Seasoned UFO-watchers will testify that in the studio the band are enjoying a purple patch that has seen their 21st studio album, A Conspiracy Of Stars, come very close to matching their late-70s heyday.
Live – although it sounds like heresy – they’ve gone up a notch, too, since replacing the faltering Pete Way with bassist Rob De Luca. The American never once misses a beat or thinks, “I’ll just have a lie down while we do this one…”. The stability has given them confidence to write set-lists that no longer slavishly re-tread 1979’s seminal Strangers In The Night double-live – and UFO are stronger for it.
Tonight they open with We Belong To The Night (from 1982’s ‘Tonka’ Chapman era Mechanix), following it with Fight Night (Seven Deadly, 2012), Run Boy Run (from the new album) and the 1977 tour-de-force Lights Out. Then after another Conspiracy track, The Killing Kind, singer Phil Mogg hesitates. Looking down at the set-list gaffer-taped to the floor he doesn’t seem to fancy the rarely performed ballad Try Me so offers Norwich a choice: “Try Me or Love To Love?” It’s hardly a fair fight. The latter wins hands down and, after it, having gone off-piste, Mogg squints at the glass in his hand and admits to being “confused”. Ho ho ho…
Just six songs in and he’s already got the 700-strong sell-out audience in the palm of his hand – even as they tease him and, bizarrely, encourage him to drink. With the demeanour of Frankie Howerd he feigns disapproval, wisecracks and sips anyway: “Hmmm, tastes like that Italian one. They are spoiling us tonight…”. Ah, bless. If Phil Mogg didn’t exist, no one would know how to invent him…
Burn Your House Down, Only You Can Rock Me and a brilliant Venus (the stellar track from 1995’s largely lame Walk On Water) whizz by and he’s trading wisecracks again. Sometimes the gaps between songs are a bit long; the banter with the not-as-funny-as-they-think wags at the front edging proceedings towards pub gig ribaldry. But this is a first night and Mogg seems taken by surprise: “You don’t get this in Europe, you know…” Then, perhaps sensing he sounds like he’s trying to rally the UKIP vote: “I mean they don’t understand English. Er, largely.” He stops digging and – as some plonker doesn’t seem to know who guitarist Vinnie Moore is – introduces the band.
UFO always had songs, but it was a brilliant guitarist that first got them talked about. Now, closing in on 12 years in the line-up, Vinnie is probably the best – and certainly the most reliable – the band have ever had. Tonight, eyes closed in concentration, his fingers dancing, he solos like a man possessed. Ritchie Blackmore used to be like this. Vinnie is that good. And he gets the crowd to embarrass Phil by singing Happy Birthday. A day late, but yesterday the frontman had turned 67. While he may be greying and has lost a front tooth (you should see the other fella) he’s still wiry and lithe. And fronting the best classic rock band still touring.
These days it’s clubs not arenas, and the lighting rig doesn’t echo Mogg when he sings ‘misty green and blue’, but the songs are top-notch. And with Paul Raymond selflessly switching between guitar and keys, and drummer Andy Parker knocking Bonzo-sized lumps out of his kit (while dodging rubber ducks juggled by the roadies) the fact is inescapable: this is UFO as you want them to sound. National treasures.