Preamble: My readers may remember that just over a year ago, my son James and I interviewed the highly talented young Rock band Virgil And The Accelerators at Touchline Live Music’s old venue in Hullbridge, Essex. (See entry #26). That interview preceded a most excellent performance from the band – in fact, one of the best Rock gigs that I had the pleasure of attending during 2014. So when Dave Kitteridge of the Touchline informed me that he’d booked VATA again (this time at the new venue), we were of course, keen to come along to the gig and catch up on what the boys have been doing lately. But a year is a long time in the world of Rock’n’Roll, and a lot can change…
Arriving early at the Touchline’s fine new venue in Hockley; we found that the band were still doing their sound-check. This was apparently due to having spent the best part of five hours stuck on the motorways between their base in Brum, and the venue here in Essex! We got ourselves a pint each and entered the Music Room; and were greeted by Dave, Brian and Trudie of the club – and by Virgil McMahon himself, who recognised us at once, and called out to us from the stage.
The VATA interview: The first of the changes was apparent in Virgil’s new look; with slicked back hair. He invited us back-stage where we reacquainted ourselves with his brother – and VATA’s drummer – Gabriel McMahon; and we were then introduced to the band’s new bassist Joel Wildgoose – another change; on which more anon. But I began by asking the band if they had any new material in the pipeline (ie, a new album planned); and whether we’d be hearing any new stuff that night?
Virgil: ‘We are going to be writing next month. We’ve got one in the set that we’ve been trying out on our Spanish tour, but its still in draft mode, called ‘The Lost”.
PTMQ: ‘Are you continuing more with the Rock, rather than Blues feel?’
Virgil: ‘Yeah, for sure. Army Of Three was a bit more Classic Rock-esque; but this time I think, something a lot more modern – something that sounds a bit younger’.
This need to attract a younger fan-base is becoming a common theme when James and I interview young Blues / Rock bands…
James: ‘We interviewed Red Butler recently. (Read the interview #66). They are struggling to get a younger audience too. So have you noticed any trends in that respect in the last year? Is your fan-base getting any younger?’
Virgil: ‘Yeah. Its a question of finding something that appeals to music lovers. To be honest with you, playing in Spain and continental Europe, you see a younger audience – far younger…’
Gabriel: ‘Yeah, 85-90% of the audience are much younger – late teens to 30’s’.
Virgil: ‘…whereas the audiences here are in their 50’s. There’s no problem with that, but at the same time you do want to appeal to a wider scope of people. We want to appeal to people who are ‘music fans’ rather than specifically ‘Rock fans’ or ‘Blues fans’.
It will be interesting then, to see in what direction the brothers – and new boy Joel – take VATA’s music for the third album. So moving on, I then asked about why the previous bassist Jack Alexander Timmis had left the band. This was a difficult subject for Virgil and Gabe to talk about; and I am not qualified (or authorized) to divulge what James and I were told in any detail. Suffice to say that there were issues within the band concerning management; and so another major change within VATA is that their manager is also no longer in the band’s employ. I must stress though, that the brothers told us sincerely, that there had been absolutely no issues between Jack and themselves – nor was the split due to ‘musical differences’ – and that they are still great friends; and he still turns up at gigs. Jack has now gone back to his career as a music tutor; and they are wishing him well in this role. But in spite of all the shenanigans that have been going on; and with a new bass player now on board; VATA now look settled again – and optimistic for the future. So I asked Joel how long he’d been with the band now?
Joel: ‘About two and a half months. First gig was in Spain – Barakaldo’.
Virgil: ‘The cool thing was that we knew Joel from two or three years ago. He’s got his own band called River Chickens – front man and guitar player. We did a couple of gigs with them and we were really blown away by them’.
Gabriel: ‘Jack told us he was leaving at the start of the year’
Virgil: ‘So just off the cuff I phoned Joel and said “Look do want to play Bass for us?”, and he did. And he’s done a sterling job’.
Surprisingly, Joel doesn’t consider himself to be a Bassist! ‘I’m not a proper Bass player!’ he said modestly. ‘I don’t know anything about the Bass… I’m shit!’. Well, thus far we’d only witnessed a little of the sound-check, but he certainly didn’t look shit! He also has a lot of respect for Jack: ‘Big boots to fill, they were!’
James: ‘What sort of capacity places were you playing in Spain?’
Virgil: Music clubs. A couple of them were like little bars – Rock bars’
Gabe: ‘The smallest ones were like 150 – 250 people, weren’t they?’
Virgil: ‘Yeah, but the biggest was in Pamplona; a good few hundred in there’.
The lads had enjoyed their time in Spain; and found the locals to be very appreciative of their music – and not afraid to say what they thought either! They had a lot of fun too. One day after Virgil had given a guitar master class, and before a scheduled jam night with local guitarists, Gabe and Joel went out busking on the streets for a laugh and ‘a few pennies!’
Guitars: Virgil had brought three geetars with him: His vintage Gibson Les Paul Black Beauty known as ‘The Preacher’ (his main stage axe); his Les Paul Gold Top (Joe Bonamassa signature edition) known as ‘Goldie’; and his battered Fender Strat known as ‘Alice’. The pale blue Gibson Firebird that he’d used at the last Touchline gig, was not in attendance on this occasion.
