Seeing a band of Von Hertzen Brothers’ quality and experience up close in a small venue was a rare opportunity and a treat for any live music fan. For VHB fans particularly, this was a great opportunity to catch them before they headline larger UK venues, which is where the band deserve to be.
Originally booked at The Oobleck, which recently closed, tonight’s gig is moved around the corner to The Rainbow, a stalwart of grassroots gigs and club nights in Digbeth, Birmingham.
Tonight’s support is Messenger, a psych progressive rock band from London. The rumour mill is active about Messenger’s chances to break through. Nominated for Best New Band at the Classic Rock Roll of Honour Awards 2015, signed to InsideOut, and with a new album on the way, Messenger’s star is rising.
Tonight they play complex, intense songs with lengthy passages, in full mastery of their instruments and craft. They take time to build elegant dynamics and create the right atmosphere for their prog themes of travel, nature, imagination and the cosmos.
Lead singer and guitarist Khaled Lowe is a confident frontman. The vocal harmonies with Barnaby Maddick (guitar, vocals) are particularly impressive, while Dan Knight (guitar, keyboards) builds intense soundscapes with his guitar, slide, keys, effects, and a host of gadgets.
Headliners Von Hertzen Brothers are already established on big stages. The three brothers gigged in various Finnish rock bands in the 1990s before forming VHB in 2000. In Finland they play arenas, they performed at Download Festival 2015, and have opened shows for Foo Fighters, 30 Seconds to Mars, Neil Young and ZZ Top. With honed performance chops and a 15-year, six-album repertoire of progressive and contemporary rock to draw on, VHB are in their prime.
In a small, no-frills out-back-o-the-pub venue like The Rainbow, it’s difficult to make a dramatic entrance. Drop the house lights, crank the entrance track, blast the lights, scream ‘hello Birmingham 1-2-3-4…’ – not a chance. They squeeze by the toilets and their own merch stand, circumvent the crowd, wriggle behind a PA stack and climb on to the small stage.
All is quiet. Lead singer and guitarist Mikko von Hertzen steps to the front of the stage, inches from the audience. There’s the briefest flicker of tension in the unexpected silence. You can sense him readjusting, mentally switching to the mindset of entertaining a grassroots club-sized crowd, making eye contact and connections. Looking like he’s just walked out of a ‘rock star wanted’ casting call, he’s instantly magnetic and exudes charisma.
With a knowing grin, he says “ok, let’s do this!” and starts building the distinctive riff of New Day Rising, the opening track from the 2015 album of the same name. A brief nod to the band – Kie von Hertzen (guitar, vocals), Jonne von Hertzen (bass, vocals), Juha Kuoppala (keyboards) and Mikko Kaakkuriniemi (drums) – and all five members jump into the glorious, uplifting hook. Through the screamed chorus, clever interplay with Kie and Jonne’s backing vocals, through to the pulverising outro of a single repeated chord, this is a great set opener.
Immediately, you can sense VHB’s commitment and determination to put on a great show and have fun; their attitude is admirable. You can also feel the audience thinking how lucky they are to see a show like this in a small club. Mikko vH works the crowd throughout and mentions his Black Sabbath shirt – a thoughtful and heartening reference to tonight being VHB’s first ever show in Birmingham. Kie vH winds up, bouncing on the spot before flying Wilko Johnson-like across the stage with his battered white Strat. There isn’t much room to move, but they make the most of it.
You Don’t Know My Name, the fastest song of the set, fires up the audience, and spans VHB’s personality and quirkiness. There’s a rhythm, riff and banshee wail that Iron Maiden would kill for, soft verse vocals crescendoing to a headbanger of a chorus, sci-fi keyboard passages, complex instrumental bridges, and a spiral descent to an a capella three-vocal outro.
This is what makes VHB so distinctive. As well as being a superb hard/prog rock band, they’re ambitious songwriters and arrangers. Chord progressions go to unexpected places. Vocal lines surprise with unusual lengths or structure. It’s difficult to defy dependable classic rock formulae and prog stereotypes, yet still write memorable melodies, singalong choruses and meaty riffs. VHB pull this off with verve; they’re refreshingly original.
Always Been Right brings out VHB’s fun side with a majestic chorus featuring interplay between the three brothers and audience (“always been right, WRONG!”) Introducing the song, Mikko vH explains how someone handed him a piece of paper that day requesting two tracks, quipping: “I don’t have it, it’s in my other trousers, these are my show pants.” The audience is eating out of Mikko vH’s hands, thoroughly charmed.
The crowd participation continues with Sunday Child, with its anthemic join-in chorus made for arenas.
The set now showcases more of the band’s progressive territory with Voices In Our Heads, River, Coming Home, the brutal Trouble, and closes with an epic The Willing Victim.
A huge 20-minute encore of Disciple of the Sun and Prospect For Escape cements their reputation and leaves the audience gasping. There’s a palpable sense of having seen something special up close that may not be repeated. Hopefully, VHB will return to Birmingham soon, headlining the larger venues where they thoroughly deserve to be.
Photo credit: VHB promo pics, C VILLE JUURIKKALA-2504