Rubicon Cross – Live Review – H.O.M.E. Bar, Chicago (5/15/14)

I think it fair to say if I had heard myself say I was going to take two days off work, fly 700 miles to see a band that hadn’t released it’s first record, for their debut gig, with a billing third on a bill out of three, I think I would have thought I’d been drinking at the very least! I mean even writing that down now it looks a little nutty! However, any of you regular readers of the blog here will know I have been following and promoting Rubicon Cross for quite a while now, so the fact that Michelle and I did exactly the trip described above will come as no surprise. I believe we witnessed a new chapter in metal history – not by turning a page, but by tearing the book open and shoving a whole wad of blank paper ready for the Rubicon Cross story to be written in large bold font!

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First a quick recap for those who have avoided my previous write-ups on Rubicon Cross. On vocals we have the incomparable CJ Snare (yes, the one and same from FireHouse), however in this setting CJ is reaching back to his metal roots that sit firmly on a foundation of Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and the Scorpions. On lead guitar we find Chris Green (Furyon, Pride and currently Tyketto) who must truly be regarded as a future candidate to anoint the cover of Guitar Player magazine, read on for more… The second guitar spot is admirably filled by Jeff Lerman-Bones, a new name and face, but able to hold his own with Chris, which is no mean feat. On bass Simon Farmery (Pride) fills the bottom end, with the line-up completed with Robert Behnke (Seventh Omen) on the drums.

The debut self-titled CD was due to drop on May 19th, just four short days following the gig, so the excitement and general buzz surrounding the band was already peaking, with a strong publicity campaign reaching out to radio, the internet and magazines. This gig was what I will call a creature of opportunity, with Fozzy headlining – Simon had previously stepped in on bass at relatively short notice for them, so a call to the very accommodating Chris Jehrico secured an opening slot at the Chicago date on the Fozzy country-wide tour. Chicago is essentially the Rubicon Cross hometown, so this was as close to perfect for the band as possible.

The gig took place at H.O.M.E Bar in Arlington Heights, Chicago, so first a word or two on the venue. This venue is some 30 minutes or so from Downtown, so a bit of hike from the city itself, and is somewhat innocuously hidden in a strip mall, so there was no great sense of anticipation walking through the door, into what on the surface seems like any one of thousands of other sports bars around the USA. However, at the rear of the bar area, a couple of doors lead into a very nicely sized performance venue, that I would guess at max capacity could hold 1500 people or so. The stage is a great size and a nice height (perhaps raised 4 feet from the floor level) with an excellent sound system.

The doors opened a little later than the scheduled 7PM, perhaps around 7.20PM or so, and we secured a spot just left of center stage. Over the next 40 minutes or so the venue continued to fill and by 8PM (kick-off time for Rubicon) I would estimate there were around 500 people ready to be rocked. I believe this was easily the most people present throughout the whole evening, and by the time Fozzy took the stage the crowd had dwindled to perhaps 300 or so (least anyone think I’m playing favorites here, I thought Fozzy delivered a great performance and Chris Jehrico is a great front-man, and really worked the crowd over). Of course the attendance for Rubicon was boosted by the fact it was their debut performance and they are essentially local, but there aren’t many openers that can draw the biggest crowd of the evening when put up against a national touring act.

 

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Shortly after 8PM, Rubicon Cross took to the stage and with a rumble from the bass, we saw Chris Green bent over the front of his amp stack from which he drew a harmonic howl of feedback from his PRS guitar that screamed business from the very first moment. With a four count from Robert on the high-hat, the band came off the starting grid like a Formula One race car, all cylinders firing, gas-pedal to the floor – they opened with “Locked & Loaded” which is also the opening track off the album, and with only 25 seconds having passed, Chris delivered the first lead-off solo with such fluid confidence and poise that it was hard to compute that this was their debut gig. In a clever piece of showmanship, the track drew to a hard stop at the climax of the solo, with CJ Snare leaping on to the stage, with a yell of “What’s up Chicago!” and they were into the track, sounding heavy, tight and melodic – and therein lies the crux that makes this band different. There is a crushing heaviness to the underlying songs, but this is more than offset by the “damn-that’s-catchy” melody that runs through the vocal lines. Many of you reading this who already have the CD will understand this, but this point is doubly evident in a live setting.

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CJ sounded instantly recognizable, but with a much harder, meaner edge to his vocal delivery. If anyone was under the impression that FireHouse is CJ’s wheelhouse comfort zone, they will have their illusions shattered at their first Rubicon Cross concert, because to my ears this is where CJ is at home. The songs sit in a lower register, giving him the ability to use his full vocal range.

In my review of the CD, those paying attention should recall my comment on the jaw-droppingly-wicked guitar run that followed the end of the first chorus in “Locked & Loaded” and I was intrigued to see what Chris would do – silly me – he just about melted the frets off with a twisting arppegiated run which totally had me grinning from ear to ear. Rubicon had brought their own sound engineer (Brendan Seven) and he had the venue rocking, despite only being given time for a short ½ song sound check pre-gig. At this point I was able to take a breath and take in the rest of the band. Simon on bass is just a bad-ass, locking down the rhythm with Robert on the drums – truth be told he is a monster behind the kit. There’s an element of caged animal about Robert back there to be honest. He hits so hard and with such a passion, you can literally see the energy he’s delivering. Jeff over on stage right, was also totally laying it down, and the twin-guitar attack, coupled with Simon’s gritty bass lines is where the core power behind the band comes from.

