On Tour With   

On tour with the Scorpions

Farewell tour? My arse!

Dates : 19 – 22 May 2010
Lieux : Paris (Olympia) – Liévin (Covered Stadium) – Strasbourg (Zénith)

Inspired by a certain slogan of a certain brand, Radio Metal took the road last May to carry out a 2-in-1 report. Because squatting the backstage together with Karelia also allowed yours truly (and his pretentiousness) to follow the Scorpions… Features: backstage anecdotes, private parties as well as strange revelations on Rudolf Schenker’s eating habits.

The Aperitif:

Family picture

Paradoxically, the afternoons dedicated to the preparation of the night’s concert are as boring as they are stressing. When the sound check does not have to be done in a hurry, one has to find a way to kill time – that leaves the brain « carte blanche » to develop apprehension and knots in the stomach. Being an established band and being supported by a significant amount of staff assuring that the conditions will be optimal helps to let loose part of this stress. During the afternoon, it’s « chill out time ». We thus only rarely see the Scorpions out of their individual dressing rooms (that’s what success also is…). They probably use the time to recover from the trip – a rare luxury which can only be enjoyed when a certain level of fame has been reached.

Rudolf Schenker, world-record in the feeding category

When they finally show up, they politely accept to chat a little or to pose for fans photos. Which confirms our first impressions on Matthias Jabs (guitar) and James Kottak (drums) whom we had previously met for an interview. With any other band, we would feel like we’re disturbing them, or that they’re totally indifferent. Their love and respect for the fan is real. It is however obvious that they want to pace themselves, and, spontaneously, the fan prefers not to insist. Klaus Meine (vocals) looks tired, Matthias Jabs and Rudolf Schenker (guitar) only show up for lunch. In this respect, this report allows us to confirm a rumour on the improbable speed with which Rudolf Schenker eats: yes, this guy really eats in 2 minutes, flat.

James Kottak observes the sound check

Unlike the others, James Kottak is much more accessible, since he is incapable of staying still. He observes the crew when they assemble the stage, watches his drums technician doing the sound check, and wanders here and there. Pawel Maciwoda (bass), the last arrived in the band (2004) is also easier to catch. At the sight of the polite, almost hierarchical « hello » that Matthias and him exchange, it is easy to guess that his relation to the other members of the band is more distant and professional than friendly – which does not show at all when they play live.

Kottak evaluates the artwork of one of his fans

Meanwhile, the stage is assembled, with, in Liévin and Strasbourg, quite a delay – a problem from which the supporting bands Karelia and Pat Mc Manus will suffer. As the sound check is being made by technicians, no member of the band is to be seen, except for Kottak. In the meantime, the lights effects and projected videos are checked, including the ones belonging to the scenario accompanying the drums solo. The words « Are You Ready To Rock? » announce the heavy and punchy « 3, 2, 1 ». Behind the stage, it’s a treasure island: a prompter (because yes, really, somehow you have to cope with the hundreds of songs lyrics), Matthias’ very full guitar rack as well as an amp bearing his name, a setlist with detailed instructions concerning what effect should be used for this or that song… So many collector objects that don’t normally mean much, but which, in this specific circumstance, are part of the legend. Just like a mad-doctor tinkering, fiddling, and practicing alchemy in his secret underground laboratory, we witness an obscure pummeling and assembling session of Schenker’s guitar, led by a technician.

The prompter

Don’t fancy givin’ me one of those by any chance Matthias?

And then there was guitar

On the fanbase side, if we don’t reach the endurance (and, let’s face it, absurdity) heights of a Placebo or a Nightwish, some diehards are nonetheless already there at 10 am, waiting under the burning sun. When the doors open, and as the first fans come in, the hall’s floor suddenly vibrates and resonates. They rush to the barrier, with the intention not to move away anymore. Keeping together allow them to keep a place for who wants to buy a drink or needs to go to toilet. Convenient!

