Michael Schenker Fest +Departed
Thursday 2nd November
Shepherd's Bush Empire, London
With his trademark Gibson Flying V electric guitar, beanie hat and shades - celebrated German Rock guitarist Michael Schenker kicked off his UK tour at the London O2 Shepherds Bush Empire last Thursday night. With great support from UK Rock band Departed, the Michael Schenker Fest project, or shredder fest as some might call it, reunited the original Michael/McAuley Schenker Group vocalists Gary Barden, Graham Bonnet and Robin McAuley, plus MSG musicians Steve Mann (guitar, keys), Chris Glen (bass) and Ted McKenna (drums). Nicknamed the "Blonde Bomber", the sixty-two year old first rose to fame as an early member of Scorpions then achieved fame in the mid-1970s as the lead guitar player for UFO. Since leaving UFO in 1978, he has been leading the Michael Schenker Group in various incarnations plus more recently Michael Schenker's Temple Of Rock. He has rejoined UFO three times, producing an album each time and is the younger brother of Rudolf Schenker who is still a guitarist with Scorpions. His career has had many ups and downs, partly due to a long history of alcoholism and personal problems but despite all this, Schenker continues to perform and record. He has been called "a legendary figure in the history of Metal guitar.
First up though were Devon-based 4-piece Rock and Roll band Departed - originally formed in 2014 when their chief songwriters, lead singer Mark Pascall (former lead singer and bass guitarist for Empire of Fools) and Ben Brookland (former lead guitarist for The Treatment), began writing together. The current line-up, which includes Howie Spring (bass) and Connor Spring (drums), became permanent in March 2016. The band recently released their critically acclaimed self-titled debut mini album and over the last 18 months or so have travelled thousands of miles supporting the likes of Status Quo, Big Country, Phil Campbell and the Bastard Sons, Chuck Mosley (Faith No More), and the Graham Bonnet Band, and have also played many festivals including Hard Rock Hell. They opened with five tracks from their aforementioned debut mini album, firstly the fast paced 'Superstitious with its Montrose style riff courtesy of Brookland before Pascall shouted inevitably "Are you with us London?" as he discarded his fedora and bravely tried at this very early stage to get the crowd clapping with a "Wooh, wooh wooh" along to 'Don't Follow Me'. It worked, as the band kept up the momentum with their mix of Hard and Classic Rock with 'All I Want' with a great vocal and guitar solo from Pascall and Brookland respectively. The riff of 'Dreaming' epitomised what these guys were all about - powerful lead vocals, soaring guitars and a thundering rhythm section before it was time to "hold on to your heart" as Pascall misleadingly grabbed his acoustic guitar for the intro of 'Pretty Little Thing' - more a case of "hold on to your hats" as this stormer took off to its inevitable concluson. And talking of stormer's - 'Steal Your Crown' - their debut track (but not on the mini album) - with its hook and melody kept the flag well and truly flying for this new generation of Rock bands paving the way for British Rock. "Are you having a good time?" yelled Pascall as they launched into three dynamic newbies 'Soul Shaker', 'Come On' and 'All The Way' - with no let up in their energy meeting melody and Rock meeting Roll. Pascall even found time to promote two of their December gigs - Plant Rockstock on Sunday 3rd and The Underworld on Friday 15th - the latter with Mason Hill. Do not miss that! "Are you going to sing?" the frontman teased as they rounded off an incredible support set with a great cover of Queen's 'Tie Your Mother Down' with Spring drumming standing up and finally, "Are You Ready" - yes it was 'Are You Ready', with its Rainbow influence, in my opinion the stand out from their mini album. "We are Departed" they shouted as they left the stage - yes, but we look forward to seeing you guys again at The Underworld in December!
So the scene was set for Schenker as we sat on the first level with a great view to the left hand side of the stage. This was indeed the first time I had seen Michael, although I was at High Voltage when he performed at London's High Voltage in 2011 - it was just one of those annoying clashes that meant I was at another stage! The opening salvo to Schenker's set for mine - was totally unexpected. An intro tape recording of Schenker singing Yin and Yang - a bonus track off his 2015 Temple Of Rock's CD 'Spirit On A Mission' - was surreal enough - but another bonus track from that same album 'Searching For Freedom' saw Schenker open proceedings in a entirely different mode to what I was expecting - with its Floydish jaw-dropping overtones - it was a joy to behold - painting this "nailed-on shredder" in a totally different light! "Hello London" said Schenker and after introducing his band, and with an intimidating bank of Marshall speakers behind him, Schenker enquired "Are You Ready?" Immediately, the Michael Schenker Group instrumental 'Into The Arena' set the scene, Schenker limbering up like a gladiator with his Flying V before he thanked the auditorium and welcomed the hat and poppy wearing Gary Barden to loosen his vocal chords on five consecutive MSG tracks, the first of which was the Rainbowish 'Let Sleeping Dogs Lie' followed by 'Victim Of Illusion' and 'Cry For The Nations. Yes Barden in theory was the frontman belting out the numbers in fine style, but Schenker was well and truly taking centre stage with his own personal guitar fest and an endless round of guitar solos. Who said that German's don't have a sense of humour as Schenker introduced his next MSG track as "This is a song about someone". Cue 'Attack Of The Mad Axeman' followed by the 'Killer On The Loose' Lizzy sounding riff of 'Armed And Ready' - even though I thought Halloween was last Tuesday? At this juncture Barden left the stage to allow Schenker to prowl around the stage to play the only Scorpions number on the night - the instrumental 'Coast To Coast'.
Former Rainbow, and, of course, MSG vocalist Graham Bonnet, then joined the band for the next three MSG tracks starting with 'Desert Song'. Despite Bonnet's shades and his 'Jersey Boys' looking outfit, it was Chris Glen who caught the eye, this was a real bass guitarist with attitude. So when the PA malfunctioned towards the end of 'Desert Song' and you couldn't hear Bonnet's mic - Glen was the ideal candidate to send round to sort the sound crew out. By the way - there was no truth in the rumour that the double pint of beer that dropped from the first floor on to the punters below before Schenker's started (I kid you not - even though it was a plastic glass) - caused this short circuit. After the problem was eventually rectified - it was strength in numbers as both Barden and Robin McAuley (McAuley Schenker Group) joined the unfortunate Bonnet on stage for 'Dancer' - although Schenker once again was shredding personified. Barden and McAuley left Bonnet to it on 'Assault Attack' before the final Michael Schenker Group track of the night, Mann's organ intro heralding the instrumental 'Captain Nemo'. We were now into McAuley Schenker Group territory - with four songs, naturally featuring Robin on vocals. To a lot of MSG fans - rightly or wrongly - Irishman McAuley is the preferred MSG vocalist. McAuley opened with 'No Time For Losers' another Schenker shred fest, before Schenker's frenetic intro and awesome riff on 'Save Yourself' saw a lot of balding heads bobbing up and down below. However, it was on 'Bad Boys' that I see where the MSG faithful are coming from - a great vocal from McAuley although Rob just avoided falling flat on his face as he tripped on stage. The final song and driving rock riff of 'Love Is Not A Game' was the highlight for me though of the McAuley Schenker Group quartet - McAuley's request to the crowd to "Make some noise" gratefully accepted. So we've heard Temple Of Rock, Scorpions and MSG - who were we missing? How about a bit of UFO to finish with? Yes please! Well McAuley had the honour of vocals on their classic 'Rock Bottom' with Schenker once again going into overdrive as he duelled with Steve Mann as the delirious Schenker faithful sang along. Trepidation filled the arena re: an encore given the sound gremlins earlier. We needn't have worried as the guys returned to the stage and played no less than four UFO songs in their encore. The Gary Mooreish opening to another classic 'Doctor Doctor' saw Barden, Bonnet and McAuley (sounds like a solicitors) return to the stage - their vocals complemented by the singalong from the ecstatic audience. It was party time now as 'Shoot Shoot' saw Schenker high-fiveing with the crowd at the side of the stage and if that was not enough, London-born 'Son Of Shred' Tyson Schenker joined his Father on stage for 'Natural Thing'. By now it was getting late so 'Lights Out' seemed an appropriate and fitting way to end a fab evening with Schenker, his band and his three amigos sending his faithful into the Shepherd's Bush night to try and catch their last trains home - but it was well and truly worth it!
AJ (pictures courtesy of Eric Duvet and Paul Rodgers)