GIG REVIEW: Drake White & The Big Fire – Live At The O2 Institute2, Birmingham

Country Music Week in Birmingham. Sunday at the Symphony Hall with Darius Rucker and Russell Dickerson, and Monday at the O2 Institute with Drake and Ryan Kinder.

From the awesome scale and splendor of Symphony Hall with its acoustic canopies and sound-dampening panels to a venue that was opened in 1908 as a mission of Carrs Lane Congregational Church and now has three rooms hosting live music. The room now known as Institute 2 was formally the church library.  You queue early here to get the best view.

Ryan Kinder last toured the provinces with Mo Pitney and Ashley Campbell last year. He is signed to Warner Music Nashville and has the songs to go with a superb voice and personality. I’ll bet a fair few tickets were sold because he was added to the line-up.

Despite his label affiliation and the benefits that this creates, he was travelling lighter than previously. Gone were the gospel backing singers who appeared last year. This time is was strictly Ryan Kinder with a guitar and drum machine.

He hails from Birmingham Alabama but does a mean ‘brummie’ accent. His musical output to date is limited; an album is in the works but for now it’s limited to the various singles and one EP that have spotlighted this guy’s songwriting prowess.

A body of work that includes ‘Leap of Faith’, ‘Alabama’ and ’Stay’ serves to emphasize why the record execs have shown commitment, and Ryan gave us absolutely flawless performances of the latter two, alongside ‘Close’, ‘On My Way’ and ‘Still Believe In Crazy Love’. However, ‘Use Me Right’ could be the song that propels his career to another level. We were fortunate to record a session with him last year and his acoustic version of this song is special. Check it out. It’s not commercially released yet but we hope it will be included in his forthcoming album. Ryan Kinder is going to be very well known soon. We were fortunate to see him in such intimate surroundings.

His set was just short of 30 minutes. We were then kept waiting for another 30 minutes before Drake appeared at his scheduled time. It was cool to be entertained by 70’s Disco music between acts but was I the only one who would have liked another 15 minutes of Ryan Kinder?!

Drake White and the Big Fire were most people’s stand out performers at CTC 2017.  His after show party set the bar that has only realistically been matched by Lukas Nelson. He returned to tour with Kip Moore, but this was his first headlining tour in the UK and my first chance to see him perform a full set.

It’s been a mixed year professionally for Drake. The Big Machine subsidiary Dot Records folded, causing uncertainty, and although his recently released EP ‘Pieces’ came out on Big Machine, it was lightly promoted and warranted much more than its modest sales figures. Whilst there may be doubts about his future musical home, there were no doubts from the UK fan base who were out in force to show their support.

Darius has worked with his band for over 10 years. Their backing and contribution to his show on Sunday was simply awesome and enhanced the performance to one that was truly special. The Big Fire don’t have the same longevity, but share a common theme. They are all amazing musicians whose craft and professionalism creates a wall of sound that Drake and the crowd feed off.

The two lead guitarists, Jabe Beyer and Jon Aanestad, trade licks and inserts, Big Phil Pence lays down the bass and it’s all held together by Adam Schwind on drums. They interchange with fiddle and keyboard as and when, and it’s entirely fair to say that I would pay money to see a Big Fire concert alone. Drake White was the added bonus.

He opened with ‘Heartbeat’ before immediately going into ‘Story’. The ‘Spark’ album was being brought to life. The set list contained all but three from that album, and 3 out of the 5 tracks from the ‘Pieces’ EP.

It would be difficult to imagine anyone surpassing Drake’s absolute emotional consumption of the music. It’s as though the beats and rhythms control his whole being when performing, such is the diversity of his expressions and movements when on stage. He is a man possessed by the spirit that he creates and as a member of the audience it’s hard to keep up.  It somehow seems paltry to merely offer applause to someone who is absolutely giving his all. Drake White leaves nothing off stage.

His songs lend themselves to the party singalong. ‘Live Some’, ‘Nothing Good Happens After Midnight’ and ‘Grandpa’s Farm’ were noisily received and he also included his own James Brown tribute with a version of ‘I Feel Good’.

A personal favorite was ‘Back To Free’, enhanced superbly by an extended introduction by The Big Fire. A track that sounded special on the album but sounded amazing live. The band took a break whilst Drake showcased two new songs ‘Fifty Years Too Late’ and The Coast is Clear’. The future is bright if these are to feature on a new album.

We were drawing to a conclusion with ‘Girl In Pieces’ and ‘Making Me Look Good Again’, which featured Beyer’s extended organ introduction before Drake’s perfect delivery was partially drowned out by the audience. ‘Living The Dream’ is at ‘anthem’ status for the UK crowd and there was time for the clap-along ‘It Feels Good’, before the regular show came to an end.

By Drake’s standards, he had been relatively subdued. The speaker stacks had not been climbed and he hadn’t left the stage. Apart from a mic stand thrown across the stage towards the drums, it seemed that he was almost on his best behavior. That was to change dramatically in the encore. ‘A Little Help From My Friends’ was progressing nicely towards its natural conclusion when Drake decided to go climbing.

The venue has a roof arrangement that includes girders that form an arch about 15 foot off the ground. He decided that the girder would provide a perfect vantage point to conclude the show. Quite how he pulled himself up there is testament to his physical strength. Most of the audience watched with open mouths and the security staff were busily checking their health and safety documents. Thankfully he found a way to lower himself down and scrambled back to the stage before the end of the song.

The funniest thing about all that is that the band, to a man, just carried on. They hardly looked at him 15 feet up in the roof! I guess they’ve seen it all before.

It’s all part of a Drake White show folks. Let’s hope that he doesn’t repeat it at the 02 next March. He will need a safety net!

Graham Wharton