Yesterday was the hottest February day on record. The sky was a deep blue from horizon to horizon, I’d cracked open a tee-shirt and shorts, and a wild-fire blazed on Saddleworth Moor. Come the evening though, as the sun gave way to stars twinkling through crystal clear London skies, and in a move that I’m sure was reassuring to climate change conspiracy theorists, the temperature plummeted.
I was off to see The Struts at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, but retained the same attire as earlier in the day. As unpalatable as my knees may have been to the residents of Shepherd’s Bush, I’ve seen this band before and I know they generate the sort of heat energy that thermal underwear salesmen don’t approve of. A nippy walk to/from the venue was a small price to pay.
It’s still just possible that in the UK at least, mention of The Struts – Derby’s finest export since the Rolls Royce aero engine, could lead to a furrowed brow and a scratch of the head. This is weird. Namecheck them pretty much anywhere else and you’re likely to get an approving smile of recognition. This is especially true in the US, where stadium support slots to the likes of Mötley Crüe and Foo Fighters (Dave Grohl thinks The Struts are the best support band the Foo’s have ever had) and appearances on all of the network late night chat shows have made them household names. Robbie Williams and Oasis would have killed for this kind of stateside exposure and adulation.
Last time I photographed them was in 2016. The band played Dingwalls in Camden Lock to a sell-out crowd of around five hundred. There was one other photographer there. Last night, the Empire (capacity two thousand) was rammed and there were fifteen of us crow-barred into a photo pit that could comfortably accommodate around half that number. It’s safe to say people are finally starting to take notice over here too.
The music is unashamedly retro, harking back to the finest excesses of the Glam Rock era – Slade meets Queen meets T Rex meets Kiss – you get the idea. Close your eyes and you could be in 1974. Open your eyes, clock the amount of glittery makeup on cheekbones, and you could be in 1974. It might all be paying homage to a bygone age, but the songs are none the less catchy for that. The band are promoting their sophomore album Young And Dangerous, and they opened with a track from it – Primadonna Like Me.
It has all the swagger of the Stones at their finest and some deliciously tongue in cheek lyrics: “Hey you! Don’t you know who I think I am?”. In just two short albums, The Struts have more than their fair share of banging tunes, whether it be songs you simply have to dance to like Kiss This or Dirty Sexy Money, or anthemic stadium rockers like Put Your Money On Me or Could Have Been Me. We get to hear all four tonight.
But there is something else about this band that makes them very special. The Pachyderm locked in the basement is that frontman Luke Spiller looks a little like Freddie Mercury and sounds a little like Freddie Mercury, but acts a lot like Freddie Mercury. That’s not to say he’s just some kind of lame pastiche – he certainly isn’t and Spiller has more than enough of his own distinct charisma to captivate audiences – but it would be remiss not to comment upon the similarities.
I’ve no idea whether he can act, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that if he can, and if Messrs Taylor and May hadn’t chosen Rami Malek to play the part of Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, then Spiller could probably have pulled it off. He struts (pun intended) about the Empire with a confidence which has clearly been honed on those big North American stages; and yet, he still retains a humble, personal connection with the audience. This is a trick that very few people can successfully nail. Freddie did it. Luke does it.
There were times tonight when Spiller was practically controlling the audience as if they were on wires. Every arm movement the frontman made; the audience made it too. The ultimate embodiment of this came in an extended take on Springsteen’s Dancing In The Dark, when Spiller picked a damsel from the audience to participate in some on-stage call and response singing and boogie-woogieing, Sony Playstation ‘Let’s Dance’ style. She was exceptionally good at it. You’d be forgiven for thinking she’d been practicing in front of the telly. Even a simple trope like having one half of the audience out-sing the other was given additional heft; Spiller achieving the act without uttering a word – he mimed his requirements to each half of the audience in turn.
The other musicians were equally at home in the more palatial environs of the SBE. Stage right, guitarist Adam Slack wore his Les Paul low, Slash/Jimmy Page style. He made frequent visits to the centre, especially when Spiller was sat at the piano at the back, and he played some fine parts. At the risk of pushing the Queen narrative to extremis, in songs such as One Night Only there was an occasional flash of Brian May in there looking for escape.
Bassist Jed Elliott and drummer Gethin Davies rounded out the sound in the slightly more anonymous way that sadly the rhythm section so often does. Of course, without them, nobody would be dancing at all.
At the close of the show, Spiller lamented a lack of pyrotechnics, citing budgetary constraints: “We would have had money for fireworks if I hadn’t spunked it all on my outfits!”. From my vantage point on the first-floor balcony, I was able to see that rather comically, the ‘upright piano’ Luke spent a lot of time behind was in fact a plastic synth surrounded by a bit of piano shaped plywood – I’m guessing this may have been another budget conscious decision.
I’d be prepared to bet that the next time I see The Struts on a London Stage, Spiller will be sat behind a full-size grand piano. It’s what Freddie would have wanted.
The Struts live at O2 Shepherds Bush Empire on 26th February 2019. Live review and photography by Simon Reed. Simon has his own music photography site at: www.musicalpictures.co.uk.