Concert ReviewsReviews

Red Dragon Cartel’s Second Singer Already Replaced

Date: April 25, 2015
Venue: Rockpile West
Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

As it turns out, I was one of the lucky few to see Red Dragon Cartel fronted by singer Michael Beck given that he only played a handful of dates in April with the band. The reason for that is that as of the time of this concert review, Beck has already been turfed for new lead vocalist Chas West. Apparently, I witnessed Beck‘s second last gig with Red Dragon Cartel when the band played at the Rockpile West in Toronto. Funny enough, during the gig in question, I thought that Beck had a lot of potential to be a really good frontman for the group given his good humour and presence while on stage. I suppose guitarist Jake E. Lee did not see what I saw that night. Of course, it does not help Beck that he reportedly sang the words for “Now You See It (Now You Don’t)” while the band was playing the “Ultimate Sin” during his first gig with the band in April.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Just like the weekend before, my two-year old daughter caused me to almost miss a concert. This time, I fell asleep while rocking her to sleep — I know, bad habit — and when I woke up, it was 10:59 pm! Luckily, Red Dragon Cartel were playing at the Rockpile West which likes to have three to four opening bands prior to the headlining band take the stage. Accordingly, I was fairly confident that I would not miss much, if anything, from Red Dragon Cartel‘s set even if I was only leaving my home a few minutes after 11:00 pm. That being said, I will admit to driving rather fast to get to the venue!

By the time I arrived, the front of the parking lot was somewhat full but nowhere near towards the over flowing capacity that I had experienced the first time that I saw Red Dragon Cartel at this venue about a year ago. Of course, at that time, the band’s lead vocalist was none other than hometown favorite — if you consider Oshawa part of Toronto — Darren James Smith. As I was walking towards the venue’s front doors, I was relieved to be hearing music that I was not familiar with which suggested that Red Dragon Cartel had yet to take the stage. My suspicions were confirmed in that “official” opening act and guitarist extraordinaire Ethan Brosh was on stage. I got there just in time for Brosh to introduce the rest of his bandmates, second guitarist Nate Motaivo who’s playing could make him the “first” guitarist in just about any band, bassist Giorgio Mongelli and drummer Dan Whitelock, whom he all referred to as friends which I thought was quite nice.

Brosh noted that people always ask him why there are no vocals to the songs that he plays. For those not familiar with Brosh, the talented guitarist is in the vain of a Joe Satriani or Steve Vai in that he lets his guitar do the talking and take centre stage on all his songs. In other words, there are no vocals to most, if any, of his songs. I was therefore surprised to hear Brosh and his band play a spirited cover of Iron Maiden‘s “Wasted Years” with Whitelock handling lead vocals. The band played one more song with I believe Whitelock still on lead vocals before closing their set with what I considered to be an anti-climatic closing song since it was an instrumental one. Clearly, I am not one to appreciate that much instrumentals.

Shortly thereafter, Red Dragon Cartel took the stage. The Rockpile West has a triangular-shaped stage so that the drums are located at one end of the triangle in the back. With all of the band members having their backs to the audience, drummer Jonas Fairley started pounding the familiar drum beats of the Ozzy Osbourne classic “The Ultimate Sin”. This was my first time hearing Beck sing and I thought that he did a good job on the song. That being said, the real test for him would be singing the Badlands material since Ray Gillen had a rather unique and tough to mimic voice. The band then launched into “Wasted” which I had forgotten since it had been a while since I listened to Red Dragon Cartel‘s self-titled debut record. Gone are my younger days of eagerly listening to a group’s songs in advance and in anticipation of any concert. Next up was the Badlands classic “High Wire”. While Beck did a good job singing it, I thought that Smith had more oomph and pizzazz when he sang that song during the two prior Red Dragon Cartel performances that I had seen. Comparisons between Smith and Beck are inevitable. I think that Smith has better stage presence, more vocal range and was better able to handle the Badlands material than Beck since he could come closer to how Gillen sang those Badlands songs. On the other hand, Beck seemed to sing each song within his own vocal register which gave an overall more “band” feel to the show in that it felt more like songs from one band rather than songs from the repertoire of Ozzy, Badlands and Red Dragon Cartel when Smith sang. That being said, I prefer Smith‘s vocals to Beck‘s in terms of fronting Red Dragon Cartel. The jury is still out for West since I have yet to hear him sing or play live fronting Red Dragon Cartel.

