Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Epitaph: Judas Priest • Black Label Society • Thin Lizzy - November 8, 2011 - U.S. Bank Arena, Cincinnati, Ohio

Tuesday's lineup for Judas Priest's Epitaph tour was a great one for me, in theory. I'm a lifelong Thin Lizzy fan though, in my opinion (at least prior to this show), I could not conceive of a Lizzy post-Lynott and I was curious just to see Gorham (and Downey, I guess) in the flesh. Tony Conley recently wrote a great piece on this lineup and I was anxious to see how I felt about his assessment. Black Label Society has likewise been a favorite since their inception and having them on the bill was a great bonus, almost equivalent to co-headliners. Almost. Because for me, born in the early 70s, Priest is untouchable. Sabbath may have created metal but, let's face it, Judas Priest are the ones who brought it to the first MTV generation. To see them wrap up their live career (supposedly) as a largely intact unit still capable of producing great albums (at least through Angel of Retribution) was an opportunity I would not miss. In the end, though, the Epitaph stop in Cincinnati turned my expectations inside out and upside down.

U.S. Bank Arena sits about twenty miles from my office, is, primarily, a hockey venue and, while a decent place to see a sizable show such as this tour, suffers from less-than-fantastic acoustics. Still, parking was easy, if not way overpriced at $20 for the attached garage (options nearby at half the price or lower were plentiful) and there was the expected variety of merchandise for the bands as well as the expected prices with no Priest or BLS shirts offered at under $35 (and cotton hoodies, for example, going for $70). I was pleased to see the increasingly-rare oversized tour programme offered by Priest and am still second-guessing my decision to pass one up at the $20 price tag. Would have been a nice souvenir if this is indeed the last go-around but, in the end, would be an item simply shelved. I did drop $35 on a very mediocre Epitaph tour tee which was generically lazy enough to include just countries on the tour. No cities, no dates. BLS merch trumped Priest by far in terms of variety and appeal of designs and it appeared to me that many fans were opting to spend their dollars there. Lizzy had a couple tees but given my hesitation about their act it was an easy pass, too.

Lady Starlight was listed as a support act in recent ads and had a hoodie for sale as well. I was expecting some kind of glam rock but it turns out it was a female DJ in leather catsuit blasting an ipod filled with the most predictable selection of classic metal imaginable: "Back in Black" followed by "Doctor, Doctor" followed by "The Trooper" and so on. I am convinced she must be romantically linked to someone in one of the bands because her inclusion on the bill is otherwise dumbfounding. On the upside, she "performed" prior to the published start time of 7:00 PM and between sets so no time was wasted.

Thin Lizzy took the stage promptly at 7:00 and, just as promptly, destroyed any preconceived notions and nagging doubts I had about this version of the band. No, it isn't Lynott's Lizzy. It never can be. It's not even John Sykes' Lizzy. It was, however, one hell of a great group of musicians playing Thin Lizzy's classics exactly as they sounded on all the records. It was very easy to focus solely on Scott Gorham the entire set as the man still exudes that 70s rock star vibe and makes his guitar wizardry look so natural, so effortless. Ricky Warwick is a very passable Lynnott soundalike but, frankly, not a particularly compelling frontman. It seemed odd to shift attention to the animated Marco Mendoza on bass and try to reconcile the two into one person though it is entirely unreasonable and silly to expect the band would be able to find a capable frontman who would just happen to also be able to handle both duties. Brian Downey was just fine but, like keyboardist Darren Wharton, also easily overlooked - this is Thin Lizzy, after all, and guitars rule the world here. I came away most surprised and impressed with Damon Johnson, who even though I have seen perform twice before with Alice Cooper, was victim of a grudge I was harboring over his not being recent Lizzy stand-in and personal guitar hero Vivian Campbell. He held his own with Gorham and the absolute highlight of both Lizzy's set and the entire evening was a knock-down, drag-out twin guitar workout on "Black Rose." It was immediately easy to lose yourself in the  moment, forget that most on stage were not on the original recording and just be immersed in the song, one of the best in Lizzy's catalogue if not in all classic rock of that era.

