TO paraphrase Elton - Saturday night's all right for rocking. And, the SONI four act bill at the Empire on Saturday night (19th July) saw hard rocking of the finest type as Villanova Junction, Midnight Transmission, Maverick and Million$Reload roared through a hot and sweaty sets on Belfast's Botanic Avenue.

It was also a night that saw fans travel from far and wide to see local heroes, new and old...

Those who made it for the start time were in for a surprising treat in the shape of Bangor power trio Villanova Junction. With raw down and dirty blues rocking with a smidgeon of country and folk the band were a revelation.

While Josh (bass) and Corey (drums) kept the rhythm steady Joel roamed over the fretboard of his Strat as if possessed by the late, great Johnny Winters, coaxing every note and flourish from the six-string. What is more he has a voice with just the right amount of gravel and melody. Villanova Junction are one to watch out for in the future.

Midnight Transmission came on stage at first seeming ill-at-ease, and it quickly transpired that Mark on vocals was having trouble with the monitors, although hands in pocket is not perhaps the best way to enthuse the growing audience.

It wasn't until the final three songs that the sound and band seemed to have relaxed into the set, with Mark's vocals coming more alive and with more than a little Chris Cornell to his range his power eventually shone through.

Midnight Transmission have a power and potential that is oh, so close, but needs to be refined; not least through the onstage image that sees the impressive playing at times at odds with the demeanour and looks. A little more time to sort that out and their grunge/alt rock could come good.

As to coming good, there is no doubt that Maverick are on the cusp of great things. With their new album on the verge of release, nuances such as music videos and scheduling mattered not a bit as the ten-legged hard rocking, metallic Maverick declared as statement of intent right from the get go with their eponymous introduction as a full-tilt, unashamed contract with the audience that "We are Maverick".

It is clear from the band's on and off-stage conduct that they enjoy each other's company. They have the easy banter between themselves and the moves that would shame many of the pretenders to the LA hard rock crown.

Dave is the ring leader of the gang, inspired; with the right amount of 'daft' but never inane interplay with the crowd to let everyone know that this is hard rock, not fucking brain science.

But that is not to say that there is not 'smarts' behind Maverick. Arrangements are tight, song structures are solid and the sound is a wall of rock joy.

Ryan played superb lead solos and when Richie took to the front his impassioned playing was a complement to the sound. Ric and Mike kept it all solid as they ran through a set of songs that are already crowd favourites before the album is released...

Cat Got Your Tongue, Electric, Got it Bad - all known and loved and seemingly everyone is salivating at the forthcoming release.

It is fair to say that Million$Reload have had recent trials and tribulations to go through, but there is a such a thing as attitude and despite what may have happened Phil and his fellow troubadours proved that they have endurance, great tracks and a smooth sound that can ease woes and raise voices in a heartbeat.

After the fury of Maverick it was a bold move to open with the mid-paced Waiting on Hollywood, and even bolder move to d├ębut new tracks, when it could have been easier to roll out past glories.

Now handling guitar as well as vocals Phil now seems more rooted and comfortable rather than trying to be the manic musical leader. It is a role that suits his easy style.

As always BAM was laying out searing solos, while Kie and Finn were relaxed together despite pounding through every song.

New tracks Truth Could Kill You, Penny for Your Dirty Mind and Under Your Skin amongst them had an immediacy and feeling of freshness that marked them out as sure fire hits given the right airing and breaks.

But that is not to say that Million$Reload are throwing away past glories. Bullets in the Sky and Goodnight New York were stunning as always, with Bullets in particular apt at this time of global tension and a powerful ode to sheer rock glory.

However, Phil announced, in particular to RockradioNI DJ, Nikki Jackson that the anthemic Tattoos and Dirty Girls was having its last ever airing. We hope not and hope that it can still be dusted down and giving a play for fans who have been there for the last eight years.

What is apparent is that Million$Reload are not quitting, their getting stronger, and after the first song had that swagger and justifiable confidence that will surely see them rise another tier.

Overall SONI laid on four hours of hard rocking, heavy tunes that only made us feel sorry for those who could not be there.

Review by Jonny 

Authors: Jonny

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