In the early days of May, Tavastia Club in Helsinki saw the NWOBHM giants Saxon return to Finland on their new tour, bringing along Masterplan and Hellfueled with them. The following report comes by courtesy of two millworkers who witnessed the whole blazing hot event: Kassu Kortelainen and Ville Krannila. So strap on your seatbelts and let us begin..
Kassu: So, it was Saturday night in springtime Helsinki. The whole city was crammed with all sorts of Eurovision Song Contest props, as this big event was arriving to Finland in the wake of last year’s groundbreaking victory by the monster-rockers Lordi, whose beauty all but equals the visage of us Millworkers. But in the midst of all the giant screens vomiting out glittering euro-pop and other Eurovision hulabaloo, there was also something to give the heavy metal maniacs of Finland a little bit of what they’d fancy; An electrifying line up of metal legends Saxon, rock hard Masterplan and ozzyish swedes Hellfueled was about to be let loose at the local rock club Tavastia. Obviously, that was also our destination and as the beginning of the gig was drawing closer, a few of the millworkers and a bunch of good friends met up in the nearby Rotterdam pub, to shoot the breeze and devour a couple of pints of fine beverages.
Ville: After some good time, beer consuming and website discussions we ventured towards the steamy hot Tavastia Club. Inside we discovered the opening act Hellfueled had already finished their set and Masterplan was about to begin. Oh, the darned timetables were reliable this time! There was no holding us back though and after ordering another pint we set about to watch as German power metal combo took over the stage. Well, actually they are only 3/5 Deutsch these days as the line-up currently features US vocalist Mike DiMeo (ex-Riot) and drummer Mike Terrana (ex-Rage and the just about the whole universe). Both of them extremely talented musicians, there was reason to be hopeful. The set kicked off with “Spirit Never Die” from their brilliant debut album and right away it became obvious Di Meo simply didn’t possess the same force and clarity in his delivery as Jorn Lande. He did fine work on slower, more quiet sections but was clearly struggling on higher parts, his voice often buried low in the mix. It was by no means bad performance but compared to Lande, who stands as one of the best heavy rock/metal vocalists in the world, the task was nearly impossible. However, the band and crowd at front seemed to be enjoying the show a lot and musically the group was on fire, especially Terrana who remains an incredibly powerful drummer or what do you think, Kassu?
K: Yeah, Terrana was giving those drums of his a treatment so fierce that it made the Animal from Muppet Show look like a burnt-out jazz musician. And yet, even though Mike was giving the skins all hell, he never missed a beat. One of the best metal drummers around for sure and a great replacement for Uli Kusch.
I have to agree with you on Mike DiMeo too. It was expected that Lande’s shoes were huge to fill, but I was still holding on to a hope that DiMeo would surprise me pleasantly. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case; obviously he’s a capable vocalist, but in my opinion he failed to get the same kinda emotion and strength to the Lande-era songs as his predecessor. The band played the songs spot-on, but the vocals remained somehow flat and strained all the time. Except on the songs from their latest album – DiMeo delivered those much better than the older material, but sadly the new songs themselves aren’t nearly at the same level as the stuff they did with Lande. Nonetheless, I really like Masterplan’s first two releases, so hearing songs from them live was enjoyable. “Soulburn”, “Enlighten Me”, “Kind Hearted Light”… the setlist offered a lot of first class material. But really, the effect of Lande’s departure seems to be really big.
But on to the mighty Saxon! After a quick break the lights dimmed and the gregorian intro from “The Inner Sanctum” started to flow over the crowd gathering closer to the stage. I managed to push my way to the front just in time for the main dish of the night. With a blistering riffage by messeurs Quinn & Scarratt, the Saxon guys stormed the stage and as Biff Byford, emerging from the mists of dry-ice, shouted the first lines of “State Of Grace” in his microphone everyone in the hall knew that it would be one helluva night! You were further at the back of the hall, Ville, but I’d imagine the powerful start of the show caused an impact over there as well?
V: Yes indeed it did, the classics naturally got the warmest reception but the two new songs played right at the beginning, “State Of Grace” and “Let Me Feel Your Power” also got people to do some serious headbanging all around Tavastia. The newer stuff sounded great and even more heavier than on record, with soundmen doing a perfect job. All instruments were in balance and above it all the gargatuan voice and figure of Biff Byford dominated the proceedings. It’s amazing a guy at 56 can still sing this good, and you have to remember his voice hasn’t really changed at all during the last 25 years. In fact, close your eyes and this could have been any night in 1980 or 1982 when NWOBHM ruled the world – except that now Saxon really sound better than they did back then.
While there was some serious action going on in the back of the room too, there was still slightly more space (in the first part of the show, anyway) to enjoy good beverages while watching the gig. During the fourth song “If I Was You” i quickly sneaked to the bar and picked up more refreshments, on my way back i spotted Masterplan guitarist Roland Grapow hanging about and approached him, had a pic taken and shook hands thanking him for the gig. No time for more chatting though as i rushed back just in time for the legendary “Strong Arm Of The Law.” The athmosphere in front must have been really heating up by this point, am i right?
