CONCERT REVIEW – UFO and Saxon live in Las Vegas
With over 20 studio albums under each band’s belt, UFO and Saxon represent the old-school rock and roll approach to life. Write some songs, record an album and then tour the hell out of it. At the end of the tour, hopefully you made a little money.
For all the glory and mystique of rock and roll, it’s usually the business side of the equation that chews up the bonds between musicians and spits out even the best bands. Despite a few line-up adjustments over the years, these bands have forged ahead knowing their chances at filling stadiums and driving around in a gold-plated Aston Martin shaped like a dragon passed long ago. But here we are; four decades later and UFO and Saxon are still rolling from town to town, mostly intact, firing up the old amps.
In recent years, UFO and Saxon have been receiving some long overdue credit for their influences on heavy metal. These days, the likes of Eddie Trunk (That Metal Show) and Mike McCready (Pearl Jam) hail UFO as one of the most pivotal bands of the 1970s and Saxon continue to hammer their way around the festival circuits of Europe to throngs of metal heads. While UFO never achieved the heights of Sabbath, Deep Purple or Judas Priest during the early ‘70s, the quality of the music was often on the same level as those iconic bands.
When the New Wave of British Heavy Metal took flight in the late 1970s, Saxon looked poised to be one of the rising stars of the movement but were quickly overshadowed by the likes of Iron Maiden and Def Leppard – a band who made the “artistic” decision to shed the NWOBHM sound when MTV arrived (in hopes of meeting girls, I assume). These days, its metal giants like Lars Ulrich of Metallica who keep the interest alive for NWOBHM bands like Saxon and it seems to be working. The House of Blues was packed tight in front of the stage by the time the stellar Jared James Nichols shredded through some classic rock covers to open the evening.
These bands have forged ahead knowing their chances at filling stadiums and driving around in a gold-plated Aston Martin shaped like a dragon passed long ago
Saxon took the stage with “Battering Ram”, an appropriate adjective for their metal objective. There’s no boogie in the Saxon machine. This is cold, hard British metal that only moves in one direction and it moves fast. Reminiscent of both Maiden and Motörhead at times, the band proved how effective Spinal Tap was at highlighting that thin line between stupid and clever where the heavy metal aesthetic blossoms. Songs like “Denim and Leather” and “Power and the Glory” should come off as overly masculine gibberish but the songs felt like passionate rallying cries for anyone who uses heavy metal as an escape from the dreary world around us. By the time the Gandolf-esque Biff Byford started singing “Princess Of the Night”, my friend from London and I were ready to storm Mordor with swords drawn to save the mythical princess. If that isn’t reason enough to love heavy metal, we cannot be friends.
UFO offered the melodic counter punch to Saxon’s fierce set with a ridiculous arsenal of riffs that any metal band would die to possess. Singer Phil Mogg, having lost none of his range, shared stories over a pint between songs; giving the band a chance to catch their breath between each burst of power. Though not present on the band’s most revered albums, guitar virtuoso Vinnie Moore fits his ridiculous technical ability into the band’s sound so well that few could miss the infamous Michael Schenker.
The band’s best songs (“Lights Out”, “Too Hot To Handle” and “Rock Bottom”) are masterworks in rock ‘n’ roll and hearing them live reveals just how influential UFO’s sound has been on younger bands over the decades that followed. “Burn Your House Down” possesses a melancholic tinge that Queensrÿche mined for entire albums while “Baby Blue” laid to waste all the hair ballads of the 1980s (sorry Poison) with a delicate acoustic melody entwined with Mogg’s sensitive lyrics.
Between Saxon’s battle-ready power and UFO’s rock ‘n’ roll symphony, entire sub-genres of heavy metal stretched from the stage and out into the night. From the speed metal of Slayer to the classic rock/metal of Tesla, it’s impossible to overstate how significant Saxon and UFO were on the scenes that came after them.
A few weeks ago, Bon Jovi brought a mammoth production to a sold-out 20,000 seat arena in Las Vegas and went through a mind-numbingly choreographed routine of what they assumed their fans would want. Tonight, I witnessed the other end of the rock ‘n’ roll spectrum. UFO and Saxon never had enough success to fully escape their own everyday lives and lose touch with reality – which allows them to truly connect with the audiences. They still play with the excitement of young bands hoping to inspire a few fans to forget about mortgage payments and losing their health insurance for a few hours and sound damn good doing it. A more noble cause in rock ‘n’ roll you will never find.