It had been at least a half-decade since I was last at the Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford for a show — long enough for the name of the arena to have changed from Continental Airlines Arena to the Izod Center — but beyond that and the price of parking ($25!), not much was different. The inside was still the same dismal beige, the setup roughly the same, the predominant smell in the corridors still sauerkraut and beer piss. I felt like I’d never left.
The show — a stop on Judas Priest‘s “Epitaph” alleged retirement tour — boasted openers Thin Lizzy and Black Label Society, but I arrived in time to catch only the final song and a half of the latter. I wasn’t heartbroken, and watching the beard-braided Zakk Wylde tebow and thump his chest like a circus gorilla following the end of “Stillborn,” was even less so. That guy’s come a long way to be a cartoon character, but the place ate it up, and I saw more than a few BLS vests in the crowd, so far be it from me to judge. Even though I just did.
There was a decent amount of changeover time between Black Label and Priest, which, like being surrounded by tens of thousands of people at a show, was something I genuinely wasn’t used to. Thoroughly out of my element and just one day removed from watching Premonition 13 rock the Saint Vitus bar in Brooklyn, I watched as a giant “Epitaph” flag was lowered in front of the stage, which was but the first in an unfolding series of grandiosities. I guess if you’re Judas Priest 40 years into your career and on what you’ve said will be your farewell tour, you go big. So be it.
I was lucky enough to scam a photo pass, and prior to the show starting, a collection of professional photographers and I (very much not a professional photographer) were collected and brought into the photo pit. They were playing metal classics over the P.A., Metallica, AC/DC, and the last song they played before Priest took the stage was Sabbath‘s “War Pigs.” I noticed one of the crew who was in position to catch the giant “Epitaph” flag was singing along and we exchanged a quick chatter about the brilliance of playing Black Sabbath before the start of metal gigs. I said it was like the national anthem before a baseball game.
Priest‘s set was an impressive two hours and 20 minutes. There were breaks in there, and vocalist Rob Halford seemed to make the most out of his various costume changes throughout, but they did an excellent job of keeping the momentum going. We were allowed to shoot for three songs, and I did, catching “Rapid Fire,” “Metal Gods” and “Heading Out to the Highway” up close before being unceremoniously booted back to my floor seat, which was — of course — occupied by the time I got there, leaving me to stand awkwardly at the end of the row and get bumped into for the rest of the set. I could’ve raised a stink, but screw it.
New guitarist Richie Faulkner, who seems as much a replacement for K.K. Downing physically as for guitar playing, was at stage right and seemed to be in charge of entertaining that entire side of the venue, which he did by playing extensively to the crowd — facial and hand gestures, waving, smiling, making faces, posing out, etc. — and of the rest of the band, he and bassist Ian Hill were probably the most into the show, the latter looking well satisfied during both newer songs like “Judas Rising” and “Starbreaker” from 1977′s Sin After Sin album.
Glenn Tipton and Rob Halford were more professionally detached, which is fair, but they still played well and everything was impeccably presented. Where I stood meant I got a lot of Scott Travis‘ kick drum; could feel it in my chest for the duration, and there were times where it was grating, but for the most part, the balance was as dead on as one might expect. Some of my favorite moments of the show, though, were in Halford‘s stage banter between the songs. While Tipton, Hill and Faulkner were changing out their instruments, Halford gave little snippets of perspective on the band’s landmark tenure in metal, including gems like, “In 1971 in Birmingham, there were only two heavy metal bands: Black Sabbath and Judas Priest” (bit of revisionist history there since Priest weren’t really playing metal until the middle of the decade), and an expression of how the growth of metal has led to the splintering into subgenres — he named black, death and nü metals, among others — and that each generation that’s come up has revised what it means to be metal, and that he approved.
He said of Judas Priest, “We are a classic metal band.” This is indisputably true. As much as anyone ever could be, they are. Their influence over what the genre became, particularly in the ’80s is measured in the number of pretenders to their throne who fell by the wayside while they — in one form or another — persisted. I think though it’s high time doom owned classic metal. In terms of groups to whom the work of Judas Priest and is still relevant, I hear much more of it in traditional doom than I do even in power metal, which seems more bent these days on progressive influences and technical showiness.
So “classic metal,” such as it is — Sabbath, Priest, the whole NWOBHM and the acts from around the world who followed — belongs to doom now. No one else is using it anyway, and while I have no idea what entitles me to make such ridiculous proclamations, I’m pretty sure I’m the only one doing it, so screw off. Let the doomers be the keepers of the old. We are anyway.
