Over the past half a dozen years or so, the Diamond Rock Club – nestled rather innocuously in the rolling hills of Northern Ireland’s ‘Bible belt’ – has extablished a reputation not only for being one of the best small venues in this part of the world but also as a favourite stop-off for many top names seeking to play low-key gigs to a crowd notorious for its love of music and genuinely warm reception for its international visitors.
The latest in this long line of names – which includes the likes of Kip Winger, Dan Reed and Mike Tramp – is the charismatic Mr Big frontman, playing only one of two UK gigs en route from a handful of European festival performances back to his native California: it’s a transition which Martin acknowledges right at the beginning of his set… but we’ll come to that anon.
Opening proceedings, Phil and BAM from local heroes Million Dollar Reload are no strangers to acoustic sets (as they’ve proven both on this stage and on two occasions at Download) and play a 40-minute set which is stripped back and honest and sees them debuting a number of new songs, which will no doubt will feature on their new album – their first since similarly stripping back to a four-piece. Highlight of their set is a very raw version of ‘Bullets In The Sky’, which Phil delivers solo.
A slight curve ball is thrown into the proceedings when local singer-songwriter presents his fiancee with the ring he didn’t but her when he first proposed, before Martin strolls nonchalantly onstage: “I’ve never had that happen at a gig,” he acknowledges later… As mentioned, the singer also acknowledges his recent touring schedule: “I was playing Wacken yesterday and I started my set with a ballad… I thought I was going to be killed by all those metalheads!” he quips, before removing his Mike Myers-like glasses and leading the room in a short rendition of ‘Kumbaya’ – well, it is Sunday night, isn’t it?
What follows is a 90+ minute run through of Martin’s extensive back catalogue, stretching right back to his first jamming sessions with John Nymann in the formative days of The Eric Martin Band (“he hated that name… but I loved it!” the singer quips). The majority of the show, obviously, centres around his years with Mr Big, and features a playlist of fan favourites, from ‘Lost In America’ to ‘Wild World’ – which prompts the first mass singalong of the evening – to ‘Superfantastic’ and, of course, ‘To Be With You’. In this respect, Martin acknowledges that the songs are usually played with a full band: “this is where the solo would be,” he comments at the appropriate juncture in ‘Electrified’, before quickly adding “but, then, I’ve been singing over solos for 25 years!”.
This sort of comment demonstrates the singer’s easy rapport with his audience, as he shares jokes – at one point affectionately referring to those present as “hillbillies” (in a fake southern US accent, of course) in recognition of the venue’s remote location – and puts down hecklers with ease: “I like ’em fiesty,” he responds to one; “go home and pay your babysitter,” to another who asks for ‘To Be With You’ for the umpteenth time! Along the way, there are affectionate jokes about Paul Gilbert, and a fittingly poignant reference to Mr Big drummer Pat Torpey’s recent diagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease.
Eric Martin is a superbly professional performer, capable of wowing the biggest of festivals or the most intimate of clubs: he knows his audience, and what they want – and delivers it with aplomb and humour, while still retaining true to his musical integrity, with the overall lasting impression being that of a bloody great night’s entertainment in the company of one of modern music’s finest vocal talents.
Eric Martin returns for a series of solo shows in December:
Thursday 4 – Edinburgh, Bannermans
Friday 5 – Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, The Think Tank?
Sunday 7 – Grimsby, Yardbirds
Monday 8 – Bolton, Railway Club
Tuesday 9 – Sheffield, Corporation
Thursday 11 – Chester, The Live Rooms
Friday 12 – London, The Underworld
Saturday 13 – Birmingham, The Oobleck
Sunday 14 – Swansea, Static
Mr Big release their new album, ‘The Stories We Could Tell’, on September 22, and play a one-off show at Koko in London on Friday October 17.