Wednesday, May 18, 2011

God Bless UFO

"I've a bet with the drummer, 50 quid....he says I'm gonna fall flat on my face."

Phil Mogg is leaning heavy on the mic stand, and smiling, having just led his band of veterans through a spirited rendition of 1981's The Wild, The Willing, and The Innocent, and before counting off the classic rocker Mother Mary, he's had his first jibe at his band-mate for some 42 years, Andy Parker. It won't be near the last of the evening, and he wins the bet.

Tonight, UFO played a blinder of a set, tearing their way through a catalog that the audience knew like the backs of their hands. The band performed as if they were in front of 10,000 instead of 500, and the fans responded in kind. It was a genuine love fest, with both sides reveling in a long shared history.

Dayton is one of but 14 cities in America seeing UFO on this tour, chosen, no doubt by its longstanding love affair with one of Britain's greatest hard rock acts. There is a staunch sense of survival on both sides, with each losing as many as they've won over the years, but neither willing to say so on this cold, rainy evening. No, this is a night of victory, celebrating the fact that all are still not just standing, but rocking.

Mother Mary  kicked off side two of the band's 1975 release, Force It, and for good reason it has never left the set list. Vinnie Moore has been playing this riff laden rocker for more years than any of the group's guitarists, and he delivers it perfectly, replicating some of the original's scorching leads and fills, and adding more than a few of his own. All night long Moore fuels the band's many great songs with a delightful nod to the past, and constant reminders that he is his own man,  a great guitarist.

Next up is Saving Me, from the band's last studio album, 2009's The Visitor. This number exposes UFO's bluesier roots, with Moore playing some tasteful acoustic slide guitar during the intro. Vinnie saunters seamlessly several times throughout the night between electric, and acoustic, segueing between the two smoothly and to great effect. Phil Mogg sings the song with his usual deep sense of sincerity. Mogg may be the consummate member of the boys club between tunes, but when he sings, it is with a passion perhaps unrivaled since the departure of Thin Lizzy's Phil Lynott. His understated melodies, and masterful phrasing assures that these are songs straight off his sleeve by way of his heart. Mogg has long been one of rock's finest, and most underrated front-men.

Let It Roll is met with a huge acknowledgement of recognition by the fearlessly faithful, who howl when they hear Moore sound the tune with those eight bars of beautiful feedback which are followed by the tune's steamroller rhythm. Let It Roll is a song that UFO has been playing effortlessly for a great many years, and their effortlessness belies the staggering amount of skill, chops, and energy required to make it through this complicated, and unconventional composition. The song winds along, through the heaviest of metallic verses and choruses, only to be interrupted by two forays into decidedly Germanic gypsy tinged sections. the first is a staggering stream of choppy single notes, that then lead into a fiercely romantic, and melodic solo section, in which Moore is joined by one of rock music's finest keyboard players, Paul Raymond, who matches Moore note for note through a complicated scheme of harmonies. Raymond has long been the perfect fifth member of the group, exchanging his keyboards for some great rhythm guitar chugging when required. By the song's blistering riff of an ending, the band has conquered the audience completely, and it's a full minute of appreciation before the band can get on to the next.

Given the length of UFO's career, it is only fair that they should delve into newer material, though one gets the impression that the fans wouldn't mind a note by note replay of the band's 1978 classic Strangers In The Night, which still stands as one of the greatest live records. Helldriver, and Venus are next on the set list, and both grab the audience, and bring them along through an update of the band's history.

By now, Mogg has upped the ante, telling Andy Parker that now each song he gets through will cost the drummer another ten spot. The drummer replies that Mogg can subtract it from his past debts, and with that, these fellows who have aged so very gracefully (it's easy to forget the times when it looked as if the wings had fallen off the spaceship) slam head first into another rocket shot rocker from 1975's Force It - the staccato, hyperactive blues of This Kid. Again, Vinnie Moore takes the riffage of another guitarist, and captures the essence of the tune before unleashing some virtuosic torrents of his own.

Moore and Raymond then team up for the beautifully melodic intro to I Ain't No Baby, and the crowd goes nuts, as this number is a longtime favorite, but one seldom seen in the band's live sets. This tune is a Phil Mogg tour de force, and the singer milks it for everything it is worth, hitting every note with great precision, and emotion. UFO's songs have always been a nice combination of streetwise cockiness mixed with a born to lose vibe, and once again audience and actor are sharing the same space in time.

Only You Can Rock Me takes me directly back to the first time I saw the band, opening for Aerosmith in 1978 at UD Arena here in Dayton. It is as if 33 years have lapsed in an instant. From the song's instantly recognizable intro, to the melodic single note underpinnings of the verses, and onward into one of the most memorable guitar solos in rock history - once again the band tosses it off with aplomb and ease. Grace has perhaps been the true mark of this group, their ability to go from street kid toughs to sublimely sophisticated musicians in the blink of an eye, without a moment's pretension. Hard rock has perhaps not seen another band with more class.

The audience again goes completely bonkers, and the band basks in the reflected glory of shared love.

Vinnie leaves the stage for a well deserved toweling off, and guitar change, as Mogg again addresses the crowd, "This one is about a love affair that went not so well....It's called Try Me."

Paul Raymond's years of discipline, and practice at the piano were never more on display than when this truly elegant man plays the gorgeous introduction to UFO's finest moment of balladry. Mogg delivers this with a look and sound that suggests he means it now, as much as ever:

"Try Me, oh take me for a little while,
Before it's over, and you leave me with just a smile,
Try Me, oh let me be the one,
You say it's over, but for me it had just begun."