Though it’s sacrilege to say, “Turbo Lover” was a high point of the set, despite it being one of several choruses Rob Halford elected not to sing or to sing in part, letting the crowd pick up the slack — of course, they were more than happy to do so. Perhaps most egregious in that regard was “Breaking the Law,” which he didn’t sing at all into the microphone, instead just walking around the stage and putting his ear to different sections of the Izod Center, letting the noise come to him. I probably wouldn’t want to be singing that song anymore either, but man, I can sing along to Judas Priest any time I want. I didn’t pay $25 to park my car to do that with however many other people were there. I paid to watch them perform those songs. Minor gripe, but still.
That was toward the end of the set, following “The Green Manalishi (with the Two-Pronged Crown),” “Blood Red Skies” and “Beyond the Realms of Death,” which was one of several standout ballads included. The Joan Baez cover “Diamonds and Rust” was beefed up at the end, and was the finishing piece of a trio that included “Victim of Changes” and “Never Satisfied,” the latter from 1974′s Rocka Rolla. They closed out the regular set though with “Breaking the Law” into “Painkiller,” which set the stage for two encores and seemed to be the end of Halford‘s voice for the night.
And to be fair, if he blew it out there, it’s understandable. “Painkiller” is a tour de force for a metal vocalist, and Halford sounded excellent throughout, but right at the end, in that series of wails, there was one that made me cringe, and sure enough, his voice wasn’t the same afterwards. I don’t know and won’t speculate on whether he was using any kind of backing track or modulation other than the natural compression that comes from a wireless mic, but he sounded right on in his higher screams, and even the mid-range verses had presence and force in the delivery.
Everything was crisp, clean. The lighting was perfect, the fire, the periodic blasts of lasers, the sequined robe Halford donned with a Priest-logo trident for “Prophecy” from the Nostradamus record. It was all tight, flawlessly executed and built for maximum metallacy. Even as the band members were introduced it was, “Glenn Tipton on the heavy metal guitar,” “Richie Faulkner on the heavy metal guitar,” “You’ve been a great heavy metal audience,” and so on. And all around me, husbands and wives, fathers and daughters, fathers and sons, dudes and dudettes, rocking out till the dawn. Or until a little past 11PM, anyway. It was heavy metal utopia.
Two encores, like I said. The first was “Electric Eye” into “Hell Bent for Leather” and “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’.” They brought out the motorcycle for “Hell Bent for Leather” — as if there was any doubt — and Halford draped himself in a sewn together American/British flag before “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’,” walking around the stage doing a sequence of “Whoa, whoa, whoa, yeah” and “Yeah-yeh-yeah, yeah, yeah” vocalizations that the audience matched note for note. I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure they were just vocal warmup exercises (one could see also throughout the set that he was metering his breaths before and after the highs), and if that’s the case, the people answering him back were already plenty warmed up. Still fun.
Faulkner took a surprising solo during “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’,” and when the band left the stage again, Travis got on a mic and told everyone that if they made enough noise, the guys would come back out and do one more song. Chaos ensued. Heads rolled. Limbs flew like it was Mos Eisley. Glasses shattered, dogs within a 10 mile radius of the Izod Center howled, and finally, Tipton, Halford, Hill and Faulkner retook the stage for the finale of “Living After Midnight.” Another epic sing-along, some extended soloing, and a massive heavy metal finish later, and they were done. I was home by midnight.
I’ve seen Priest before, and if Scorpions‘ farewell tour is anything to go by (three years and running?), I’ll have an opportunity to see them again, but it’s hard not to read something special into catching Judas Priest with even the possibility of it being the last time. Make no mistake, there were parts that were so flat-out silly that I laughed out loud — some of Halford‘s costume changes, the giant Priest trident logos with the motorcycle lights in them, etc. — but if there’s one thing I’ve learned to recognize in this world it’s that just because something is silly that doesn’t mean it’s devoid of meaning or that it can’t also be important to you or, say, 10,000-plus people around you.
Music is as close as I come to religion, and there was a point at which I did a side-to-side sweep of the venue and said to myself, “This is the life I’ve chosen.” I’m not going to say “no regrets,” because I have plenty, but it could’ve been way worse.
Extra pics after the jump. Click any to enlarge.
Tags: Birmingham, East Rutherford, Judas Priest, New Jersey, UK