Friday, June 22, 2012

Iron Maiden opens tour with long awaited return

Influential theatrical metal veteran Iron Maiden kicked off its Maiden England World Tour at Charlotte’s Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre Thursday. The opening night show marked the British band’s first Queen City concert in nearly 25 years as frontman Bruce Dickinson (pictured above) noted following “2 Minutes to Midnight” four songs into its set.

“Last time we were here it was 1988. I’ve become a daddy three times since,” said the 53-year-old who added that the last Charlotte show was actually August 9, 1988. Dickinson said the audience held a few thousand more people this time as Thursday’s crowd swelled around 14,000. 
The crowd response was that of fans that had been waiting over two decades (and in some cases their entire lives). The reaction to “The Trooper,” which featured Dickinson wearing a red and white military jacket and waving the Union Jack, was arguably unparalleled throughout the night. “Run To the Hills” had heads banging and bodies thrashing in nearly equal measure with the band’s mascot Eddie in giant form twice the height of the band members bounding across the stage in Colonial military attire (above).

Though it wasn’t a song-for-song recap, the show closely mirrored 1988’s “Seventh Son of a Seventh Tour” (which was released on VHS under the name “Maiden England”) down to the opening track “Moonchild” and the arctic stage that placed the members on a giant floating iceberg with drummer Nicko McBrain imbedded in the center of the glacier. 

Following the hit "Can I Play with Madness," the crowd roared as footage of the cult `60s TV show “The Prisoner” flashed on screens to introduce the song of the same name, which the band reportedly hasn’t performed live in decades.  

Up to this point the sound was muddy with little definition, but it began to improve during “Afraid to Kill Strangers.” Friends on the lawn agreed. But opening night technical bugs are to be expected (yes Maiden has been rehearsing here all week, but not cushioned by 14,000 bodies). Founder Steve Harris’ (pictured above) bass cut through everything. If you’re going to have bass licks rising to the top of the mix Harris’ are the ones you want. Miming most of the lyrics, Harris with his waist-length brown waves and tall frame stalked the stage emitting crisp, elastic notes.

The only other bug was with pyrotechnics that didn’t trigger on the first try when Dickinson was “raising” flames during “Phantom of the Opera.” He just shrugged it off with a laugh.

Age hasn’t affected Dickinson who pounced and ran across the stage athletically, jumping through the air at one point. Vocally he remains one of the strongest in metal. What was different from 1988 was his attire. Now with close cropped hair, he wore a sleeveless black t-shirt beneath a vest that looked like it was made of actual thick fishing rope (not fishnet) and brown pants laced up the sides.

Guitarist Adrian Smith astounded with his solo on “Wasted Years.” Songs like it, “Phantom,” “The Clairvoyant” and “Fear of the Dark” with signature twin guitars and changing tempos and dynamics reminded me what a huge influence Iron Maiden has had on contemporary hardcore and metal bands that regularly juxtapose intricate picking and theatrical classically-influenced passages with wailing layered guitars and charging heaviness.

The theatrics included plenty of Eddie who hovered over the band in different forms - always a part of the changing backdrops in costumed stilt-walker form during “Run to the Hills” (another obvious crowd favorite) and as a huge red-eyed Buddha-like statue resurrected from the original `88 tour that rose during “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son.” A goat-headed god stood to one side of the stage with its head hanging during “Number of the Beast” and an evil organist appeared during “Seventh Son,” but the creepiest prop award goes to the creature that was squirming in giant Eddie’s hand during the final song “Iron Maiden.”

Eddie wasn’t the only 12-foot tall figure on stage Thursday. Alice Cooper’s opening set included his own towering Frankenstein. While openers are often relegated to performing for a small portion of the crowd, Cooper (pictured on podium below) and his five-piece band performed during daylight for a packed house receiving the most enthusiastic response for an opening act that I’ve witnessed since the Black Keys played Verizon with Kings of Leon in 2010.

While not quite as long or theatrical as his 2010 co-headlining set with Rob Zombie, Cooper’s set was even better thanks to his timeless charisma and the addition of guitarist Orianthi (well-known as part of Michael Jackson’s “This Is It” lineup). Despite the fake blood slashed across her lips and neck (a reference to her role on the new song “Bite Your Head Off”), Orianthi appeared less road-worn with her bright blonde hair and sparkling leggings than the typical leather-clad rock guys that make up Cooper’s band. But she shredded like she’s been touring almost as long as her new boss. Her contribution was most notable on “Poison,” which was elevated by the high backing vocals that appear on the original recording. Hits like it, “I’m Eighteen" (pictured below), “No More Mr. Nice Guy” and “School’s Out” were equaled in energy by a couple of lesser known tracks.

Cooper didn’t shy away from theatrics either - spearing a photographer (not a real one, mind you) with a microphone stand and getting beheaded with his infamous guillotine. He ended the set wearing a #18 Panthers jersey and a studded top hot that would dwarf Slash’s with “School’s Out,” during which the band briefly referenced Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2.”

Charlotte was definitely treated on both counts although it’s hard to compete with an opening night concert that Carolinians have waited over twenty years for.

The “Maiden England Tour” hits Atlanta Saturday and Boston Tuesday.