The Michael Schenker Group are a band with such a complex history that their Wikipedia page has one of those colour-coded timelines to track the various line-ups through the decades. Formed by Scorpions and UFO alumnus Michael Schenker, since 1979 the group has had 14 lead singers, 11 drummers, 12 bass players, an extended hiatus, and even a name change (from Michael Schenker Group to McAuley Schenker Group from 1986 to 1993). Schenker, lead guitarist extraordinaire, has been the sole constant.
By comparison, the idea behind Michael Schenker Fest is clear and simple. Reunite ‘80s era MSG band members: bassist Chris Glen, drummer Ted McKenna, and guitarist/keyboard player Steve Mann. Bring back the three original vocalists: Gary Barden, Graham Bonnet, and Robin McAuley. Have them perform the classic hits (plus some staples from Schenker’s other projects).
But this is no cynical exercise in nostalgia. It’s a celebration. The men on stage may no longer be as young as they were when these songs were originally written and recorded, but each and every one of them seems as excited to be there as the fans who’ve packed out Shepherd’s Bush Empire on a Thursday night. And, from the opening riff of sizzling instrumental Into The Arena (off the debut MSG album), the band sound just as tight as they did 30 years ago.
Schenker (in signature sleeveless denim jacket, his sunglasses perched as ever atop a black beanie) leads from stage right, whether he’s laying down one blistering run of notes after another, high-fiving the front row or taking photos mid-solo, holding his Dean V guitar above his head, saluting the audience, or introducing the singers for their mini-sets.
First up is Barden. The band’s original vocalist, he performs five songs from their first two albums (1980’s Michael Schenker Group and the following year’s MSG), including a stomping Attack Of The Mad Axeman (complete with incendiary soloing from Schenker), pulsating Cry For The Nations, and blistering Victim Of Illusion. A frontman from the traditional school of rock, Barden is a master cheerleader who encourages audience participation throughout and leaves them fully primed for his short-term replacement.
Bonnet, who took over vocal duties for 1983’s Assault Attack LP, is a less flamboyant performer but gives his all on the marauding title track and monumental Desert Song (even when a power cut silences the final minutes). Nestled between is the demanding Dancer, which has the sharp-dressed man joined by Barden and the night’s third singer, McAuley.
The vocalist during the McAuley Schenker Group years, tonight his still-titanic voice is as integral a part to such songs as the relentless No Time For Losers, adrenalised power-ballad Love Is Not A Game, and Save Yourself, which features some of the lead guitarist’s most flamboyant, how-the-hell-does-he-do-that? playing.
Rock Bottom is another. Also sung by the leather-clad McAuley, the UFO hit that’s 100% guaranteed to whip up a crowd, its intricate, constantly morphing, lightning solo proves that Schenker’s monumental musical talents are undiminished, ending the main set on a frenzied high.
That high continues through an encore of UFO essentials including Doctor Doctor and Lights Out, which have all three lead singers trading lines and smiles as they drape their arms over each other’s shoulders. And, as they take their final bows on the overcrowded stage, their shared pride is as evident as Schenker’s, their shared joy as evident as the support act’s.
Departed, who’ve already toured with the likes of Status Quo, are clearly thrilled to be opening for rock royalty once more. And they have every right to be. With full-bore anthems like Are You Ready at their disposal, the four-piece led by singer Mark Pascall and guitarist Ben Brookland are one of the most exciting young bands on the scene. Following their tight, gut-punching set tonight it shouldn’t be long before they’re being mentioned in the same breath as Inglorious – or Schenker himself.