Most of the guys were crowded around the bar guzzling as much beer as they could flush down their gullets. Anyone who scheduled having a deck built or some drywall installed early the next day probably had some lethally hungover dudes puking in their bushes, that’s all I can say. There was a higher MPSY (Mullets Per Square Yard) concentrated in the Pine Street that night than I’ve seen anywhere…”
by marc covert
Okay, I need to clear the air about two things before I get to reviewing the February 21 Portland, Oregon Thin Lizzy show. First, enough already with the incessant “The Boys are Back in Town” references, as in “Yes, the boys really are back in town, and they’re ready to rock!” You’ll find it on concert posters, on countless websites, even in Toy Story II On Ice; oh please dear God make it STOP!! Secondly, it should not take my questionable writing prowess to point out that in many ways Thin Lizzy died along with Phil Lynott way back in 1986; there are some band dynamics that cannot recover from the loss of a single, integral member (Queen, Zeppelin, the Dead, and the Who, to name just a few—although I will break from my stubborn ways and admit that the Who are guilty as hell of trying to do just that after the implosion of Keith Moon). So, the first thing that went through my mind when I saw that Lizzy was touring and coming to Portland wasn’t so much “Why?” as “How?”
Hired guns, that’s how. Bassist Marco Mendoza and legendary rock-knocker Tommy Aldridge, who have been touring recently as rhythm section for Ted Nugent, joined up with Scott Gorham and John Sykes in 1999 and have been touring in Europe off and on ever since. (Mendoza and original drummer Brian Downey were in a 1994 lineup.) Thin Lizzy went through a lot of guitarists over the years, but Scott Gorham was there since 1974 and stuck it out all the way to the end in 1983; Sykes joined the band for 1983’s Thunder and Lightning album and farewell tour. One listen to Thunder and Lightning should be all it takes to let you know that Sykes is no slouch. With that album Lizzy went out on top of their game musically but burned out physically from incessant touring and controlled-substance saturation, not to mention frustrated at their lack of success in the United States.
So even though I looked forward to seeing Gorham and Sykes at long last (somehow I never did manage to see Lizzy in their heyday), I ambled down to the Pine Street Theater with certain misgivings, the same ones I feel whenever I hear about old bands attempting to relive faded glory, more often than not with just a smattering of original band members in tow. Technically, not a single original band member is in this lineup; Lynott, drummer Brian Downey, and guitarist Eric Bell made up the band when they started out in Ireland in 1970.
As I approached the venerable rock shrine on SE Pine Street, I could hear the whoops of a huge lineup of Lizzy fans snaking around the block twenty minutes before showtime. Noticeably absent were the sound of empty bottles rolling around the sidewalk and the telltale blue plume of smoke emanating from certain combustible vegetable matters. I scanned the line for familiar faces; right away I could see these were the same Portland guys that I used to rub elbows and dodge vomit with at all those shows back in the 70s and early 80s. Of course now we are all grownups, chronologically anyway, largely a group of in-by-ten working stiffs standing in line on a cold Wednesday evening.
I took my place at the end of the line and struck up a conversation with the fellow in front of me. He’d seen Lizzy many times, he was there when they opened up for Queen in the Paramount Theater, he swore they toured with Rush, he’d seen all of their Memorial Coliseum shows; knowing nods and grins came from everyone within earshot (a heavily male-dominated line, that hasn’t changed). I ventured a question in that vein: “How many guys here told their wives or girlfriends they were going to see Thin Lizzy tonight and they just sort of shook their heads?” Lots of hands went up, it looked unanimous to me; mine was up too.