Everything’s ready, the fiesta can begin.

The Party:

Pat Mc Manus and Karelia :

Let’s go there joyfully!

Pat Mc Manus, it’s a mix between blues rock and classic rock with its share of improvisations and jams, enhancing the guitarist’s feeling and velocity. He sometimes uses a violin as well, giving the gig an « old celtic pub » atmosphere. The bass and drums are strong, unwavering, and of a simplicity which is salutary for the groove. This elegant Irish trio, initially planned for two of the three dates of the tour opening, will in the end play only one night, the last, in Strasbourg. Special mention should be given to their serene and exemplary attitude (almost phlegm) in view of these difficult conditions, and the eventuality of going home empty-handed. The trio kept smiling and being charming, and did not manifest any jealousy towards the Alsatians of Karelia. They even congratulated them after their set.

Sméagol Mc Manus

On stage, the band is just as smiley, distilling a communicative pleasure to play music. In sight of their positive attitude, it looks like whatever happens backstage, as long as they are given a chance to play, everything’s for the best.

Sam (Karelia)

For a global report about Karelia’s performances for these three shows, click here.

Scorpions :

Kottak from behind… and under

Generally, 10 to 15 minutes before the beginning of a gig, a band is in the starting blocks, just behind the stage, stressing, embracing each other, hopping or stretching one’s legs like athletes before a run. Here, only James Kottak, completely relax, hangs around behind his kit, discussing with his technician and his wife Athena (also Tommy Lee’s sister). The others arrive at the last minute, just seconds before they go on stage. The suspended drums rise with Kottak crouching and hiding behind his seat. He’s the first to appear when the voice of the MC yells « The Scorpions!!! ». Without too much staging, the others follow quickly and simultaneously: no place for jealousy, no favouritism for a particular member.

Rudolf Schenker, who insistently still opens so much his mouth

Destroying legends, we all love doing it. It allows us to buy ourselves, just for a few seconds, a position of rebel with a big heart who fights against the established order and defends the « underground » spirit. Well, when that suits him. In short, it is exciting for those who did not get their May 68. But being unpleasant about the Scorpions, well, we just can’t do it, so much it gives us a feeling of being unfair. The Germans’ gigs are not exempted from irritating flaws, but these guys radiate such a sincerity that it almost becomes annoying.

Pawel & Klaus

On one side, we have an established band whose shows are inevitably imposing and perfectly polished. Too polished, sometimes down to the last sentence. Because he systematically uses the exact same sentences from one year to the other to announce « Still Loving You » or « Rock you like a Hurricane », Klaus Meine can sometimes be irritating. In their defence, after so many years and especially such big gigs, it is almost impossible not to look like you’re on autopilot mode. But of all successful bands, the Germans are certainly amongst the most sincere. Because sincere and cheerful, they certainly are, without a doubt. When Matthias or James tell us « I never get tired of our songs », we only see stonewalling. But nay! Their pleasure when they play titles like « Still Loving You » or « Rock You Like A Hurricane », although played 1001 times, is real. This enjoyment of playing, coupled with the devotion to the fan already mentioned, impresses and inspires respect. It is for them out of question to look blasé in front of a person who sees the band playing for the first time. It is out of question to play a song as a bureaucrat would fill in an internship agreement before sending it to the accountant.

The human pyramid

Their great shape is also astonishing. For 60 year-olds, it rocks, and not just a little! Seeing them running everywhere for over an hour and a half, we understand better this need of saving energy during the day. Here again, solidarity dominates. No one is enhanced or withdrawn. James Kottak and Rudolf Schenker are the band’s real showmen. If they are less exuberant, Matthias Jabs and Pawel Maciwoda are nonetheless here and dynamic. Klaus Meine leads the boat with elegance and moderation. We guess that, clearly, even without any sort of tricks, the Scorpions would manage just as well.

The Kottack Attack

But why deny oneself the pleasure? On the tricks front, it seems that the spectacle was conceived upstream to create an artistic concept in symbiosis with the gig. No random or excessive explosions or flames. A special mention goes to the drums solo « Kottak Attack ». Although totally uninteresting technically, it offers a kind of retrospective of the band’s career, Kottak playing, between two breaks, a few emblematic rhythms. We can for instance recognise the one made of toms from « Hour 1 ». The drummer even gives us the creeps, by standing up on his kit, suspended a few meters over the ground, and making the chains to which he’s attached clearly shake. In the backdrop, the video tells a story (starring him) which ends with a torture session announcing Blackout’s eponym cult title. Rudolf Schenker then comes up with a fake moustache and forks over the eyes, an allusion to the artwork of the above-mentioned album. Just for the anecdote: as the forks are preventing him from seeing where he’s going, a roadie has to guide him to the stage.

The elegant Matthias Jabs

On the setlist front, no surprises unfortunately, just a firework of classics punctuated by titles from Sting In The Tail. The setlist has however the merit to present, with the exception of the Eye II Eye UFO, all the styles covered by the band. From the heavy, almost metal sound of Hour 1 with « 3, 2, 1 », to the dreadful, reggaeing ballads like « Is There Anybody There ». There is enough to satisfy any taste. As we could have expected it, the last opus has been tailed for the gig. Its titles, sung in unison by the audience, already sound like classics. « Sting In The Tail » is a damn efficient opening title, while « Raised On Rock », which intro is a reference to « Rock You Like A Hurricane », is incredibly jolly. Even the infamous « The Best Is Yet To Come » makes in the end one want to sing it. Globally, the audience is so receptive that every title ends up being a special moment. Special mention to the transition « The Zoo », with this excellent instrumental title that is « Coast to Coast. » On this title, Klaus Meine plays a third guitar. But the best image of this tour remains unquestionably the tribute paid to Ronnie James Dio. Klaus Meine collects sincere and enthusiastic applause when he mentions, moved, his recent death. The band dedicates him a poignant acoustic version of « Send Me An Angel ». A salutary and intimist humanising moment. The 5 of them join at the front of the stage, in all simplicity and humanity.

In the communion

A word on the audience, impressive for its passion. If the Scorpions give everything to their fans, the fans repay them in kind. Every single chorus is sung in unison. More than just interaction, it is a proper communion that can be witnessed – which is particularly rare with such famous bands. The kind of atmosphere that makes one want to believe in success bands again.

The only regret however, is that it did not really feel like a « farewell gig ». The 2008 gig in Strasbourg, with its number of guests, was in effect a much more striking « firework ». It looks like the Germans are preparing something like a reunion for the final show, with all the ex members, including Uli Jon Roth and Michael Schenker. For that matter, according to Rudolf Schenker’s last declarations just a few months after the announcement of the end of Scorpions’ career, it looks as if this « farewell tour » would not be a farewell to anything in particular…

The setlist

Shall we party in the « after »?

It looks like nowadays, post-gigs hangovers are not really to the taste of Klaus, Rudolf and Matthias anymore. Weariness or tiredness? Whatever the reason might be, the three of them disappear quickly in their hotel rooms after the end of the gig. James and Pawel, on the other hand, seem to enjoy it thoroughly. James, to have fun with the fans, Pawel to… have fun with wom… uuh… the fans too. The bassist is at the centre of persisting rumours in which he is presented as a terribly efficient Casanova.

Spaceman and I then wander backstage, without any other plan than saying goodbye and going home. But without knowing it, we’re about to embark on a night just as surrealistic as improvised. A night which, just to mention it, will make the Metallica gig the day after look like a Scrabble night in Klington. Aren’t the best nights the ones that are the less planed?

Some have the music, some have the looks. For James Kottak, it’s more the music.

