Between them they have 90 years’ musical experience yet few have heard of The Lionels. But Chris Evans has and he loves them so much he’s booked them to almost top the bill at his two summer festivals.
Before you start making assumptions let’s get one thing straight – they have nothing whatsoever to do with Messrs Messi, Richie or Bart. And there is definitely no connection with Blair.
Never heard of The Lionels? You’re probably not alone, but by the end of the summer tens of thousands of people will have.
For the Portsmouth group – they call themselves ‘a function band’ – will have warmed up enormous crowds for both Primal Scream and Jools Holland.
And it’s come about thanks to a wedding on a boat on the Thames and... Matt Baker and Chris Evans.
For it is at the Radio 2 presenter’s two big Carfest festivals where Portsmouth’s own fab four will go on second-to-last on both Friday nights, paving the way for the Scottish rockers at Oulton Park, Cheshire, and the former Squeeze pianist at Laverstoke Park Farm, north Hampshire. That one has sold out.
For Lionels’ front man Rich Brett it is a dream come true – finally.
When he set out on what he felt sure would be a road to rock glory, his sole ambition was to headline on the main stage at a major festival. He just did not expect to be doing it at the age of 40.
‘That was my ambition when I was 14 and in my first band and going to Bay House School, Gosport,’ he recalls wistfully.
‘I was into heavy metal and had long hair. I was a huge Iron Maiden fan and like all teenaged lads in a band, all we talked about was making it big and that it wouldn’t be long before we were headlining at a festival.’
So Rich Brett... became a lawyer.
He is suited and booted when we meet at the Marriott Hotel, North Harbour, Portsmouth. Not because he’s off to the day job but because suits are the band’s trademark attire and he has come dressed for The News photographer. When you play as many corporate gigs and weddings as The Lionels, it’s best to ditch the denims.
The hotel is also hosting a gig by them next Friday at the Marriott’s annual summer party, so appearances need to be kept up.
Rich, who lives at Cosham with wife Michelle and four-year-old son Owen, has the look of a bearded Clark Kent. By day he is the studious-looking lawyer specialising in personal injury cases, but by night he morphs into The Lionels’ bass player.
I dreamed up the name. I thought it was relatively inoffensiveRich Brett
‘My old boss always said I led a double life as I had a reputation for taking my work very seriously, while at night I became a musician.’
That was back in the days when, with his long, swept back hair and straight from A-levels, he got a job as an office junior with law firm Shoosmiths at Whiteley.
Rich adds: ‘I’m quite pragmatic, which is good because I’d quickly realised as a teenager that I wasn’t going to get that big break. I was in three bands simultaneously and we weren’t making any money.
‘I wanted to leave home after A-levels and spent six months on the dole while I applied for jobs. One day I went into the Job Centre at Fareham and the first job I saw was for an office junior. It didn’t specify where it was but when I turned up for the interview the next day it turned out to be Shoosmiths.’
His first eight months were spent doing exactly what the job description implied. ‘I made the tea, did the photocopying, fixed door handles and climbed into the roof to turn the heating on.’ When he left after nearly 20 years he was a partner-equivalent in a firm of 1,100 employees.
But while he was building his legal career and for a decade enduring the daily drive from Cosham to Basingstoke, his bass guitar was in the car ready for that next gig.
The Lionels formed six years ago. Rich has known singer and professional musician Steve Altham since 2000 when he moved to Portsmouth. Drummer Steve Duffy, from Fareham, is another full-time muso who has appeared on The X Factor and played at the Reading and Leeds festivals. And Rik Limburn, a bathroom fitter from Fareham, completes the line-up on lead guitar.
‘Steve the drummer used to work in Boom Room, the drum shop, in Elm Grove, Southsea,’ adds Rich. ‘That’s where I met him. He’s come very close to record deals with other bands and supported some big acts at the Wedgewood Rooms and the The Pyramids.
‘We were all chatting about it one day. I’m the oldest and had been playing in bands for 20 years and not made it and neither had the others, so we decided to get together and become The Lionels. I dreamed up the name. I thought it was relatively inoffensive and didn’t pigeonhole us as just another function band playing rock covers.’
Rich, who grew up at Bridgemary, Gosport, continues: ‘I did my first gig at The Osborne View pub at Hill Head when I was 14 and cut my teeth at pubs like The Railway Inn at Gosport, the old Air Balloon in Portsmouth and the Wedgewood Rooms.
‘But even though I realised it wasn’t going to happen for me I was determined to have a lot of fun trying.’
The Lionels’ first gig was at The Hampshire Rose pub, Widley, in 2009, and their set list of rock classic covers ranging from the 1960s to the present – everything from The Rolling Stones and Al Green to The Killers and The Zutons – has won them gigs at society weddings and awards nights at London’s swankiest hotels.
They have now worked with the likes of funny men James Corden, Alexander Armstrong, Rob Brydon and Greg Davies.
Rich now has the best of both worlds. He took voluntary redundancy in 2012 and continues his now self-employed legal work from his Cosham home, but it gives him the flexibility to gig in midweek when a lot of the corporate parties and awards ceremonies are held in London.
‘I’m living the life of Riley to be honest,’ admits Rich. ‘My wife and I are comfortably but not massively well-off. The Lionels have done well enough to generate a decent portion of our income to make the sacrifices worthwhile – and there are sacrifices, like getting home at 5am from a gig and having to get up for work after two hours’ sleep.’
TIME FOR SOME NEW SUITS LADS
It was a wedding on a boat on the Thames in 2012 that gave The Lionels their big break.
‘It was a pig of gig,’ recalls bass player Rich Brett. ‘Not the music, but getting all the gear on and off that boat.’ Still, every cloud, as they say.
‘There was a guy there who loved what we did and afterwards asked for our card. This happens a lot and most of the time you never hear anything, but the following year we got a call and he wanted us to play at his wedding. It turned out he was the deputy editor of The One Show.’
At the wedding The Lionels met presenters Alex Jones and Matt Baker, but not Friday presenter Chris Evans who was at the Monaco Grand Prix.
‘We put on a good show and somewhere there’s a recording of it with Matt Baker shouting something like ‘‘unbelievable’’ down the microphone in his Geordie accent,’ says Rich.
That was the defining moment for a few weeks later DJ Chris Evans got in touch asking the band to play at his daughter Jade’s wedding which would be in a marquee at his house.
‘It was a fairly low-key event,’ says Rich, ‘but we made sure we rehearsed and focused on putting on a really good show. It also gave us a kick up the backside because some new suits were seriously overdue.
‘But we’ve done so many weddings we know what works. We start with some of the older, lighter stuff then build through the evening so as people get more drunk and as grandma and grandad go home, it runs more into a gig than a wedding.’
The Lionels were also asked to play an acoustic set for the groom’s party the night before the wedding in Chris Evans’s pub to which the DJ turned up in the second half. ‘That broke the ice,’ says Rich.
And they were asked back to perform in Evans’s pub earlier this year where they impressed again, a gig which led to him booking them for his two Carfests next month and in August. ‘Time for some new suits again,’ says Rich.
You can catch The Lionels at the Marriott Portsmouth’s summer party on June 19. Tickets £35 including three-course dinner. More information from (023) 9231 6121.