Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Saxon Live In Waterloo

Live At Spicoli's, Waterloo, Iowa
September 24, 2013

“Who’s up next?” I asked the twenty-something gentleman at the door of the Spicoli’s, a fairly innocuous club off of the main drag in Waterloo. My friend and I had rolled into town about quarter hour before, preparing for the show by hanging out in the parking lot of the venue. The crowd looked pretty good for a Tuesday night judging by the number of cars outside, but it also looked like people were leaving at a rapid rate, compared to the ones who were staying.

The line-up included a pair of local openers as well as Fozzy, a metal band fronted by WWE wrestler Chris Jericho. I’ve never heard the band before, but I had heard of them.

I just never felt the need to explore a band that was fronted by a WWE wrestler, aside from the Honky Tonk Man’s entrance theme from Piledriver: The Wrestling Album 2.

The news about Jericho was interesting to my son, who is currently grounded from watching WWE wrestling because he liked to emulate the wrestlers, trying out moves on his 6 year old sister.

At first, the boy pretended that he wasn’t all that interested in the fact that I would be checking out Jericho’s band, explaining that he wasn’t a fan of the wrestler. Evidently, Jericho is a heel in his latest WWE incarnation, and my son takes such matters seriously. He hasn’t yet developed an appreciation for wrestling heels and he follows pretty close to what the script writers have laid out for him. 

As a result, when I attempted to rub in the fact that I was seeing a show featuring Fozzy was met with his ambivalence. That is, until it was time for my friend and I to leave for the show, then he went upstairs to look for things that he could get me to have Jericho sign. He didn’t completely understand how things like this work, wrongly assuming that I’d be in a position to bring in a shitload of stuff into a rock club, corner the lead singer of the band that was performing at the club so that he could sign my son’s garbage.

He also wrongly assumed that I would even devote a modicum of time to do such bidding.
I was there in Waterloo on a Tuesday night to see Saxton, one of the bands of the original New Wave of British Heavy Metal that’s still going at it, albeit in a somewhat different line-up than the one responsible for their most notable records.

It wasn’t a situation where my friend and I were opposed to seeing Fozzy or any other of the opening acts. We just weren’t concerned with making sure we arrived in time to see them.

But I knew that others would be.

Spicoli’s website was a confusing riddle, suggesting that the doors for the show would open to all ages at 7:00pm with only 21-and-older being allowed in after 10:00pm. My theory was that there would be enough underage wrestling fans like my son willing to spend $20 to be in the same room with a WWE superstar while having no interest in staying late to see Saxon.

When we arrived in Waterloo, I thought that we allowed for enough time to see Fozzy, even though I nearly blew by the place because the venue doesn’t seem to believe in signage. I triggered the anti-lock brakes when my friend yelled “There it is!” as he spotted Spicoli’s in a non-descript location and quickly made the turn into the entrance. It was in a strip mall. At the other end was a rental place. On the side facing the street advertised “For Lease” instead of something that screamed “Metal. In Here”

It was clear that we were in between bands when we parked. The doors to Spicoli’s were open and you could hear the sound of the p.a. music as you walked up. I wanted to see if we made it in time to hear Fozzy, so I asked the young man who took my twenty dollar bill.

“Saxton.” he replied, not knowing-or possibly not caring-that the “t” was silent for the dedicated group of fifty patrons that remained inside.

I didn’t bother to correct him.

Spicoli’s is a nice joint. Good layout. Plenty of space for a rock club in the Waterloo/Cedar Falls area, but it looked a bit small for someone of Saxon’s caliber, a band that still regularly performs in front of large crowds in Europe.
"We'd like to thank Fozzy Bear and Dr. Tongue for opening tonight..."

The small stage was literally covered in guitar cabinets while a tidy trap set with double kick drums was nestled in between the amplification. The heads of the bass drums featured the Saxon logo prominently in front with a smaller Fozzy logo directly underneath it. It seemed the drummers for both bands shared one kit, or at least with this date they did, an efficient decision given the small working space.

Our arrival was almost perfectly timed as a quick drink order and a jaunt around the club was all the time needed before Saxon arrived to the stage.

