Saxon & Armored Saint Live at The Rock Bar!

Saxon with Armored Saint
The Rock Bar, San Jose CA
May 29, 2015

By Dan Wall

Saxon Set List:
Motorcycle Man, Sacrifice, The Power and the Glory, And the Bands Played On, To Hell and Back Again, Solid Ball of Rock, This Town Rocks, Dallas 1 p.m., 20,000 Feet, The Eagle Has Landed, Princess of the Night, 747(Strangers in the Night), Crusader, Heavy Metal Thunder. Encore: Wheels of Steel, Denim and Leather. 90 minutes.

Armored Saint Set List:
Win Hands Down, March of the Saint, Nervous Man, Paydirt, Last Train Home, Raising Fear, Mess, Chemical Euphoria, Left Hook from Right Field, Aftermath, Can You Deliver, Reign of Fire, Madhouse. 75 minutes.

Most heavy metal fans have heard of Saxon and Armored Saint, but you’d be hard pressed to identify any of the band members unless one was sitting at the kitchen table with you eating Corn Flakes. Lead vocalist Biff Byford is the most recognizable Saxon member, and the group did gain a small bit of recognition by appearing on an English reality show called Get Your Act Together, but for most of its career, Saxon has been big in the U.K., bigger in Europe and an underdog in the states.

The same could be said for the Saint, although on a smaller level. It usually takes a description of the band’s first album cover, with the whole group decked out in armor, or a reminder that lead vocalist John Bush was in Anthrax for 13 years (from 1992-2005) to finally get a nod of acceptance from the uneducated.

It’s too bad, but the reasons these two acts are currently playing small clubs in the U.S. and not arenas is the same list of problems most bands that get mentioned in stories like this have suffered with-bad deals, a tweak to its sound, the wrong tour and personnel problems (in the Saint’s case, the death of a beloved band member). If you need further proof of either bands prowess on a bigger stage, just check out YouTube-there are plenty of full live shows of Saxon headlining Wacken or any other huge European metal fest, with a full stage, pyro and a lighting rig that makes the band look as big as Judas Priest of Iron Maiden. Armored Saint can be seen in these same shows, usually as a special guest, but still rocking thousands of metal heads who know the words to every song.

So now that we’ve established the fact that both of these bands should be bigger and better known, let’s talk about each band in 2015. Amazingly, both are just good as ever, and you’d be hard pressed to figure out that just about all of these guys are over 50, with the Saxon guys rapidly (or already reaching) the age of 60. Sure, the lines are starting to appear on the faces, grey hair is predominant (if there is any hair at all) and no one is jumping off the p.a. anymore, but both Saxon and Armored Saint can still deliver one helluva rock show.

Saxon has appeared in the states three times in the last five years (a record pace, for sure), but this was easily the best show of the bunch. It was probably the best show I’ve seen the band do live, and for once it really felt like everyone assembled was there to see these two great bands and not just out for a night away from the wife and kids. T-shirts sold briskly, the local metal community was out in force, and during Saxon’s set, it was so loud, due to the sheer volume of the music and the pumped-up crowd singing every song like a schoolgirl, that it was a bit overwhelming.

During a career that features 20 studio albums (21 is on the way), they are sure to be a few stinkers, but in reality Saxon has been churning out quality metal since 1979.Vocalist Byford and guitarist Paul Quinn were part of the original band, while guitarist Doug Scarrett, bassist Nibbs Carter and drummer Nigel Glockler help make-up the best version of the band since the group’s classic days back in the early 1980’s.

The band’s current set is a celebratory run through the group’s best songs, 16 metal classics that all feature the Saxon sound- the New Wave of British Heavy Metal template that features a bit of Sabbath, a touch Priest, seasoning by Maiden and Lizzy, and a few nods to America, while never straying too far from the Motorhead (close friends of Saxon, by the way) locomotive roll.

While watching the band perform live, it’s easy to notice that Byford runs the show and the others do their best to stay out of the way. Easy going and charming, Byford keeps the party rolling with his easy humor, while pulling off the metal god vocalist stuff with ease. The rest of the quintet is as solid as they come, with Carter’s solid thump, Glockler’s thunderous rolls and the guitar duo of Scarrett and Quinn doing their best to replicate the best metal guitarists in the biz. The other stars of the show are the songs, and on this night, “Denim and Leather,” “Princess of the Night, “The Power and the Glory” and “Wheels of Steel” was the highlights of the lengthy set.

Armored Saint’s story is similar, but this band has had a way tougher go off it than Saxon ever did. Signed to Chrysalis Records, the group debuted with the classic “March of the Saint” album in 1984, when the Saint’s kind of power metal (big riffs, mind bending solos, huge war cry melodies) was getting a push here in the States, but for whatever reason (the armor “angle,” bad publicity, the wrong record label), the group was never able to secure that big tour that might have sent it over the top. Subsequent releases were just as good as the first record, but the band’s position in the metal world would never reach the level predicted for it, and the group’s future really looked bleak when original guitarist Dave Prichard died during the recording of the Saint’s epic fifth record, “Symbol of Salvation.”

The loss of an integral member might have brought most bands to its knees, especially one struggling for acceptance like the Saint. But the tension and emotion from Prichard’s death only made Symbol a better record, and one that is on many metal fan’s Top 10 Best Records That You’ve Never Heard lists. Unfortunately, not even that record could get the band the crowd it needed and wanted, and Bush exited to join Anthrax a year later.

Back together in 2000, the band made another brilliant record (Revelation), as Bush did double duty in both of his bands, but despite the Saint’s core crowd showing up, most of the fans had either grown old or changed allegiances, and the boys were left battling for tour spots with newer, bigger bands with bigger (re: younger) fan bases, and by now you can probably figure that stardom was just not in the cards for these guys.

It probably never will be, unfortunately, but that doesn’t mean the group has slowed down at all. With a brilliant new record, “Win Hands Down,” just released and a ferocious live act ready to burn after this short run with Saxon, things are looking up for this L.A. based metal machine-finally.

Bush is one the best metal singers on the planet, his throaty growl in full flight on this night. His longtime partner in crime, bassist Joey Vera (who has also played with Fates Warning, and did a short stint with Bush in Anthrax) holds down one of metal’s tightest rhythm sections with drummer Gonzo. Guitarist Jeff Duncan (who replaced Prichard, and a member of L.A.’s Odin back in the day) and Phil Sandoval (Gonzo’s brother, and an original member who rejoined in 1991) play riffs as tight as Tipton and Downing and solo in tandem like Gorham and Robertson (true metal guitar fans know who I’m talking about here).

The group has at least five songs (“March of the Saint,” “Can You Deliver,” “Aftermath,” “Chemical Euphoria,” “Reign of Fire”) in its repertoire that deserve to be metal standards, and the rest of the 13-song set featured nothing but solid heavy metal, played loud and proud by five guys that I am happy to call my friends.

It’s becoming quite obvious by talking to young metal fans at recent shows that most are fed up with the current music scene, and have been revisiting their fathers or older brothers record collections to find good music. The collection of fans at this show ran the gamut of young and old, and that can only be good news for bands like Saxon and Armored Saint, who are always looking to expand on their respective fan bases. If this show didn’t give the newbies a reason to keep coming back to see classic metal live, nothing will.