Mott The Hoople ’74 w/ Dream Syndicate; Masonic Auditorium, Cleveland, OH – Saturday, April 6, 2019
If the sold out appearance of Mott The Hoople ’74 at the old Masonic theater in Cleveland proved anything on Saturday night, it was that Ian Hunter, the sunglass wearing ’79 year old at the heart of the band, is the ultimate embodiment of the words: “Rock and Roll Star,” which goes all the way back to a Mick Ralph’s song on the band’s self-title debut album, “Rock and Roll Queen.” The lyric goes: “I wouldn’t want anybody else to know/about the way that you are/You’re just a rock and roll queen/You know what I mean/And I’m just a rock and roll star,” but it fits Hunter to a T.
Of course, Mick Ralphs left Mott in ’73 to form Bad Company with Paul Rodgers, and re-recorded the Mott song “Ready for Love.” That song was missing on Saturday night, as was Ralphs, who has been ill, although he appeared with Hunter on the band’s 2009 and 2013 reunion tours. Which explains the very specific name at the top of the ticket, Mott The Hoople ’74, for which Hunter had recruited guitarist Ariel Bender and piano player Morgan Fisher, and the set taking inspiration from the concert album recorded in 1974, “Live,” Hunter’s recorded swansong with the band before going solo.
Saturday night’s performance echoed the opening of “Live,” beginning with the long intro of “Jupiter,” from Holst’s “The Planets,” while the audience tension built in darkness until the 8 band members took the stage. Then Hunter sang one verse of Don McLean’s “American Pie” over Fisher’s solo piano accompaniment, ending on the words “… the night the music died.” Then, after a brief pause, saying “Or did it?” as the band launched into his song “The Golden Age of Rock ‘N’ Roll.” Front and center, playing acoustic guitar on all but one song, Ian Hunter, sunglasses in place and in great voice, held court for the next 90 minutes, intent on displaying the unique and special musical history of the underappreciated, iconic ‘70’s band, at least with 3 original members present and accounted for, backed by the five members of Hunter’s regular touring group, The Rant Band, featuring Mark Bosch on guitar, Dennis DiBrizzi on keys (leaning heavily on organ sounds and leaving the piano to Fisher), James Mastro on sax, guitar and mandolin, Paul Page on bass, and Steve Holley on drums.
“Lounge Lizard,” a Hunter song, was up next and one of Hunter’s great storyteller lyrics and piano based rockers, “Alice” followed. Next was “Honaloochie Boogie,” a Hunter song with a great memorable melody that was the band’s follow-up single to their commercial breakthrough, the David Bowie written “All the Young Dudes.” “Rest In Peace,” more a ballad was up next, before the high drama of rocker “(I Wish I Was Your) Mother,” which relied strongly on the mandolin of James Mastro, who also played it on the next song, “Pearl ‘n’ Roy (England).” The deviate rocker, “Sucker,” was up next, with the repeated hook-lyric, “My Baby calls me when she wants a tale.”
In 1973, fresh from working with Bowie, Mott, like the punkier New York Dolls and others, got labeled Glam because they played with fancy clothes and gender cross-dressing to add to their mystique. But especially with Hunter and Mott, the underlying musical framework remains old school rock & roll, which comes through in Fisher’s piano playing and the sax of Mastro on “Honaloochie Boogie” and elsewhere.
That remains true for the band’s cover of Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane,” which unlike many recent takes tend to slow the song down, while Hunter strums the highly recognizable opening iconic chords somewhat briskly, a bit faster than most. This one produced the first real audience sing-along of the night, being one of Mott’s most recognized singles. The piano ballad “Rose” followed, but Hunter strapped on an electric guitar for “Walking With a Mountain,” which really gave Bender a chance to shine on the lengthy guitar solo.
Bender was a curious presence throughout the evening, often raising his right hand in the air as if conducting the rest of the band, or in “notice what I’m about to do” fashion, but played sturdy, solid guitar solos throughout the night, often striking a rather unique pose and followed by a quick comment like the oft repeated “Cleveland Rocks!” and the strange but several times repeated, “I hope we passed the audition,” which is a Lennon quote from that rooftop Beatles’ concert in London. Fisher played a more practical role, given how often Hunter’s rock & roll songs require that fun piano sound, but left his own devices he was happy to wander to the edge of the stage with his fluorescent wine glass and toast members of the audience… only Hunter seemed completely down to business, but he had a rock & roll story to tell, and a legacy to celebrate and wasn’t inclined to let trivial nonsense distract.
Hunter introduced another of the band’s poppier rock songs, “Roll Away the Stone,” saying, “Believe it or not, this was our best selling single,” no doubt meaning of the band’s original material. The big drama of “Marionette” was another big drama moment, but as they were moving toward the set closing medley, Hunter let everyone know that this was the last “song of the night, then we’re off,” so the largely later in life crowd knew that if they were going to stand up, quit spectating and start participating, now was the time, and most of the folk on the Masonic Aud.’s floor took the cue.
Hunter kicked the band into a higher gear off the start for “Jerkin’ Crocus,” then shifted into “One of the Boys,” followed by a couple of runs through the chorus for “Rock and Roll Queen,” which led into “Crash Street Kidds.” Now you’d expect otherwise, but Hunter and Fisher brought the energy level back down for the observation that there’s a “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” and a nod to “Johnny B. Goode,” before focusing briefly on how Mott created the guitar riff that grew into the song, “Violence.” Then, as reliably and predictably as one might have hoped, closed out the set with another brief take on “Cleveland Rocks,” during which the entire crowd became about 30 years younger for all of 3 minutes.
They took their time before coming back to encore as the entire crowd chanted and clapped, but in time Fisher returned and started playing poignant chords on the piano, eventually speeding up to playing the opening riffs to one of the band’s most recognizable rockers, “All the Way to Memphis,” with Bender and Mastro trading off at the end on guitar and sax. The end of the night ballad, “Saturday Gigs” was next, but then it was time for the one song everyone thinks of when they hear the words Mott The Hoople, “All the Young Dudes,” again, as expected, a complete audience sing-along, with Hunter still in strong voice, tall and commanding presence, and a sparkle in his eye… well, we assume as much, those sunglasses never come off.
Opening was Dream Syndicate, the Steve Wynn band that I first saw open for U2 on the “War” Tour, originally associated with the so-called Paisley Underground coming out of L.A. with bands like The Bangles, but I tend to recall a psychedelic new wave sound that I also associate with Mitch Easter and Let’s Active. On Saturday night they played a brief aggressive guitar driven alternative rock set, driven by a fast compelling drum sound and the fuzzed out guitar solos. They closed with their most memorable song from the band’s earliest days, “The Days of Wine and Roses,” which included a cool stop start moment that revealed the quartet at their most potent. They will release an album of new material on May 3.
-Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb