By Andrew Bansal
(photos by Chad Alexander)
March 16th 2017, The Belasco, Los Angeles CA: Two British bands that have been in existence for more than four decades as highly influential groups in the heavy metal realm, UFO and Saxon are currently in the United States on a co-headline tour, switching time slots every night and bringing their respective brands of classic heavy music to their fans old and new. The tour arrived in downtown Los Angeles for a gig at the Belasco Theater on Thursday March 16th 2017, as denim and leather brought us all together in the hope and expectation that these bands would set our spirits free.
Doors opened at 6:30, and before the British invasion set in, there was an opening act, in Los Angeles based blues rock guitarist Jared James Nichols and his solo band, as he fronted a three-piece lineup and delivered a short set of jams doused deep in Led Zeppelin vibes, also featuring a guest appearance by Saxon guitarist Paul Quinn for a rendition of ‘Rock & Roll Hoochie Koo’. Jared James Nichols, originally hailing from East Troy, Wisconsin but now a Los Angeles transplant, showcased his musical talent and stage personality which seems to come very naturally to him, and he looks and sounds like a guy born to play rock n’ roll on big stages like the one here at The Belasco. His simple, straightforward classic bluesy rock sat well with most of the audience, and this set was far from torturous for anyone in attendance.
Shortly after, the house lights dimmed at 8:30, signaling the arrival of Saxon onto the stage, amidst loud chants of the band’s name echoing around this beautiful theater. The pre-show talk and buildup among LA locals made it clear that many ticket holders were here primarily for Saxon, and the response from the crowd during the set further validated these claims, as this gathering of fanatics surely stands among the best audiences Saxon has ever played in front of in the LA area. They started their epic 14-song set with the title track of the latest album ‘Battering Ram’, a solid representation of the sheer relevance, classiness and quality of modern-day Saxon. They then got the crowd fully on their side with the old fan favorite ‘This Town Rocks’. Another contemporary Saxon classic in ‘Sacrifice’ followed, and there was the track ‘Queen of Hearts’ off of ‘Battering Ram’ a little later, but for the rest of the performance, Saxon revisited their ’80s material, and emerged triumphant with quite a fantastic selection of songs that did not leave a single person disappointed or underwhelmed, and instead left nearly everyone with raised horns, fists and voices.
66-year old Biff Byford not only defied his age with a splendid performance on vocals, but held complete command of the entire crowd with his towering stage presence, his active, energetic demeanor, and his perfectly timed banter. Byford truly constitutes the blueprint for heavy metal longevity as a frontman, and others would serve themselves well to emulate him. He is the voice and central figure of Saxon the live band, but he would be nothing without his band members, as guitarists Paul Quinn and Doug Scarratt delivered the iconic Saxon riffs, harmonies and solos with effortless precision, bassist Nibbs Carter finger-picked his way to glory and was as entertaining to watch as Byford himself, while drummer Nigel Glockler was the indestructible backbone behind this all-conquering set.
They played 14 songs but clearly came prepared to play 20 or even more, as they took crowd requests and decided upon playing ‘Motorcycle Man’ (as a tribute to Lemmy) and ‘747 (Strangers in the Night)’ purely on demand. From fast-paced songs such as ‘Princess of the Night’ to powerful slow ones like ‘The Eagle Has Landed’, this Saxon set had it all and then some. This is a band that puts their 100 percent on stage, but also extracts every ounce of energy from the audience, and a Saxon show such as this one would leave you physically exhausted but still wanting the band to play on. Even though this 75-minute set gave the crowd their money’s worth, it was more than a little sad and shocking to see Saxon playing in front of UFO’s backline and drumkit which was already set up on stage, and it is an absolute shame that they are not in fact headlining this tour.
Saxon set list:
01. Battering Ram
02. This Town Rocks
04. Power and the Glory
05. Queen of Hearts
06. The Eagle Has Landed
07. Dallas 1 PM
08. Motorcycle Man
10. 747 (Strangers in the Night)
11. Never Surrender
12. Wheels of Steel
13. Denim and Leather
14. Princess of the Night
So glorious was the performance by Saxon, it was going to be a hard act to follow for UFO, but the audience, including Saxon fans, watched on with an open mind and the hope that UFO would live up to their iconic status. Unfortunately, that was not to be the case on this occasion, as man-for-man, song-for-song, UFO failed to match the magnificence of Saxon, and even their best-known songs such as ‘Lights Out’, ‘Only You Can Rock Me’, ‘Rock Bottom’ and ‘Doctor Doctor’ did not instigate much excitement, coming across as bland, downtuned and devoid of any energy or power. Phil Mogg struggled through most of his lines, and in contrast to Biff Byford bringing the best out of the crowd, Mogg’s banter left a lot to be desired as for the most part it was hard to even understand what he was saying. And when the singer is the clear weak link, the performance of the rest of the band is inconsequential.
This is not meant to disrespect or disregard UFO’s legacy and influence as an iconic hard rock band that spawned the early NOWBHM movement, but there is no denying that they did not deserve or justify their billing as the closing co-headliner for the night, and the powers-that-be certainly erred in giving them that status. Saxon undoubtedly has a larger fan base in LA, and in all of the USA for that matter, and you only had to stand in the lobby of The Belasco for five minutes during any point past the fourth song of the UFO set to see the exodus of attendees that were exiting the venue in large numbers. UFO would have served appropriately as an opening act with a much shorter set. While Saxon inspired the crowd to jump, head-bang, sing and shout, UFO’s zero-energy, zero-power, zero-charisma set compelled many to think of standing through their 15-song set as a highly strenuous exercise. This incarnation of UFO is certainly not hard rock or heavy metal, it’s more like dinner table classic rock, and based on their zero-impact recent studio material and live performances like this one, one can only conclude that they missed the train to retirement and are stuck wandering around aimlessly in nostalgialand for all eternity.
All in all, an intriguing tale of denim and leather, and of two completely contrasting performances.
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UFO set list:
01. Long Gone
02. Wonderland/Making Moves
03. Run Boy Run
04. Lights Out
05. Baby Blue
06. Ain’t No Baby
07. Only You Can Rock Me
08. Burn Your House Down
09. Too Hot to Handle
10. Messiah of Love
11. Love to Love
12. Rock Bottom
14. Doctor Doctor
15. Shoot Shoot
Remaining Tour Dates:
03/18/2017 – Anaheim, CA @ The Grove
03/19/2017 – Las Vegas, NV @ House of Blues
03/21/2017 – Denver, CO @ Summit Concert Hall
03/24/2017 – Sioux City, IA @ Anthem at Hard Rock Casino
03/26/2017 – St. Charles, IL @ Arcada Theater
03/28/2017 – Cleveland, OH @ House of Blues
03/29/2017 – New York, NY @ BB Kings
03/30/2017 – New York, NY @ BB Kings
04/01/2017 – Jim Thorpe, PA @ Penn’s Peak
04/02/2017 – Allston, MA @ Brighton Music Hall