Gig Review: MICHAEL SCHENKER – Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London, 31 May 2013

Interview edit: Michael Schenker, 5 December 2012
Michael talks about ‘Temple Of Rock’ and future plans
First broadcast on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio on 9 December 2012
(An extended, podcast version of this interview is available here)

In a curious twist of the promoter’s roster, Tank found themselves needing to recruit a stand-in singer for this gig because their permanent incumbent was performing with the headline act.

Doogie White is currently writing, recording and gigging with Michael Schenker, which resulted in Tank temporarily securing the very considerable talents of American front man ZP Theart, formerly of Dragonforce and currently of I Am I.

Theart’s obvious transatlantic showman style must have been uncomfortable for fans of Tank’s uncompromising metal delivery in their NWOBHM glory days.  Nevertheless, his outrageous r’n’r posing, big jazz-handing and raps with the audience provided a great foil for the band’s gritty, pile-driving rhythms and anthemic riffs. More than that, Theart possesses an impressively powerful pair of lungs.

Understandably, this short set was built around the newer material. 2010’s ‘War Machine’, the first to feature Doogie White on vocals, featured heavily. ‘Phoenix Rising’ was almost epic, boasting a ferocious double bass drum weave and driving guitars. There was only room for a couple of nods to NWOBHM days when Algy Ward fronted the band with a sub-Motorhead growl: ‘Honour and Blood’ and to close the set, the excellent ‘This Means War’.

So not the brutal, wall-of-sound Tank of old, but long time six-stringers Tucker and Evans still whipped up a mean sound with all the menace that a support-slot PA could muster. Sadly, no room for 1982’s belting cover of The Osmonds’ ‘Crazy Horses’. But as a pipe opener, this set was well up to the mark.

Michael Schenker is an enigma. A genuine guitar genius shot through with streaks of self destruction. When he quit UFO in 1978 the band were on the threshold of greatness having recorded their finest studio album ‘Obsession’.

The classic ‘Strangers In The Night’ live opus was captured on that tour and a major mainstream breakthrough beckoned. But the troubled Schenker was long gone. The band did plenty well enough anyway, but who knows what heights they may have scaled in harness with the wunderkind at his creative peak.

Schenker’s career highs and lows present a profile that would dwarf Blackpool’s Big One. Alongside well documented alcoholism and personal problems, he has chucked in enough on-stage walk-offs and sulky performances to make a diva blush. But rumours of a recent return to form have abounded and last year’s Temple of Rock tour was well received.

Well I guess Schenker is in a good place right now, because this was a superb gig. From the moment the maestro arrived alone on stage, picking out the intro to ‘Love Drive’ and trading skin with the crowd, right through the rousing climax of ‘Doctor Doctor’, Schenker was in total control, technically sharp, and enjoying himself.

The gig was co-billed as the ‘Love Drive Reunion Tour’. With The Scorpions rhythm section of Francis Buccholz and Herman Rarebell chugging out the time, it was no surprise that the set kicked off with the title track followed by ‘Another Piece of Meat’. Both from the 1979 Love Drive album and both received with enthusiasm.

Indeed full-throated audience participation was a constant feature of the show. Men of a certain age, many sporting sawn-off, patch-strewn denim jackets, could be seen throwing their heads back and bellowing assorted phrases such as “See the attack of the mad axeman…” and “Is it hard enough? Is it loud enough…”

The first half of the gig was a mixture of Scorpions, MSG and Temple of Rock material. ‘Armed and Ready’ particularly stood out, sounding tight and aggressive, powered by a buzz saw riff. The aforementioned Doogie White put in a commanding shift with assured vocals and a great rapport with the crowd. He dedicated new track ‘Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead’ to Ronnie James Dio and received wild applause.

Schenker has never been one to hog the limelight and during the instrumental ‘In To The Arena’ it was bassist Buccholz who took centre stage, cajoling the crowd and beaming with a grin that didn’t leave his chops all night.

Buccholz doesn’t look a day over 30 and must surely have an ageing portrait in his attic. By contrast, Schenker was mostly to be found stage right, crouched over his instrument in a style that has changed quite significantly over the years. He looks smaller these days. Blond locks worn short and largely covered with a beanie. The image belied the fury, power and melody of his playing.

During the second half of the gig proper, which embraced the cream of his UFO output, Schenker really cut loose. ‘Too Hot To Handle’ and ‘Shoot Shoot’ surfed along on a tide of crowd chorusing. ‘Only You Can Rock Me’ delivered a set piece dramatic solo soaring into the rafters of the theatre primed by a gorgeous keyboard and drum exchange.

‘Let It Roll’ was an inspired choice and highlighted the adventure and craft of some of those early tracks. The mid-song instrumental tonight sounding ambitious, controlled and explosive all at once. ‘Lights Out’ was a perfect set closer.

The segmentation of Schenker’s career was emphasized again by the choice of encores. The first was a trio of Scorpions tracks. The beautifully sung – by Doogie and the audience – ‘Holiday’, sandwiched between the rollicking ‘Blackout’ and ‘Rock You Like A Hurricane’.

The second encore was back to UFO for ‘Rock Bottom’ where Schenker rung out each note of the instrumental section with a grimace and a frown, believing in every nuanced melodic salvo that he mustered from his signature guitar. And finally a raucous ‘Doctor Doctor’ brought the curtain down.

An uplifting night, if only to see the blond bomber back to his emotional as well as technical best. This should be a stepping stone to the bigger gigs and wider audience that his talent and songbook demands, but who knows where the next stop might be on the Schenker rollercoaster.

Review by Dave Atkinson
Photo by Steve Goudie

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