Review by Paddy Gallagher for MPM
A Saturday night in Belfast, the splendid setting of the Ulster Hall, and by the laws of averages no work in the morning for the majority of attendees all amounts to a good night on the town.
Add in to the equation that the music is provided by NWOBHM legends the mighty Saxon, their 2-hour set jam packed with new and old classics, all consistently excellent tunes, and you have one of the nights of the year and we’re only at the start of March.
This was a night many travelled for, some devotees travelling by plane from Scotland, England the display of “the red dragon” signifying the presence of Welsh fans. Indeed, it was a gig waited on for a few years, Saxon’s return to the island delayed by the pandemic and health issues for Biff Byford, but here we are in the sold-out Ulster Hall in our denim and leather having what can only be described as the night of our lives.
Pre-gig pints were had in a jammed Katy’s Bar with friends old and new meeting up and swapping stories, enjoying a few refreshments and excitedly chatting about Rock’n’Metal, having such a great time that the early evening flew in. So, it was out the door of Katy’s, turning right along Ormeau Avenue and up Bedford Street we went, although some took the “scenic” route up Linenhall Street and along Clarence Street just for the craic!
In we went to the foyer area of the venue and as is customary, a perusal of the merch stall; as I always try to interject, if you can afford it buy official merch here at the stall, the prices of merch may have increased a bit but so has putting on tours. Bands must pay the bills and eat too!!
Saxon took the stage at bang on 8:45 as published launching in to “Carpe Diem” the title of their latest studio album.
Everyone goes fists in air, headbanging crazy, loopy big grins on faces. Next, we go back over 40 years to the “Wheels of Steel” album for “Motorcycle Man” and its ode to the motorcycling life. “Age of Steam” from “Carpe Diem” comes next followed by “Never Surrender” and “Dambusters” these first 5 songs following a new song / old classic alternating pattern, proof positive of the depth of quality in Saxon’s armoury of music. Not a lesser quality song among them, the new ones standing shoulder to shoulder with the classics.
Next up we have “Dallas 1pm”, the familiar bass/drums intro setting the pace before the iconic riffs that everyone knows build towards the first verse. “Heavy Metal Thunder” and “Metal Head” gets all the Metalheads present fist pumping the air to true Heavy Metal thunder.
The feel-good factor was present in abundance, the night encapsulating the beauty of our music and the question posed: why aren’t Saxon huge? Why aren’t they headlining arenas etc? If there was any justice, they would be. Their body of work for over 40 years is consistently superb!
The setlist tonight takes us on a musical journey through the ages, all the expected classics are there, “Crusader”, “The Eagle Has Landed” and on to the close out numbers of the main set “And the Bands Played On” a song about the first Monsters of Rock Festival at Donington and “Wheels of Steel” during which Biff takes his traditional video of the crowd.
A well-deserved couple of minutes break for the lads on stage and they re-emerge to play a massive 6 song encore starting with “The Pilgrimage” off “Carpe Diem” and its atmospheric feels before “The Strong Arm Of The Law” and “Solid Ball of Rock” lead us to the sounds of an airplane, in fact a Boeing 747.
The consistently high quality of Saxon’s catalogue, how no matter what era they delve into when constructing setlists oozes quality, there is no drop in standards during the night where a quick pee could be got without rushing back as fast as you could lest you miss something. Remember those pre-gig pints? Well in our group, we are all by far in our 50’s, bar one or two young pups.
Being of such a vintage we could personally identify with the lyrics of “Denim & Leather” when its air guitar educing riff:
“Did you read the music paper from the back and to the front
Did you find out where to see your favourite band
Did you listen to the radio every Friday night
Did you hang around your local record store”
Biff also commented on how proud their friend Steve Strange would have been tonight to see Saxon selling out the Ulster Hall citing Steve’s help to Saxon over the years in his work in the music industry. His passing in 2021 at the age of 53 puts life in perspective, “seize the day”.
It’s great to see Saxon playing sold out shows in larger venues than some previous tours, the energy of the band and the solid tight performance over the 2-hour set leaving us marvelling at how they physically can do it night after night on tour when 3 of the band are in their 70’s. It must be the feeling, the buzz of playing quality music among friends knowing they are responsible for quality music that has touched the lives of so many.
Long may it continue and long may the band play on……