Uriah Heep's Box of surprises

Midway through their fifth decade, Uriah Heep seemlessly blend the new with the old

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Three years off his 70th birthday and by rights Mick Box should be picking up his pension, tending to the daffodils and enjoying the remarkable rise of Harry Kane at his beloved White Hart Lane. However, the Walthamstow lad with the wizard-like hair and magical touch would rather cast his rock’n’roll spell over the world than succumb to the curse of advancing years.

“Where’s the time gone?,” he asks midway through a sparkling set as if genuinely shocked that 45 years have flow by since the release of debut album …Very ‘Eavy…Very ‘Umble. It’s a mere 42 years since Stealin’ took the US by storm and Box’s solo on the lead single from Sweet Freedom is stunning.

Bernie Shaw is a spring chicken by comparison to Box, and the canny Canadian rocks the Riverside with an energy that puts frontmen half his age to shame. Ironically, given the song’s title, the muddy mix that ushers in opener Speed Of Sound does Heep’s singer no favours but the false start is soon forgotten as he soars on new songs The Law and Outsider. What sets Shaw apart from the new breed of rock and roll shoegazer is his sheer delight in engaging with an audience. “It doesn’t smell like fish in here,” he sniffs as Heep enjoy their debut inside the quayside’s former fish market. “By the way,” he adds, after extolling the virtues of vinyl, “Mick’s got a huge one… record collection, that is.” It’s clichéd, harmless, Heep-style fun.

Box, Shaw et al are justifiably proud of last year’s incredibly assured long player Outsider, and play almost half the album in front of a crowd that’s clearly au fait with Heep’s latest release. Phil Lanzon’s inspired keyboard intro to One Minute stops the pockets of gossiping punters in their tracks and Box is at his showy best on Can’t Take That Away. With 24 studio albums in the bag it would be easy to trade on former glories and pay lip service to Outsider, but one of 2014’s surprise packages is a revelation live. Determined to showcase their best work for decades, it’s refreshing to watch a band profit from the courage of its convictions.

Tonight’s audience would be hard-pressed to find a bunch of blokes who love their job more than Box, Shaw, Lanzon, Davey Rimmer (bass) and Russell Gilbrook (drums). From the outset it’s clear Heep aren’t back in Newcastle simply to pick up their fee and sell some merch – joy is writ large across the face of all five men as they race through a 90-minute set of new music, nostalgia and more. Gilbrook, in particular, looks like he’s living the dream and his intoxicating energy is the catalyst for a gig that exceeds all expectations. The drummer’s solo joust with Box during a soaring rendition of The Magician’s Birthday is the evening’s ethereal highlight.

What the band said:

Mick Box: “It’s great to be back in Newcastle. This is still a rock city with a great history and some crazy fans. I remember coming out of the City Hall one night and a fan came at me with a pair of scissors. She was trying to cut my hair for a keepsake! This is a new venue for us and it’s special to be on the banks of the Tyne playing to a full house after so many years. We’re making a conscious effort to reconnect with our British fans right now. We play 58 countries all over the world so when we come home we normally want to chill out and catch up with friends and family. But this tour’s important – it’s nice that the good folk of Newcastle don’t have to drag themselves all the way down to London for a change.”

Russell Gilbrook: “We’re really pleased with the reaction to the setlist so far. We play five songs from Outsider so it’s a bit of a gamble but they seem to be going down a storm. All the classics are still there but we’re very proud of the latest record and the songs are strong enough to slot them into the set.”

All photos: John Burrows