Saxon – Live, w/ Sweet Savage
Ulster Hall, Belfast
Live Review and Photography by Paul Hutchings
According to Biff Byford, Saxon haven’t played Belfast since 1983. I think the great man has got his wires crossed, for Saxon, while not regular visitors to Northern Ireland, have played there a good number of times over the years. It has, however, been seven years since Biff and his band last played round the corner at the Limelight, on the ‘Battering Ram’ tour in 2016. Little wonder that this show, the band’s first time in the splendid Ulster Hall, was sold out a few days before the show.
Saxon’s show the night before in Dublin had been a frenzied affair according to social media. Heading out on the next leg of their Carpe Diem tour which they had commenced in the UK and Europe in Autumn 2022, this latest run sees the band head back to Germany for several dates before their summer festival season begins. For a band whose combined age is 329 years, they are true warriors of the road; Saxon’s work ethic is incredible.
Back in the early 1980s, a small Belfast band called Sweet Savage provided one Vivian Campbell to the world. Campbell would of course go on to join Dio for the first three albums, and then Def Leppard. Another member of Sweet Savage in the 1990s, Simon McBride, is the current guitarist of Deep Purple. But there’s a lot more to Sweet Savage than just providing the world with guitar heroes. Founding member Ray Haller remains the driving force in the band. His energy is infectious, as he powers along with driving bass lines as well taking the lead vocals. He’s joined by guitarist Phil Edgar, a staple in the band’s line-up since 2011 whilst anchoring the unit is drummer Marty McCloskey, who provided a solid platform. A spread of tracks from the band’s back catalogue including their most well-known album, “Killing Time”, the title track of course, famously covered by Metallica in 1991. New tracks from their forthcoming album ‘Bang!’ including a second ever play for new one ‘Leave Me Alone’ bode well the songs receiving a decent reception. A solid if unspectacular cover of Thin Lizzy’s ‘The Rocker’ went down well, leaving them to finish with ‘Killing Time’ and a reception that befitted their status.
With the Ulster Hall at full capacity, Saxon strode onto the stage with the confidence that only bands of their stature can demonstrate. At 72 years of age, Biff Byford is still THE frontman, striding around the stage, conserving energy where possible, but still vigorously head banging on several occasions. Saxon’s set list is drawn heavily from “Carpe Diem”, 2022’s fine release, with six tracks spread across the evening’s show. The title track is the ideal opener, and the band lace the new tracks amongst old classics. You want a Saxon setlist – this was it. 22 songs, dating back to 1980 with virtually every staple included. ‘And The Bands Played On’, ‘Dallas 1PM’, ‘Heavy Metal Thunder’ and a raucous ‘Motorcycle Man’ which comes early in the set all get the expected roars of approval.
“Carpe Diem” is over a year old, so the ‘new’ tracks are firmly established. ‘Dambusters’ gets a huge roar, whilst there are also robust versions of ‘The Age of Steam’, ‘Living on the Limit’ and ‘Black is the Night’. Older cuts like the resurrected ‘Metal Head’ earn huge reactions. The lighting is predominantly blues and reds, and one wonders by the reaction to ‘Power and the Glory’ and the overwhelming fan vote for ‘Crusader’, combined with the booing which greeted the mention of Dublin, if this is intentional. It’s always sensible to take the temperature of the audience but I may be being way too over the mark.
‘The Eagle Has Landed’ is imperious, with Nibbs Carter driving the band along with his huge bass lines. As ever, the backline of Carter and drummer Nigel Glockler are reliable, a concrete foundation for the other members of the band. It’s noticeable that Paul Quinn seems to be taking more of the rhythm work these days, although when he lets loose his guitar work is as fluid as ever. Doug Scarratt, his partner in crime, shreds with an ease that is outrageous. But it’s Biff who is the focal point for the band, his word play between songs receives cheers, as does the cheeky wag who throws his denim jacket onto the stage for Biff to sign at the end of ‘Denim and Leather’. The wag is mildly scolded by the veteran frontman before the band give it everything in the inevitable set closer. As the metal community of Belfast lose their heads for the final three minutes and ‘Princess of the Night’ shakes the Ulster Hall foundations, the promise that Biff makes that Saxon will be back seems real. With receptions like this, why the hell wouldn’t you?
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