Formal Warning

formal warning band
Ash Wright from Formal Warning

29th March 2014

Formal Warning at the O2 Academy

with Titan and Casino Empire

Photos by © Kevin Gaughan – scroll down to see

The legend that is Formal Warning

Tonight’s story began over half a decade ago on the streets of a housing estate in Leicester. A group of kids were hanging around, bored because there was nothing for them to do. The streets were lined with little council house boxes that went on for mile after mile for two brothers from one family and their sister and two members from a neighbouring family, a group of disaffected teenagers with no roots, no aims and nothing to drive them forward. It’s what many parts of Braunstone were like in those days, an urban desert of housing but little else. Life was tough, family was powerful and the future for most of the kids on the estate was empty.

As was common in those days, the group spent their time on the streets and eventually became a nuisance and they ended up coming to the attention of the police. The band would probably not thank me for re-telling this story; what has passed is past, but what has not changed is their name. The group members were given a formal warning and told to stop causing trouble. It was this incident that gelled the group of teenagers into action and they formed a band to give themselves something to do. The rest is history , as they say and, like much history, it began with a legend.

Over a decade later the same group is still together and has risen to being one of the most established and celebrated rock bands in Leicester. Tonight’s show saw them headline a packed Queens Hall at the O2 Academy and the release of their EP Weekend Vibes.

One of the few unsigned bands with international experience, Formal Warning is looking forward to its appearance at the Leicester Music festival with Tinie Tempah, Labrinth and Professor Green in July and their main stage debut at Glastonbudget in May.

A few months ago FW announced their retirement from the music scene; this celebrated ruse worked and it was not long before they were telling everyone of their come-back. If anything tonight was their “we are back” spectacular. One thing we all knew about the FW musicians is that they have music in their genes; people with this amount of rock blood coursing through their veins don’t just hang up their guitars and settle down in front of the telly to reminisce on the time when they were in a band. They didn’t come back with a new name and a changed line-up; they just returned as is – the same five people with the same set of songs and a few new ones to boot.

Formal Warning – the early years 

Tonight’s show was a sell-out success. One thing you can say about this band is that is is very good at organising gigs. On tonight’s bill was the last-ever, farewell gig of Titan and the debut performance at the O2 for rising young stars Casino Empire. Prudently positioned at the end of the month (during the pay-day period) the show pulled in a crowd that was bigger than some of those we have seen in the same hall for major touring bands.

Tonight Formal Warning showed us what they can do as a mature band. Armed with some new songs and some golden oldies (like their much-vaunted cover of Boys of Summer, and an encore of Club Foot), the Queens Hall audience was on its feet and dancing to the classics. Let Us All Dance As One is both FW’s hall-mark song and the band’s mantra. If FW is anything then it is one of the great entertainment bands of all time. Five years of festivals and gigs has not diminished FW’s ability to fill a floor, and tonight the band members were in the house with their all-ages following.

Leon is still running round the stage with his bass, Kyle is still singing, Zoe is still smashing those skins, Alun is still there in the background keeping the rhythm going – still the same well-oiled machine of team players that we saw when they emerged on to the stages of Leicester in 2009. And their lead singer – still The Voice of the band – Ash Wright showed what it is to be a trained vocalist and seasoned stage performer as well as a dyed in the wool rock star. There were several times during the set when the audience took over the singing – and one thing I will always remember about this band is their gift for penning sing-along anthems. You don’t go to a FW gig to be a passive observer; being there for them is a part of a total experience – one you cannot download. This is one band that will always be inherently live – a band that you have to join in with. It’s what they do.

Tonight’s show was opened by Anna Pinckard and Eden Avenue’s Harry Pentony. Anna’s wonderful singing voice has been heard before either when in front of a band or as a solo artist and guitarist Harry is a well-known face on the bands circuit. Their set of well-known cover songs provided a suitably ear-pleasing warm up as the hall filled up. They had stepped into the slot when a late vacancy occurred.

James Shaw of Titan at The O2 Academy Leicester
James Shaw of Titan at The O2 Academy Leicester

Bidding the boards farewell, Titan pumped up the volume. In March 2013 Titan was on the OBS stage, being trumped to the semi-finals only by the emerging Bandy Thieves. We wrote

It is the power of Titan’s songs and the imposing presence of lead singer James Shaw that makes this band stand out. Titan’s set of high octane rock songs was exhilarating, fired by powerful rhythms, ferocious and blistering guitar parts and kalashnikov drumming – Arts in Leicester.