At this moment, Pawel gets out of the shower – with just a towel hiding his genitals – and asks for a light. I exchange with him a few words in Polish, which gets us an invitation to a meet & greet in the dressing rooms. James Kottak and his wife Athena arrive, and start chatting with a few fans, offering them drinks. Sporting – we must underline – a style of a rare horror. The crazy drummer turns on his laptop and starts a Skype conversation with… Price Vernon, his solo band’s bassist, live from the USA! It is with a real pleasure that he meets his fans, chats and banters with them. The man gets on well with you almost instantly – and then remembers you. We’re not talking here about a random artist who autographs a few posters, CDs and underwear, pretending to be interested in you, who asks your name to then forget it immediately. James Kottak initiates a real exchange.

Chatting with Price Vernon

After a 5 minutes-chat, James Kottak is your friend, kicks you, banters with you, offers you alcohol and gives you a hug. He puts you so much at your ease that it almost becomes uncomfortable! Clearly, if he had a say, there would not be any backstage or private parties. Everyone could just come. When I meet him the day after the Paris gig, he’s surprised:« you were at the Olympia yesterday? Why didn’t you come and say hi? ». At the risk of lessening our profession’s sex appeal, let’s establish the truth : unlike the groupies, we, frustrated rats of the musical press, do not easily have access to the backstage. But James Kottak would love it to be so easy.

Autographs session in the taxi

A horde of fans at the window

He then announces us that the celebration goes on in their hotel, as part of a hype private party. Spaceman and I start looking for a taxi to join them there. As we leave the Zenith, James catches up with us, offers us beers and ends up asking us if we want to share his and his wife’s taxi. The car starts, but soon stops next to a horde of fans. Kottak and Athena open the windows and start signing diverse goodies – and they do it with pleasure. Being on the window-side, between the Kottaks and the fans, I’m in an ideal position and enjoy thoroughly the moment. The couple ends up getting out of the car to facilitate the contact, take a few pictures and banter with the fans. About ten minutes later, we’re on the road again – direction: the hotel. We finally get the chance to discuss with the Kottak couple. About music, of course (we discover that they do not appreciate extreme metal), but also about other themas such as linguistic: Athena asks us « So, do you know what ‘sac à merde’ means in French? ». Spaceman promptly translates the idiom, and the driver bursts in laughter : « oh crap, does it mean that I actually called « shit bag » every single French person I addressed?! ». Yep Athena, your cover’s blown.

Considering their exuberance, James and Athena actually form the perfect couple. We all have in our circle of friends that kind of cute couple, crazy, inseparable, and so « not glam » that we can’t imagine them in an intimate context. The Kottaks are a family of drummers; even their son Miles has started playing. But for James, it is out question to give any drumming lesson to his wife: « I really want her to find her own style ».

Hey, can I have the same band for my wedding?

After we reach the hotel, and to integrate properly, we do what everyone else does: we rush to the food. Features: petits fours, expensive wines, superficial and show-off conversations. The party is also organised to celebrate a wedding which took place in the afternoon. As the tradition would have it, the band plays several has-been classics to make everyone dance.

Kottak reinvents Sinatra

But tonight is THE night: James Kottak and Pawel Maciwoda invite themselves to the party to improvise a bluesy bass-drums. But, the « cult » level of the party being apparently not high enough, Kottak goes wild and starts singing some Sinatra! Following what, totally drunk, he seizes the saxophone and massacres the song. Meanwhile, Pawel slips out of the room several times. Probably for the reasons above-mentioned.

Kottak reinvents… we don’t really know what. But in any case he seriously reinvents.

Well, that was enough to leave the newly weds with a nice memory when it will be question to cut the dog in two and to split the Agressive Agricultor discography between them.

Photos reportage : Metal’o Phil & Spaceman
Photos live : Lost & Spaceman
Many thanks to Athena & James Kottak, Pawel Maciwoda as well as to David Kilhofer (Music For Ever) for the chance he gave us.

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