Sunday, 5 November 2017

Michael Schenker Fest - Sheffield Review

German guitarist Michael Schenker is a real legend in the world of hard rock, and is one of the most influential players in the genre. He started his career in the early 1970s with the Scorpions, before joining British hard rockers UFO in 1973. His initial five year tenure with the band led to the band creating their best-known work and, as a result, Schenker was held in as high regards as his peers Ritchie Blackmore and Jimmy Page. After auditioning for Ozzy Osbourne's band and Aerosmith after leaving UFO in 1978, Schenker started a solo career the following year. The Michael Schenker Group, as this solo venture was called, would serve as Schenker's main creative outlet going forward and, despite a few more stints with UFO in the 1990s and 2000s, MSG is still going strong. While many different faces have graced MSG throughout the years, Schenker's brand of melodic, guitar-centric hard rock has remained intact. In recent years, Schenker has been touring with a new band, Temple of Rock, while allowed him to play material from throughout his entire career. This allowed him to revisit songs that he had not played for a while, but it seemed that the call of MSG was never far away. Last year saw a big announcement from Schenker that he was going to reunite with many of his old MSG bandmates to put together the ultimate setlist and show for the fans. The resulting Michael Schenker Fest was a hit and more shows were scheduled for this year throughout Europe. Joining Schenker on this trek were three of his most famous vocalists: Gary Barden, Graham Bonnet, and Robin McAuley; which allowed Schenker to present the songs as they were originally heard on the albums. Forming the band were Chris Glen (bass guitar/vocals) and Ted McKenna (drums), who were both a part of MSG in the early 1980s; and Steve Mann (guitar/keyboards/vocals) who featured heavily during the Schenker's late-1980s output under the McAuley Schenker Group name. Four UK shows were announced as part of a larger European trek, and the show at the O2 Academy in Sheffield made the most sense for me logistically. Sheffield has never been a regular stop off of mine, but it was nice to get back to the Yorkshire city after nearly two years without a visit.

I was not the only person to make the trek from Devon up to Sheffield, as the support band Departed also had. Departed are a fairly local band for me, and I had seen them a couple of times this year already. This was the best show that I had seen the band put on yet however, and they proceeded to tear the stage up for about 45 minutes as the crowd slowly filtered into the venue. The entirety of their debut self-titled EP was showcased, with the soaring Superstitious and the foot-stomping Don't Follow Me getting off things off to a great start. Frontman Mark Pascall is really growing into the role and prowled the stage, interacting well with the crowd as he went. Some newer songs were showcased towards the end of the set, with Soul Shaker in particular standing out with a tricky bluesy riff from Ben Brookland (guitar/vocals) and an infectious chorus. A strong cover of Queen's Tie Your Mother Down went down well with the crowd, before the band ended with the latest single from their EP, Are You Ready?, which features another anthemic chorus. While it seemed to take the crowd a little while to warm to Departed, as the band left the stage they received a healthy cheer from all in attendance that was the sign of a job well done. The setlist was:

Don't Follow Me
All I Want
Pretty Little Thing
Steal Your Crown
Soul Shaker
Come On
All the Way
Tie Your Mother Down [Queen cover]
Are You Ready?

After around half an hour, the lights went down a cheer was let out from the large crowd as Schenker and his band took to the stage. After the short Temple of Rock instrumental piece Searching for Freedom, Schenker introduced himself with gusto and the band went into another instrumental piece, Into the Arena, from the debut MSG album released in 1980. This got the band warmed up, before Barden took to the stage and proceeded to sing five of his songs from the first two MSG albums. The bluesy Let Sleeping Dogs Lie was a good starting tune, with Schenker's snaking guitar leads standing out, but it was Cry for the Nations where everything really seemed to come together. This was the first real singalong moment of the night, with Barden often holding out the microphone to allow the crowd to sing for him. One of Schenker's signature songs, Attack of the Mad Axeman, really hit the spot with Mann's swirling keyboards and Schenker's slide melodies really filling the hall. This portion of the set was completed with a barnstorming rendition of Armed and Ready, and the upbeat rocker was sung back at the band with real volume. To bride the gap between MSG eras, a rendition of the Scorpion's instrumental Coast to Coast was played, with Schenker and Mann teaming up well to provide the song's dual guitar leads, before Bonnet was introduced to sing three songs from the 1982 MSG album Assault Attack. Bonnet's original stint with MSG lasted precisely one show (in Sheffield as it happens) as he was fired after drunkenly exposing himself on stage. Bonnet made fun of this incident by producing a banana at a timely moment, but the highlight here was his extremely powerful voice as he steamed through the three tracks with ease. Desert Song was easily the best of the bunch, but Dancer (with Barden and McAuley on backing vocals) and Assault Attack were also excellent. Desert Song stood out the most however, and Bonnet's foghorn voice really carried the chorus through everyone in attendance. The shredding of Captain Nemo followed Bonnet's turn on the stage, but McAuley came on stage for four songs from the McAuley Schenker Group era. No Time for Losers was a high-energy start, but it was Save Yourself that really stood out during this portion of the show. The song was driven by McKenna's double bass drumming, and McAuley proved to be a hugely capable vocalist with a smooth yet energetic delivery. The chorus was one of the set's highlights too, with the band providing gang vocals to elevate the sense of power. The AOR-influenced Love is not a Game brought an end to the McAuley Schenker portion of the set, but there was one tune left in the tank. A monstrous version of UFO's Rock Bottom followed, with McAuley still on vocals, which evolved into a lengthy guitar workout for Schenker as he showed why he is such a highly-rated guitarist. The ending of this song brought perhaps the biggest cheer of the night, but Schenker had barely left the stage before coming back on for a couple more. Two more UFO songs made up the encore, and this time all three of the singers were on stage with him and the band trading lines. Doctor Doctor, another of Schenker's signature tunes, brought the house down, before the evening came to a hard-rocking end with a fantastic rendition of Lights Out, sung perfectly by the three frontmen. This capped of the near-two hour set perfectly, and the crowd made their appreciation known. The setlist was (N.B. all of the songs below, unless otherwise noted, are MSG songs):

Searching for Freedom [Temple of Rock material]
Into the Arena
Let Sleeping Dogs Lie
Victim of Illusion
Cry for the Nations
Attack of the Mad Axeman
Armed and Ready
Coast to Coast [Scorpions material]
Desert Song
Assault Attack
Captain Nemo
No Time for Losers [McAuley Schenker Group material]
Save Yourself [McAuley Schenker Group material]
Bad Boys [McAuley Schenker Group material]
Love is not a Game [McAuley Schenker Group material]
Rock Bottom [UFO material]
Doctor Doctor [UFO material]
Lights Out [UFO material]

This was a truly special show that allowed Schenker to showcase many of his best-known songs, along with some that had not been played live for many years, with many of those that helped make them happen originally. The eight guys that are part of Michael Schenker Fest gave it their all throughout the night, and helped to showcase what a fine body of work Schenker has put together over the years. These eight guys are currently working on an album that is due out next year, and I cannot wait to hear the new material.

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