In 2016 when Michael Schenker announced that their set at Sweden Rock Festival would be a special one featuring original vocalists Gary Barden, Graham Bonnet and Robin McAuley most fans could only look on in envy at this prospect of the already sold out festival. Initially seen as a one off, the format has continued to run along side the standard Temple Of Rock shows. So when four dates were announced for the UK, the prospect of catching one of the shows was far too good to miss.
First though a quick mention of the support. The Departed turn in a superb set of high energy blues rock. From opener ‘Superstitious’ through to final number ‘Are You Ready’ the pace rarely drops as they deliver riff after riff and are reminiscent of some of the great young hard rock bands of the early 90s before grunge killed them off. ‘All The Way’ mixes a Sabbath groove with contemporary hard rock and a cover of Queen’s ‘Tie Your Mother Down’ is thrown in for good measure. There’s great potential here, so if they’re heading your way be sure to check them out.
After the intro tape of ‘Searching’, Michael Schenker takes to the stage and takes us back to the very start of MSG with ‘Into The Arena’. Chris Glen and Ted McKenna provide the thunder and then Gary Barden joins for ‘Let Sleeping Dogs Lie’, and it’s clear that he’s in fine voice. Some more early classics continue and while ‘Attack Of The Mad Axeman’ has always remained a live favourite, it’s good to hear Gary singing and Michael’s execution is exceptional; the crunching riff and lead break at the end of the song genuinely sends a shiver down the spine. Completing the line up is guitarist/keyboard player Steve Mann who is also enjoying a resurgence in popularity with his comeback in Lionheart.
A cheeky ‘Coast To Coast’ punctuates the section between Gary Barden and Graham Bonnet. Assault Attack is one of the albums that Schenker fans often cite at their favourite. A shame then that the line up were never really able to tour with the album, and Bonnet mentions the infamous incident which took place just down the road at Sheffield Polytechnic on his first and only show with the band before being promptly fired. Fortunately, there’s no recurrence and ‘Desert Song’ sounds magnificent and we’re also treated to ‘Dancer’ and ‘Assault Attack’ which shows Bonnet still has the power. Both Barden & Bonnet have had some less than favourable reviews in recent years, but tonight they both sound excellent. Maybe the format is beneficial to them looking after their voices.
Another instrumental is effective in linking to the next section; ‘Captain Nemo’ on which Schenker sounds as impressive and captivating as he did upon hearing it for the first time back in 1983. This leads to Robin McAuley taking the stage and while he may have played with Michael stateside, these are the first UK dates in over 25 years, so there’s plenty of the audience for whom this is a first.
The McAuley-Schenker period may have been the most commercially oriented period of his career, but this was not at the expense of some searing guitar work; ‘No Time For Losers’ is a tour-de-force and the whole band sound glorious on ‘Save Yourself’; and Michael’s precise, jaw-dropping shredding at the end is nothing short of perfection itself. ‘Bad Boys’ and ‘Love Is Not A Game’ are delivered effortlessly before Robin sings ‘Rock Bottom’ during which a single spotlight picks out Michael during his solos.
All three vocalists then take the stage to give an unique take on ‘Doctor Doctor’ each sharing the vocals and as they take up attack formation, it’s certainly an impressive sight. The whole band also seem to be enjoying themselves as much as the crowd as they sing along to the perennial classic.
After a short break they all return for an encore of ‘Lights Out’. It is so gratifying to see how Michael has maintained such a long run of recent creativity that has allowed his profile to put together this kind of special show. Many reviews will mention a ‘return to form’, but in reality this return to form has been going on for the last decade. Tonight Michael and the band took it up another notch, with a show that will last long in the memory. Contender for gig of the year? You bet.