Vinnie Moore then nails one of the most distinctive of solos, a signature set of notes laid down by one of the best guitarists to ever pick up the instrument, and though he brilliantly changed a section and inserted his own take on the art of emoting perfectly through six strings, the audience was none the wiser, and wisely accepted the solo as his own.

If it had ended there and then, there would have been no complaints, but actually this seasoned band of veterans were just getting wound up, and it was time for a ferocious bolt towards the finish line as the band proceeded on to play perhaps their five best known tunes.

UFO were not always a club band, no. There was a time when the band was at the crest of super-stardom, back in 1977, coincidentally, the year I graduated from high school. The band released what heavy metal critic/talk show host Eddie Trunk has called his favorite album, the incendiary Lights Out. The album flew up the Billboard charts in a day when the charts still meant something, when we actually bought the music we chose to listen to. Lights Out knocked on the Top 20's door, arriving at 23, almost unheard of for what, at the time, was considered a heavy metal record. The band was always more melodic than metal, but rock wildly they did, and never more so than with the album's lead single, Too Hot To Handle."

I've not yet mentioned bassist Barry Sparks, but filling the shoes of the truly legendary Pete Way is as difficult a job as there is in all of classic rock. Way co-wrote a great many of the songs being played tonight, but more importantly he had what is so very rare, a tremendous stage presence. Pete Way was a direct influence on Iron Maiden, and Def Leppard, as well as indie rockers Guided By Voices. As much as an absent guitarist can create a gaping hole, so can the band's spirited cheerleader, the life of the party itself.

Sparks is a veteran with an amazing resume, including time spent with Yngwie Malmsteen, Uli Jon Roth, Ted Nugent, Dokken, The Scorpions, and of course, the Michael Schenker Group. Not just a great player (and he is a monster of a musician), Sparks is a tremendous performer, singing every word of every song, engaging the audience constantly, and conveying the sense that there is no place better in the world than onstage with a great rock and roll band. I can think of no one better to fill Pete's shoes, and as a player, no one can argue that he's a great musician.

Someone close to the band of old suggested to me before the show that I was about to see, "....a crown without the jewels." Actually, nothing could be further from the truth of the matter. Don't get me wrong, I miss seeing Michael Schenker and Pete Way playing in UFO. Anyone who ever saw them would. But, it is by their choice that they are no longer members of UFO. UFO is still a very great rock and roll band, not a tribute, not a substitute in any sense.

Doctor, Doctor is the oldest and perhaps most beloved song of the evening, dating back to May of 1974, and the Phenomena album, the first with which UFO dented the American consciousness. Another timeless classic that the audience sings as loudly as the band, and the smiles upon the faces of everyone in the room says it all.

You can tell a UFO fan by walking up to any fifty year old rocker, and simply saying, "Misty green, and blue." If they are a fan, and they inevitably are, they will respond with, "Love to love to love you," the chorus of an epic tale of rock and roll and the road, Love To Love. Yet another complex arrangement that would leave even the most competent musicians scratching their heads, the song sees Moore switching from electric to acoustic throughout, and playing some of the best guitar of the night. The entire band is highlighted on this wonderful old gem that leaves some in the audience a bit misty themselves. Maybe that is the greatest thing about this great night - the fact that everyone appreciates. The audience loves, and appreciates the band - deeply. The band loves, and appreciates another night of glory and shared feelings. This is the truth of rock and roll. This is UFO.

Mogg has been playful with the audience and the band all evening, and especially with the aforementioned Andy Parker, who incidentally is playing as well as I've ever heard him play, bringing a carpenter's slam to every snare shot, and directing the newer kids with his expert timing, and fills. Now, Phil gives the audience a hand in song selection, asking if they'd rather hear Rock Bottom, or Lights Out.

Rock Bottom is a riff like no other. It suggests nothing that came before it, and it has not been copied, or cloned. It is as unique a riff as exists. Vinnie Moore, and the band take the audience on a twelve minute journey that is amazing to watch. It contains all the elements essential to the band, and expand on what has preceded it. Paul Raymond is once again masterfully switching instruments, and his duets with Moore are as breathtaking as they were with Schenker back in 1978. Harmony and unison lines are passed back and forth with daring, and precision. If there is a better rocker with which to end a show, I've yet to hear it.

And with the completion of Rock Bottom, it is, "Thank you, and good night."


That's twice tonight that I've heard this chant, and twice that its sheer energy and exuberance have blown me away.

Once again, Mogg plays the gracious host, and offers his audience a choice. "Lights Out, or Shoot, Shoot?"

Lights Out it is, and I have to believe the crowd made the right call. The blistering pace of this number makes it the perfect encore. 'Hold on tight, until the end,' indeed, and we do, as Moore and Sparks take this one beyond the limit, and into territory both new, and exciting. These two outstanding players bring to this band a combination of extraordinary musicianship, and beautiful enthusiasm. Though many years younger than the band's founding members, better band-mates could not be found. I honestly cannot remember when I've seen a band have more fun onstage than this bunch did tonight.

To those members who I first saw back in '78, I offer this:

Phil, Andy, and Paul - I thank you fellows from my heart for a great, great many years of service, and enjoyment. For everyone in the audience tonight, I think I can say that this was a great one, a show we will always remember, a night that made us recall why we love rock and roll, why we love UFO so dearly.

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Dennis said...
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