Reviewing a Saxon concert without using the phrase ‘Denim and Leather’ can be difficult enough at the best of times, what with the usual choice of uniform of the metal fanatic that the song salutes remaining resolutely unchanged since it was first released, some three decades ago. However, given the significance of the band’s current tour, with a set that focuses primarily on their most illustrious albums; ‘Wheels Of Steel’, ‘Strong Arm Of The Law’ and, you’ve guessed it, ‘Denim and Leather’, it’s nigh on impossible. Celebrating thirty-five years together, Saxon have been touring around the UK and Europe, and tonight they brought their ‘Warriors Of The Road’ show to Dublin.
Photo: Darren McLoughlin
Before the Barnsley Big Teasers took to the stage however, the gates of Hell were ceremonially opened. The Derbyshire five-piece really have to be seen to be believed. A band steeped in history, having first formed at the beginning of the eighties in the NWOBHM (New Wave Of British Heavy Metal) boom, Hell were reactivated in 2008 and have since become one of the most talked about underground metal bands around today.
With face-paint, theatrics and choreographed moves, the Hell show is a visual treat, and is quite simply a joy to watch. Prowling about the stage like a demented pariah, front man David Bower is clearly the band’s main focus, however he’s backed by four equally watchable ‘undead’ musicians. It is however, difficult to take your eyes off the engaging singer. With pointed hand gestures, Jesus Christ poses and random audience ‘anointments’, his performance is simply mesmerising. Bringing just the right amount of horror to their aesthetic that many other similarly-positioned bands would kill for, Hell prove that it is possible to perform this sort of show without ever being cheesy, or conversely po-faced. Musically, the band blend NWOBHM riffage with contemporary thrash metal nuances, as tormented guitar solos and demonic keyboard passages meld to high pitched twisted wailing vocals. Whether a fan of this type of music or not, Hell are a band that everyone needs to see at least once. To quote Bower’s parting gambit “may your minds be free, and your souls be your own…”
Saxon meanwhile are an altogether different proposition. As respected elder statesmen of the metal genre, they are however, no less impressive than their choice of opening act. Kicking off with a bombastic ‘Motorcycle Man’, which contains one of the finest NWOBHM guitar riffs ever recorded, Yorkshire’s finest wasted no time in igniting the Dublin audience. One of the band’s earliest tracks, it was quickly followed by a newie, in a storming ‘Sacrifice’, the title track from their most recent album. Although billed as a retrospective tour, these juxtaposing openers were a perfect representation of what was to follow, i.e.; a balanced mix of the old and the new. A slew of album title tracks from the band’s history followed, with the likes of ‘The Power And The Glory’ being exactly that – powerful and glorious - and ‘Solid Ball Of Rock’ proving early show highlights. While the lesser known ‘Forever Free’ meanwhile was politely received, the rock steady ‘Strong Arm Of The Law’ provided the first mass sing-along of the night.
Although one of the smaller shows on this lengthy tour, the band managed to squeeze in most of their impressive production, with blinding lights and explosive jets of dry ice enhancing the likes of ‘And The Bands Played On’ and ‘To Hell And Back Again’. The effects may have raised the pulses, however it was the early classics that really sparked the passion in the audience, with ‘Heavy Metal Thunder’ and ‘747 (Strangers In The Night)’ inciting the throwing of horns, the banging of heads and for the more eager; good, friendly, violent mosh pits. From the same period meanwhile, rarely heard gem ‘Suzie Hold On’ slotted effortlessly into the set, while the twin guitar harmonies of Paul Quinn and Doug Scarratt on ‘Frozen Rainbow’ from the band’s 1979 debut, brought a change of tempo that showed a more restrained side of Saxon.
As a band, Saxon are a commanding presence, and well deserving of the respect that they garner from the rock press, fellow musicians, and fans alike. However, it is de facto leader Biff Byford that is the natural focal point. As one of the best frontmen in metal, it is sometimes easy to forget what a colossal voice he possesses. Seemingly hitting the highest notes of his not unimpressive register with ease without losing any of their power, it was clear tonight that Byford is truly one of the greatest singers in the genre. This was none more apparent than on show-stopping centrepiece ‘The Eagle Has Landed’. Epic and dramatic, the song pulsed and rumbled, as bathed in blue light, the band brought its evocative lyrics to life.
With the night coming to a close, the timeless ‘747 (Strangers In The Night)’ and a marauding ‘Crusader’, brought the main set to an end with a celebratory air, before the band returned to encore with two of their best loved tracks. An audience-participation heavy ‘Wheels Of Steel’ lifted the atmosphere to a new level, as Byford encouraged an engaging call and response section of the song. The Dublin crowd did not disappoint, coming second only to Warsaw, Poland as the tour’s loudest audience. Finishing off with an incendiary anthemic ‘Denim and Leather’, the curtain came down on an incredible night. The poster may have promised more of a specifically historic playlist than what transpired, and the relative lack of tracks from that ‘holy trinity’ of early albums may have disappointed some, however this was a quality gig from a veteran band. With a set crammed with some of their most enduring material, only the most pedantic could have felt let down. The band may be thirty-five years on the road, but on a cold winter’s night, Saxon and Hell set the Dublin crowd on fire, with one of the best metal shows of the year. Now that’s something worth celebrating.
By Eamon O'Neill.
First published on gigsandfestivals.co.uk, 8 December 2014.