I’ve written and eulogised about UFO plenty of times before in these pages. Frontman Phil Mogg publicly stated that this tour would be his final fling; “this decision has been a long time coming. I've considered stepping down at the end of UFO's previous two tours. I don't want to call this a farewell tour as I hate that word, but next year's gigs will represent my final tap-dancing appearances with the band." Well, celebrating 50 years as a band isn’t a bad way to finish, especially if you ignore the rather dodgy years from 1985 – 1995 when Mogg was the only consistent member. With the line-up having been solid for the past ten years and the core of the band cemented for over 15 years, this is as good a band as the classic line-up of Mogg, Schenker, Way and Parker who carved their way into hard rock history in the 1970s. Tickets were duly purchased for two of their farewell shows, and I braced for nights of high emotion. I wasn’t disappointed. If these were to be their final performances in Bristol and Cardiff, the band certainly went out on a high with two massively impressive performances.
I reflected in my review of the band’s 2016 gig at The Tramshed in Cardiff that UFO have a habit of picking poor supports for their tours. St Petersburg’s Red’s Cool (remember them? – of course not) and the slightly better Greek outfit 4Bitten (nope, can’t say that they have reappeared since their 2013 support slot) are two of the recent choices. Having read Matt’s recent review of Tara Lynch’s Evil Enough and given it a couple of spins in the days leading up to the Bristol gig I was hopeful that UFO may have picked a winner at last in their selection of a warm up act. In Bristol I arrived earlier than intended; disappointing indeed, given that the O2 Academy Bristol is one of the worst venues in the UK. With the gig sold out in all but name, it was another night in a venue filled way above capacity, and as usual people pushing their way through the crowd with double cups of beer overflowing, squeezing into non-existent spaces with no concept of spatial awareness and as usual for many, the frustrated disappointment of poor sight lines that the venue manages to deliver from nearly every angle. Meanwhile in Cardiff, which was formally sold out, early arrival offered sanctuary on the balcony and a view above the heaving mass below. Neither venue is a comfortable experience when full. [It was notable that at Cardiff one large punter took a turn for the worse midway through UFO’s set – fingers crossed it wasn’t his last orders but if so, what a way to go!]
Onto the single support. Californian guitarist Tara Lynch (5) and her band initially held the attention for the 40-minute set she delivered but disappointingly this didn’t last. The partisan Bristolian crowd, who sang along with gusto to intro track Since You’ve Been Gone, were reduced to polite applause by the end of this set. An even more reserved response arrived in Cardiff. Lynch opened with a smoking instrumental, designed to highlight the Californian’s fretboard prowess. There’s no doubting Lynch’s talent, she is a multi-instrumentalist and has been schooled by Steve Vai and Derek Sherinian amongst others and got a multitude of celebrities to contribute to the album, but live, god is it dull.
Looking more like a country singer with her coloured tousled hair and long leather jacket, Lynch’s guitar playing was fluid, easy and impressive whilst her smoky soulful vocals recall a rockier Beth Hart and shades of the great Pat Benatar. Accompanied by a totally anonymous backing band who remained glued to their spots throughout the set, Lynch played several tracks from Evil Enough, including the terribly named Kringeworthy, which has one of the worst choruses in living memory, along with another two more instrumentals, Gui-tara Rises and Feckless Lock before concluding the evening with Antidote. Whilst on record the music sounds reasonable, live it was soulless, and at times just leaden. Some clunky changes between songs didn’t help and at both venues large section of the audience began their conversations long before the break, the fare on offer insufficient to maintain their interest. Despite hoping that her performance would be better in Cardiff than it was in Bristol, it was if anything, even flatter, which was disappointing given that the band were by now well into the tour. Whilst it wasn’t helped by a muddy mix, the second viewing confirmed that being a flashy guitar player isn’t enough; you need the songs and a bigger presence on stage which was sadly lacking on both shows.