K: You sure are, the going in the front was getting wilder and wilder as the setlist started to unfold the classic Saxon catalogue such as “Strong Arm Of The Law”, “Motorcycle Man” and the like. To me, the real culmination point of Saxon’s metallic power came when the band kicked into “Dogs Of War” from the 90’s album of the same name. This is one of the songs that really packs an extra punch live, being performed in a heavier fashion than the album version. And if that wasn’t enough to prove Saxon was on fire, the following song – furious ” 20.000 ft” – sure did the job. Just before the gig we were talking about how cool it would be to hear this song, but wondered if the band could still pull it off on stage. And indeed they did. A blistering peformance that really shook the crowd crazy.
Soon after that “Solid Ball Of Rock” and “Are We Travellers In Time” followed, but towards the end of the set Saxon moved more and more to the old hits and cuts from the new album. Band’s cornerstones such as “747 (Strangers In The Night)”, “Crusader”, “Denim And Leather” and so on were excellent as always, and the new songs fitted in between very well too. A special mention has to go to “Red Star Falling” that in it’s midtempo gave a nice change of pace to the otherwise fast rocking show. And proved out to be a strong candidate to become one of the future Saxon classics…
V: “Dogs Of War” really kicked everyone in the teeth, they had been playing “The Great White Buffalo” on previous dates from the album – which we also talked about and would have been great to hear – but switched it to title track this time around. No complaints from here, excellent song and like you said, heavy as hell. They have altered their set-list quite a lot during this tour and i personally feel this is a great thing, a lot more bands could take example and be more adventurous with their selections. If i’m not mistaken, “Dogs” was actually premiered in Helsinki so we got something special. And i red some reports that next night in Oulu they added “Never Surrender” to the set. All in all i think it was brilliant set, with something new, something old and something in-between. Yes, i would have included something from “Unleash The Beast” but with a back catalogue like Saxon’s, you simply cannot please everyone.
Personal highlights for me were “Princess Of The Night” (perfect headbanging song with killer guitar riff) “747” (this one absolutely brought the roof down, all the way to the back people were jumping and raising their fists) and “The Bands Played On”. They hadn’t played the latter on all dates previously so it was a pleasant surprise. The main set ended with “I’ve Got To Rock (To Stay Alive)” – probably my current favourite from the new album. They left the stage and returned for – yes – EIGHT encores! Awesome. One of my top-10 Saxon songs “Witchfinder General” was aired as well as couple of new cuts. Here i felt maybe it would have been wiser to switch the newer songs to earlier spot in the set and maybe just stick to classics in the end. While “Atila The Hun” is a great number, it wasn’t neccessarily the best track to open encores with. I loved hearing it and sang along but i noticed some people were not so familiar with this particular tune. However, this was a minor thing and during encores the audience was really going bonkers as the band rolled out “Wheels Of Steel” and “Heavy Metal Thunder.” Right in front of me, at least two long-haired guys leaped in the air and landed straight on their faces to the floor! Their pals came in rescue, one of them got up himself but the other was so intoxicated he couldn’t stand anymore so he was helped up and out of the room. True rock’n’roll spirit!
K: Rock’n’roll never dies, but sometimes it might pass out for a while! Heh, yeah there were a couple of fellas with a few too many drinks under their belts at the front too. No problem there, although one rather large guy was bouncing around rather uncontrollably, which caused a little pushing all around, but hell, that’s what the mosh pit’s for anyways.
Speaking about rock’n’roll spirit – Saxon guys were filled with that as well. And I’m not talking about drinks this time, but good mood and character. Most of all Biff seemed to have fun interacting with the audience. He even tried to eat the setlist at one point (!!), but spat it out claiming that he nearly choked on it. Now that’s something you don’t get to see everyday! Nibbs Carter was his usual entertaining self, flailing his bass and head around the stage like a true heavy metal maniac. The rest of the band acted a bit more calm, but their musicianship really didn’t recquire any special stage antics anyway.
So – an excellent ten out of ten heavy metal show! It’s hard to look for something they should’ve done differently. I agree with you on ”Atila The Hun” having been placed in a wrong slot of the set and Doug Scarratt’s guitar solo was also amongst the encores. Though I think it should rather have been somewhere in the main set. Also, more songs from the 90’s would’ve been great. Especially from ”Unleash The Beast,” which ranks among my favourite Saxon albums. Too bad they skipped that one. But all in all, an excellent gig! Saxon really showed their skill as brilliant live band and the good thing is they seem to alter the setlist pretty nicely all the time. So when they come to Finland next time, I’m sure to be at the front row again!
V: And so will I. The whole band really delivered the goods that night; it was also nice to see Nigel Glockler back on the drumkit after 10 year absence. He did a fine job. It is great to see the old guard still giving 100 % and more, naturally this causes some concern: how will the new bands answer to the challenge? We shall find out in time I guess but as long as bands like Saxon keep thriving on, we nothing to worry about. So when these guys are coming to a town near you, do not hesitate to go! Full proof British heavy metal by the masters of their art, what more could you ask?
• State Of Grace
• Let Me Feel Your Power
• Motorcycle Man
• If I Was You
• Strong Arm Of The Law
• Dogs Of War
• 20.000 ft
• Are We Travellers In Time
• Solid Ball Of Rock
• Power & The Glory
• To Hell And Back Again
• Red Star Falling
• Princess Of The Night
• I’ve Got To Rock (To Stay Alive)
• Atila The Hun
• Witchfinder General
• 747 (Strangers In The Night)
• And The Bands Played On
• Wheels Of Steel
• Heavy Metal Thunder
• Denim & Leather
• Ashes To Ashes