Live Review : Avatar + The Mahones + Dylan Walshe @ O2 Ritz, Manchester on January 18th 2019
Avatar's rise has very much been an old fashioned word of mouth occurrence. They haven't been the subject of any kind of media or industry hyperbole, instead they have slowly but surely become a big deal as a result of hard work and the building of a fearsome reputation as an astounding live act. Not only is tonight’s show at 1,500 capacity Ritz sold out, but Avatar have achieved this feat purely on their own merits as the bill is head scratchingly odd in its eclecticism. Either the choices of Irish singer song-writer Dylan Walshe and Canadian The Pogues obsessives The Mahones is an inspired fanboy pick by the band themselves or it's a cynical move by the promoter to ensure that Avatar are well and truly the main attraction. I'm still not sure and our Sarah's interview with the band gets us no closer to the truth.
Dylan Walshe really does stick out like a sore thumb perched on his stool with acoustic guitar in hand and the only thing that saves his set from being a complete car-crash is his affable self deprecating whiskey drenched charisma. He may be hideously out of place but he comes across as eminently likable, like a much younger Christy Moore, and it is that charm (as opposed to the music) that wins over the rapidly filling Ritz, or at least stops the crowd from being overtly hostile.
The Mahones wear their steadfast dedication to the church of The Pogues on their heavily tattooed sleeveless sleeves (to the point that their name is taken from the second part of The Pogues original moniker of 'Pogue Mahone’, infamously Gallic for kiss my arse). I had expected their highly sing-along able infectious folky punk to go down well but, at least for the first three tracks, there is a collective question mark over a bemused audience who are very much here for the Metal. However, like Dylan Walshe, The Mahones seem brutally aware that this is a tough gig and dig in and play their arses off. A furiously fast almost speed metal version of Irish Rover succeeds in building a connection with a rapidly thawing crowd and by the time we reach their final salvo of 'Punk Rock Saved My Life' and closer 'Drunken Lazy Bastard ‘ (complete with a cheeky Manc tribute of the opening lines of 'Love Will Tear Us Apart Again’), The Mahones have salvaged what could have been a highly dispiriting forty minutes. They probably haven’t gone as far as winning over any new fans, but the end of the set is greeted with warm affection rather than grim apathy.
But tonight is all about one band as we are very much in Avatar country. It is fascinating how they have built this universe around themselves and the attention to detail is highly impressive. The merch booth is an authentic fairground sideshow stand and the between bands music is creepy circus music (as opposed to the usual fob off of a roadies Spotify playlist). The staging is staggeringly good, this is quite simply an arena sized production in a club. We have ramps, pyro and most impressively massive neon letters spelling AVATAR. I've been watching bands in this very venue for thirty years and I have never before seen such an elaborate set up within the confines of the Ritz. But tonight isn't just about the bangs and props as Avatar manage to balance all their theatrical pomp with a compelling and highly energetic performance. They have become a well drilled slick live act but there is enough energy and enthusiasm on display here to stop it from being a case of simply going through the motions. Central to all of this is the demented frontman and ringmaster Johannes Eckerström who burns on the stage tonight, a kaleidoscope of kinetic energy and magnetic charisma wrapped up in creepy clown make-up. Like the rest of the band he faultlessly walks the fine-line between high professionalism and projecting a feeling that tonight’s performance is bespoke and just for you. His ruminations on their journey from Satan’s Hollow to here feels like it is propelled by genuine gratitude rather than being the usual stage managed pre-rehearsed banter.
The other thing that Avatar have are the songs, their journey to the high levels of our world has been a pretty long one and they have also been rather prolific producing seven albums since 2006, tonight we get tracks from the five most recent records spread out in a way that both engages and enthralls. Their stuff is undeniably Metal but it is also catchy as hell and in the final furlongs of the set we bounce from sing along to sing along with a fantastic salvo of 'The Eagle Has Landed’, 'Let It Burn’, 'King After King’, 'Reload', ‘Smells Like a Freakshow' and ‘Torn Apart’. Tonight Avatar are utterly amazing, they put on a show and a performance that puts all their peers to shame and they prove that you can build an audience by connecting with them and by sending them back out into the cold January Mancunian night with just one word on their lips, WOW.
Words by Stewart Lucas
Photography by Johann Wierzbicki