Only two original members remain: vocalist Biff Byford and guitarist Paul Quinn. Both men are in their early 60’s and both men continue to put in grueling schedules, the kind that includes a long list of one-nighters.

The kind that gets them into places like Waterloo, Iowa on a Tuesday night.

The other members of Saxon are by no means spring chickens, nor are they wet behind the ears. Drummer Nigel Glockler has been playing with Saxon off-and-on since the early 80’s.

Bassist Nibbs Carter has been with the band for the past 25 years and second guitarist Doug Scarratt has been on board since ’96. In other words, they may not be the original members of Saxon, but they’ve all certainly cut their teeth with the band for quite some time.

It didn’t take long before Byford acknowledged the close proximity. “Looks like we’re having an intimate gig tonight.” He observed. It was unclear if his words referenced the size of the club, or the size of the audience.

A crowd of 50 people on a Tuesday night would be a very honorable achievement for some bands, but it may have been a bit too small for Saxon’s liking. Byford again tried to play it off a bit by declaring “It doesn’t matter if we play to 100,000 people or 100…As long as we have an audience, we’ll keep playing.”

For my own selfish reasons, this was exactly the size of crowd that I was hoping for. “It’s like having Saxon play in your living room!” as my friend compared it to. Indeed, there is something appealing about having a line of Marshall amps in such a small area, but the real benefit is when the band in front of them is one of Saxon’s caliber.

It seemed that my own joy of the intimacy was shared equally by the other four dozen faithful that remained. I saw men of my age and older, including one gentlemen who obviously had issues in simply getting to the gig. His wife was there to help him to his seat, which he pulled as close to the stage as he could. Unfortunately for him, the small crowd stood directly in front of him, but by the end of the show, I noticed that he was on his feet, fist pumping in time with the rhythm while his wife helped steady him while he was upright.

There were others like him and the vast majority of them much more able-bodied and able to rock under their own power.

The only people I noticed under the age of 30 were staff, allowing those of us who were older to have the night completely to ourselves without worrying about how silly we all must have looked to the bar staff.

Whatever. It's not like they had anything of substance. I caught one bartender gleefully explaining to two patrons how his roommate likes to pee while standing down.

Back in front of the stage, a middle-aged man with long hair and glasses was a fist-pumping machine, requiring him at one point to grab hold of his glasses because he was rocking with a bit too much enthusiasm. He looked like a cross between Garth from Wayne’s World and metal filmmaker Sam Dunn and I can say without any hesitation or sarcasm that this man was my hero throughout the entire 90 minute set.

Another gentlemen in the middle of the crowd established enough space around him to air guitar for the duration. His grin was a mile wide at certain points, and his eyes were glued shut as he shredded on his make-believe Gibson. 

About a dozen or so members of the most faithful audience comprised the entire front row and sang along to every song. Not once did they leave their positions for the entire night, not even for a bathroom break for the new material.

Saxon did not disappoint. They hit every single classic song they were supposed to including the evening’s anthem “This Town Rocks” from 1983’s Power and the Glory and the title track to Denim & Leather was brought out early.

The band was chugging along by this point as the track was noticeably faster than the album version, which speaks nicely for a bunch of old farts.

By the time the band had tackled three or four songs from the setlist, Byford opened it up for requests and received an earful back. Midway through the set, Biff tore up the actual setlist from the floor, admitting “Well, looks like we won’t be needing this anymore.”

He then put the torn pieces into his mouth and pretended to eat them.

In fact, if we were to believe Byford, “This Town Rocks” hadn’t been played live in 4 years, but the band delivered the proto-thrash cliché with enough conviction to fool anybody.

The newer material sounds better live than the studio counterparts, even the songs that featured an inexplicable pre-recorded introduction. I’m sure that such decisions are pretty seamless in larger venues, but for a Tuesday night in Waterloo, Iowa, such pauses seemed silly, considering how the band had nowhere to go when the lights were cut for maximum effect.

At one point, guitarist Quinn mocked the canned introduction by acting as the crowd’s conductor during a recorded choir, pretending it was the audience singing the bit. The band would have been better served by truly leaving the script entirely and focusing on the way things were originally done back in ’76 when the band hit every small joint possible to get their name out, keeping each tune loud and uncluttered.

