here for, and Royal Blood delivered.