Saturday, April 7, 2018

Judas Priest, Saxon, and Black Star Riders at the Riverside

Earlier this week, my wife and I went to a metal show we had been anticipating for a long time.  Judas Priest was the headliner, with Saxon and Black Star Riders as the opening bands.

The Riverside here in downtown Milwaukee seems like a somewhat unlikely venue for a metal show at first.  It's self-described as "opulent," not inaccurately, given the furnishings and decor. It was somewhat comical to see it filled up with metalheads dressed the part, guided to their seats by ushers who seemed a bit confused by their guests.

I took a few shots with my phone.  Black Star Riders came on first.  They're basically the latest incarnation of Thin Lizzy - a band with no original members left (a topic I've previously written about) - but under the Black Star Riders name, they create and perform new music as well.

Saxon followed them, and put on what I can - with no hyperbole or qualifications - say was an amazing performance!  There's a lot to be said about Saxon as one of the major early NWOBHM bands - and I'll do that in much greater detail in a post next week - so I'll just write this for now.

I never really understood how early Saxon - on their first, self-named album, and then on Wheels of Steel, and on Strong Arm of the Law - rocketed to the top of the bills for so many metalheads.  Their stuff is not bad, but - with a few exceptions - not really great either, particularly when you compare it to the other British bands they were often classed with at the time - Motorhead, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and Def Leppard.  (They do get better on Denim and Leather and The Power and the Glory, I'd say, and through a good bit of Crusader)

Saxon's later work - especially the albums from the last decade - displays a marked development in musicianship.  Sloughing off certain of their weaker original members - in particular, bassist Steve Dawson in 1986 and guitarist Graham Oliver in 1994, who would go on to form their own version of the band - improved the band considerably.

Seeing them in concert helped me understand their popularity.  They put on a hell of a show now, and I imagine they did so back in their early days.  Biff Byford - at 67, an age when many singers have long since lost their volume and high end - belts the songs out with a voice that could be from 30 years ago.  And the present line-up of musicians takes their classic songs and performs them as they could have been played - that is, better than they were originally composed.

The main attraction, of course, was Judas Priest, arguably one of the greatest and most influential classic metal bands (who else would I include at their rank? that's a topic for another post!).  We had seen them twice at previous shows in the last decade, and were excited to go to another Priest show literally just down the street from where we live.

My wife had asked me what songs I hoped they would play, and I mentioned a few that we hadn't heard them do in concert yet.  They played several of them, including "Saints in Hell" - as Rob Halford noted, this is the 40 year anniversary of Stained Class!

You know which song this one was from - right?  "The Green Manalishi"!

And it wouldn't really be a Priest show, without Halford riding out on a motorcycle, would it? (especially with Harley Davidson just down the road here in Milwaukee!)

For me, an amazing highlight of the show came not long after that.  It was one of those moments that impressed itself upon me so deeply that I'll be reminiscing with fellow metalheads the rest of my life.  I have been listening to the song "Painkiller" for decades now, and I've seen Priest play it in those two previous shows.  What Halford did with it this time around was simply amazing.

Halford is 66 years old, and he has maintained the superlative range, the strength, and the sustain of his voice down to the present.  His rendition of Painkiller this time around can only be compared with the performance of a world-class athlete who, decades past his youthful years, not only manages to match - but through sheer force of will and talent shatters - one of his early records.  It was as metal as one can get.  An inspiration.

As I write this, we're getting ready to head off to a repeat show tonight with Saxon and Black Star Riders at the local casino.  Now that I've seen how good the present-day Saxon actually is, I'm super-excited to hear a longer set - expect some writing about them next week, here in Heavy Metal Philosopher!

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