Hard Rock Corner: Saxon and UFO
Live at Penn’s Peak, Jim Thorpe, PA, 4/1/17
Apr 10, 2017 Web Exclusive
On Saturday night, April 1, on top of the Pocono mountain of Jim Thorpe, PA, 1970s and '80s hard rock ruled. With the similar styling of opener Jared James Nichols leading the way, dual headliners Saxon and UFO spectacularly harkened to a bygone era of rock and roll.
Saxon played the first headlining set, a power packed 90-minute fury of heavy metal. Saxon in 2017 is a much different beast from the band that stormed out of South Yorkshire, England in 1979, at the forefront of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Singer Biff Byford and guitarist Paul Quinn remain from the band's original lineup, and this is more than enough to reclaim the music of the band's heyday for modern audiences. Excepting two songs, the entirety of the band's 15-song set came from output recorded between 1980 and 1983. What this meant was a heavy dose of classic Saxon: "Motorcycle Man," "Wheels of Steel," "747 (Strangers in the Night)," "Power and the Glory," "Strong Arm of the Law," etc. The two newer songs played, 2015's "Battering Ram" and 2013's "Sacrifice," were frontloaded into the set, leaving room for the '80s metal heads in the audience to bang their now largely hairless domes for the remainder of the show. The irony here is that both of these newer songs stand superbly alongside Saxon's older material, so much so that one could easily want for more newer songs in the band's set.
Byford, long white hair flowing, was amiable throughout. He quipped that he used to live in the Pocono mountains when he was married to an American woman. He dedicating three of Saxon's classic songs, "20,000 Feet," "Motorcycle Man," and "Wheels of Steel," to the late Lemmy Kilmister, prefacing the trio of tracks by saying, "These songs are only for the crazy bastards." At one point, he tore up the band's setlist, stuffing part of it in his mouth and exclaiming, "We can play what we want now. There is no fucking set list. You're the fucking set list." Quinn, clad in all black and sporting a bandana, attacked his guitar like the '80s never went out of style. And for the sold out crowd, it hadn't. It was like Saxon had never left, a little older but no worse for the wear, like 35 years disappeared in an instant.
When it was near time for UFO's grand entrance, the crowd was abuzz with the fact that famed radio personality and host of That Metal Show Eddie Trunk was in the house. As Trunk emerged from backstage, waving and giving thumbs' up to shout outs from the audience, things were revving to fevered pitch. The crowd packed forward in anticipation, the pungent stench of gasoline and denim reeking, with no room for escape.
UFO, while beginning only a decade prior to Saxon's inception, can easily seem a world away from the '80s metal masters. The band, anchored at its peak by singer Phil Mogg and guitar hero Michael Schenker, set the template for '70s rock, and while it ultimately led into the British New Wave of Heavy Metal, UFO has always favored melody over vocal howl, and a more fluid guitar virtuosity over pure speed. Today, Mogg and drummer Andy Parker are the only holdovers from the band's most famous incarnation. In Schenker's place is guitar master Vinnie Moore a fretboard freak with chops unrivaled in metal circles.
Introduced with overflowing zeal by Trunk, UFO entered to the riff-tastic tones of "Mother Mary" from 1975's Force It. Ten of the band's 15 songs on this night were from its four 1970s albums with Schenker-1974's Phenomenon, 1975's Force It, 1977's Lights Out, and 1978's Obsession. Mogg's vocals in songs like "Only You Can Rock Me," "Let It Roll," "Cherry," "Rock Bottom," and the two closing songs,"Doctor Doctor" and "Shoot Shoot," were vigorous and powerful, leading his band through the best of its prime-era catalog. And while hardcore enthusiasts will always miss Schenker, Moore, with family in attendance, acquitted himself perfectly, as the consummate guitar master that he is.
While the faithful were no doubt enthralled by the big hits, some of the best moments of UFO's set were not the well-worn classics. "Baby Blue," from 2004's You Are Here, found Mogg in brilliant balladry voice, with Moore switching from acoustic guitar to electric like a one-man guitar symphony. "Long Gone," from the band's second post-Schenker album, 1981's The Wild, The Willing and the Innocent, followed "Mother Mary," providing a brilliant one-two hard rock punch to the set's opening. And, perhaps most impressively, "Burn Your House Down," from 2012's Seven Deadly showcased Mogg as a captivating vocal presence, emotionally intoning "I will burn your house down/sit right here and watch you drown," with an intensity unmatched.
The night was a long one. With Nichols opening, Saxon's 90 minutes, and UFO's even longer, 1 hour 45 minute slot, music blasted from 7:30 PM to well after midnight. An old man's back was sore from standing. But the bill's rock legendry was staggering, each of the headlining bands representing its legacy most admirably. And as you might say, one can never have too much of a good thing.
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