By Cameron Arndt
‘For the newcomers, I am Michael Schenker!’
The roar that greets the axeman’s announcement as he takes the stage at Manchester’s O2 Ritz suggests that that description applies to few, if any, in attendance. Either way the enthusiasm in his voice, and the almost childlike look of joy and wonder with which he surveys the venue, are infectious.
For the past ten years Michael Schenker has been on a steady upwards curve as reunions with old bandmates, tours with singer Doogie White and successful albums with his ‘Temple Of Rock’ project have all been facilitated by a guitarist who seems to get better and better all the time. Last year he hit upon the idea (increasingly looking like genius) to celebrate his entire career in the form of the ‘Michael Schenker Fest’ concerts in Sweden and Japan. This led to an excellent CD/DVD release, further gigs and now a full tour – with a studio album in the works for next year.
The CD/DVD was a fantastic document of a magnificent gig in Tokyo, and the tour’s arrival in the UK has been highly anticipated. With only four shows – sadly none in Scotland – it was off to Manchester – this was a gig we had to see!
The format of the Michael Schenker Fest (for the newcomers!) is as follows, the German has put together a backing band of some of the finest players to have graced the various configurations of his Michael Schenker Group (MSG) over the years. He makes sure to credit all three before introducing himself: Chris Glen (the original MSG bass player/Sensational Alex Harvey Band/The Outfit and others), Ted McKenna (drummer for MSG and SAHB, plus Rory Gallagher, Ian Gillan – the list goes on) and Steve Mann (guitar/keyboards for the later ‘McAuley-Schenker Group,’ Lionheart, The Sweet).
Already that’s a mouthwatering line-up, but the icing on the cake is the trio of vocalists: original MSG singer Gary Barden, Rainbow/Alcatraz frontman Graham Bonnet (who recorded one album with MSG and left before the ensuing tour) and Robin McAuley of the aforementioned McAuley-Schenker MSG variant.
This sterling cast allows Schenker to perform tracks from right across his storied career, and to do so in astonishingly vital style.
‘Into The Arena!’ Schenker bellows post-intros, and leads the band into the barrelling instrumental set-opener. The vocalists are then called out in chronological order to perform a short set of songs from their time in the band, and each segment is delineated by another instrumental – Coast To Coast provides a nod to Schenker’s formative years with German rock legends Scorpions between Barden and Bonnet, while McAuley is preceded by a blast through Captain Nemo.
The show largely follows the structure – and set list – of the Tokyo DVD, with a couple of minor alterations. As good as the DVD is, though, witnessing it all in person is far more powerful. What’s most apparent is that each and every man on stage is having an absolute ball, they’re all clearly delighted to be performing to this crowd, playing these songs, and to be in each other’s company. It’s wonderful to see Robin McAuley standing watching Graham Bonnet’s set, and Gary Barden waving and cheering McAuley on when he takes the stage himself.
Elsewhere, all you can see of Ted McKenna behind his big drum kit are flashing drumsticks, his neat musketeer-esque hair and beard, and the permanent grin on his face; while Chris Glen tramps around in front of him, playing thudding, thick bass lines, adding boisterous backing vocals and pulling an array of hilarious facial expressions all night. Steve Mann is every inch the studious rock star, helping out on backing vocals himself, and switching between atmospheric keyboards and super-tight rhythm guitar.
The years have had a bit of an effect on the voices of both Gary Barden and Graham Bonnet, but anything they’ve lost in range is more than made up for in enthusiasm. Barden leads the line and works the crowd with madcap wit and freewheeling fervour. After one song he dispenses with his leather jacket by draping it on a mic stand (a roadie gathers it up much later) and conducts the crowd in a raucous singalong on Cry For The Nations then, as Schenker peels off a scorching solo in Attack Of The Mad Axeman, he wanders over to wave at a fan/friend on the balcony and makes clear that a pint should be kept for him.
Graham Bonnet, for his part, gives 120% to the lung-busting trio of tracks he performs from the classic Assault Attack record. The oldest member of the troupe – about to turn 70 in fact – shows no sign of feeling his age as he bounds around the stage, delivering the epic Desert Song, tuneful Dancer and punishing Assault Attack from behind his trademark shades.
It’s clearly a big highlight of the night for many fans to finally see Bonnet and Schenker performing together, and there is a slight dip in energy when Robin McAuley begins his quartet of perhaps less familiar numbers. Nevertheless, Save Yourself is as good as any other song played tonight, Bad Boys gets the fans shouting along and the ultra-catchy Love Is Not A Game is impossible to resist.
Bonnet and Barden reappear to join the others in hilariously crowding around McKenna’s kit for the sticksman to seemingly close proceedings with some gigantic fills. As ingrained as the walk off/walk on/encore nonsense is these days I genuinely thought for a moment that the band wouldn’t return, such was the size of the ending.
Schenker didn’t make us wait long, though, speedily springing back onto the stage and looking briefly confused as to why his bandmates hadn’t joined him yet. All three singers then share vocals on Doctor Doctor. It’s not the cleanest performance of the UFO hit ever, but the stirring exuberance of the performance and the sheer excitement of seeing so many legends together makes up for that, and turns it instead into a rousing celebration – with even Schenker joining in on the chorus.
With the song serving as a fitting finale on the Tokyo DVD I assumed that was that – but no!
‘We’re running out of time, so if you want more it has to be now!’ Schenker tells us, with the answering tumult banishing any thoughts the band may have had of ending the evening there. McAuley does another top job singing UFO’s Natural Thing – and Steve Mann gets to show off his own lead guitar chops in a thrilling face off with Schenker – before the real last track is a euphoric jaunt through Lights Out, with all three singers again leading the crowd in the classic chorus.
The songs are fantastic, the backing band is probably the best hard/classic rock rhythm section there ever has been, and the format of the show makes for an extremely cool, unusual gig. But it’s Barden’s cheeky larking, Bonnet’s long-awaited return to MSG, McAuley’s swooping vocals, and the evident camaraderie between all concerned that really makes this a special occasion – all that and the irrepressible energy and scorching fretwork of the man at the centre of it all, of course!
Michael Schenker Official Website
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Michael Schenker Fest Set List: O2 Ritz, Manchester
Into The Arena (Instrumental)
Gary Barden vocals:
Let Sleeping Dogs Lie
Cry For The Nations
Attack Of The Mad Axeman
Armed And Ready
Coast To Coast (Scorpions instrumental)
Graham Bonnet Vocals:
Captain Nemo (Instrumental)
Robin McAuley vocals:
No Time For Losers
Love is not a game
Rock Bottom (UFO cover)
Doctor Doctor (UFO cover)
Natural Thing (UFO cover)Lights Out (UFO cover)
GARY BARDEN, GRAHAM BONNET AND ROBIN MCAULEY
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