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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Concert Review: Evil Never Dies

Judas Priest, Saxon, Black Star Riders rock Newark.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The mighty Judas Priest (l.r. Richie Faulkner, Scott Travis, Rob Halford, Andy Sneap, Ian Hill)
sacked New Jersey on Tuesday night. Photo by the author. 
Last week, I excitedly told a colleague who works in PR for Carnegie Hall that I had tickets for Tuesday night's Judas Priest concert at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. "Really? Judas Priest." I said, "yeah! I get to be 17 again!"

"Why do you like that stuff?" someone asked.

"Because," I answered with a straight face, "they write opera for teenaged boys!"

In fact, I was 13 years old and a freshman in high school when I first discovered Judas Priest, the Birmingham, England-based heavy metal band who rode a Harley-Davidson and a wave of fist pumping anthems into the rock and roll history books. We used to listen to them down in the Stuyvesant High School weight room as we sweated and tried to pump iron, trying for some reason to improve our bodies to play football as the Stuyvesant Peglegs even as the "Harvard of high schools" struggled to improve our minds.

While I was off the football team after a year (injured after playing in one game) my love of Iron Maiden, Rush (this blog is named after one of their songs) and Judas Priest stayed with me. I first saw the Priest live when I was 17 on the Painkiller tour: a deafening, blinding affair at Nassau Coliseum in 1990. And I'd seen them once since about six years before. I asked my friend to come with. They said "ehh, pass." I asked my good friend Cannonball and off we went, meeting in Newark for an evening of brain-crushing head-banging fist-pumping nuclear brain damage (albeit filtered through ear protection.)

This was a three-band bill. First up were Black Star Riders, led by Scott Gorham of Thin Lizzy fame. It was a thrill to walk into a darkened arena and hear the crunch of the Lizzy classic "Jailbreak," with BSR singer Ricky Warwick doing a convincing Phil Lynott imitation. The signature sound of Mr. Gorham's old band was very much present in the twinned harmony guitar leads and powerful rhythmic stomp. The Riders mixed up their set, playing classics from Thin Lizzy's long history with their own material, hard rock with a bluesy edge and on a couple of songs, a decidedly Irish lilt.

Saxon were on next, a band that have had forty years on the road, twenty-two albums and only a brief  window of success in America. The best word to describe their meat-and-potatoes style of metal is "earnest," driven by the crunch and wail of two guitars and Yorkshireman Biff Byford's still-powerful voice. They pulled songs from all over their catalogue, mixing them with tunes from the current album Thunderbolt. These latter songs included "They Played Rock and Roll", a tribute to the late Ian 'Lemmy' Kilmister of Motörhead fame. That fit neatly alongside classics like "Dallas 1pm" (about the J.F.K. assassination) and "Crusader." A bit unvarying, but heavy and well performed.

Then, a huge red banner was draped around the stage, emblazoned with the winged cross that has been Priest's logo for almost 50 years. The boys came on to the strains of fellow Brummies Black Sabbath ("War Pigs") and then proceeded to stomp Newark flat. New songs like "Firepower" (the title track of the new record) and "Evil Never Dies" fit right in with mononymous classics like "Bloodstone," "Grinder," "Ripper" (with screened news articles of the Whitechapel murders) and the epic "Sinner" with its screamed chorus.

Founding member Ian Hill is still the anchor of the sound, with drummer Scott Travis providing thunder. Up front, this is a different Priest.  Guitarists Richie Faulkner (established as the replacement for the retired K.K. Downing in 2015) was joined by Firepower co-producer Andy Sneap filling in for Glen Tipton. (Mr. Tipton is still in the band but suffering from Parkinson's disease, making long concerts an impossibility.) The legendary Rob Halford is still a great frontman. His enthusiasm, banshee wail, wardrobe changes (he wore six different leather coats onstage, we counted!) and onstage motorcycle heroics (during "Hell Bent for Leather") make him the center of the mayhem.

The set was filled with surprises: songs like "Saints in Hell" from Stained Class (with a spectacular, disturbing animated video) and "Turbo Lover" that demonstrated the long history and depth of the Priest songbook. (The latter marked the start of the decline of Priest's prestige among metalheads--fans took one listen to its synth guitars and dismissed it--but it's the album I came in on back in the weight room!) The set ended with the shrieking blitz of "Painkiller" and then a three-song encore. These were all from the first side of British Steel, and augmented by Glen Tipton coming onstage to play guitar. His hands shook, but with great and visible effort he sounded like the guitarist of old. The band sounded heavy as ever, crunching through "Metal Gods," "Breaking the Law" and "Living After Midnight." We all sang along. As the new song says, evil never dies.

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