One wonders if B.B. King could predict the kind of talent that would hold court in his subterranean blues club in the heart of New York’s midtown. Classic Howling Wolf honks back at the traffic beneath the marquee, and the lobby is lined with posters advertising roots rock revival shows.
Even the faces mingling in the neon sunrise of Times Square at twilight seem par for the club: middle-aged and neatly groomed for a night of sit-down music. But they tell a different story from the neck down: black tee shirts emblazoned with the red, white, and blue skewed letters UFO.
There is an unspoken truth that the volume of any given concert is directly proportional to the amount of black worn by its patrons. While performances of classical music are the clear exceptions, it’s clear there will be no string sections on stage tonight. England’s own arena rock godfathers UFO have landed and their believers have turned out in droves to witness the event.
True unsung heroes of classic rock, UFO have endured and prospered for over four decades, both predating and outlasting the likes of Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. Through countless albums and line-up changes, core members Phil Mogg, Andy Parker and (more often than not) Pete Way have piped their brand of blues-rock anthems through airwaves and amphitheaters alike.
Flanked for their most recent world tour by six string sensei Vinnie Moore, touring bassist Barry Sparks and keyboard/guitar wizard Paul Raymond, the night threatened to shake the foundation of B.B. King’s like never before.
Though the lights dimmed as the theme from Peter Gunn blared from the house P.A., there was little stealth to UFO’s entrance to the stage. The nondescript faces of the crowd twisted into youthful masks of mischievous glee as the band assumed their places – Andy Parker behind his nest of drums, Vinnie Moore, Paul Raymond, and Barry Sparks all before monoliths of speaker cabinets, and Phil Mogg’s sturdy frame cocked against the mic stand.
After kicking off with the title cut from 1981’s The Wild, the Willing and the Innocent, Parker and Sparks ripped into ‘Mother Mary’ with a monster groove that swung so hard it could make Godzilla swoon, and Moore topped it off with solo that would strip off its scales. While future rock and roll archeologists may define this band as the missing link between 70’s British heavy metal and 80’s American rock, their sound remains timeless – with necessary nods to original UFO pilots Mogg and Parker. It’s commendable that having steered this band non-stop since 1969, Parker still flicked his limbs at the skins with a childish playfulness, and though Mogg’s voice has taken on a Rod Stewart-esque duskiness, he can still belt out the likes of ‘Hell Driver’ and ‘Lights Out.’
Moore, the young gun of the band, shot consistent bull’s eyes with every solo. His liquid lines on ‘Let it Roll’ broke to the charging chorus like a motor oil land slide, and his lightning modal runs played perfect counterpoint to ‘This Kid’s’ slow swagger. His solo albums are a more-than-comprehensive testament to his mastery of the instrument, but he tempers his attack with UFO well – anointing the more laid back likes of ‘Saving Me’ and ‘I’m a Loser’ with tasteful licks, and saving the burning runs for when the band can match him fire for flame.
As benign as the fans may have seemed out on the sidewalk, the performance whipped them into a frenzied spell. Every incendiary Vinnie Moore solo summoned into the air hands that curled and waved mimicking fingers, like babies grasping for a mother’s wrist. The guitar player happily obliged open palms hungry for a sacred pick. When the band played ‘Cherry’ off Let it Roll, the crowd was quick to chant along the harmonies despite some flubbed transitions from the stage. ‘We haven’t played that once since Christmas,’ Mogg apologized, ‘That shows you what happens.’ The crowd was quick to forgive him.
The fun atmosphere hung as thick on the stage as off. Mogg interspersed every song with playful banter: ‘Believe it or not, I’m a very fussy drinker,’ he admitted as he waited for the foam to subside in the plastic cup of Heineken he hastily poured himself, ‘Personally I prefer my beer to be poured from the bottom.’ ‘Too Hot to Handle’ careened into a behind-the-head duel as Moore and Sparks slung their instruments across their backs and sized each other up like battling bucks. Not only was the band all firing the same engine, but they had no trouble bringing the crowd along for the ride (though Mogg did express some confusion about a front row fan’s Kittie shirt. ‘I don’t get kitties…’ he shrugged to his band.)
After closing with ‘Doctor Doctor’ and taking a teasing break, Sparks duck-walked back onto the stage while pulsing out the eighth note groove of ‘Riders On The Storm.’ The rest of the band all-too-happily jumped in with the requisite ride splashes and sustained chords, but by the third time Mogg blindly repeated the refrain, where there should have been another verse, it was clear it wasn’t just Kittie that he didn’t get.
Every band should be so lucky to have a song like ‘Rock Bottom’ to end the night with. The room raised their final pints in a celebratory cheer and Moore tore into the song that’s been cried for all evening. After a crushing 17-song set that spanned almost two hours, they took off from the stage with an earnest thanks and a wave – UFO left in peace with the promise to return again.