It doesn't get much better than this on a scorching Saturday afternoon in France...
It’s hot. So very hot, in fact, that I’ve forgone drinking alcohol all afternoon for fear of what my wife refers to as ‘the sunstroke’; So I’ve got a clear head when the Barnsley Big Teaser himself, Biff Byford, leads his Saxon fyrd onto the stage in the blazing Hellfest sun, which is undoubtedly a good thing as, memory cells intact, I’ll be able to remember this excellent performance for years to come.
Thundering over the audience with an opening triumvirate of Battering Ram, Motorcycle Man and Sacrifice pretty much lets the crowd know what it’s in for: that’s right – an hour of unremitting heavy metal thunder from a band that, despite being forty years old would appear to be as good now – especially live – as they ever have been.
Pound for pound, with all the smoke and mirrors of a big stage production stripped away, you’d have to say that Saxon are just as good as their more illustriously-regarded fellow NWoBHM survivors like Judas Priest or, dare I say it, Iron Maiden. Biff Byford still has an incredibly powerful set of pipes, as evinced by his masterful performance of Power and the Glory, whilst Nigel Glockler’s nothing-short-of-miraculous recovery from a ruptured brain aneurysm is not much short of astounding. Tonight he doesn’t put a foot (or hand) wrong, giving the crowd a masterclass in heavy metal drumming that would leave many a younger percussionist flailing about in his stripstream on tonight’s evidence.
And let’s not forget Nibbs Carter on ever-rumbling bass, or the highly underrated axe duo of Paul Quinn and Doug Scarratt, mad men and English dogs all, and all of whom are firing on all six tonight and helping to create a glorious wall of heavy metal sound in the middle of this French field that is for this one sacred hour forever England; They simply don’t let the foot off the throat for a moment, following up PatG with the galloping Battalions of Steel, Biff sensibly changing the key for the chorus yet sacrificing no impact at all; this is followed by a little pause, allowing us all to calm down and take some fluids on board before stiffening our sinews and diving into a frantic 20,000 Feet. I’ve been watching Saxon shows for thirty years and I don’t ever remember them opening a show in such unrelentingly heavy fashion as this, but you’d have to say it works – huge crowds of dust are being kicked up by the deliriously moshing diehards at the front, whilst the rest of us are going to be paying heavily at the Chiropractors later in the week.
Dogs of War reduces the pace if not the intensity, and then that Heavy Metal Thunder I mentioned earlier rolls over the crowd, laying waste to all in it’s path.
We’ve only just reached the half way point, but several souls less hardy than I already look spent. Luckily on stage everybody’s holding up well, as Quinn and Scarrett cut swathes through the throng with their vicious axework, Byford continuing with the rabble rousing vocal gymnastics. After the blitzkrieg of the opening half of the set the band set course for home with a crowd pleasing second half; 747 (Strangers in the Night), one of metal’s great chart anthems gets things going, Carter adding some great backing vocals, the crowd going justifiably mental. They stay involved for a momentous Crusader, the entire throng doing Byford’s bidding and the band playing the song as well as I’ve heard it done since the bands ‘glory’ days. Quinn’s solo at the end is hair-raising, and it’s the highlight of the set for this reviewer.
Wheels of Steel, Denim and Leather and Princess of the Night bring us home, classics all and every one consuming the crowd in a frenzy of headbanging, fist-punching, hoarse-lunged participation. They may be justifiably classed as veterans now, but today at Hellfest saw Saxon give everyone else on the bill a lesson in heavy metal festival entertainment. Peerless stuff.
Photo courtesy of http://kigonjiro.com