The Carnival of Madness Comes To Town

Four bands, one venue, one big night of fist-pumping fun

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Fists are pumped and chests are beaten, without a trace of irony. We’re asked several times if we’ve “brought our singing voices”. And, at some point, one of tonight’s acts utters the immortal phrase: “we don’t believe in ceilings.” After pointing out the ceiling. On the one hand, we can’t help thinking ‘Carnival Of Earnestness’ might have been a better name. On other hand we don’t really mind either way, as it’s actually tremendous fun – with our four-strong lineup busting a gut (and a lung) to give us a great show.

First up are Brooklyn rockers/Grammy nominees Highly Suspect, who do a good job of warming the Wembley crowd. It’s clear that, of the four bands here, they’ve the least arena experience, but there’s ample promise to watch out for – as they grow into their live chops.

Next it’s Halestorm, banshee-howling through the likes of Amen and Freak Like Me. “Can I get a hell yeah?!” Lzzy Hale cries, smaller and grungier without her killer heels (but still pretty fabulous). An ocean of mobile phone lights raise for I Am The Fire. Guitarist Joe delivers some classy, classic rock licks and drummer Arejay gleefully shreds into his kit, airborne for much of the time (drum stool? What drum stool?). “WEMBLEY FUCKIN’ ARENA!!” he beams, minus his giant drumsticks solo but still cheerfully hyper.

They wrap up with an on-point I Miss The Misery, to whoops of delight at its familiarity. Halestorm are slick masters of this fierce brand of pop rock, even if their command of the huge stage isn’t as strong as we’ve seen from them previously.

As David Bowie’s I’m Afraid Of Americans fades out, bro-rockers Shinedown have their “moment”. Brent Smith orders us to “reach for the stars” and “give 1000%” with the brutal precision of an army sergeant major. As a team they look like a group of small, very disciplined rappers, pumped to within an inch of their lives by hours of Insanity workouts. Testosterone levels soar to He-Man proportions as melodious opener Black Cadillac morphs into the chest pumping Diamond Eyes. Mid-set, Smith parts the crowd like a military Moses and walks through. “This is no joke,” he says, before telling us earnestly that Shinedown don’t believe in ceilings. And we believe him – even the part about ceilings.

It’s so sincere we should find it ridiculous. Yet somehow they pull off the strongest setlist of the night – a brilliantly selected spread of prizefighter aggression (Enemies, Cut The Cord) and quality softer tunes (e.g. the excellent Second Chance). Superb.

But it’s Black Stone Cherry that many punters are most excited for – Kentucky’s everyman heroes of hard yet emotional Southern rock. The riffy Me And Mary Jane incites many a ‘fuck yeah!’ cry, followed by the similarly beefy Rain Wizard. They’re armed with material from grittier new album Kentucky (including new single In Our Dreams) and guitarist Ben Wells looks a bit ‘90s boy-band with his new haircut, but it’s essentially the familiar, heavy warmth we’ve come to know them for.

There’s an inviting sense of teamwork to tonight’s show – creating a lovely bear hug of hard chops and from-the-heart tunes, spurred on by gorgeous, sparkly-eyed ballad In My Blood. It’s here where vocalist Chris Robertson’s raw soul really shines, and the mood changes. Halestorm and Shinedown pumped us up, but now it’s time for feelings. BSC might be robust Southern rockers, but there’s a lot of room for emotion.. Robertson gets us to raise phone lights for deceased loved ones, says how much love there is in the room, and incites us to hold hands. Thank god for White Trash Millionaire and Blame It On The Boom Boom, which burst in just as the emotional catharsis is starting to get a bit much.

A timely blast through Motorhead’s Ace Of Spades, and we head into the night – high on hearty American bonhomie. Every cynical bone in our body tells us we should find tonight laughable. We’re British for godssake, we can’t hold hands with our friends let alone strangers, surely?! But we can’t lie. We’ve been totally swept up by it – guitars, feelings and all. See you next year.

Polly Glass
Deputy Editor, Classic Rock

Polly is deputy editor at Classic Rock magazine, where she writes and commissions regular pieces and longer reads (including new band coverage), and has interviewed rock's biggest and newest names. She also contributes to Louder, Prog and Metal Hammer and talks about songs on the 20 Minute Club podcast. Elsewhere she's had work published in The Musician, delicious. magazine and others, and written biographies for various album campaigns. In a previous life as a women's magazine junior she interviewed Tracey Emin and Lily James – and wangled Rival Sons into the arts pages. In her spare time she writes fiction and cooks.