“Kill Or Be Killed” was the second track of the night and on the CD I think this comes over as the heaviest track on the album, and this has a killer riff which just tears at you. At this point I think the band themselves realized, debut gig or not, this was crushing, and you could sense the pure exhilaration flowing off the stage. Naturally any band delivering their debut performance has an element of nerves, but this was not a factor here – it was time to rock out. I must stop and acknowledge the knocked-me-off-my-feet solo that Chris delivered in this track. I swear it was note perfect to the solo that is on the CD which is nuts – if you’ve heard the CD you’ll see why I say this.

The third track we were treated to is the song that started it all; the first track CJ and Chris wrote together, “Moving On” and the verse definitely comes across as much heavier live. It comes over with a bit more swagger and sleaze, when compared directly to the album version and this may be down to the lack of the acoustic guitar parts when played live. By this point, those people in the crowd who didn’t know anything about Rubicon Cross were convinced – I heard many comments behind me saying things like “These guys are amazing”, “They are destroying” and “Where are they from? They’re so good!”.

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The fourth track is one of my personal favorites, “My Next Worst Enemy” and this is a seriously catchy song. I can’t get the image out of my mind of this being played at a large festival and seeing the whole crowd rocking out and singing along with this. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the backing vocals contributed by Jeff, Simon and Chris – these really add a lot to the melodic aspect in a live setting and it would be cool to see this brought more to the fore – but let’s not forgot this was their debut gig!

“Bleed With Me” was dedicated to the men and women of the US Armed Forces and is a killer song. I noticed a really nice arppegiated part under the second verse, which on the record is played on keyboards, I believe, but Chris ripped it on the guitar – very nice. I also really liked the way CJ got into it with the crowd as he introduced the band. This was definitely the heavy metal, ‘full-metal-jacket’ CJ Snare.

After some frivolities involving pints of Guinness that seemed to disappear in less than 3 seconds, the set closer was cleverly chosen to be “You Will Remember Me” which of course was the intended message. This track opens with a nice dual guitar harmony line from Chris and Jeff that kicks in and flows into a very nice lead off solo. In fact this song is a guitar players dream with the main solo that was truly blinder; there aren’t really words that could do it justice, so you will just have to witness it for yourself. The version on the CD is close, but the live version was stunning. CJ tore into this song with growl and closed with a classic heavy metal scream the tore the roof off – and with that it was done. With a set time that ran just about 40 minutes, Rubicon Cross had their first show under their belt.

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So, let me take a step back and gather myself for a moment of reflection. Individually every person on the stage acquitted themselves with honor. Jeff over on stage right brought power to each track that ensured the energy level never dropped through the solo sections when Chris was off doing his thing. Simon on bass was cranking it out and I was a big fan of his bass sound on the night. Robert was just a monster behind the drum kit and I stick by my caged animal statement of earlier. CJ Snare brought the voice to the band and there was an intensity to his whole being that I have never seen at a FireHouse show. Here, with Rubicon Cross, CJ was the hunter, armed and dangerous and looking for prey.

So am I forgetting someone? Not at all. If I draw back to the roots of melodic metal, there are nearly always characters that are the lynchpin to a band’s success – Deep Purple had Blackmore, for the Scorpions/UFO it was Michael Schenker, Ozzy Osbourne with Randy Rhoads, Dokken with George Lynch, and I could go on. In the case of Rubicon Cross I believe this is the role Chris Green has stepped into (Haha! No pressure, eh!). Clearly the writing partnership of Snare/Green is the fundamental to the existence of the band, so we should take that as read, but the performance contribution of Chris in a live setting is critical to delivering what can be found on the album. What we saw on the 15th was that expectation delivered.

Chris has talent and technique flowing through his very being, but without wanting to come across as too much of a fawning fanboy, as indicated previously, the very first feedback induced scream from his PRS was a statement of intent, and what followed was a jaw-dropping display of outstanding guitar playing. The icing on the cake is it isn’t overblown; there aren’t any widdle-widdle-look-at-me antics, just great guitar playing that sits in the context of the songs. I currently have a relatively short list of modern guitar players that I hold in high regards; Dario Lorina, Patrick Abbate and Rick Plester spring to mind, but I have to put Chris a good head and shoulders beyond these guys. I mentioned it earlier and will say it again – if we don’t see Chris on the cover of Guitar Player magazine in the next 24 months, then there is something seriously wrong with the world.

Quite simply, the gig was easily worth the trip and if we had missed it I think it is one of those I would have regretted for a very, very long time. During the gig, CJ noted that those in attendance were “…getting in on the ground floor”, and I absolutely agree. The thing is I believe there are many floors that Rubicon Cross will rise past on the way up from here out. Of course there is one obvious complaint: I wanted a longer set, but that was out of their hands. To score this is simple: 10/10

You can get the album at:

Best Buy: http://www.bestbuy.com/site/rubicon-cross-deluxe-only–best-buy-with-bonus-tracks-poster-cd/6017091.p?id=3220147&skuId=6017091
Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Rubicon-Cross/dp/B00JHPRIAE

– Neil Waterman

(Photo credits: Mostly Michelle Waterman and some me!)

 

 

 

 

 

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