The legendary English heavy metal icons made a tour stop at Grand Rapids’ Van Andel Arena on Thursday with Sweden’s Sabaton opening. The review by Local Spins’ John Serba with photos by Anthony Norkus.
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Only the faithful turn up for Judas Priest in 2021.
A few thousand people brought their vaccination cards and heavy metal dogma to Grand Rapids’ Van Andel Arena Thursday night, to bask in the glory of the band that did more for the genre in its infancy than any other.
Yes, any other.
Black Sabbath created it, and then there was Priest, and then Iron Maiden and Metallica diversified and popularized it, and then Slayer darkened it. (These are some of the many begats of the heavy metal bible.)
But Priest created the aesthetic out of whole cloth. The studs and leather, the fireblazing guitars, the astringent and aggressive vocals, the drum battery, the over-the-top presentation: That’s Priest.
Fifty-one years after the band’s inception, its 50th anniversary tour came through town, the COVID pandemic having punted the date a year down the calendar. Not enough people were there, for too many varied and sundry reasons to speculate. But those who were, well, that’s why Priest named one of its definitive records “Defenders of the Faith.”
For those defenders, seeing Priest is a holy pilgrimage to see the Metal God himself, Rob Halford, sing to heaven and hell with but a single note. Angel and demon in one, that guy. Creator and destroyer. He’s 70 now. And his voice is still fully intact. That’s not always the case in this genre, but here we were, being razor-ribboned by an icon and his legendary scream.
OK, so he’s not jackrabbiting around the stage anymore. Would you be? But he still owned it with a confident strut, a flip of the microphone and a voice that one can only describe as a horde of attacking valkyries.
He’s the face of Priest now that founding guitarists K.K. Downing (who departed in 2011) and Glenn Tipton (sidelined by Parkinson’s disease) are gone. They’re replaced by Richie Faulkner, a mainstay in the band since Downing’s departure, and Andy Sneap, the band’s frequent recording engineer and producer, who stepped in for touring purposes (his late-’80s band, Sabbat, released two stunningly eccentric thrash metal records you’d probably dislike; you should listen to them anyway).
So this tour does not feature a full-on classic Priest, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t at full power.
AN OVERDUE, FISTBANGING FUSILLADE
Founding bassist Ian Hill still holds down the low end, and drummer Scott Travis, a mainstay in the band for three decades now, thunders mightily, and with precision and technicality.
Together, they were on-point for opening number “One Shot at Glory,” all the way to an encore that rolled out the hits: A blazing “Electric Eye,” a pair of undeniable fistbangers in “Hell Bent for Leather” and “Breaking the Law,” and gigantic anthem “Living After Midnight.”
In between, the band spanned its career methodically, dusting off “Rocka Rolla” for a go-round, reaching into its most recent album, 2018’s “Firepower,” for “Lightning Strike.” Priest’s strongest run featured the rich-in-shredly-goodness “Hell Patrol” and “The Sentinel,” followed by moody mid-tempo lurker “A Touch of Evil.”
Sneap and Faulkner met mid-stage beneath a blood-red spotlight for the opening runs of “Victim of Changes,” which still stands among the greatest collections of metal riffs ever, and truly affirmed Priest’s live potency. Same goes for “Painkiller,” the band’s most brutally intense arrangement in its storied career, here delivered with nerve-gnawing rigor.
I employ hyperbole in the spirit of the band, which punctuated its set with a series of spectacles. For “Blood Red Skies,” Halford covered his omnipresent head-to-toe studs and leather with a red cape, a toy lightsaber in his hand.
For “Hell Bent for Leather,” he rolled onto the stage on his iconic fatboy motorcycle, wielding a riding crop. Curious, yes, until he used it to whip his guitarists, possibly as a reward for shredding so deliciously all night.
Two roadies then rolled out a prop dumpster, and soon enough, a massive, red-eyed bull inflated out of it, like a phoenix from the ashes, except it was, you know, a bull from a dumpster.
Spinal Tap would be proud — and consider the pain of too many months without bombastic heavy metal arena shows killed.
PHOTO GALLERY: Judas Priest, Sabaton at Van Andel Arena
Photos by Anthony Norkus