Scout Bar, Houston, Texas
January 28, 2017
They say you always remember your first. For me, the first heavy metal band I ever saw onstage was Accept. Russian Roulette tour. June 3, 1986. Pensacola Civic Center. I have never forgotten, and Accept will always hold a place of honor in my metal heart. I’ve seen the band’s splintered factions (both the Tornillo version of Accept and U.D.O.) many times in the intervening decades, but when I heard that Udo Dirkschneider was bringing his ‘Farewell to Accept’ tour to America this winter, I knew I had to find a way to attend a show. The closest weekend gig was in Houston, Texas, 460 miles from my house. No worries. Jen I loaded up the rental car before daybreak on Saturday and hauled ass to the Lone Star State.
Scout Bar isn’t actually in Houston proper. It’s about 30 miles southeast of the city, in a town called Nassau Bay, basically right across the street from the Lyndon B. Johnson NASA Space Center. (We thought about taking a tour there, but not at the asking price of $30 apiece!) Scout Bar seems to be a haven for touring metal bands. Flyers outside the venue (located in a nondescript strip mall with scaffolding obscuring the marquee) showed that within a five-day span in late February / early March, on different nights Metal Church, Death Angel and Overkill will all play there. Wow! Lucky Houstonites. It’s a cool venue that seems to have been upgraded substantially since Jen and I last visited in May 2011 (coincidentally enough, to see Accept on the ‘Blood of the Nations’ tour the day after Herman Frank fell off the stage and punctured his lung, so the band had to perform as a four-piece). We were impressed by the joint. Clean. Well-maintained. Pleasant, courteous staff. Two full bars with a crapload of local/regional craft beers. Decent sized stage and good sightlines even from a distance. We loved everything about the place except for the drink prices. A 10-ounce pour of 8th Wonder Peanut Butter Stout (delicious, by the way) set me back $8.25, and the bottle of Lone Star (the cheapest swill in Texas) I chased it with was $5. Oh well. Fortunately, I came to rock, not drink.
I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect from Herr Dirkschneider and his soldiers tonight. Other tour stops in North America have received uniformly rave reviews, but this show came late in a grueling winter tour with 2+ hour shows every night. Specifically, tonight marked gig #17 of a 22-show North American trek (two other planned tour stops, Seattle and Vancouver, were scrubbed because of impassible road conditions). Let’s face facts: Udo is no spring chicken. He turns 65 in April, and since he tours here rarely these days he’s not accustomed to these long drives between gigs or the small, amenity-free clubs in America. Nonetheless, I seized my spot up against the barricade and waited for the lights to go down. By the time Dirkschneider took the stage at precisely 10:00 p.m., there was a respectable crowd (mostly greybeards like me – where were the 20-somethings?) assembled at Scout Bar. It was hard to tell, but I’d guess around 200 people. (One such person was Helstar frontman James Rivera. I didn’t see him, but Jen – who was proudly wearing her Helstar shirt in honor of her favorite Houston band – went to the bar to get a glass of water during the Dirkschneider set, and bumped into the Mexican Dio, who of course had a big hug and kind words for her as he always does. He wished her happy new year, haha.) The stage setup was actually pretty fantastic. Scout Bar’s stage isn’t huge, but the headliners made a remarkably efficient use of the available space. No cabinets or heads lining the back of the stage. No wedge monitors up front. Instead, Dirkschneider presented a clean stage, with amps piled on either side in the wings of the stage, facing the band rather than the crowd. The result was that, even right upfront where I was, the sound was full, clear and balanced, with lead vocals, backing vocals, and both guitars cutting through the mix effortlessly. Gotta love that precision German engineering. There was also a huge gray camouflage Dirkschneider banner covering the entire back wall (and then some), plus gray camouflage cloths on the sides. The stage looked like a box, uncluttered and aesthetically pleasing. Add in some simple but cool lighting effects and the stage looked great the whole night.
It’s difficult to put into words what it was like to experience Dirkschneider’s 130-minute headlining set tonight. Oh, I can tell you what it sounded like. That’s easy. Just listen to the Dirkschneider ‘Live – Back to the Roots’ double-CD that AFM Records released late last year, and you’ll have pretty much the entire Houston show. All 24 songs (plus the cool intro) from the live album were played in order tonight, and pretty much exactly the same way (even down to the playful interplay between Udo and guitarist Andrey Smirnov at the end of final encore “Burning”), the major exception being that Udo was speaking English in between songs, rather than German. (Love the man’s stage raps, by the way. Short, simple, to the point, but heartfelt. “What can I say, Houston? You’re a fucking great audience.”). But to say the gig sounded like the album would be to sell the experience short. Way short.
There was something magical in the air at Scout Bar tonight. Up onstage, the aging warrior, Udo Dirkschneider, still decked out in U.S. Army surplus fatigues, studded fingerless leather gloves, and combat boots like it was 1984, was pouring his heart into every one of these classic Accept songs. He looked tired and seemed winded at times, but he kept on, pointing, making silly faces, and making eye contact with punters like me upfront and only rarely going offstage during instrumental sections. Udo’s voice sounded, if anything, better than on that recent live album. Time has not robbed the man of his commanding gravelly shout. He can still hit the notes, even the piercing scream at the beginning of “Fast as a Shark.” For all intents and purposes, Udo’s voice sounds like it did when Accept recorded the ‘Balls to the Wall’ record. Amazing. I only heard him flub two lines (coming in too early with the chorus on “Breaker” after the first verse, and beginning “Monsterman” with the second verse instead of the first); otherwise, the man was on point all night long. He seemed genuinely touched by the enthusiastic “OOH-DOH, OOH-DOH” chants that broke out from time to time. And he seemed to be having a good time, not just going through the motions for a paycheck. Udo even offered a tired but sly smirk after “Balls to the Wall,” when he asked, “Do you still want more? Okay, we have one more song for you.”