For the most part, that is exactly what they did.

Early in the set, Byford turned his back to the crowd and faced the drummer, shaking his now-silver mane while Doug Scarratt soloed. When the shredding was over, Biff quickly turned back to face the crowd and looked a bit startled when he faced Scarratt’s back side directly in front of him, evidently forgetting that the other musicians didn’t have far to go during their moments in the spotlight.
"We choo-choo choose you, Waterloo! Here's a song about a train!"

Bassist Carter remained a constant source of joy and enthusiasm throughout the entire performance. As the band’s youngest member at 46 years old, Nibbs wore a smile at every chance, looking like there was nowhere on Earth that he’d rather be than in Waterloo, Iowa playing with Saxon.

All band members seemed to genuinely appreciate the obvious dedication shown by the small crowd, performing a set that hinted at its spontaneity while still remaining tight and professional. What makes this point so impressive to me is, again, the fact that there’s barely an off day in their current tour schedule. They’re hitting nearly every venue that will host them regardless of size with the goal to make this jaunt as profitable as they can. And, let’s not mince words here, they’re old. I don’t think I could handle a schedule as grueling at my age, but here is a group of guys that have even a few decades on me and they’re still bashing out some pretty gnarly speed without a hint of pretention or self-pity.

They are a blue-collar band from England who understand that their line of work still requires a bit of heavy lifting, while still having enough pride to make every gig count. It was an example of self-preservation, but with a notion that they still have a few years left to correct their misguided attempts at a more commercial sound beginning with ‘85’s Innocence Is No Excuse.

From that moment on, Saxon witnessed their fan base diminish and they have been working hard ever since to regain some of those lost numbers by focusing on only the basic elements that brought them notoriety to begin with.

It must be clear to them that they’ve never reach the same levels of popularity like a few of their peers were able to achieve, but Saxon’s salt-of-the-Earth persona is a breath of fresh air in a club filled with cigarette smoke.

“There’s nowhere for us to go, so if you don’t mind, we’re just going to keep playing through.” Byford explained towards the end. “Besides, what are we supposed to do? Hide behind the amps for a few minutes and then come back on stage?”

It was a logical explanation, along the same lines as his earlier comment to everyone who kept screaming for “Princess Of The Night” to be patient. They had the song tucked in at the very end.

For those of you not familiar with the Saxon song, “Princess Of The Night,” it is not your typical heavy metal song. Its pace is quick and its riff is memorable, but what makes the song such required listening is its content.

“Princess Of The Night” is a song about a train.

Let me be blunt and say that while “Princess Of The Night” is sheer perfection in terms of heavy metal’s worth, Saxon was also capable of everything that is wrong about the genre. The band’s entire oeuvre is realistically hit or miss, but for a brief window of time, say 1980 to 1983, Saxon worked a lather-rinse-repeat formula of blue collar horsepower that endures to this day.

They spent an inordinate time gazing outside the van windows and writing about nearly every conceivable amount of transportation. So while every other metal band found solace in a lady’s bosom, bands like Saxon, Motorhead, and Maiden made records about other items of interest in a working man’s life.

For Saxon, that passion seems to lie in the manner in which we get from one place to another.

The next place for the band, by the way, was in Texas, so if anything the Waterloo date served as the gas money needed to get to Dallas with a stop at a Residence Inn along the way. They must have wanted to leave in a hurry, as the band quickly left via the “beer garden” leaving a pair of beefy bouncers to shoo away potential fans who wanted to get close to them.

Still, it was strange that the band didn’t hang for a while after the show, taking advantage of the dedicated crowd. They were loyal to the genre, sporting t-shirts for bands like Accept and Y&T-two outfits also still working the circuit-and they would have easily dug out the wallet for an autographed cd or poster. Why the band left the ‘Loo so quickly while leaving real money on the table is curious.

Again, this is hardly a complaint and I don’t feel guilty that probably the majority of patrons from that Tuesday night had come and gone before “Saxton” hit the stage. Their loss (maybe their age too, all things considered) turned out to make a more ideal setting for old farts at play. Saxon certainly deserved a larger crowd than what they received on a weeknight, but those that did make it will probably count it as a memorable encounter with a still potent old member of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.

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