Finally the line got moving and before long we were milling around in the Pine Street’s lower concert room. This being an over-21 show, most of the guys were crowded around the bar guzzling as much beer as they could flush down their gullets. Anyone who scheduled having a deck built or some drywall installed early the next day probably had some lethally hungover dudes puking in their bushes, that’s all I can say. There was a higher MPSY (Mullets Per Square Yard) concentrated in the Pine Street that night than I’ve seen anywhere, but I was feeling much less apprehensive: the 400 souls gathered in that room seemed to have the right idea. “Shit no, it isn’t the same without Phil,” said my friend in line, “I almost think you should call it a tribute band.” This crowd was small but pumped, ready to hear some of the most under-appreciated rock and roll of all time, played the way it was meant to be: live. And one nice thing about the malt beverage feeding frenzy was that I could just walk right up to the stage and stand there, waiting for the show to start.
I was still waiting at 9:40. There was no opening band, and the crowd was getting a mite testy; all I could find out afterwards was that the band was late getting back to the show from their hotel. This merely served to raise the tension and anticipation; by the time the roadies unveiled Aldridge’s statuesque drum kit, I was walled in on all sides by sweating, hooting Lizzy fans. That’s when I smelled it: a badly rolled joint was making the rounds, dropping flaming bits of the aforementioned vegetable matter all over a wheelchair that was pushed right up against the stage. Just like the old days, except maybe for the guy who was calling his buddies on his cell phone, chortling “Hey, guess where I am right now?”
The lights went down and that was it, a few thunderous test notes and then there they were, blasting out the sustained chord that opens “Jailbreak.” I’m not sure how to describe it, maybe “subdued pandemonium?” The crowd really let loose but there was no moshing, hell, that’s a game for the young, just plenty of jostling and beer being sloshed everywhere from upraised plastic cups. Sykes is the man in charge of vocals now, thankfully not making the slightest attempt to sound like Phil, still playing his old black Les Paul; that night he was decked out in the requisite black leather pants and classic Bad Reputation t-shirt. Standing next to him was one man you see on that shirt: Scott Gorham, 49 years old, minus the thick, waist-length, perfectly straight hair he sported back in the day, grinning and playing his homemade Strat, having a ball.
The band launched right into “Waiting for an Alibi,” off of 1979’s Black Rose album; just a scorching version, and that’s when I stuffed the wadded up paper napkin nubs into my ears. “Don’t Believe a Word” was next, then a battering rendition of “Cold Sweat.” They stayed with material from Thunder and Lightning, slowing it down with “The Sun Goes Down,” then goosing it right back up with “Are You Ready,” one of the blistering standards of the band’s Live and Dangerous era. Next was “Bad Reputation,” “Massacre,” and a drawn-out version of “Still in Love with You” that reminded me, at least, of what I miss most about Lynott: his absolute mastery of live shows; his ability to break your heart with his tales of love, hate, despair, death—a romantic we are not going to see the likes of again.
The band left the stage for that familiar “encore” charade we all play along with so well; it was then that I realized my legs and feet were drenched in beer and I had a really drunk guy with bad BO slobbering on me, blocking my view. Not two minutes passed before the band was back, and led right into “The Cowboy Song.” This, of course, led straight into “The Boys are Back in Town,” and that’s where things got interesting. A rumble almost broke out right in front of me, stage right, over what I couldn’t tell. but violence was somehow averted. Just two drunk guys trying to relive the glory days, I guess. I will resist the urge to say, “the drink will flow and blood will spill.” John Sykes wagged his finger at them and told them to play nice from the stage.
Two more encores followed, with “Rosalie” and “Black Rose,” and then that was it, end of show. If it seemed a bit short, barely ninety minutes, I can cut them some slack; they are touring by bus and Portland was their 20th show in 21 days, with more to come in the weeks ahead.
So that was it. I followed the crowd out the door and there I was on Pine Street, a ten-minute walk from my house. The band is still touring as you read this, with plans for European dates in the making: France, Germany, Sweden, the list goes on, a list of places that have always appreciated Thin Lizzy. My fears of a pathetic “tribute” show put to rest, I walked home, ears ringing, satisfied that as long as Gorham and Sykes can have a good time playing Lynott’s music live, they will do it for the love of Phil and the thrill of bringing timeless, great music to life.