As the years tick on into the new century, out rocker Rob Halford and his band, Judas Priest, look more and more like Mount Rushmore.
In this erawhen rock icons are dropping like flies ( everyone from Fats Domino to Chris Cornell ) and a dwindling trickle of "classic" rock stars dutifully wheeze through town filling arenas for perhaps the last time ( Stevie Nicks is 70 while the cumulative age for the still touring Rolling Stones is 290 years old ), amid announcements of impending retirements ( Elton John )"The Priest" is on the edge of celebrating 50 years as an institution without showing much wear and tear. Granted, the latest version is not the original line up and it says something that star guitarist Richie Faulkner wasn't even on the planet when the group formed ( having been born in 1980, while the original band started in 1969 ). But with the release of Firepower ( on Epic Records ), the group's 18th full-length and a recent show at The Venue at The Horseshoe Casino, the band made it clear that it has no intention of quietly heading out to pasture.
The new one pretty much sounds like everything which came before it, which is by no means a complaint. "Necromancer" and "Lightening Strike" are pretty much high-octane battles between Faulkner and Andy Sneap's snarling dual guitars and Halford's operatic wail. The songs are less songs and more like walls of sound with the intent of imprisoning the listener. After all, Judas Priest has never been about just listening to them and all about experiencing them, which explains that rabid fan base and the long history of the band.
Onstage at The Venue, Judas Priest displayed a stripped-down attack that was light on the stage craft ( no pyrotechnics, no belching nuclear reactors ) and light on frivolity. Halford made his entrance wailing through "Firepower" with that operatic shriek of his adorned in a gold leather jacket with fringe ( !!!! ). With Faulkner and Sneap on either side of him, they looked like an advertisement for International Mr. Leatherbut that's where the glam factor stopped.
I was a bit surprised that only three songs from Firepower made it onto the set list but, really, at this point these guys have forced themselves to make a game attempt at nodding to the classics. "The Ripper," "Bloodstone," "Metal Gods," "Some Heads are Gonna Roll," "( I'm Your ) Turbo Lover," "Painkiller,"... the hits and classics were mostly here ( well, no "Rocka Rolla," but that's a small quibble ) but therein lies the rub. Halford didn't need to drive out on that chrome plated Harley for a rendition of "Hell Bent for Leather" since for all the years Judas Priest has performed, it has always been an un-gimmicky, straight-up rock 'n' roll band. And that's just what the fans wanted and from the looks those attending this show ( the age seemed to skew from the mid-40s to the early 60s ) that's what they got.
I found the whole show incredibly entertaining and loads of fun. For all the pedigree and hype surrounding Judas Priest as the best heavy metal band ever, and with all that imagery ( the black leather, the numerous crucifix', the flames, the end-of-the-world style lighting ) and the heaviness suggested by some of their music ( "Necromancer?" "Evil Never Dies?," "Saints in Hell?" ), they never seem to take themselves too seriously. Still, with bassist Ian Hill and Sneap whipping out those turgid Tilt-a-Whirl dance steps, Faulkner sticking his tongue out at the audience like some 6-year-old who got away with raiding the cookie jar, and Halford shrieking and waving his arms and fringe like a modern-day Prospero, this is a band that seems designed for the ages.