British space rockers UFO landed at House of Blues Cleveland last Tuesday (March 28) at the top of a double-header doozy pairing the quintet with English metal mavens Saxon.
Still fronted by boxer-turned-singer Phil Mogg (the group’s sole constant member), the influential (Metallica, Testament, Def Leppard) London-spawned outfit also features long-time drummer Andy Parker Paul and keyboardist/guitarist Paul Raymond (both on board since the ‘70s), lead guitar sensation Vinnie Moore (joined 2003), and bassist Rob De Luca (since 2008).
Formed in the late ‘60s, UFO excelled at blending the hard rock of Black Sabbath and Cream with the psychedelia of Pink Floyd and classicism of the Moody Blues and Yes into a unique, muscular mix.
A lot has changed over the years for Mogg and company—gone are the cheeky anthems of Force It (1975) and No Heavy Petting (1976)—but the elder statesmen of art rock still perform with the energy and enthusiasm of over-adrenalized teenagers. Unwilling to trade entirely on the past, the UFOers continue to make compelling records and tour fresh tunes well into its 50th year: They played “Run Boy Run” and “Messiah of Love” from 2015’s A Conspiracy of Stars for Cleveland—and revisited “Burn Your House Down” from 2012’s Seven Deadly CD.
But breakthrough UFO album Phenomenon (1974) and fan favorites Lights Out (1977) and Obsession (1978) received the most attention, with Mogg and the gang tearing through “Baby Blue,” “Only You Can Rock Me,” and “Too Hot To Handle” with youthful abandon.
Mogg juggled his mic stand and prowled the HOB as if looking to pick a fight, but engaged the audience with gentlemanly rapport. DeLuca thrummed a Gibson Thunderbird bass, his long hair flailing to Parker’s brutal beats. Moore—borne of the same ‘80s “shredder” movement—was dazzling on guitar, his fingers flaying and tapping the strings. Raymond layered the sound with lush keyboard chords and catchy, mischievous riffs.
Late-set goodies included “Love to Love” and “Rock Bottom.” The encore squeezed “Cherry, “Doctor Doctor” and “Shoot Shoot” into a single-bang bang bonanza.
Notable ex-UFO musicians include Pete Way (bass) and (former Scorpion) Michael Shenker (guitar).
South Yorkshire stalwarts Saxon incited the crowd with seventy minutes of testosterone-drenched tunes whose progressions and lyrics were equal parts majesty and mayhem. Like UFO, this five-piece boasts two anchormen musicians, with singer Peter “Biff” Byford and guitarist Paul “Blute” Quinn holding court since 1977.
But Saxon’s “new” members have decades of experience, too: Drummer Nigel Glockler and bassist Nibbs Carter have been around since the ‘80s. Co-guitarist Doug Scarratt came aboard in 1996—but still plays like a founding father of the medieval ensemble.
Byford and the boys greeted fans with the title track from 2015’s Battering Ram before lifting the lid on oldies “This Town Rocks,” “Power and the Glory,” and Apollo 11 tribute “The Eagle Has Landed.” Saxon’s sonic palette was narrower than UFO’s—they didn’t employ keyboards or acoustic guitars—but the six string siege by Scarratt and Quinn was sublime, and recalled the tandem guitar attack of earlier bands like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and Thin Lizzy. And the rhythms generated by Glockler and Carter were vicious and vivacious.
Byford—in button-bedazzled waistcoat—was a consummate showman, gesturing with his hands when not running fingers through his blonde locks. He recognized a first-time-concertgoer (Eddie, age 11) down front, tried on another fan’s motorcycle vest, and unfurled a Saxon banner (vintage 1984) proffered by yet another Saxon-savvy ticketholder.
“Crusader” and “Dallas 1PM” were punishing mid-set selections, while “Crusader” and “Strong Arm of the Law” were picked over other Byford suggestions by an audience poll.
The ferocious finale featured early ‘80s entries “Wheels of Steel,” “Denim and Leather,” and “Princess of the Night.”
Saxon will release a limited-edition vinyl 12” picture disc of their 2009 effort Into the Labyrinth for Record Store Day 2017.
Wisconsin up-and-comer Jared James Nichols opened at 7:30 p.m. with forty minutes of rugged throwback rock and roll from his first full-length, Old Glory and the Wild Revival. Ripping into his Epiphone Les Paul with fingertips and thumb instead of traditional pick, the 25-year old channeled guitar greats like Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Drummer Eric Sandin and bassist Dennis Holm were as feral (and hirsute) as Nichols, locking in on their respective instruments to create a bedrock for their bandleader’s fret board fireworks on “Don’t You Try,” “Can You Feel It,” and “Playing for Keeps.” The power trio’s cover of Mountain classic “Mississippi Queen” was killer—and perfectly primed the HOB contingent for their UFO / Saxon double-dose of New Wave of British Heavy Metal.