I’ve been aware of VIRGIL AND THE ACCELERATORS (VATA) for a couple of years or more now; but never seen them live before. Their album The Radium is a brilliant debut; and their second, Army Of Three which has recently been released, (to paraphrase one of their songs) ‘takes them higher’. I’ve been listening to both albums a lot lately; and enjoying them. So I was honoured when VATA’s guitarist VIRGIL McMAHON said he’d put me on the Guest List for their gig at TOUCHLINE LIVE MUSIC, in Hullbridge, Essex.
My sports journalist son, James and I, turned up at the venue nice and early; and were warmly welcomed by club proprietor DAVE KITTRIDGE and his wife Trudy. Virgil himself soon appeared and invited us back to the Green Room to meet the other two members of the band – younger brother and drummer, GABRIEL McMAHON; and bassist JACK ALEXANDER TIMMIS. And three more welcoming, friendly and articulate young musicians you couldn’t imagine. (They are 22; 21; and 25 years old, respectively). An immediate comparison of Virgil and Gabriel with the guitarist and drummer Eddie and Alex VAN HALEN is obvious. (And even the band’s ‘VA’ logo is reminiscent of Van Halen’s famous ‘VH’ symbol, I noticed).
As the brothers originally hailed from South Africa (although living for some years now, in Wales, and more lately, Birmingham), we started the interview by asking Virgil about the music scene in their homeland. Apart from traditional tribal; or Afrikaans Boeremusiek, there is apparently little in the way of a home-grown blues or rock scene – guitarist DAN PATLANSKY being a rare exception.
What then, you may ask, are their influences? No doubt their first was their father HENDRY McMAHON, who introduced the brothers to blues-orientated rock music from a very early age; encouraging them to learn to play instruments, and sit in on his gigs. Consequently the boys have a fantastic knowledge of rock music that was old, long before they were born. And listening to their conversation – and of course, their two excellent albums – this becomes very clear. And for an old rocker like me, its nice to see! For example, when Virgil saw my Twitter moniker (Phil The Music Quill@ptmq2112) on my calling card, he immediately recognised the 2112 as a RUSH album title from ’76 – not many people get that these days! Away from the band, each member listens to a wide variety of sounds too – not just Rock or Blues. Personally, when I listen to the band, I hear bits that remind me of all sorts of other artists; and James hears other things too. This may be coincidence of direct influence; but at all times, VATA’s music has its own style and vibe to it.
An observation I made to them, having listened to their work, is their (sometimes) similarity to the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) which emerged from late ’78 onwards. For those not familiar with it; this was the inevitable back-lash against the Punk/New Wave aberration of the mid-70s; where young rock bands influenced by late-60s / early-70s rock bands, suddenly took off – led by such luminaries as my old mates IRON MAIDEN; and SAXON. With VATA being influenced by some of that same earlier music, I’m hearing a similar fresh and exciting interpretation of the old vibe, with an energy, enthusiasm, and sound, reminiscent of the NWOBHM. VATA also have the added advantage of 35 extra years of Rock since the NWOBHM to draw upon now too.
Like those earlier bands, their music has a Blues base, of course, but VATA are feeling more comfortable as an out and out Rock unit. James asked if they thought their style was changing. They confirmed this. The second album has certainly moved away from Blues to a large extent. This is something they think has evolved rather than been designed: ‘It wasn’t intentional – its just how it came out…’ Virgil explained, ‘…we always liked the heavier side of Blues anyway’. They feel that Rock gives them more scope to experiment – as Jack pointed out ‘I think all three of us want to get away from the Blues world….. there’s only so much you can do with a 12-Bar Blues’. Saying that though, they all have a great deal of respect for the Blues genre. And they are not too concerned with what other young Blues-Rock bands are up to – as Virgil said ‘All we’re focused on is The Accelerators’.