The band may be named after the little general, but there’s a lot more to Dirkschneider than their namesake vocalist. To be honest, I was a bit leery of what it would be like to see all of these legendary Accept songs performed live without the familiar faces of Wolf Hoffmann and Peter Baltes onstage. Well, no disrespect to either of those gents (whom I hold in the highest esteem), but I didn’t miss them tonight. Udo’s backing band is fantastic. The guitar tandem of Russian-born Andrey Smirnov and Finnish shredder Kasperi Heikkinen (ex-Amberian Dawn) handled the guitar parts magnificently. No, they didn’t copy Wolf’s solos note for note, but the familiar, expected melodic elements were there, and the guys added their own flair. The bare-chested, leather-vest-clad Smirnov (who handled the bulk of the solos), in particular, is a full-blown guitar hero in his own right. It was a pleasure to watch him work, taking over the front of the stage with a big smile as he coaxed mighty licks from his zebra-striped axe. The black-haired Heikkinen is certainly no slouch either, and they have great chemistry, complementing each other’s styles and work beautifully. Of equal importance, Smirnov and Heikkinen (who are both in their 30s) inject a massive dose of energy to the proceedings. They smiled easily, joked and bounced around the stage at will, and interacted with the front rows of people. They looked to be having a ball up there.
Then there’s longstanding bassist Fitty Wienhold, who’s been with U.D.O. since the ‘Solid’ album in 1997. At 60 years of age, Fitty is not much younger than Udo himself; however, the man definitely holds up his end of the deal, rocks hard, and seemed especially to relish his solo spot at the beginning of “Head Over Heels.” Behind the drums is Udo’s son Sven Dirkschneider. The heavyset Sven, who is in his 30s like the guitarists, is quite a solid drummer. I really enjoyed watching him play. He hits hard, he seems really into the songs (often singing along even when his adjustable microphone was not beside him), and he even adds some visuals with his stick-twirling and so on.
Those old enough to remember (i.e., most of the patrons in the Scout Bar) will recall that Accept’s 80s live performances really stressed the choreography, the synchronized stage moves, even more so than the Wolf/Peter incarnation of the band does today. Well, the Dirkschneider band brought those elements to the performance as well. There were sections where the axemen would raise their guitars skyward in unison, where the four mobile members would join up at the front of the stage, where they would do synchronized headbanging and so on. Even something simple like during “Starlight” where Fitty, Andrey and Kasperi all stood at the back of the stage during the verses, leaving Udo up front alone, then moved up together for the chorus, then moved back to the back of stage together for the next verse, and so on, ended up being a really cool effect. My point, I guess, is that the old-school true metal spirit shone through not only in the songs played but how they were presented. An enduring image of the night is Udo standing alongside Smirnov while the latter ripped through a scorching lead, with Udo’s arm draped over his shoulder and making some kind of goofy face. This happened repeatedly.
The gig was simply glorious from beginning to end. As the band played on from one killer song to the next, I leaned over the front of the barricade, rocking out, singing at the top of my lungs and headbanging myself into oblivion. By the time they got to “Midnight Mover” and “Breaker,” not even 30 minutes into the set, I was drenched with sweat. I loved hearing the hits, sure, but it was especially powerful to witness live versions of some of the deeper cuts, like “Wrong is Right” or “Flash Rockin’ Man” or “T.V. War” (which I had only heard live one other time, as the first song of Accept’s set back in June of ’86) or even “Winterdreams,” which gave the band a much-needed breather. The set was paced very well too, with six high-energy rockets out of the chute, then four moodier songs to let everyone’s heart rates slow down, then back to the mayhem. Whoever’s idea it was to make “Losers and Winners” close out the regular set deserves a freakin’ medal, as that song rules. The whole set ruled, really (well, except for “Screaming for a Love Bite,” which I always thought was a wimpy stab at airplay back in the day). When the gig finally ended, Smirnov handed me his show pick and Heikkinen placed a pick in my hand too. Thanks, guys! Udo gave me a fist bump with his black fingerless gloved fist, and the night was over.
They say you always remember your last. I hope and pray that this isn’t the last time I see Udo Dirkschneider and his band onstage. If there is a next time, it will of course be different, since by then this magnificent ‘Farewell to Accept’ run will be over and they’ll be back to playing U.D.O. songs. That’s not a bad thing, of course. But I’m realistic enough to know there may not be a next time. Should I never have occasion to see Herr Dirkschneider play another gig, I will always be thankful and will always remember that winter’s night in Houston when everything was magic one last time.
Setlist: Starlight, Living for Tonite, Flash Rockin’ Man, London Leatherboys, Midnight Mover, Breaker, Head Over Heels, Neon Nights, Princess of the Dawn, Winterdreams, Restless and Wild, Son of a Bitch, Up to the Limit, Wrong is Right, Midnight Highway, Screaming for a Love Bite, Monsterman, T.V. War, Losers and Winners. Encore: Metal Heart, I’m a Rebel, Fast as a Shark, Balls to the Wall, Burning.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~