Dispatches from the Front - Judas Priest

It’s been awhile since Power Chord TV sent me to a concert. Garth Brooks was the last one I believe, and that was in November. This time the (metal) Gods shined down on me. They (Power Chord, not the Gods) decided to send me to see Judas Priest! Judas Priest has been one of my favorite groups since I was a teenager. They have been through a fair number of changes in their 49(!) year history. They just released their 18th studio album called Firepower. This time I will be heading to Salt Lake City, Utah and it will involve an 11 hour road trip. Why go by road rather than fly? I am going to pick some stuff up that wouldn’t be easy to carry onto an airplane, I bought a guitar and picked up some speakers. I will write about the rock ‘n’ roll tribal aspects of the road trip soon, but for now it’s about Judas Priest.

Like I said, I am a fan. This will be at least the tenth time I’ve seen Judas Priest since first seeing them in 1980 on the British Steel tour. I’ve taken pictures of them multiple times. As I was watching them perform I kept reflecting back on the fact that I have been seeing them for almost 40 years. Where did the time go?

About the show. Judas Priest played the Vivant Smart Home Arena on Friday, April 13th. I grew up in Salt Lake but moved away about 20 years ago. When I lived there the arena was called The Delta Center. I miss the days when an arena had the same name, before corporations bought the naming rights for a period of time. It used to be that when you say you saw a show at The Delta Center it meant something. Now a group of people could have seen shows at The Delta Center, EnergySolutions Arena and Vivint Smart Home Arena and all be talking about the same place! I do have to say I was surprised when I heard that they were playing the largest arena in SLC, it’s the home of the Utah Jazz NBA team (currently schooling Oklahoma in the NBA playoffs, sorry Jacob). I have been going to Judas Priest shows from before they played arenas through huge festivals to smaller places and now back to arenas. To me that is the resilience of heavy metal and a testament to the fans. This show was the 17th of the tour, which started exactly one month before on March 13th. That’s a good thing. It means they have played enough shows to be comfortable with the songs without having done so many that they aren’t excited to be playing them. In support of Judas Priest were Black Star Riders and Saxon.

I had seen Saxon once in the 80’s with Iron Maiden. I like them, they never achieved huge mainstream success but continue to create new music and tour. I admire that. Black Star Riders are a group most notable for Scott Gorham, past guitarist in Thin Lizzy (who I saw open for Styx in ’78). He could trade on the legacy of Thin Lizzy but chooses not to. I respect that. A pretty good bill in my opinion.

So, Judas Priest. Unabashed Heavy Metal musicians. Metal Gods. I am a huge fan. I have everything they have released. I have all of their solo albums. I can’t get enough. And judging by the audience at the show neither can lots of other people. You see, the weird thing is that Metal music is often denigrated and considered passé. Granted, the form does have some well-established tropes but trust me when I say that when a good band hits the stage the show is spectacular and Judas Priest was that band the other night. A little history is in order. Judas Priest started in 1969 in Birmingham, England. The same city as Black Sabbath. I walked into a record store in 1977 and saw their second album, flipped it over, read the song titles and bought it, never having heard their songs. You see, song titles like Victim of Changes, The Ripper and Genocide hooked me and I have never looked back. I even worked with a band named Genocide in the ‘80’s (a huge shout out to Gary, Bob and Ritchie, I want to see a reunion show!) I was very excited for this show and I didn’t go away disappointed. All three groups had members who have been playing for a long time. Let’s face it, they are old. To some that would be seen as a negative. To me it shows that they are musicians first and “rock stars” second. Black Star Riders could have played many Thin Lizzy tracks but ended up only playing one, Jailbreak. They acknowledged their past but put on a hell of a show playing their newer music.

Saxon were part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal in the ‘80’s. They never rose to the heights of Iron Maiden or Judas Priest but did get big enough to have Motley Crue open for them. They continue to make decent metal albums and I continue to buy them.

During intermission I ran into my roommate from the ‘80’s, Tracy. I hadn’t seen him in 25 years. Last time we saw Judas Priest together we wrestled with a guy over a drumstick. We won. As I was reminiscing I was observing the crowd. People young and old, male and female. Everyone seemed to be having a good time. There wasn’t any aggression, even the security guards seemed friendly. During the show I didn’t see any moshing either. Head banging and fist pumping, but no moshing. I got a true sense of community looking at that crowd. Like I said earlier, I grew up in Salt Lake, I saw hundreds of shows there. I mingled with these people many, many times. I went to New Wave shows, Country shows, Jazz shows, Symphonies, but the most fun was always a Metal show. These were my people, my tribe, even if I didn’t live there anymore. The whole floor was General Admission, meaning there were no chairs on the floor. I was on the fourth row of the first section stage left. Coincidently this was about the same spot I was at at the Garth Brooks show in Spokane. Maybe someone can help me with this but I think this section is reserved for friends, business types and journalists. Just a guess but the people around me didn’t look like random fans, and there were a few empty seats. Hard to believe that would happen on the fourth row 30 feet from the stage.

When the lights went down and Judas Priest came on it transported me back to that summer night in 1980 when a 21 year old me saw them for the first time, as well as the time in 1983 when I saw them at the US Festival playing to 300,000 people (look it up on You Tube, it was huge), and when I saw them at Universal Amphitheatre in Burbank in 1997 amongst many other times. Have they changed? Of course they have! Rob Halford can still hit the high notes but it doesn’t come as effortlessly as it used to. K.K. Downing left in 2011, to be replaced by Richie Faulkner. Richie did a really good job of getting the crowd into the show. A month before the tour started founding guitarist Glen Tipton announced that he would not be touring with the band because he has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He is 70 now. He was replaced by their producer Andy Sneap. When I heard that he wouldn’t be there I seriously considered not going. I’m glad I wasn’t that stupid. Andy fit perfectly. He played the parts to a tee but didn’t try to outshine Glen Tipton (how could he, Tipton is a God). The show had enough old songs to satisfy an early fan like me (including The Ripper!) and three tracks off the new album.

Definitely not resting on their laurels. After playing 19 songs Judas Priest left the stage. How did I feel? Great. I had just seen one of my favorite bands for the 10th time back in the city where I had first seen them. It felt like a circle completed type of thing but I hope I get to see them again sometime and somewhere else. Thanks Power Chord TV, I really appreciated that one. You can now send me to One Direction or Spyro Gyra or anything else, because I got to see The Beast that is the Priest, along with 10,000 of my best friends. Again!