Legendary ex-Scorpions guitarist and neo-classical metal pioneer Uli Jon Roth has never graced the Finnish soil with his presence before, but on October 31, 2016, he finally played his first show in Helsinki at Tavastia, supported by Crystal Breed and Mr. Fastfinger. To make the German guitar legend’s first visit to mainland Finland (he’d played in Mariehamn / Åland, 2 nights earlier) even more special, the show was advertised as part of the Tokyo Tapes Revisited Tour, which celebrated the classic Scorpions live album from 1978. Who could say no to an event like that?
Listen to Uli Jon Roth’s setlist here:
The night was opened by Mr. Fastfinger aka Mika Tyyskä, who was familiar to me as the man behind several animated videos Dream Theater has used on screen while playing live. Based on his background and stage name, I had expected a total shredfest, but Tyyskä and co. surprised me with how dynamic their instrumental music was. There was plenty of groove and rock in the band’s playing, and while the songs were technical, they didn’t sound merely like a music academy graduates’ finger exercises. It’s quite telling that Tyyskä described one of the songs saying, “This is what it would sound like if Eddie Van Halen and Bruce Lee had a child!” He also used various guitar effects creatively and made his axe sound like a female Japanese vocalist on the last song. Bassist Lasse Rantanen, whom Tyyskä introduced as, “The most dangerous bassist in the world,” did a lot of the talking and looked like a true rockstar with his badass beard and stage moves. There was also a little screen that showed the animated adventures of Mr. Fastfinger – during the second song there was even a Guitar Hero-like game going on. All-in-all, the 30-minute instrumental performance was very entertaining, and I’d definitely go see Mr. Fastfinger again.
Next up was Crystal Breed from Hannover. This quartet played traditional progressive rock with a hint of heaviness, flashy playing, old-school keyboards, and lots of tempo changes. While the songwriting failed to convince me, the guys surely had chops, and they were visibly having tons of fun on stage. Bassist Nico Deppisch’s playing was pretty interesting though, so I was glad he got plenty of time to shine. I also thought he looked a bit like Niclas Etelävuori of Amorphis and Martin Mendez of Opeth – long black hair and beards seem to be the norm for bassists! At the beginning of the last song, the band tried to get the crowd to sing along to a wordless melody, with guys doing the lower harmony and girls singing the higher one. The combination of a Monday night, an audience that was waiting for the headliner, and typical Finnish reservedness was, as expected, not exactly a recipe for success, but you can’t blame the Germans for a lack of effort.
At 22:45, after a 15-minute delay, the righteous star of the night, Uli Jon Roth, finally arrived, and his band started off with “All Night Long.” A few hundred spectators were present, which was a decent showing at that time of the week. I noticed a lot of Scorpions T-shirts and a surprisingly high number of young(ish) people in the audience – evidently this was not just a concert for the fogies. You can imagine my confusion when I saw the musicians of Crystal Breed (with the exception of the drummer) on stage again. I hadn’t read about them before, so I didn’t realize they were in Uli’s backing band as well. There was also a third guitarist – I thought he’d be there to keep the rhythm guitar going underneath the lead guitar harmonies, but as it soon turned out, they all played 3-part harmonies. “More is more” was clearly the motto of the night, as also proven by the loud stage volume. I was wearing earplugs so it didn’t hurt my hearing, but I could feel the sheer pressure of the sound and see a guy covering his ears at a few points. Uli’s guitar was so high in the mix that it overshadowed his voice during “Sun in My Hand,” so turning it down just a little bit would’ve done no harm.
My favorite Scorpions songs were played early on in the set: “The Sails of Charon” got people moving and clapping, and “We’ll Burn the Sky” was met with a roar of approval. “In Trance” began with a gentle intro solo, and you could just get lost in the great atmosphere. Guitarist-vocalist Niklas Turmann was certainly no Klaus Meine, and he was off-key more than once, but he harmonized nicely with keyboardist Corvin Bahn. Though the focus was on Scorpions material, Roth sneaked in a couple of songs from his solo albums: “Just Another Rainbow” and “Starlight.” Luckily they meshed well with the Scorpions tunes and didn’t disrupt the flow of the set. For a 61-year-old, Uli is still in an amazing shape as a player, and his doubleneck guitar work on “Rainbow Dream Prelude” was so effortless that it sounded like two guitarists playing at the same time.
Unfortunately, a disastrous misstep took place in the middle of “I’ve Got to Be Free”, when Roth left the stage after his solo and every other member of the band – yes, everybody! – got their own solo spot. After the first couple of solos I thought “surely they’re not going to let everybody solo for a minute, right?” but unfortunately my fear came true, and the normally concise and rocking song was watered down completely. Uli came back for “Dark Lady”, but the damage had been done already: fatigue was starting to set in and after the overblown “I’ve Got to Be Free”, I was no longer in the mood for extended soloing and jamming.
The band gathered to take a bow, but instead of exiting and making the crowd chant and clap for more, they started an encore right away. “Yellow Raven” was a great rendition, but after that, the night came to an anticlimactic end with two Jimi Hendrix covers: “All Along the Watchtower” (originally recorded by recent Nobel winner Bob Dylan) and “Little Wing.” Honestly, this is the only time I’ve ever wondered “when will this end?” while watching a headlining band’s performance. To add insult to injury, I’d seen a recent setlist from Sweden that had included a second encore that consisted of more Scorpions tunes. Apparently they were dropped in Helsinki due to the late start, considering it was past midnight already. “Pictured Life” is a favorite of mine that I would’ve loved to hear, and the omission of “Catch Your Train” must’ve been a disappointment to the guy who had kept shouting the title of that song throughout the set. Nothing against Hendrix, but I’m sure everyone would’ve preferred to hear more songs that Roth had originally co-written and recorded.
Although the stage volume was outrageous and the momentum faded towards the end, it was still a pleasure to hear 70s hard rock classics performed by the influential guitarist behind them, especially when Scorpions rarely play anything from the Roth era. As 2016 has dourly taught us, veteran rockers are a dying breed, so you should see them while you still have the chance.
Photos: Janne Puronen