I thought that the setlist from Red Dragon Cartel this time around was better than the first time I saw them play at the Rockpile West about a year ago. The reason for that was the inclusion this time around of the Ozzy classic “Shot In The Dark” — which had the audience singing along quite loudly — and the Badlands classic “Dreams In The Dark”. Gone from the set on this night were “Deceived”, “Rock ‘N’ Roll Rebel” and “In A Dream”. Also added to the set this time around was “Wasted” from Red Dragon Cartel‘s self-titled and only record which I found surprising given that I consider “Deceived” (which sounds quite a bit like “Bark At The Moon” with the guitar riff) to be the best song by far on that record. I have never been that crazy of the Badlands track “Sun Red Sun” but it reared its ugly head again in the setlist. In any case, the inclusion of “Shot in The Dark” and “Dreams In the Dark”, even if “Deceived” was dropped from the setlist, made for a better overall setlist.

I had mentioned at the beginning that I thought that Beck had a lot of potential to be a really good frontman for the group given his good humour and presence while on stage. During the brief times that he spoke to the audience, Beck was pretty funny. For instance, he asked at one point whether the audience would like to hear some Badlands material to which he subsequently stated that “he” wanted to hear some Badlands material as well. On another occasion, Beck was conversing with Lee without using his microphone before humorously stating to the audience that he was still having a discussion with Lee. That was actually one of my pet peeves on this night with Lee, Beck and sometimes bassist Esposito having a lot of inaudible conversations between themselves while on stage. Why not include the audience members while you’re talking to each other — sort of like what Steel Panther do so well but without the often ridiculous topics that Steel Panther cover. I also saw Lee apparently talk to various audience members but never with the use of a microphone.

My main other pet peeve was that Lee had his back or at least his right side to me for most of the night even though I was standing pretty much facing the middle of the stage. It strongly appears that Lee constantly looks at his strings on the neck of his guitar while playing which results in him pretty much always hunched to his left while on stage. Given that Lee plays on the right side of the stage if you’re looking in from an audience perspective, that means that Lee is only really facing a small part of the audience during most of the time that he is playing guitar. When I saw Red Dragon Cartel at the M3 Rock Festival last year, I was on the right side of the stage so got numerous excellent photos of Lee during that time. However, on this night, most of my photos of Lee were of his right side. I think this “issue” could easily be solved by having Lee and Esposito trade positions on stage.

Kudos have to be expressed to Lee who sported a brace on his right hand / wrist suggesting that he has not fully recovered from whatever accident that he had. Unfortunately for Lee, during the band’s last song of the night, “Bark At The Moon”, his bandage started unravelling and eventually it was taken off for him during his solo for that song.

While you might gather that I did not enjoy Red Dragon Cartel‘s set from my setting out my pet peeves with the band’s live performance, this could not be further from the truth. I really enjoyed Red Dragon Cartel‘s performance with Beck at the helm. Some simple fine tuning of the set list (i.e. add “Deceived”) and some more interaction with the crowd is all that is needed to make the band’s performance go from good to great in my eyes. I do have concerns though with the state of the band going forward. You can almost always replace a bassist, a drummer and even a guitarist — the latter of which KISS have certainly proven — without tarnishing the band’s legacy too much. However, replacing a lead singer too many times usually spells the death of a band. With Red Dragon Cartel apparently already on their third lead vocalist in the span of two years, hopefully this will not spell the demise of the band. At the end of the day, I don’t think so because the main man behind Red Dragon Cartel is Jake E. Lee and that is who people are really paying to see. Hopefully, the Rockpile West venue will be treated to a performance from Red Dragon Cartel in the near future with their third lead vocalist Chas West at the helm.

Red Dragon Cartel’s setlist:

  1.  The Ultimate Sin (Ozzy Osbourne cover)
  2. Wasted
  3. High Wire (Badlands cover)
  4. Shout It Out
  5. Now You See It (Now You Don’t) (Ozzy Osbourne cover)
  6. War Machine
  7. Sun Red Sun (Badlands cover)
  8. Shot In The Dark (Ozzy Osbourne cover)
  9. Rumblin’ Train (Badlands cover)
  10. Feeder
  11. Dreams In The Dark (Badlands cover)
  12. Bark At The Moon (Ozzy Osbourne cover)
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