Virgil and Gabe’s Dad Hendry in fact, was the founder of the Accelerators; and brought his sons into the band one at a time; before departing himself, and leaving the group in their precocious, and highly capable hands. So from 2006 the group was called Virgil And The Accelerators. Brummie bassist Jack joined later to complete the band in its current form. At first they were, of course, just playing pubs on Friday and Saturday nights ‘for a couple of quid, and a bit of fun’. But once they met manager MARTIN LEWIS (at the ROBIN 2 in Brum), things started to take off. Since then, they haven’t looked back; and have supported veteran bands like URIAH HEEP and CHICKEN SHACK among others. In fact, they are at pains to point out how much they owe to Martin and his wife Kate; believing that they’d be nowhere without their guidance – ‘Guardian Angels’ is how Gabe describes them. These days the brothers even lodge with the couple at their house in Brum; which is in a good central position in the UK for gigging.
New material is usually written by the group collectively from jams in their converted garage at home, where they can play in as near concert conditions as possible; bouncing ideas off each other. This arrangement is not only conducive to the development of new material, but also facilitates the revision of their earlier stuff too: ‘We try not to carry on playing the older songs the same way for any extended period of time’ says Virgil. Therefore their songs are constantly evolving. They are a kind of tri-partite democracy that refer to themselves, as ‘VATA Band’ Gabe explains. Its a great dynamic that works very well indeed.
Inevitably, with both James and myself being guitarists (although not in Virgil’s league, of course!), we asked about the small collection of geetars that he’d brought with him to the gig. It soon became clear that he has a comprehensive knowledge of the instrument in general; and specifically of his own. He brought with him: a GIBSON FIREBIRD 7 (limited edition); two GIBSON LES PAULS (a JOE BONAMASSA signature edition Gold Top with ‘relicked’ finish; and a Black Beauty known as ‘The Preacher’. Two distressed FENDER STRATOCASTERS were also present: one a ’62 Custom-Shop model, signed by PHILIP SAYCE and known as ‘Alice’.
I asked the band if there was anything they’d like me to say (or not say) when I wrote up the interview. They merely wished me to thank all those who have come to their gigs and bought their albums. Interview completed, it was time for the lads to get ready for their performance; so James and I decamped back to the auditorium in anticipation of a great show. In fact, my friend and fellow music-writer NIGEL FOSTER had seen the band the week before at the BOOM BOOM CLUB, Sutton; and described how they’d ‘blown the bleedin’ roof off!’ So we were expecting something good. Most of the audience were twice the age of the band – rock fans who’d have loved VATA at any time in the last 30 or 40 years; and still appreciative of good music.
Before long, Virgil And The Accelerators climbed on-stage to great applause – Virgil armed with the Gold Top – and immediately launched into the opening number from the new Army Of Three album, ‘Take Me Higher’, with its reverb’ed arpeggiated intro. It was a great start, and a mere taste of what was to come. The aptly named ‘Blow To The Head’ followed, hitting hard as the name suggests! Its also from the new album, and is a great head-banger (reminiscent of Maiden) with fine solos and good use of the wah-wah pedal. Changing to his Firebird, Virgil continued to lead the assault with my favourite track from the first album: ‘Backstabber’. An excellent rendition it was too. A guitar change was again required (this time to his Black Beauty, aka ‘The Preacher’ with capo on the 3rd fret) for ‘Give It Up’ – again from the latest collection.
‘Racing With Life’ from The Radium was next up. With ‘The Preacher’ still in hand, Virgil used this song as a show-case for his astounding axemanship. A lengthy solo section has been added to this piece to facilitate this. With a jazzy bass-line from Jack; and tight drumming from Gabe; Virgil launched into a lead solo that was at times Bluesy; at times almost psychedelic; but at all times sublime, with a beautiful tone; and executed with consummate ease. Now there are some who call this type of thing self-indulgence, but personally I love to see it; and so did everyone else as far as I could see – that’s why we were there!
The scope of VATA’s song-writing was evident in the next track: the thoughtful ‘Through The Night’. After the first five rockers, it was a fine contrast. It is a melodic rock song that has had an interesting reverb’ed intro added to the original. Unfortunately the FX pedal died soon into the tune, forcing the band to start again – but that’s Rock’n’Roll for you! Problem solved, the piece continued. I particularly enjoyed the quiet Bluesy solo section.
