Given my high affinity towards old school metal I have notification set for the tour news of my favorite classic metal bands. I do not think so far I have been more excited to receive a concert notification than the one which popped up on my phone screen in the month of January. It said “Judas Priest North America tour dates including Canada”. To share background, I live in the beautiful sunny Canadian province of Saskatchewan in a small town called Kipling for my work in the Production engineering field. For classes in the university I drive two days in a week to the capital Regina. Now before even opening the notification I was mentally set to travel to either Montreal or Vancouver or Toronto to see the Metal Gods unleash their firepower. But little did I know I had another thing coming. And it put a bigger smile on my face. I found the Priest were slated to perform in my province, in the city of Saskatoon on the evening of 8th of June at the Sasktel Center. All I knew at that moment was I need to secure my very front row seat before anything and anyone else. Yes, from January I have been counting days for this concert. And my hopes have been high. First, it is Judas fucking heavy metal Priest, the band who never rest on their laurels. If Sabbath created, Priest perfected. Second, their latest, much critically acclaimed album Firepower. When I listened to the album last year, I just couldn’t help but wonder how much quality metal a band who has been around this long can still cater to the metal community? So many retro bands unfortunately aged like cheese, but this one band is like some fine wine we metal heads simply can’t get enough of.
Now this wait wasn’t without its share of uncertainty. From my car requiring some repair work in the last moment to a nasty eye infection blurring my vision just a couple of weeks before the big day, the doubts of my attendance were mounting. The biggest concern came in the form of cancellation of Priest’s concert at Colorado, USA on 5th of June owing to Rob Halford’s health issues caused by bronchitis. Before this, I bought a ticket for an Uli Jon Roth concert in Regina which got cancelled. That sense of despair was like knocking on the door. But when I found no further updates in the morning of 8th of June, I set out for Saskatoon with my Lebanese friend Sari in my Judas Priest Screaming for Vengeance t-shirt. To ensure any off the track adversities on my way can be dealt with, given my eyes were in a recovering stage, Sari kept me company on this trip, a wonderful gesture of genuine camaraderie from him.
Finally upon reaching the venue I breathed a sigh of relief with this final confirmation the concert is indeed taking place and I am indeed attending. This moment reminded me of the Priest song “Worth Fighting For”. The Metal God has indeed fought back hard and drove the fiery wheels of his Harley over bronchitis. It was heart-warming to see so many metal heads all waiting to see the legendary British band perform in the city. Faith was restored to find metal teens of this generation taking active interest in Priest’s music and many of them seemed die-hard fans singing Priest songs. There was a long queue for purchasing Judas Priest T –shirts inside the venue. All waiting in the queue with happy glowing faces to get into the mood of the event as much as possible.
After the crowd sang along to Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” the concert started at the right time of 7:30 PM. Opening classic rockers Uriah Heep rocked Saskatoon after a long span of almost four long decades. The first song of the evening “Grazed by Heaven,” charged the atmosphere instantly. Vocalist Bernie Shaw along with his best friend Mick Box, one of the founding members and the ace guitarist of the long surviving band, kept the crowd cheering with songs like “Too Scared to Run”, “Take Away My Soul,” “Sunrise,” “Between Two Worlds,” “Gypsy,” “Look at Yourself,” and “Stealin’ ”. I even managed to catch a Uriah Heep plectrum flying right from the hand of Mick Box. Russell Gilbrook’s energy behind his drum kit was simply infectious. Long term keyboardist Phil Lanzon’s involvement with the audience during the songs was warm and encouraging.
Uriah Heep’s hour long set list, comprising of songs from different decades of their musical journey came to an end with their biggest radio hit “Easy Livin’ “. Next year is their 50th anniversary and after witnessing the great response from the Saskatoon crowd, front man Bernie is considering more than just an hour concert in Saskatchewan’s biggest city in 2020.
After almost half an hour of arrangements following Uriah Heep’s departure arrived the much-awaited moment accompanied by thundering drums, sinister guitar sound, and blinding lights. From the uncanny shadow emerged the Metal God carrying a skull-cane to the menacing tune of “Necromancer”. Age or ailment, Rob Halford still takes no prisoners. I have long considered Les Binks as the best drummer Priest ever had, but slowly Scott Travis has won me over. While the legendary guitar tandem of Downing-Tipton could no longer be seen it is a well-known fact guitarist Richie Faulkner has breathed new life in the band. At a time when Priest was thinking of pulling the plug during their “Epitaph” days, Richie inspired the rest to keep working on new material and the fans haven’t been disappointed since. In some of the previous concerts, Glenn Tipton joined his bandmates briefly on a few songs but lately he has decided to stay away completely because of the severity of his Parkinson’s disease. During the performance of “Victim of Changes” footage of Glenn from a different concert was shown on the screen. Touring guitarist and producer Andy Sneap had huge shoes to fill and his support was undeniably commendable throughout the course of the concert. As Rob mentioned initially, the Firepower tour set-list includes some rarely performed Priest songs like “Tyrant,” “Out in the Cold,” “Starbreaker,” “Steeler,” and “Take These Chains.” From the Firepower album itself they performed my most favorite song off the latest album “Spectre”. Other tracks from the album included “Traitor’s Gate” and, in the very fighting spirit of the metal community, “No Surrender”. From their more popular tracks, the rider’s anthem “Heading out to the Highway,” and possibly the most cinematic metal song of all time, “The Sentinel,” were performed rendering the audience ecstatic. They effortlessly cruised from one song to another, decimating everything in their way. The best song from the Redeemer of Souls album was another part of the sonic treat as Halford’s soaring vocals delivered “Halls of Valhalla”. The crowd sang along every word of the Priest hit “Breaking the Law” while they went berserk during the heavy driving “All Guns Blazing” as Priest fired on all cylinders. In 1986, during an interview Fred Graham asked Halford “Is it fair to say that you are little bit less extreme than you used to be? I read a story about you once, I think you rode a motorcycle out on the stage cracking a whip….” and Rob pointed out “Still do!” Its 2019 and Halford is as extreme as ever as he rode his roaring Harley on stage before their iconic “Hell bent for Leather”.
The concert was made a great visual experience with neat graphics on the screen – be it the cybernetic Spectre or the angel of retribution rising from the flames to declare “Judas is Rising”. The lighting especially during the intro of “Out in the Cold” was mesmerizing to say the least. I feel arguably the most hair-raising moment in the history of heavy metal is when Halford pierced the Stratosphere back in the 70s when he sang the line “Victim of Changes”. So throughout the concert to me, the most emotionally moving part was when he was building up the calm before the storm with “changes” and then finally exploding with “Victim of Changes”. It just brought back so many memories of growing up with this song, this band, how their music touched my life and so much more which words are not strong enough to describe. The final song was their concert staple “Livin’ after Midnight” that ushers in a feeling of a great rock ‘n’ roll party, much like KISS’ “Rock ‘n’ Roll all Night”. Priest left with the promise of being back again as the excited fans kept chanting their name. I do believe this is not the end of the road for them as Glenn Tipton was already writing riffs for their new album. I am not sure if Andy will be taking up the role of a permanent guitarist in Priest. K.K Downing has expressed his interest in rejoining Priest many times provided they approach him. So who knows, may be in the near future we would see a vicious twin lead guitar attack of Richie-Downing in Judas Priest. At the end of the concert I felt happy and fortunate to think we still have Judas Priest with us. And the British Steel is showing no signs of rust.