As one esteemed music critic once opined to another, “Iron Maiden doesn’t mess around with the fire and explosions.” And had Beavis and Butthead been part of the capacity crowd that greeted the venerable metal crew on Sunday night, they surely would have blurted “Cool!” at frequent intervals. Maiden delivered the goods with three (!) guitarists, a technically proficient rhythm section, and Bruce Dickinson’s stellar operatic voice. Of course, they also offered a mammoth corpse with glowing red embers for eyes, a cross with angel wings attached, and a giant monster complete with captive maidens trapped inside, but more on that later.
While most groups from its golden age struggle to remain relevant, Iron Maiden is back on top of its game, with a well-received album (Brave New World) pleasing longtime followers and winning over new blood. However, Dickinson remains aggressive, taking advantage of breaks between songs to berate “the media” for burying his band prematurely. After a mostly eloquent diatribe about how ink-stained writers prefer “five-star bands” and the much-maligned-by-metalheads girl and boy bands, Dickinson capped his speech with a passionate, profane closing rant that contained many implausible “ass”-related suggestions and accusations. (“These Barbie singers are taking it up the ass from the media, who has its head up its own ass …”) Iron Maiden’s most compelling argument was its music, as dazzling renditions of such complex epics as “The Clansman” and “Fear of the Dark” proved that this group is as talented as its better-known peers.
At first glance, many of Maiden’s compositions follow the format of power ballads: soft intro, then powerful chorus. However, while lesser groups simply regurgitate the soft/loud dynamic ad nauseam, Iron Maiden’s songs take off after the initial chorus, changing form frequently and providing ample space for solos from its trio of axmen. During the lengthy instrumental segments, Dickinson would disappear from view, only to reappear in a flash and begin climbing on the jungle-gym-style set. A world-class athlete (fencing), Dickinson jumped, kicked, and ran across the stage like no frontman in recent memory without ever seeming the least bit out of breath. His constant motion was so entertaining that the concert would have been captivating even without all the over-the-top extras.
However, for the sizable portion of the audience who came on a quest for fire, Iron Maiden provided plenty of pyrotechnics. A mammoth incarnation of the group’s decayed-corpse mascot, Eddie, wandered onto the stage and engaged in mock combat with one of the guitarists, who leaped to pummel the monster with his instrument. Later, Dickinson descended onto the stage tied to a cross, then escaped as the angel wings behind him went up in smoke. For the grand finale, Dickinson emerged from the belly of an enormous wicker beast, which soon was revealed to be another version of Eddie. “Sacrificial virgins” pawed at him as he left, but Dickinson showed them no mercy, perhaps envisioning the members of the hated TRL throng disappearing in the flames. “Should we burn them to a crisp?” he asked rhetorically midway through the group’s theme song, “Iron Maiden,” and after his words, pillars of flame rose into the air next to the intimidating structure.
This is the type of drama and fireworks with which Johnny Dare can deal. As local metal fans might recall, last year Dare’s birthday bash featured a bumper crop of new-metal bands and grapplers, but the night ended in disaster: Half the groups refused to play for various reasons and the crowd treated the wrestlers on the bill quite rudely. This year, Dare wisely stuck with KQRC 98.9’s core demographic — Maiden-loving middle-age rockers, and the result was a much happier birthday for the radio personality. Whereas last year Dare had to make frequent appearances onstage in a peacemaking capacity, he appeared only briefly on Sunday night, thanking those in attendance and blowing out the candles on his cake.
Maiden, although the tastiest part of the night’s festivities, was just the icing; two other well-weathered bands preceded it to the stage. Queensryche released Q2K last fall, but having already supported that album with a headlining tour, the group felt free to explore its discography with appealingly eclectic results. Singer Geoff Tate, who possesses another bombastic voice, was in fine form, and his band tore through selections from the group’s self-titled 1983 EP as if extremely excited to be revisiting this material. Queensryche rocked equally hard on its lone selection from Q2K, but the biggest cheers came from its three tunes from 1988’s classic Operation: Mindcrime. “We’re all about revolution,” Tate told the crowd, and although some of the latest faux-rebellious groups might use the same line, Queensryche has the social commentary in its lyrics to back up the claim.
On the other hand, Rob Halford of Judas Priest fame was all about Resurrection, and his group Halford rocked hard enough that he can be easily forgiven for choosing the most overused album title this side of Brave New World. Halford, dressed in the standard leather-and-chains attire, watched the crowd expectantly as his young band tore through a series of rowdy numbers, with his dual guitarists interacting nicely on one transcendent solo. As for the singer, he can still scream (for vengeance or otherwise) with the best of them, which he proved by hitting and holding plenty of high notes. The new material fit nicely with the Priest gems Halford performed, with “Stained Class” and especially “Breaking the Law” getting flawless treatment from his fresh-faced squad. And with all three groups on this old-school bill still packing amphitheaters and putting out vintage-quality tunes, Dickinson need not worry about being overshadowed by pop sensations. There will always be a market for the type of skillful metal these musicians play, and Eddie and the explosions certainly don’t hurt the door draw.