Blimey, there's some history here, dear reader. The first rock album I ever bought was "Crusader" by Saxon, and as a result they were also the first band I went to see, way back in 1984. The most memorable thing is the fact that my ears had that high pitched whining sound in them for a day afterwards and my neck ached for a week. I was a proper little headbanger, you see.
Fast forward twenty three years and me and Saxon are all set for an emotional reunion. Well, on my side anyway- I doubt Biff will single me out of the crowd and give me a big hug or anything. The Cardiff Coal Exchange is perhaps notable for the fact that they sell their own souvenir t-shirts, undercutting official Saxon ones by three quid, but unsurprisingly I don't see anyone wearing one in the auditorium. It's one of those all standing cattle shed type venues, but has a well raised stage area and great acoustics so is definitely on the "Good Venue" list.
Even if I hadn't done any research on Masterplan, I'd have known immediately they were German. There's just something, well, Germanic about they way they move and the music they make. The songs have plenty of chanting and the guitars are loud and proud, but for all that they fail to move me. For that matter they seem to be failing to move most of the crowd, despite the obvious passion on display. Each band member seems to be trying to out decibel the other, with drummer Mike Terrana hitting his kit like he has just found out it's shagging his girlfriend. The standout performer is ex Helloween axeman Roland Grapow, whose classically influenced solos stand at odds with the bombastic nature of the songs. It all seems like a bit of a waste of his talent to me, but then again I'm English. Maybe in Europe crowds go mental for this, but in Cardiff this Masterplan just isn't as cunning as it thinks it is.
When Saxon take the stage a little shiver tinkles up and down my spine. "State Of Grace" from the latest "The Inner Sanctum" album melts the faces of those in the front. It's been far too long. Biff is resplendent in a greatcoat that lends him a military air of authority, backed up as ever by a voice that commands your attention. To my delight, they even have a backdrop of the new album's cover, with the ludicrously phallic gravestone hanging over everyone's head like a big cock of doom. Within the band it's good to see the old familiar faces of Paul "The Mighty" Quinn and Nibbs Carter flanking Biff, whilst Nigel Glocklers drums go though the stage, into your boots and straight to your bones, such is the power. Mention must be made also of guitarist Doug Scarratt, who doesn't scrimp on the big riff and facial grimaces. Saxon are a deserved British Institution, and it's immediately evident that this isn't just metal, this is metal with a heart and soul. Lovely.
The first "oldie" aired is "Motorcycle Man", which gets all the over thirties excited and rightly so. I notice that, contrary to the Magnum gig yesterday, there's quite a few young faces here. One small chap (who is all of twelve years old) is even wearing those luminous glowstick things like he's at a carnival or something. Maybe on the next Saxon DVD they'll put the legend "Fun For All the Family" on the front. Mind you, the youngsters bang their heads like there's no tomorrow (they'll regret this, trust me), greeting last single "If I Was You" with suitable enthusiasm. Biff informs us that all proceeds from the single go to gun crime charities, and that it's still available on download sites like iTunes. If you haven't heard the new stuff yet, I suggest you give it a listen.
"Strong Arm Of The Law" wakes up anybody who might have been snoozing at the back, taking us all back in our minds as it thunders on all around us. Biff may be bereft of his Spandex and the old armadillo codpiece these days, but he still bounces like a man with springs ion his boots, whilst the rest of the band perch on monitors and throw shapes like metal bands are supposed to. After dedicating "Thin Red Line" to "All the Welsh soldiers", Biff asks us if we want a slow one or a fast one. Me and my mate try to get him to sing "Suzy Hold On", but both the band and the rest of the crowd have other ideas, ideas which take us all to "20,000 Feet" and back again.
The back catalogue is respectfully plundered tonight, with massive songs like "Never Surrender" and "Crusader" standing side by side with "Red Star Falling" and "Travellers In Time". I like the new stuff, but I'd love to see Saxon do a retro tour sometime, perhaps only playing stuff from "Innocence Is No Excuse" and earlier. Oh well, I can dream, I suppose. Mind you, I can hardly complain at hearing "Denim & Leather", "Wheels Of Fookin' Steel", "747", "Princess Of The Night" (my GOD that still rocks), "Heavy Metal Thunder" and the like. Value for money is delivered in spades tonight, as Saxon plough through a two hour set without so much as pausing for breath. Biff Byford, drenched in sweat by the end, is still a perfect metal frontman. Not just a singer, he banters with the crowd, orchestrates old school singalongs and hold things together like the pro he is.
Bands may come and bands may go, but those that stick around like Saxon are still here for a reason. At the end of a truly electrifying gig I can't peel the shit eating grin off my face, and nor do I want to. Thanks, lads.
Report & photos by Alan Holloway
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