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Friday 3rd November 2017
Academy in Sheffield, UK
Reviews & Photography by Mark Holmes
Within Sheffield Academy's 2,350 capacity main room, a venue that has the distinct odour of sweaty socks (before it fills up with punters... so the crowd are not the offenders here), sole support act Departed hit the stage at 6:45pm. Featuring ex-The Treatment guitarist Ben Brookland, they're incredibly derivative of any number of hard rock acts. These Brits exercise their chops firmly within the realm of the tried-and-tested. So, it's clichés abound throughout their 45 minute set... from the music they play, to their attire, to all the poses they strike onstage. But there's something very likeable about Departed. Their pastiche is a refined one. The songwriting's great, despite its underpinnings of retro rock regurgitation. 'Pretty Little Thing', for example, has melodic similarities to Guns N' Roses' 'Sweet Child O' Mine', before developing into what sounds like a GNR/The Cult hybrid. And they have a ton of energy.

As their set progresses, the Academy fills up nicely, yet it's a fairly unresponsive audience. A respectable amount of clapping and a little cheering can be heard after each song, but frontman Mark Pascall's attempts to get clap-alongs and sing-alongs going, largely fail. In fact, the biggest cheers erupt when Pascall asks everyone to make some noise for Michael Schenker. I can't help but feel Departed deserve so much more, as it's not through lack of effort in trying to work the crowd. And it's a brave band that tackles a Queen song... albeit the oft-covered 'Tie Your Mother Down' fits nicely into their stylistic proclivities. They do the song justice, and Pascall's vocals are significantly better than Queen's current karaoke frontman, Adam Lambert. All in all, Departed serve their purpose perfectly; as a great warm up act for tonight's main attraction, even if the crowd don't appear to be "warmed up" en masse.
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Michael Schenker at the Academy in Sheffield, UK, 3rd November 2017
Photograph copyright © 2017 Mark Holmes - www.metal-discovery.com
A festival is defined as an occasion for celebration; one of revelry and merriment. In that sense, Michael Schenker Fest is aptly named, as the legendary German guitarist regards himself as having reached the final, third phase of his life; a celebratory phase. And what better way to continue his celebrations than to reunite with various MSG alumni for a series of shows (and, as it's transpired, an album of newly written material to be released early next year via Nuclear Blast). Original vocalist Gary Barden, ephemeral frontman Graham Bonnet, and Robin McAuley from the McAuley Schenker Group incarnation of MSG take on singing duties; while bassist Chris Glen, sticksman Ted McKenna, and keyboardist/guitarist Steve Mann also return. A mere four UK dates were booked, which were promised to be the first and last time such a formation will perform on these shores. Thus, it genuinely feels like a unique, special occasion. In Sheffield tonight, the jovial atmosphere in the venue is reflective of such. There's a discernible buzz of excitement about the place, ahead of Schenker's appearance, alongside his trusty brethren.

'Yin and Yang' plays through the PA as house lights are slowly dimmed. The excitement builds and, as Schenker can be seen walking out onto the stage, in the shadows, he's greeted by enraptured cheers that increase in volume and intensity as a spotlight illuminates his smiling visage. Opening with two MSG instrumental numbers, the poignantly melodic 'Searching for Freedom' and the riff/lick/lead feast that is 'Into the Arena', it's already clear that tonight's show would live up to the hype. The instrumentalists are all on fine, slick form. And then the first of the three vocalists is introduced to the fore - MSG's original frontman, Barden, who walks out to a truly warm welcome from a crowd that are now discernibly revelling in tonight's musical festivities. Opening his slot with 'Let Sleeping Dogs Lie', this is followed by airings of 'Victim of Illusion', 'Cry for the Nations', 'Attack of the Mad Axeman' and 'Armed and Ready'. Barden's voice is in great shape. The evident chemistry between him and Schenker, and all the other players, is a joy to watch. Tonight feels like one big party!

Following a rousing rendition of instrumental Scorpions' number 'Coast to Coast', and in line with MSG frontman chronology, Bonnet is introduced to the night's proceedings for a trio of the band's classics, commencing with 'Desert Song'. With just one MSG album, 'Assault Attack', under his belt, back in the day... it was what happened under his belt that led to his dismissal from the band. At the conclusion of the song, Graham Bonnet informs the crowd that the last time he played with Michael Schenker, in Sheffield in 1982, was the now infamous occasion that caused him to be fired from MSG due to his cocky stage appearance that was... well, just a little bit too "cocky" that night, when his penis made an unexpected and unplanned guest spot. Thirty five years on and he jovially informs the crowd he was drunk and a lot younger back then... so, thankfully, a sober and older Bonnet keeps the old fella hidden from view for this return appearance. Two more 'Assault Attack' numbers follow - 'Dancer' and the title track - with Bonnet proving himself still a mightily fine vocalist. It's a tad disappointing that he only has a trio of tracks within the setlist, but I guess his short stage time is equatable to his ephemeral tenure as MSG frontman.

As is the established pattern of the night, another instrumental track follows in the form of 'Captain Nemo', before McAuley emerges to loud cheers. Another man whose voice has stood the test of time, he provides his distinctive vocals for airings of 'No Time for Losers', 'Save Yourself', 'Bad Boys', 'Love is Not a Game' and UFO's 'Rock Bottom'. The latter climaxes with a lengthy Schenker solo spot, that sees him widdling his way over the backing with breathtaking mastery. It's moments such as this that I fully realise the sincerity behind his "spirit on a mission" sentiment, with his self-proclaimed aim of "spreading the joy of music from a place of pure self-expression." It feels emotionally blissful to witness first-hand, as wonderfully captivating as his playing is. Virtuoso is an oft-used word (dare I say, overused) for technical fretboard widdlings within the rock/metal world... but, Schenker epitomises musical virtuosity. He plays his instrument in such impassioned, affectively moving and invigorating ways that it feels pure. Emotionally pure. Pure self-expression, just as the main himself claims. Virtuosity, for me, is not merely about technical mastery. It should also be about channelling your emotions in the most naturally moving of ways. This is Schenker.

When 'Rock Bottom' finishes, all three vocalists come back out onto the stage, and all seven men take a bow to enthusiastic and appreciative applause, cheers and whistles from a clearly stoked Sheffield Academy audience. But there's more. Encore airings of two further UFO numbers - 'Doctor Doctor' and 'Lights Out' - see Michael Schenker Fest perform as a septet. The camaraderie onstage has been a sheer pleasure to witness throughout the night but, with the band now on the home straight, the mood feels even more celebratory and convivial. With Barden, Bonnet and McAuley sharing vocals, and harmonising, it's a triumvirate of MSG former frontmen bliss. No longer MSG, of course, but MSF. I told Michael recently that the "F" could stand for "Family", and he agreed. Tonight, it feels as if I've witnessed one big happy musical family. After the closing bars of 'Lights Out' are played, I get the impression they'd like to perform for longer, but Schenker tells the crowd, "We have a curfew, we have to go now.". And, so, it becomes more a case of "lights on" in the venue, as he thanks the audience, then all the musicians exit the stage. The energy onstage tonight defies the age of these men. Schenker himself looks fit and ready to go for another 20 years! It's been a tour de force of rock/metal supremacy over the course of an hour and three quarters. Live shows don't get any better than this.
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