Shepherd’s Bush Empire always takes me a bit by surprise. Not just because it’s so pretty – although it is – but because I always forget just how intimate gigs here can feel. If you turn around on the ground floor you can see every face on every tier of this 111-year old former music hall, which under the right circumstances is a pretty exciting feeling. And tonight the circumstances are perfect.
We arrive at the venue a little later than planned, getting in just after the support band walk off (sorry, Coves). People crane their necks to see over the throngs at the back, the house lights are already down and the main floor is full of people frantically scurrying back from the bar with last-minute pints. Before long the stage is plunged into darkness, three lights beam out from behind the drum-kit, and Band of Skulls announce their presence with a clamour of drums and guitars before launching into Himalayan opener ‘Asleep In The Back’. One thing you can always rely on at a Band of Skulls gig is an enthusiastic audience, and even on this first track people are singing along. Next up is the new album’s title track, with James Marsden strumming out the opening bathed in red light before the rest of the band come barreling in. The new stuff sounds particularly gutsy live, particularly on the guitar solo, and it’s all going down a treat.
Everything’s been rattling on quite nicely but it all ramps up a step as they burst into ‘You’re Not Pretty But You Got It Goin’ On’. With the venue awash with ghoulish green light, there are cheers and hands in the air and an enthusiastic mosh pit – all watched over by Marsden centre stage, proffering his guitar like a weapon as he presides over proceedings. He’s obviously amused by the frenzied singing (although its really more like shouting), and can’t help asking the audience how their voices are before they kick off ‘I Know What I Am’, prompting even more cheers and fists in the air.
Perhaps everyone needs a bit of a breather, but an outing of most recent single ‘Nightmares’ gets a slightly more subdued reception. It’s a song that doesn’t quite do it for me, lacking the immediacy and ballsiness of the singles from the first two albums. There’s definitely more urgency in the live performance, but judging from the audience reaction I’m not the only one who isn’t quite convinced.
Next up is another new track, ‘You Are All That I Am Not’ – a gorgeous ballad-y song with a final heavy bridge – but it seems like everyone’s holding their breath for the next big riff and ‘Patterns’ is just that. After a teasingly drawn out introduction those familiar guitars kick in and Emma Richardson steps up to sing; she’s in good voice tonight (and rocking a particularly sharp Mia Wallace-style hairdo). Before you know it people are moshing and shouting the lyrics at each other as if there’s no tomorrow. They steam straight through into my personal favourite ‘Bruises’ – an opinion that’s obviously shared by most of the people here. The band obviously know this and are milking it with drumbreaks aplenty, all met by possibly the biggest cheers of the night.
A couple more new songs up next as Marsden takes the opportunity to plug the new album. ‘I Guess I Know You Fairly Well’ goes down well with its bluesy opening and gutsy chorus, but ‘Hoochie Coochie’ is a real surprise for me. The album version is all shimmy and shake (which I love), but live it’s a different beast – muscular and cocky and brilliant.
The band are bringing it on home now, and it seems like every person in the venue has their fists in the air for an ecstatic rendition of ‘Fires’. This one always gets the biggest singalong, with Marsden and Richardson stepping back to let the crowd sing out the final refrain on their own.
New track ‘…Ten Men…’ goes down well but everyone wants the hits now – ‘The Devil Takes Care Of His Own’ gets an almost feverish response, before they bow out on ‘Hollywood Bowl’. When we get to the break at the end of the song there’s a collective intake of breath before they kick back in – just long enough for the wild-eyed, heavily bearded and dangerously excited bloke beside me to turn around and shout ‘ARE YOU READY??’ in my face (thanks, mate). And then before you know it they’re gone, leaving a venue full of sweaty, beer-soaked and ridiculously happy punters in their wake.
But not for long. Back they come for a crowd-pleasing encore of ‘Sweet Sour’, ‘Light of the Morning’ and ‘Death By Diamonds and Pearls’. That’s the thing with Band of Skulls: you get to the end of a set and think, that’s it, they can’t possibly have any more riffs up their sleeve – and then you realize there’s a whole bunch that they’ve been holding back. The world is full of bands who always sound a bit like they’re in long term training for middle age, who struggle to get even one really rocking album, and here are Band of Skulls on their third. As we spill out on to the street it is clear – this is the best soundtrack for a Friday night you’re ever likely to find.