Drums: Gabriel, I noticed, had set up on the stage, a brand new signature drum kit; courtesy of Natal Drums. ‘Its a UK company owned by Marshall Amplification’ Gabe explained. Its a very smart looking acrylic kit with the band’s Army Of Three logo emblazoned on the bass drum. It sounded great during the sound-check, and I was looking forward to hearing it in action.
Bass: Joel, not being ‘a proper bass player’, didn’t even own a bass guitar when he was recruited to the band!
Gabe: ‘When Joel came on board, Virgil phoned me and said “He doesn’t have a bass!” Well, I’ve got an old Fender Precision Bass, so I said “let Joel play this”. But Virgil said “No, no, no! It has to be a 5-string!”
Joel: ‘I didn’t have any choice really – the boys said “5-string!” so I thought, “alright, I’ll go and buy one”. That was the only one they had. So it’ll do! Its an Ibanez SDGR.’
Another big change for the band is that their live set is now to be very different to the two-hour / nine-song extravaganza that they’d performed at the Touchline a year ago. Due to the advice of a Spanish promoter, the band have decided to shorten their set, but include more songs. Sadly this means less extended solos from Virgil. Personally I don’t mind lengthy numbers with improvised solos; but its true that if the boys want to appeal to a wider audience, then the set has to be tailored to that end. After thanking the band and a few photos, James and I returned to the auditorium which had by then filled up with (mostly) 50-something music fans (like me!) We looked forward to a great show. We were not to be disappointed!
The VATA Set: Master of Ceremonies for the Touchline, Brian Sangwin, introduced the band, and they climbed on stage unpretentiously. Virgil took up ‘The Preacher’ and thanked the Touchline for having them back once more, before opening the set with a fine rendition of ‘Take Me Higher’ from Army Of Three. But there was precious little time to applaud, as ‘Blow To The Head’ followed – and did exactly that, with its Halen-esque ‘Hey! Hey! Hey!’
The boys looked more animated than I remembered from last time, and I guess this is due to the lively on-stage presence of Joel. He threw himself about with great enthusiasm whilst delivering great bass-work. And the rockin’ good show continued with ‘All Night Long’; and this was followed by another from the second album, the remarkable ‘Give It Up’. The moody ’88’; and ‘The Storm’ from the The Radium were performed next. At all times we witnessed superb axemanship from Virgil; and tight reliable drumming and bass from Gabe and Joel respectively. Gabe’s new kit was certainly impressive.
With Virgil changing to his Strat ‘Alice’; the band’s performance of ‘Working Man’ was the nearest we got to the extended solo. ‘Backstabber’ – my favourite from the first album – followed; with Virgil changing back to ‘The Preacher’. It had evolved slightly from the original recorded version, but was no less enjoyable. The afore-mentioned new one that the boys had tried out on their Spanish fans was up next. ‘The Lost’ is a slow, heavy number with a menacing vibe to it; a bit Sabbath-like, I thought; and with an unexpected ending. It was the only taste of what we are to expect from the boys in the future. The main set finished with the wonderful ‘Free’. I very much like this song with its melodic chorus and its ‘Southern-Rock’ inspired solo. With that, the lads left the stage to great applause.
Encore! But they soon returned for a two-song encore, beginning with a fantastic rendition of their beautiful instrumental ‘Silver Giver’, off the debut album. It was pains-takingly delivered. I was disappointed to find that it had been temporarily dropped from the set when I saw the band last year, but I’m glad to report. that it is now fully reinstated. It too has evolved since it was recorded but was still superb!
Only a good old rocker could end the show; and the boys had decided to play their only cover of the night – a rousing version of Led Zep’s classic ‘Rock’n’Roll’. Joel took lead vocals for this, and did a fine job with it.
It had certainly been a shorter set – 13 songs in less than two hours rather than the previous nine songs in a full two hours. But it was no less of a high octane performance from a very tight and impressive band indeed. Gone were the lengthy abstract improvised solos; but there was still no doubt as to Virgil’s fine fretboard abilities. And Gabe and Joel impressed us very much too.
Farewells: We had a few words with the band after the show; and Virgil gave us a copy of their Set List printed on the back of some scribbled notes from his recent ‘Guitar master Class’. With our ears ringing, we said our goodbyes and left the club satisfied with another VATA performance – albeit quite different to last time.
VATA are now embarked on a short nine-date UK tour which includes two of my other favourite venues – The Boom Boom Club in Sutton; and The Beaverwood Club in Chiselhurst. So I’m hoping to get along to see the band in action again during this tour. ‘All we care about is putting on a good show for people. Next year’s going to be good’ predicted Virgil. James and I are wishing the lads the best of luck anyway. Finally, thanks to Dave, Brian, Trudie and Steve the sound man at the Touchline for hosting yet another memorable gig. PTMQ
For info on gigs etc; here is a link to VATA’s website…
Here is a link to the Touchlines website…