It was a case of fifth time lucky for Saxon’s two UK Castles & Eagles 40th Anniversary shows. Following Biff Byford’s heart bypass operation in 2019, Covid resulted in a further 4 reschedules and even then it still looked touch and go as to whether these would go ahead. Indeed, the Glasgow date was pushed further back due to differing restrictions still being in place when the decision had to be made to postpone. So 3 years after being announced and more than 2 years since originally scheduled to say fans were hungry for these shows is more than a bit of an understatement. The four band bill being a delight to any fan of classic rock and NWOBHM music, so on Friday night, the rock fraternity descended upon Manchester O2 Apollo for the first of two sell out shows and the challenges of putting on a four band became apparent from a half hour delay to the door opening time. What this meant was that there were still fans queuing to get in as Diamond Head hit the stage at 6.00pm sharp.
Having been forced to cancel their own headline tour these dates go some way towards compensation and their set is understandably brief, but well honed to fit the slot. Opening with 2014’s ‘Bones’ and ‘The Messenger’ from 2019’s Coffin Train album is enough to convince that Diamond Head are not relying on their past glories to make an impression. By the time they get to ‘Lightning To The Nations’ the Apollo has filled up nicely and the crowd are on side. While the lighting of their set may have left a lot to be desired, the sound was crisp and clear. It is probably not surprising that the biggest roar of approval goes to their final two evergreen classic; a slightly shortened ‘Helpless’ and the immense ‘Am I Evil?’. Half an hour is simply not enough.
Next up are Girlschool who now hold the title of longest running all female rock band. Original members Kim McAuliffe & Denise Dufort are joined by Tracey Lamb on bass and Jackie Chamber who has now been a part of the band for more than 20 years. They rattle through their set with punkish vigour, spanning their career from early favourites ‘Demolition Boys’ and ‘C’mon Let’s Go’ through to 2015’s ‘Guilty As Hell’. McAuliffe takes a moment to consider all the times they’ve played the venue with not only Saxon, but also Motorhead (a band with which they have always had close ties) before tearing into their version of ‘Bomber’. A slight wavering at the start of ‘Emergency’ causes Kim to apologise “we’ve only been playing it for 40 years”. Not that this bothers the fans- they went down a storm.
Uriah Heep were a late addition to the bill replacing Krokus who enjoyed lockdown so much they decided to retire. While Heep may not quite fit the rest of the NWOBHM bill, their presence is no less welcome. Much more of the stage is opened up for them and for the first time the lighting actually seems in keeping with a rock concert. Dry ice galore billows around the stage and jets of fog fire vertically as they lead of with ‘Grazed By Heaven’. Russell Gilbrooks drums and Phil Lanzon’s organ give tremendous power and drive to the group.
We then head back 40 years to Abominog’s ‘Too Scared To Run’ which may not be the most obvious choice is an absolute beast of a tune. It’s then right back to the start for ‘Gypsy’ which has Lanzon attacking the keys with some ferocity.
‘Look At Yourself’ motors along at a pretty rapid pace with Mick Box executing some spine tingling kicks and seemingly coaxing extra magic from his guitar with his right hand gestures. Their set is brought to a dramatic conclusion with the timeless ‘Easy Livin’.
The lights go down and the celebratory show begins with a projection of images from the band over their 40 year career that builds the anticipation of what’s expected over the next two hours. The curtain drops and reveals an impressive stage set. Nigel Glocker’s kit sits in a commanding position on its own riser in front of a gothic arched window. Stone staircases lead to the surrounding castle battlements, A massive screen sits at the back to add complementary imagery and above all of this is Saxon’s legendary Eagle lighting rig. It’s a massive set that has obviously had a lot of time, cost and planning spent on it. The sound of motorbikes give way to Paul Quinn and Doug Scarratt’s buzzsaw guitars as they launch into ‘Motorcycle Man’. Biff’s trademark whistles are present and there are few bands have such a great opener.
After such a long absence, the joys of a live show as told in ‘Battering Ram’ make it an obvious choice for an early number in the set and bludgeon us it rightly does.’Wheels Of Steel’ comes in hot on the heels. and it’s noticeable just how good a voice Biff is in. When he says “not bad for a 72 year old eh?” you’d be hard pressed not to agree. Pretty impressive for someone half his age let alone 72. ‘Strong Arm Of The Law’ and ‘Denim And Leather’, both bona fide classics, are aired early. For the latter battle jackets are thrown upon the stage and both Biff and Doug wear one, while Biff jokes about catching Covid.
‘Thunderbolt’ from their most recent album is given an airing but the classics just keep rolling in with ‘Never Surrender’ and ‘The Eagle Has Landed’. The eagle lowers but the lighting fails. That’s the trouble with wildlife, they don’t always behave as expected. It doesn’t distract from the magnificence of the track. Problems with the eagle are resolved in time for a medley of ‘Dogs Of War’ and ‘Solid Ball Of Rock’.