If you want a band with the songs and the presence, then you could not find better than UFO (9) who hit the stage both evenings to a heroic welcome. Live, the band are totally engaging, with Phil Mogg continuing to remind you of the eccentric uncle who turns up for Christmas dinner with a load of historic tales about family you’ve never met, before drinking all the whiskey and buggering off late in the day. He was fabulously dapper on both evenings, his dark check shirt accentuated by a set of tan braces in Bristol, whilst in Cardiff he opted for a simple black shirt and waistcoat, complete with watch chain. Mogg’s on-stage patter is legendary, his comments naturally funny, whilst he regularly supped his drink between songs with an ease which marks his veteran of the music scene and thousands of concerts across the world. His voice remains remarkable for someone now entering his eighth decade and whilst he might not possess the soaring power from Strangers In The Night, he ensures that his pitch allows all the classics to be delivered without a complaint.
The set list varied little from Bristol to Cardiff, both evenings opening with Mother Mary before segueing straight into two scorching versions of We Belong To The Night, the sole offering from Mechanix. For a 50th anniversary, picking a more career representative set list would have been welcome but with 22 albums to choose material from, playing it safe was probably the right option. There was a nod to more recent output with Run Boy Run and Messiah Of Love from A Conspiracy Of Stars and Burn Your House Down from 2012’s Seven Deadly as well as Baby Blue from 2004’s You Are Here. Cardiff was treated to Makin’ Moves from The Wild, The Willing And The Innocent instead of Messiah Of Love in Bristol. Disappointingly we didn’t get Let It Roll on either night. BOOOO!! Of course, this is UFO and they know how to please a crowd, the bulk of the set stuffed with a fistful of reliable classics from the back catalogue.
Now, don’t get me wrong for one minute. I was singing along to Lights Out, Only You Can Rock Me and Cherry and loved every minute of each of the sets. But to labour my point, and indulge me for a minute, their 50th anniversary might just have encouraged the band to dig a bit deeper. Eight of the tracks played are immortalised on Strangers In The Night, and whilst the band have to play Rock Bottom and Doctor Doctor, a few changes to the set would have been welcomed, even if only by me! I’m not asking for a 26-minute version of Flyingor The Coming Of Prince Kajuku, but swap a couple for I’m A Loser or even Just Another Suicide if you want to stay retro. Personally, a couple more from the recent albums would have been just as welcome.
Still, with the greatest hits set cemented in place, UFO delivered the goods with their usual confident style (and having been playing these same songs for so long it was unsurprising). Drummer Andy Parker batters his drums so hard; bassist Rob De Luca, fantastically decked out in a velour suit of dubious colouring lays down the bass lines in a way Pete Way managed all those years ago alongside rhythm guitarist/keyboardist Paul Raymond (stunningly good at 73 years of age) and the three of them provided a rock solid platform for youngster Vinnie Moore to once more deliver his tribute to Michael Schenker in his own stunning fashion. His solos on all the UFO songs have evolved organically over the years, and he is no longer trying to match Metal Mickey’s perfect delivery but adds his own feel to it. Massively talented, one wonders what Moore will do after UFO but he won’t be short of offers. Lights Out was moved up the set list in Cardiff and ignited an even higher level of frenzied air guitar than it did a few nights before across the bridge.
Full marks as well to Mogg for his “lights out in Cardiff” line, causing much appreciation from the packed Welsh crowd. Love To Love from Lights Out, Only You Can Rock Me and a massive Too Hot To Handle caused grown men to lose it at both venues before Rock Bottom, complete with Moore’s masterful solo which drew sharp intakes of breath at the sheer sublime quality brought the main set to an end. With the band a little sharper and into their stride after a few dates, the Cardiff date just edged it in terms of atmosphere and performance but there wasn’t much to separate each evening. The inevitable Doctor Doctor and Shoot Shoot brought two fantastic evenings to an end. Getting what is likely to be my final fill of one of my all-time favourite bands was an absolute joy, a band whose name should be treasured in the halls of Great British classic hard rock for all time.