Sunday, November 14, 2010

DVD Review: The Michael Schenker Group: The 30th Anniversary Concert, Live in Tokyo

Text © Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen, 2010
Images from the Internet

The Michael Schenker Group: The 30th Anniversary Concert, Live in Tokyo
Directed by Shin Yamamoto and/or Kiyoshi Iwasawas
In-akustik GmbH & Co. KG, 2010
135 minutes, USD $19.95

When ubber German metal flash guitarist Michael Schenker was in his earlier bands Scorpion and UFO during the mid- to late-1970s, well, I was listening to the polar opposite of the Ramones. His music never once came into my radar, though I was aware of the names. Those ensembles were lumped in my mind with every other metal and hair metal band, which sounded like one screechy noise to me. I was on the lo-fi with sloppy guitar groups like the Heartbreakers and much of the rest of the New York Scene. Mind you, there were some amazing guitarists back then, such as Tom Verlaine, Ross the Boss, and the underrated Howard Bowler, but it was a totally different genre (with the Dictators being the closest).

Well, it’s now 30 years after Schenker formed his Michael Schenker Group (MSG) in 1980, and this DVD is a reunion of most of his original orchestra on January 13th, 2010, held at Nakano Sun Plaza in Japan, one leg of the 5-concert series, and this is the first time I’m experiencing them.

There is no doubt about it in my mind, Schenker is a helluva guitarist, whizzing up and down the fretboard of his custom flying V guitar; as noted in the liner notes, he plays only on Dean Guitars (since 2004, he reveals in a bonus short). Though there is the occasional solo by other musicians, such as excellent bassist Neil Murray (from Whitesnake), drummer Simon Phillips (whose huge kit include a double bass and single snare) and rhythm guitarist / keyboardist Wayne Findlay (who gets short attention here), this is Schenker’s show, and the musicianship shows. There may have been dark periods of Schenker’s 55-year life (substance abuse, martial problems, poverty, etc.), but he is in fine form here, and certainly seems to be having a lot of fun, often cradling the V on his crotch as he fingers away.

The direction of the complete show, taped in HD, is strong, though the cutting at every 5 beats on average is a bit strenuous for the viewer (this one, anyway), and I found it a bit difficult to focus as much as I wanted on the musical acumen of each participant as the camera kept bouncing from one player to the next. During a solo, I like to see the work, but maybe that’s just me.

My biggest problem with the band, though, is lead vocalist Gary Barden, who has bounced in and out of the band over the years, but has been the main focus of vox in recordings. Yeah, he’s definitely a decent singer, hitting the notes and all, but his style is formulaic for the genre, and his vocals are, well, certainly not idiosyncratic. What I’m trying to say is that he doesn’t sound individualistic. When Joey Ramone sings, you know it’s him. Same with Handsome Dick Manitoba, Bon Scott, Lemmy, or Donna “She Wolf” Nasr, if one wants to be closer to the MSG genre. I will give him some nods that he certainly seems to be having a lot of fun, and that is transferred to the Japanese crowd, who often sing along en masse, and thereby to the DVD viewer. However, I should also note that the first number that really got my attention was the 10th one in, “Into the Arena,” which I realized most of the way through was an instrumental (sans Barden). Again, I am not saying Barden is a bad singer, not at all; he just doesn’t really stand out for me. But he certainly is comfortable in the role, which is reassuring on some level.

But it is important to remember that the hey-day of MSG is in the ‘80s, and some of what is now formulaic was started by them, such as taking the metal sound and adding some progressive elements to it. As part of the full concert retrospective series that the German label Inakustik has been releasing (this is the second I’ve seen), they are doing admirable work focusing on guitar-oriented music of various genres. In a similar vein, this is a showcase overview for the lengthy MSG history.

From the short (“Welcome Howl” comes in under 2 minutes) to the lengthy (“Rock Bottom” is nearly 13 minutes), there is a fine range of styles and feel, speed and tempo, covered within the framework of this 1 hour and 45 minute concert. Actually “Rock Bottom,” is one of two songs I really liked that showed up in the encores, the other being the finale “Doctor, Doctor.” “Rock” has a very long solo that varies in many ways, and “Doctor” has a good riff to it.

The audience through the whole show is very appreciative, and often sings along; Barden is happy and enjoying that he can hold out the mic and have a couple of thousand people sing the chorus, as he does often on “Doctor.”

I’m never going to be a metal head, but I can appreciate what the band is doing, and they manage it with surgical precision.

There are two extras on the DVD. The first is “The L.A. Rehearsal.” Between short bursts of them playing inside a tight-fitting studio are some band interviews which is what makes this 21 minutes-long videolog the most interesting. Schenker discusses his early years going from band to band and back for reunions, and then the varied history of MSG. Each member of this line-up gets to talk a bit, such as drummer Simon discussing how he was on only the first MSG album because he was still in the Jeff Beck Group at the time, and how bassist Neil came to play on this tour after having Whitesnake play a few times with Schenker’s bands back in the ‘70s. Even their roadie / occasional percussionist, Roberto Carrero, gets to talk about some equipment issues he’s had to solve on the road.

In the 8 minute second bonus, “Backstage Impressions,” basically a camera follows Schenker around from his arrival at the Sun Plaza, backstage, during the soundcheck, as they take their bows, his leaving the venue, and then stopping to shake hands and sign autographs for the fans waiting outside. While minor in content, it was very enjoyable to watch some snapshots of what it was like for the band.

Welcome Howl
Feels Like a Good Thing
Cry For the Nations
Let Sleeping Dogs Lie
Armed and Ready
Victim of Illusion
Are You Ready to Rock
I Want You
A Night to Remember
Into the Arena
Lost Horizons
Rock My Nights Away
On and On
Attack of the Mad Axeman
Ride On My Way
Rock Bottom
Second encore
Dance Lady Gipsy
Doctor, Doctor

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