Michael Schenker in Milwaukee, March 18, 2018 - photo by Sal Serio
Well, for a Sunday night, guitar legend Michael Schenker and band did not hold anything back for those who needed to get up early the next morning. I knew going in to this that it was a long show, but I was still unprepared for just exactly how expansive and what an incredible event the Michael Schenker Fest concert was. Any fans of Schenker’s career, especially but not exclusively the Michael Schenker Group years, should not miss this experience.
Again, it was a Sunday night in Milwaukee, and the day after Saint Paddy’s Day to boot, but there was not fatigue and hangover in the air, rather a bristling electric excitement from the moment I walked in to the ornate and welcoming lobby of the historic Pabst Theater. From the look of the audience’s black t-shirts, many longtime Schenker fans were in attendance, but quite a few younger faces were present as well. Part of that may have been the addition of local metal band Conniption as the opening performers.
A tight, confident, and extremely competent 4-piece band, Conniption used their half hour time slot to their advantage by wasting little time to “warm” up this already pretty warm crowd. A very brief melodic and quiet intro gave way to guitarist Bill House’s furious riffing on “Give Me A Chance”, and we were off to the races. Singer Michael Brigham showed an impressive range during Conniption’s 7 song set, that featured plenty of exceptional singing, and not merely a reliance upon metal-shouty screaming. In fact, the vocals were a large highlight of this set. House often took center stage though, with his long hair flying furiously to and fro and his dexterous lead guitar work getting many of the attendees in the front to fist-pump and head-bang along. By the time of the final 2 Conniption songs, “King Of The Road” and “Let The Wolf Out”, the overall energy level of the Pabst was ratcheted up about a hundred notches. I hope to catch this fantastic group again very soon.
After an under 30 minute change-over, the man himself, Michael Schenker, walked out on to the stage, unannounced, and of course with a Dean Flying V guitar around his neck. He introduced himself (we all knew who he was!), welcoming everyone to the show, and commenced to blast off in to the instrumental “Into The Arena” from the first MSG album. Right from the opening notes, Schenker was bearing down on his guitar with verve and grit, clenching his teeth and mugging for the crowd, both caught up in the excitement of the moment and knowing that the assembled faithful were about to see a mammoth concert beyond their wildest expectations.
Original MSG vocalist Gary Barden, in a dapper brimmed hat and black jacket, came out soon to lead the group on “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie” from the second MSG release, simply titled ‘MSG’. Barden claimed to have a bit of a cold but his vocals didn’t show much sign of wear. The backing band, including the MSG rhythm section of Chris Glen on bass and Ted McKenna on drums, were rock sold all night long, and considering that the performers are no longer in the youthful years, they still kicked 100% ass all night long and never once showed signs of fatigue. Additional guitarist and keyboardist Steve Mann was another wonderful addition to the line-up, and even played some of the lead guitar solos and added lots of backing vocals. Not that there was any lack of singers on this tour!
Barden led the band through five numbers of mostly MSG material, but also “Messin’ Around” from the new Michael Schenker Fest ‘Resurrection’ album, with Robin McAuley coming out at one point (I believe it was on “Cry Of The Nations”) to add some harmony and color the song with those wonderful high notes the way that only McAuley can.
Schenker mentioned that 40 years ago The Scorpions released ‘Lovedrive’ and said that he wrote the next number, but gave it to his brother Rudolph. This introduction led in to the popular instrumental “Coast To Coast”, but interestingly enough, on the record, the song is credited solely to Rudolph Schenker! “Coast To Coast” was a fired-up stomper that really got the crowd moving, and as it turned out, was the only Scorpions song performed this evening.
Next up, former Rainbow and MSG vocalist Graham Bonnet graced the stage in jeans, white button-down shirt, tie, and dark aviator style sunglasses. Leading off with “Desert Song” from 1982’s ‘Assault Attack’ album, Bonnet immediately displayed the evidence for his reputation as one of the best (yet somewhat unheralded) vocalists in rock. Bonnet also fronted the group for 5 songs, and most of Bonnet’s portion of the show was culled from ‘Assault Attack’, including that title track, which was one of the most raucous and adrenaline-soaked songs of the night, and had most of the audience singing along. “Night Moods”, one of the finest compositions on ‘Resurrection’, was performed by Bonnet with Barden & McAuley joining him for back-up harmonies.
After another instrumental, “Captain Nemo”, off of 1983’s ‘Built To Destroy’ (and which featured some tasty keyboard work by Mann), the 3rd vocalist feature of the evening began with crystal voiced Robin McAuley singing “Bad Boys” from 1989’s ‘Save Yourself’ album. Even though I readily admit to splitting hairs here, for my money, McAuley was truly the most fantastic vocalist of the evening. His ability to hit the higher notes without strain and general rock star persona really made this a fun segment of the evening’s festivities. McAuley also brought more of the ballad element to the show, and this was a nice touch, especially since this crowd was not exclusively male as one might expect for a hard rock guitarist’s concert. The 4th vocalist of the night, Doogie White, made his first appearance as a back-up singer on “Anytime”, which was introduced by McAuley as a song he had composed with Steve Mann.
After several songs featuring all of the vocalists performing together, Doogie White (who, like Bonnet, had fronted Rainbow for one album) took the spotlight to sing “Live And Let Live”. A Doogie highlight was “Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead”, which White said was the first song he had written with Schenker, and is a tribute to the late Ronnie James Dio. This was followed by “Warrior”, the first single off of ‘Resurrection’, and features all four vocalists trading off lines.
We were already well past the 2-hour point of this concert by this point, when Schenker came out for the first encore. He looked like he had not even broken a sweat yet, and was ready to go all night. Indeed, throughout the entire show, Schenker had a broad smile and appeared to be enjoying the music as much as everyone else in the Pabst. He mentioned that another release from 40 years ago was the classic live record ‘Strangers In The Night’ by UFO, and tore in to the lead guitar riffing intro to “Rock Bottom”, his signature song. “Rock Bottom” went the entire 17 minutes plus, just like on the live album, with the extended soloing and varied passages of music, some quiet, and some bombastic.
By now, we were close to the 2 and a half hour point of the show, and the lights went out again, but Schenker wasted no time to ask the crowd if they wanted more. Which, of course, we did! This led in to not one more UFO song, but four! “Doctor Doctor”, “Shoot Shoot”, “Natural Thing”, and “Lights Out” were presented like a band on fire, not at all like a band that had just wrung every last amount of energy out of themselves by playing for 150 minutes. All four vocalists took turns singing verses, and this was simply an epiphany. I was exhausted just watching these guys play all this music! All-in-all, this was a 30 song show, that never seemed to hit a lag in it’s pacing. Indeed, I recall joking with some guys in the restroom, that there wasn’t a good “bathroom song” to take a break from! This was a night I will never forget, and I’m so happy that Michael and the band brought this event out on the road for us all to enjoy.