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Metal/Prog Metal Concert Reviews

Judas Priest

Live In Chicago, February, 2002

Review by Mike Korn

Should Judas Priest, quite possibly the purest heavy metal band on the planet, retire gracefully, or should they continue to make headbangers' necks sore into the new millennium? This is the question that many have posed since Priest's longtime frontman Rob Halford departed the band years ago. It's a question that still provokes a lot of debate. I know where I stand on it. There are those who feel that Judas Priest should pack it in, and that Halford's replacement Ripper Owens should go back to stocking the Piggly Wiggly. Well, that's one view. For my own take on it, I think Priest have a lot of life left in them and that Owens does a fine job standing in for the admittedly irreplaceable Halford.

On this night in Chicago, both Owens and Judas Priest had something to prove. There's no doubt in my mind that they showed there is still life in the Beast yet. Opening with the awesome "Metal Gods", the band indulged in a serious bout of synchronized headbanging that would get any true metal fan rocking. Ripper is not Rob and naturally, he is not going to have the same vocalizations and timbre that the Studded One possessed. Some times, it resulted in a slight let down but at other times, he equaled his predecessor and, on "Beyond the Realms of Death", actually surpassed him. I saw Halford's own take on the song last year and Judas Priest has the better of him on that one.

The band did a good job of trying to cover all phases of their career. Just about every album got touched on, with the exception of "Ram It Down" and "Defenders of the Faith". I would have loved to hear tracks like "Genocide", "Bloodstone" and "Freewheel Burning" myself but when a band has a career as long and illustrious as Priest, you simply won't be able to hear everything you want. Cuts that surprised me included the excellent "Desert Plains", one of the band's most underrated songs; an odd semi-acoustic version of "Diamonds and Rust" which drew mixed reactions; and, most suprisingly, the old chestnut "United", which I doubt has been performed since the "British Steel" days. The latter track is a great singalong anthem, a lot better than the ho-hum "Living After Midnight". Also making an appearance was "Turbo Lover", the lead cut from what was undoubtedly the band's worst album.

Ripper can hit every high note that Halford can and he proved it with a mind-boggling performance on "Victim of Changes", the band's best track, in my opinion. He hit notes so high and so long that my groin hurt just listening to him and plenty of the fans in attendance looked at each other in disbelief after this killer vocal display. As opposed to indecipherable death metal grunting or nu-metal rapping, this was a true metal vocalist at work.

Of newer tracks, Owens is naturally going to sound more natural on stuff he originally performed on. There was a brutal, thrash-like version of "Bloodstained", a rousing "Burn In Hell" and a new anthem from the latest album "Demolition", "One on One". Another "Demolition" track was the unusual "Hell Is Home", where the band demonstrated a good deal of subtlety in its handling of the song's moods. There were some tracks where Owens just couldn't match the performance that Rob would have given. I don't think he really matched up with "Painkiller" that well, and nobody will ever equal Halford's take on "Hell Bent For Leather".

The rest of the band members played their hearts out. There were some occasional sound screw-ups during the guitar solos and drummer Scott Travis was visibly frustrated with his cymbal and tambourine set up a couple of times during the set, but these were minor quibbles. Downing and Tipton wrote the book on twin guitar heavy metal, and seeing them perform these classics is like watching Nolan Ryan pitch a good baseball game. It may not be a no-hitter but it's still a winner. Bass player Ian Hill must be pushing 50, if not beyond, but he headbanged as hard as anyone, and when he emerged for the encore, he was obviously moved by the sincere adulation of the fans.

Most of the crowd in attendance ate up the band's antics (though quite a few had come to sample the opening band Anthrax) and rewarded the group with two separate encores.

At the end of the day, the show wasn't perfect and Judas Priest are not going be the band they were in 1981 or 1985, but they can still show the fans what a real metal band sounds like. As for Ripper Owens, he's earned the right to play with the band, at least as far as I'm concerned. A Halford/Priest reunion may take place down the road but for right now, we've got two good metal bands instead of one, and you can't knock that!
This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2002 Year Book Volume 3 at lulu.com/strangesound.
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