Extreme formed an essential part of the soundtrack to my youth. Their debut album may have looked (and let’s be honest here) sounded like an offering from a formulaic late eighties hair metal band, but with the release of Pornograffitti and III Sides To Every Story, the Boston four-piece cemented themselves as artists of real creative integrity. Their amalgam of hard rock, pop and funk – cemented by creamy harmony vocals gave them a sound that was uniquely theirs. And then there was Nuno. Nuno Bettencourt, born in the Azores of Portuguese descent quickly established himself as one of the finest guitar players of his generation. I don’t normally go a bundle on technical guitarists, but the shredding Nuno served up had real purpose. His solos had form and function; they meandered through songs – his playing the DNA that gave the band its identity. I’ve yet to find anything he’s played that didn’t and doesn’t interest me in some way.
I saw Extreme headline Ramblin’ Man Fair earlier in the year and loved every second. I’ve been looking forward to seeing the band again and they certainly didn’t disappoint tonight at a very full Brixton Academy. They’ve been in their current guise since late 2007, with drummer Kevin Figueiredo replacing the seat initially occupied by Paul Geary. There has been talk of new material for a long time and an album is currently slated for an early 2018 release. You’d expect that Extreme might use this tour for some early promotion of the latest songs, but not a bit of it. Tonight’s set list is full of nostalgic bangers from their past – the vast majority being formed from by far the two biggest selling records. The band know what the fans want and they deliver it – with gusto.
The first three numbers are a triumvirate from Pornograffitti: It (‘s A Monster), Li’l Jack Horny and Get The Funk Out – this latter tune being played whilst I’m still in the photo pit and I’ve got a serious conflict of interest going down. It’s very difficult concentrating on photography when all you want to do is bounce around and Pat Badger’s bassline is making your internal organs pulsate. They follow it up with Rest In Peace from III Sides, an excellent song that made number one on the US Mainstream Rock Chart. It’s a fantastic opening and the crowd are lapping it up, though I’m wondering whether the band might just have just blown their cookies a little too early.
Hip Today followed, a thinly disguised snarky dig at the changing tide of popular music fashion in the nineties when more traditional rock and metal was swept away on a wave of grunge and accordingly the popularity of the band was in decline. A big venue twenty plus years later with smiling faces wedged up against the barrier are fortunate testament to the fact that fashion goes around in circles.
With the original members of the band in their fifties, you might be forgiven for thinking that the live performance would be a pedestrian run through the back catalogue, an exercise in further lining of the pension pot. And you’d be quite wrong. Front man Gary Cherone flies about the stage as if trying to escape the attentions of an over enthusiastic wasp and there is loads of interaction between the three front players. Much of it is choreographed and honed from years of touring. All of it comes with what appears to be genuine affection. This is a band that evidently get along with each other.
Nuno seems to have completely escaped the ageing process altogether. Save for the absence of a dubious perm and the addition of a few tattoos, he could virtually pass for the twenty-two-year-old pictured in the dodgy artwork on that first album. His playing remains immense, he sings, he struts, at the end of every song his pick flies into the crowd. During Play With Me he even proves he’s an excellent drummer – performing a coordinated solo on some floor toms with Kevin Figueiredo. Is there anything he can’t do? Perhaps we should get him to negotiate Brexit.
Part way through the set Figueiredo comes down from the riser and performs with a smaller kit during an acoustic section. He stands up, Isaac Holman of Slaves style. Except he’s not naked from the waist up – he’s donned a waistcoat and flat cap. It looks like he might be about to release a racing pigeon. The band play Hole Hearted, one of the two massive hits from Pornograffitti and the crowd singing is as loud as anything I’ve ever heard in here. The rest of the band depart to leave Nuno on a chair in isolation. He plays Midnight Express, a fine piece of guitar pyrotechnics from fourth album Waiting For The Punchline. Before he plays it, he makes a joke about being paid by the note. If he were actually on piece rates, Mark Zuckerberg would be looking to him for finance.
Midnight Express isn’t the only moment of solo Nuno greatness. As a prelude to He Man Woman Hater, he plays Flight Of The Wounded Bumble Bee, a piece of music containing gratuitously fast guitar playing. There’s no fretboard tapping here, Eddie Van Halen style, his right (picking) hand is flapping so fast he’s in danger of becoming airborne. It’s incredible. Extreme segue out of He Man Woman Hater into Decadence Dance, the opening song on Pornograffitti and (like many I suspect) my favourite work from the band. They close the set with it and what an ending. It’s the perfect rock song – six minutes of pure adrenaline. The crowd scream the words, clothing gets thrown in the air. Nothing is left in the tank and all four members really deserve the considerable ovation they get at the end.
Nuno and Gary returned to play the ubiquitous acoustic mega hit More Than Words. “Will you help us sing along?” they ask. Everyone knows what it’s going to be so for a laugh Nuno plays the opening few bars of Stairway To Heaven. It gets a huge cheer. Then he plays the song we all expect. It receives an even bigger cheer. It speaks volumes even louder than the community singing it spawns.
The final encore was an excellent cover of We Are The Champions. Extreme know a thing or two about playing Queen, their performance at the Wembley Stadium Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert is the stuff of legend – not far behind the real thing we saw at Live Aid seven years before. It prompted Brian May to say that Extreme were: “…possibly more than any other group on this planet, the people that understand exactly what Queen have been about all these years, and what Freddie was about all these years”.
You can’t get better praise than that.
Review & Photography by Simon Reed. Extreme at O2 Academy Brixton on 20th December 2017.
Simon has his own music photography site here: http://www.musicalpictures.co.uk