Drake White sets the stage alight

Up close and personal with Drake White
Up close and personal with Drake White

Alison Dewar was at London’s Islington Assembly Hall as Drake White shook the place to its rafters. Photos: Craig Dewar.

Every so often you’re at a gig where the energy is almost so physically overwhelming that it blows you away and leaves you exhausted. It felt like that on Monday evening when Drake White and his band The Big Fire took to the stage for the 3rd night of a mini tour which culminates with the headline slot at The Long Road festival this Friday.

Drake White audience in the palm of his hand
Happy to be back on stage in the UK

Think about it. This is a man who was paralysed on his left side by a haemorrhagic stroke that struck him down mid-concert one August night in 2019. Who had to learn to walk again, to play the guitar again, and who has remained relentlessly optimistic throughout – hence The Optimystic being the title of both his ongoing US tour and the new album he released earlier this year.

If you hadn’t realised by now (confession time) this writer is already a long-time fan but, judging by the social media comments, this trip has seen him gain plenty more fans along the road.

He took Millport Country Music Festival by storm last weekend, arrived in London bright-eyed and bushy-tailed via Manchester’s Band on the Wall on Sunday; and on Tuesday he and the band headed to Bristol’s Trinity Centre.

For anyone who hasn’t seen him so far, let’s give you a heads-up on what you missed, and for those who have been there…here’s a chance to re-live some of those moments of magic from Islington.

From the second the opening bars of American Thunder welcomed him on stage, this show was a tambourine shaking mixture of high-energy rock ‘n’ roll, honest storytelling and moments of pure joy.

The track list blended new songs including Pawn Shop Rings and Double Wide Dreams with familiar favourites such as Making Me Look Good Again and the upbeat Story – including a great freestyle section – from his 2016 Spark album.

One such song is Back to Free and at the top of the set he made a call to the audience to put their phone in their pockets to simply enjoy the moment. Cue a singalong for the chorus and, as the man himself asked at the end – what the heck do UK audiences know about crawdad fishing at the watering hole!

Drake talked movingly about growing up singing in church with his family; about his stroke and his recovery; and how the need to write music to help people drove him forward. About how the added complication of the pandemic saw him hook up for a series of zoom writes, the first of which was with Allison Veltz Cruz, who went on to co-author five songs on The Optimystic album.

He recalled sitting at his computer with his walker beside him as, together with Allison and fellow writer Aaron Chafin, they zoom wrote what has become one of his most powerful anthems – Hurts the Healing, prompting another singalong and (I suspect) a few teary moments from my fellow barrier buddies.

It was followed by Power of a Woman, a song which fronted a whole social media campaign and, as Drake said “It’s a song for all the powerful women out there”. It is a tribute not just to his wife Alex and her determination in helping him heal, but to all the strong women in the world.

Especially poignant was Coast Is Clear, the very song he was midway through when he collapsed at Roanoke, Virginia. He admitted that every time he sings it now, he is very thankful and, as the audience lit up the Assembly Hall with a sea of torches, the love was clear to see.

(Above left, going acoustic with Devin Trout and Graham Mallany)

Having slowed it down for Legends Never Die, a song about his Uncle Ron, a Vietnam veteran, a spine-tingling acoustic performance of The Optimystic was accompanied by loud cheers.

Crowd-pleaser Mix Em’ With Whiskey soon got the temperature rising again before technology had an unexpected hand in one of the best parts of the night as the sound system briefly went down. Completely unphased, Drake called on band members Devin Trout (guitars) and Graham Mallany (guitars and keyboard) for an acoustic version of Story which (with the sound restored) morphed into a dash of freestyle and reggae before Heartbeat and Livin’ the Dream.

The fabulous 50 Years Too Late took us into the encore before each of the band – a massive shout out too for Seth Bolte on bass and Boone Daughdrill on drums – had a moment in the spotlight.

Thank you and goodnight - Drake White
Thank you and goodnight…

Back on stage for three final songs, the poignancy of Stayin’ Alive didn’t go unnoticed. This wasn’t a moment for doubt, it was one for power and positivity and as Drake left the stage after I Need Real and Queen’s Fat Bottomed Girls, there was so much energy in the house we could have created sparks all on our own. His fans aren’t called Firestarters for nothing!

If you haven’t seen him yet, you can catch Drake on Friday in the Interstate at The Long Road festival.

Check out more about Drake on www.drakewhite.com

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