Titan then made the honours list when they won I Wanna Be A Rockstar  and delivered a superb set at the Glastonbudget Festival, the programme notes of which read

With influences ranging from heavy metal to indie, their diverse sound, catchy pop riffs and gnarl y metal hooks will have you wondering how you ever coped without them. Forged in the fires of legendary local bands Paladin, 1000 Scars, My Own Undoing, Kudasai and a couple of others they can’t quite recall, Titan’s members are veterans of the music scene … – Glastonbudget.

titan band
Titan on the stage at Glastonbudget

Even at the band’s auditions for Glastonbudget, they were

putting on a set of rocket-fuelled numbers driven by the strong vocals from lead singer James Shaw, whose soaring vocal lines were laden with feeling … backed by energetic strings and thumping drums, they did the business, delivering a storming set and projecting a sense of total engagement from the stage. This is one good rock band that can put out some spine-tingling tunes. Titan deserves a festival audience. A solo from Sam Walsh had most of the men in room air-guitaring. Marvellous!  – Arts in Leicester

The big, powerful voice and charismatic stage presence of lead vocalist James Shaw pushed forward a monumental set of the band’s original rock songs. To say they went out in a blaze of glory would be a fair statement. Seeing them tonight brought back all those happy memories of gigs gone by. At the Soundhouse in August, they were the headline band

Five guys working as a team to put on stonkingly good show. One set of ear-grabbing songs from this five-piece band offering memorable melodies, big ballsy beats and sensational instrument playing – Music in Leicester

They supported Los Angeles band OPM, with Formal Warning and rapper Jonezy.

Is that the last we will see of James Shaw? I don’t think so. What James Shaw and Ash Wright share is the same disposition to get up on stages and do what they do best: entertain an audience.

Casino Empire's Tommy Cobley
Casino Empire’s Tommy Cobley

Sandwiched between these two massively big and well established bands was Casino Empire, the new comers and rising young stars of the Leicester scene. Having burst on to the scene earlier this year, they have, in a matter of months, gone from playing gigs in small venues to the stage of the celebrated Queens Hall.

In February at The Shed, they played on a line-up with another emerging musical wonder – the Strangler Figs and we wrote

Their lead singer – Tommy Cobley – has real rock-star quality, despite still being a teenager. Backed by a set of solidly skilled musicians, Casino Empire gave the room an astounding rock ‘n’ roll performance. Pouring out the boundless energy of youth, the band sparkled with a set that was exhilarating – Music in Leicester

A week ago Casino Empire packed out The Cookie Jar for their headline set with support from The Stacks and Party in Paris.

Tommy Cobley is following in the footsteps of James Shaw and Ash Wright; as someone said to me at the Cookie Jar that night – “it’s in his soul.” On the stage at the O2 tonight as much as in the High Street last week, you could see what that meant; the teenager put on a stage performance that had all the boxes ticked – personality, complete commitment to the moment, boundless energy, an ego the size of Victoria Park and the kind of raw talent that his predecessors in the other bands started with. Being a rock star requires such boxes to be ticked.

As a new band they are making it and what they brought to the hall tonight was their set of immediately compelling songs fired with utterly infectious throbbing beats and rocket-fuelled energy that is the hall-mark of groups that are on the launch-pad. We saw that in the early days of Formal Warning, The Heroes, The Utopians, Autohype, Freefall Felix, The Dandilions, The Displacements … bands that started as talented teenagers and went on (in one form or another) to have amazing careers in music. Will we see Casino Empire’s name get into that hall of fame? I certainly hope so, because they showed tonight that they got what it takes to make it big.

Their set pulsated with passion, they rocked out religiously, they were fired up from the first bars of the first song, their lead singer put on a performance that reminded some of us old folks there of the young Mick Jagger, the early years of Freddie Mercury, the Gallaghers – more than merely confident, Cobley’s stage show was spectacular for someone of his age. Flanked by two support singers, and a lead guitarist who set off some incendiary solos, Casino Empire delivered a set of well-constructed songs and brought the crowd into the action. It was impressive.

Photos from the night by © Kevin Gaughan

Tonight’s bands on Facebook

Harry Pentony and Anna Pinckard
Casino Empire
Formal Warning

Lots of photos to follow and some videos from the night

See Kevin Gaughan’s photos from tonight, on his Facebook album

See also:

Music diary for March

Music diary for February

Elizabeth Cornish

Math Rock

About The Editor 535 Articles
The Editor of Music in Leicester magazine is Kevin Gaughan assisted by Trevor Locke