Review by Cameron Arndt,
Tokyo show photos by and © © Emili Muraki
I got through the first four tracks of Michael Schenker’s new live CD in the car this morning, before arriving at my destination. As I reluctantly turned the engine off, a thought popped into my head: This is magic!
…and magic it is. As it says on the back of the box, ‘Like a miracle Michael Schenker returns to Japan.‘ In August 2016 the German axeman assembled an unparalleled line-up of former Michael Schenker Group (MSG) colleagues for Michael Schenker Fest. Returning to Tokyo – the city where he recorded his previous iconic live album, One Night At Budokan (1982), and this time gracing the Tokyo International Forum, he and his band put in an absolutely storming performance, captured here on DVD and double CD. The package arrives in a sleek hardback box, and the product within matches the quality of the cover. Both the CD and DVD sound superb, while the visuals are crystal clear, with cameras covering all the band members, keeping up with Schenker even as he hyperactively prowls the stage, and giving great, sweeping views of the concert hall. This set really does allow you to get as close as you possibly could to experiencing this special night live, without actually being there.
Schenker has been a revitalised figure in recent years, with his well-publicised troubles of a decade or so ago now a fading memory. He reunited with original MSG singer Gary Barden in 2008, releasing In The Midst Of Beauty and the acoustic Gipsy Lady (2009). More recently he’s had great success with his Temple Of Rock project, featuring Scots vocalist Doogie White. So it’s a guitarist at the top of his game who put together this new show, with a big selling point being the return of three of his most notable singers. The aforementioned Barden returns to belt out some of MSG’s early hits, followed by Graham Bonnet, who had a short-lived stint with Schenker in 1982. Finally Robin McAuley of the cunningly-renamed McAuley-Schenker Group (See? Still MSG!) handles the latter half of the show.
Japanese crowds are famously reserved, but also deeply into their rock music, so I was intrigued to see what sort of reception the show would get. Any thoughts of polite reservation are forgotten as the audience erupts when Schenker bounds onto the stage. Looking lean and healthy in black sleeveless denim jacket and beanie hat, with sunglasses perched atop his head, the mainman steps up to the mic with a grin, shouting ‘Hello! For the newcomers, I am Michael Schenker!’ From the roar that goes up, I highly doubt anyone doesn’t know who they’re there to see!
The band launch into the rollicking Into The Arena. It’s the first of a number of instrumental showcases for the guitarist, which are used to bookend the appearances of the different singers, as well as allowing Schenker to display his exceptional talents to the full. Even during his most high octane solos he always includes great little snippets of melody, lyrical hooks to keep listeners engaged, so these vocal-less numbers are just as involving as the rest of the show. It’s particularly cool to see the inclusion of Coast To Coast, the classic Scorpions track from 1979’s Lovedrive album.
Schenker has reached back in his history and put in place an amazing band for this project. I was delighted by the inclusion of former MSG men, Sensational Alex Harvey Band alumni (and fellow Scots), Chris Glen and Ted McKenna – on bass and drums respectively. Steve Mann, previously a member of the McAuley-Schenker Group, also joins the party. All three are on outstanding form, Chris Glen nails the basslines while making frequent excursions up the neck, bringing out an excellent thick, jagged guitar sound, while McKenna is a dynamic, hard-hitting drummer with plenty of groove and feel. Mann fills the classic 2nd guitar/keyboardist role, switching between instruments with aplomb.
The three frontmen also give it their all, and despite some signs of wear and tear in their vocals – Barden sensibly lowers the falsetto parts in some tracks tracks, while Bonnet seems to reach some of the higher notes through sheer determination – all are on good form. Their energy and enthusiasm more than make up for any effect the years have had.