By the end of the main set there’s still numerous classics yet to air. Crusader is the first of these which is followed by ‘Strangers In The Night’, with the eagle flying over the stage as intended and the crowd singing along it’s is a glorious sight and what makes nights like these so memorable. Paul Quinn then moves to the front of the stage to crank out the riff to ‘Princess Of The Night’ to bring a close to the evening.
Down the M6 and M40, the show moves down to London and one of the UK’s most iconic rock venues, the Eventim Apollo, or as Mick Box rightly points out later in the evening “you can call it what you like, we’ll always know it as the Hammersmith Odeon’.
Tonight there’s no delay on the doors so Diamond Head go on to a packed house. Tonight their stage space is greatly reduced with just enough depth for the drums and monitors, and were subjected to the same awful lighting as last night, but this doesn’t prevent the band from putting on another blistering performance. The intro tape of Holst’s Mars, Bringer Of War certainly creates a better level of anticipation with a full house as they take the stage. The set is the same as Manchester another energetic 30 minutes. Both band and fans are going for it and there’s even a spot of crowd surfing during ‘Helpless’. As Ras commands a sea of horns at the start of ‘Am I Evil’ a fan at the front offers up his prosthetic leg. Ras duly accepts the unusual offering and holds it aloft which receives a huge cheer. Said leg made subsequent appearances and was later signed by the majority of the bands and safely returned to the unidexter rocker.
It’s home turf for Girlschool and when Kim McAuliffe raises her bottle of beer at the start of ‘Guilty As Sin’ and says “cheers you lot” there’s a degree of intimacy and sense that they’d be enjoying themselves just as much in front of 50 people as they are 5000. After some initial equipment issues, their frantic half hour is very fluid. As with Manchester it’s the last three songs which get the best reception; ‘Race With The Devil’, ‘Bomber’ and ‘Emergency’, this time executed with precision.
It occurs to me that with their festival performances last summer that this is the fourth time I’ve now seen Uriah Heep since lockdown and each time they never fail to impress. Their set again kicks off with ‘Grazed By Heaven’ and follows the path as the night before. As they go into an extended jam on ‘Look At Yourself’ , the band really seem to be in the moment and thoroughly enjoying playing to the Hammersmith crowd. Although the smile doesn’t seem to leave Mick Box’s face for the entire hour.
As ‘Easy Livin’ closes their set, the whole downstairs of the Apollo are jumping up and down and banging their heads. It’s a joyous finale and the band leave the stage as ‘Land Of Hope & Glory’ bids them farewell over the PA. It’s probably safe to say that while they may have not been the obvious addition to the bill, but it’s difficult to think that Krokus could have received a better reception than Heep did tonight. Later in the year they return for their postponed headline tour celebrating their 50 year career.
As the intro tape ends and the curtain drops, once again ‘Motorcycle Man’ revs its engines and the venue erupts to embark upon another two hours of pure molten metal. The eagle is lit from the start and the levels of dry ice appropriate. Everything looks a lot slicker than the previous night.
The sound is spot on and Biff is again in fine voice. A good thing too as Biff also reveals that the show is being recorded for a future release. He also reminds us that he said he would get his first tattoo if Saxon ever sold out Hammersmith. It seems doubtful that he’s willing to honour this.
Biff mentions that the last time they played Hammersmith was with Motorhead which serves as a great way to lead into their track honouring Lemmy and his band; ‘They Played Rock And Roll’, which also sees lots of imagery on the screen from the legendary Bomber tour of which Saxon were a part of.
It’s great to hear some of the classics that tend to get sidelined on tours promoting albums. In particular ‘To Hell And Back Again’ was quite special. Meanwhile ‘Strong Arm Of The Law’ and ‘Denim And Leather’ sound as good as they ever have. The set was nearly identical to Manchester but ‘Dallas 1PM’ makes a welcome addition to the London set and features an emotive solo from Scarratt. Age has been kind to Saxon, not only from the fact that Biff still has a great set of pipes, but also in the longevity of the songs. While undoubtedly a product of their time, their songs have not dated and still have a resonance whether they be about the music or historical subjects. When sets like these are delivered with the passion and determination as they done tonight it always makes for a memorable night and tonight will be up there with the best Saxon shows I’ve ever been lucky enough to see.
15 years ago Saxon took part in a documentary where Harvey Goldsmith tried to revive the fortunes of the band and get them back onto bigger stages. A band who were never going to compromise their approach and Goldsmith’s peculiar visions made for awkward television. Needless to say Saxon haven’t compromised and with Carpe Diem,(read our review here) have just turned in one of their best albums in years. With better management behind them now and the hunger for live music post Covid, the stars will align to see them packing out larger venues that sees this type of gig the norm for the band. While Biff had mentioned it to the crowd last night, details of a full UK tour with dates are released by the press today. With the length of the tour and size of the venues leaves us in hope of experiencing a similar production come November. One thing is certain, you’d be a fool to pass up the opportunity of catching one of the shows when they come to a town near you.