From the first album, they then played ’88’ which included an interesting Stones motif; and ‘Low Down And Dirty’ which always puts me in mind of BLACK SABBATH, and which also included a nod to ERIC CLAPTON in the form of a few bars of the classic ‘Layla’ riff, during another very lengthy – but excellent – solo section. Good volume-swell technique on this one too. What struck me on this song too, was how tight the band are as a unit – completely in unison at all times during some complex rhythm changes.
Virgil then asked the audience to show their appreciation of Gabriel and Jack’s work. Surprisingly, neither did a solo themselves. Changing axe once again back to the Firebird, Virgil and the boys gave us a final song in the main set: ‘Free’ – another new one. To me this has something of the ambience of a Southern-Rock song; reminding me of MOLLY HATCHETT; and a little of some of JEFF HEALEY’s work too. It included an ALLMAN BROS ‘Jessica’ motif nicely worked in to it too. Its another melodic rocker, and went down a storm. The band left the stage to rapturous applause.
The only question now was: Would encore be required? Well, what do you think? The lads returned to the stage (Virgil armed with one of his Strats) for a final offering: an excellent cover of the classic JIMI HENDRIX song ‘Are You Experienced?’ Phew! Only eight songs in over two hours unbroken; shows not only the length of some of the songs, but the remarkable energy of these fine young musicians. I was knackered just watching! I glanced at the roof – it was still there but was showing serious signs of distress!
Virgil himself is a consummate axe-master. Not since I saw a young EDDIE VAN HALEN at the old RAINBOW THEATRE in London back in ’78, have I personally witnessed such a gob-smackingly remarkable string-smith at close-range. It is clear that when Virgil plays solo, the fret-board becomes an extension of his mind. Eyes closed, he is in another world – and as the audience witnessing his performance, we are privileged to see, and be privy to part of that world! And he’s still only 22!
Skin-beater Gabriel was barely visible behind his kit, which was half surrounded by Perspex. This is to protect the ears – ‘My big Ride Cymbal is a real beast…’ he explained. The Perspex is ‘… just there to improve sound on and off stage, and to offer a little protection to people’s ears’. Well, we may not have been able to see Gabe at work; but we sure as Hell knew he was there! He’s a powerhouse of precision percussion – reliable and unwavering in intensity for over two hours!
In my previous blog entry (#25), I said of Martin Turner, that ‘a busier bassist you’ll not see outside the Jazz world’. Well I take that back! Jack Alexander Timmis was exceptionally busy on his LAKLAND 5-string bass. I always admire bassists in 3-piece bands – the poor sods have to work really hard; especially when the guitarist switches from rhythm to lead. But JAT showed us that he was far more than equal to the task; performing his bass chops with confidence and precision; always there as a reliable back-bone for Virgil’s inventive, lengthy solos to refer back to.
As we’ve seen, each of the band members is highly proficient in their own chosen instrument; yet together they are more than the sum of their parts. On stage they are musically so tight that they become as one – highly practiced, and seemingly telepathic in anticipation of each-other’s next move. They are not so much three musicians in the same group; rather, they are more like three facets of the same being: that entity is ‘VATA Band’ – an ‘Army Of Three’ about to conquer the Rock World!
My only disappointment was that they didn’t play ‘Silver-giver’; but that is an, oh so minor complaint! As James and I left the venue, we saw the band having a smoke outside the stage door. We offered our congratulations and after another brief chat, said our farewells. I understand that roof repairs are currently being carried out at Touchline Live Music, Hullbridge; and at the Boom Boom Club, Sutton. And that roof reinforcement works are taking place at every venue where VATA are due to play next! Go and see this band if you get a chance – if you love guitar-based rock, you’ll love it! Once again, thanks to Dave K and his Mrs; and all the staff at the Touchline who made this evening possible. PTMQ