It’s Barden – the original and perhaps definitive MSG singer, looking a touch like Stevie Ray Vaughan in flat-topped cowboy hat and shiny black shirt – who steps up first to deliver five of the group’s most iconic numbers, including the superbly wacky, but still rocking, Attack Of The Mad Axeman and the impassioned Cry For The Nations – the latter introduced by Schenker coaxing a howl of feedback from one of his many signature Dean Flying V guitars and the huge bank of Marshall amps behind him.
Up next is Graham Bonnet, who appeared on only one MSG album, 1982’s Assault Attack, and left before the ensuing tour. Tonight is a chance for the group to finally play some of those songs together live. The former Rainbow singer, in trademark shades, shirt and tie, seems to relish the opportunity, joining the band in ripping through the album’s title track, along with the epic Desert Song – pounding drums from McKenna, shimmering keyboards from Mann – and the exuberant Dancer – assisted by the other two singers on backing vocals.
Captain Nemo from 4th MSG record Built To Destroy (1983) is the third instrumental of the evening, and precedes the appearance of Robin McAuley to perform three tracks culled from the three McAuley Schenker Group albums. It’s an era I’m less familiar with, but on this evidence I’ll need to rectify that soon. The pick of the bunch is the sensational Save Yourself which sees Schenker embellishing the chorus with tuneful lead licks then delivering an absolutely stunning classical-music influenced solo, backed by hammering low end from Glen – who looks like he’s having a ball – and terrific double-bass drumming from McKenna. McAuley clearly hasn’t lost a step vocally, sounding absolutely fantastic on this release and his powerful singing reminds me of no one so much as the late, great Ronnie James Dio.
He’s subsequently handed the honour of singing a couple of UFO cuts which send the audience into even greater raptures. After a storming Shoot Shoot comes a thrilling near-15 minute version of Rock Bottom – surely destined to remain forever Schenker’s signature guitar track. He’s quite probably playing the best guitar of his life at the moment and, if more proof were needed, Rock Bottom confirms it. He delivers an absolute master class, stretching the song out, adding long string bends, at times verging on full on shredding, but then stitching it all together by dropping back to phrases from the original UFO recording of the song. Mann provides just the right amount of extra texture with the keyboard, mimicking the guitar lines on certain key runs of melody. The track is given a euphoric reception, and rightly so.
The set rounds off with a riotous take on Schenker’s other big UFO hit, Doctor Doctor, with all three singers returning to trade lead vocals and the mainman even joining in with the shouted chorus. This collection is an ideal document of what was clearly an extraordinary night. It’s great to see Schenker reuniting with some of his former bandmates, and it’s a compelling and fun show to watch or listen to. Here’s hoping we see this lot reunite for further gigs in the near future!
MICHAEL SCHENKER FEST “LIVE” TOKYO FEATURING THE ORIGINAL MSG VOCALISTS GARY BARDEN, GRAHAM BONNET AND ROBIN MCAULEY,
Released Friday 24th March 2017 by in-akustik.
Available on 2CD, 2CD+DVD combo, LP, DVD, Blu-ray, Digital
Order on Amazon:
MICHAEL SCHENKER FEST “LIVE” TOKYO Tracklist:
1. Intro: Searching For Freedom
2. Into The Arena
3. Attack Of The Mad Axeman (ft. Gary Barden)
4. Victim Of Illusion (ft. Gary Barden)
5. Cry For The Nations (ft. Gary Barden)
6. Let Sleeping Dogs Lie (ft. Gary Barden)
7. Armed And Ready (ft. Gary Barden)
8. Coast To Coast
9. Assault Attack (ft. Graham Bonnet)
10. Desert Song (ft. Graham Bonnet)
11. Dancer (ft. Graham Bonnet)
12. Captain Nemo
13. This Is My Heart (ft. Robin McAuley)
14. Save Yourself (ft. Robin McAuley)
15. Love Is Not A Game (ft. Robin McAuley)
16. Shoot Shoot (ft. Robin McAuley)
17. Rock Bottom (ft. Robin McAuley)
18. Doctor Doctor ft. (Gary Barden, Graham Bonnet, Robin McAuley)