Thin Lizzy November 8, 2011 Setlist:
  1. Are You Ready
  2. Waiting For An Alibi
  3. Jailbreak
  4. Massacre
  5. Emerald
  6. Killer On The Loose
  7. Rosalie
  8. Black Rose
  9. Cowboy Song
  10. The Boys Are Back In Town
Whereas Thin Lizzy's tone, mix and volume were all spot-on, Black Label Society went for pure power. A wall of at least twenty Marshall amps stood behind the band and all were apparently working just fine. Too well, sad to say. While Zakk Wylde and company were absolutely killer in terms of stage presence - and they obviously pleased much of the crowd who were just going wild - they suffered from a horrible combination of too much volume and bad acoustics. Wylde's voice was almost inaudible as were most of his leads resulting in a barrage of low-end bass and distortion. As someone who owns all the BLS albums I could only immediately recognize two of the numbers off the bat ("Suicide Messiah" and closer "Stillborn"). Wylde did showcase many of his signature guitars and performed one marathon frenetic solo unfettered by the distortion affecting the rest of the set. I have always wanted to see these guys and still want to see them - just in a smaller venue with better acoustics and a capable sound crew.

Enter Judas Priest. Ah, the almighty. They emerged to a powerful "Rapid Fire" (I would have chosen "Judas Rising" myself as it just seems so perfectly tailor-made as an opener). Regardless, their stage set was impressive and appropriate for the venue's size and they still had all the proper Priest props in place. Their initial energy was infectious and inspiring as well. So how did it go wrong?

First and foremost, the volume. It felt as if Priest was competing with BLS for who could be the loudest. I love my metal loud but I also love to be able to distinguish one guitar from another and vocals from all else. Unfortunately, the muddiness of the sound continued throughout the entire set.

Second, the setlist. Too damn long. How the hell can I complain about that? Priest has innumerable great songs and Priest has great songs on every album. As advertised for this tour every Halford album was indeed represented, including a few that didn't need to be. "Prophecy" could have and should have been cut and I, as always, hated "Turbo Lover," though I must admit that much of the Cincinnati crowd seemed to really enjoy it. "Blood Red Skies" was tepid and immediately forgettable.

Finally, Halford. The man could still hit the high notes. He did it often and he did it well. He did not, however, move well at all. I do not know if he is suffering from an injury, illness or simply the fact that he's a 60-year-old rock-and-roller but he appeared to be stiff, stodgy, limited in his range of motion and in need of constant support. He exited the stage entirely nearly every time he was not singing and, while I have nothing whatsoever aside from a guess to support this, I would suspect he may have been taking oxygen offstage. He frequently mangled lyrics and it was not uncommon for him to totally ignore a verse's established melody ("Heading Out to the Highway" was an early example of a notable misstep in the set). Finally, he committed the ultimate live sin, in my opinion, by too frequently handing vocals over to the crowd, no instance more egregious than that of "Breaking the Law" during which he provided zero vocals for the entire number rendering a classic 100% karaoke. His numerous wardrobe changes were also distracting and I, for one, do not understand how you perform "Hell Bent for Leather" decked out in gold lamé.

I did not shoot this video but found it posted on youtube.
really appreciate its author, Bashe86, for posting it for all to see.

Were there any high points? Hell, yes. An absolutely stunning "Victim of Changes" was rivaled only by "Beyond the Realms of Death" when "The Ripper," "Exciter" or "Better By You..." would have been easier choices in terms of perceived crowd pleasers. These were complex, beautiful songs and each were perfectly played out by Judas Priest. Notable covers "The Green Manalishi" and "Diamonds & Rust" also impressed, the latter is a fusion of acoustic and electric presentations, falling into a new (to this listener) arrangement, adding an exciting dimension not found in its studio incarnations from Rocka Rolla and Sin After Sin.

Richie Faulkner was a decent stand-in for K.K. Downing but he is no K.K. Downing, seeming more a lookalike than a rival in sound. While Ian Hill did what Ian Hill does just fine (play minimal bass while either swiveling or tilting at the waist) and Scott Travis neither particularly impressed nor disappointed on drums (aside from his reliance on the old twirling/tossing/catching drumsticks move), the evening really rested on Glenn Tipton's shoulders. And Glenn Tipton delivered. The man interacted well with the crowd, provided all the guitar theatrics he has mastered over the last forty or so years, and struck all the proper Priest poses at all the right times. It is a shame his traditional foil was not present for the classic interplay but, based on the rest of the show, I must say that I think K.K. made the right move retiring when he did.

The band, having delivered all the goods you could expect, wrapped up at 11:57 PM before the fake exit (following an even faker semi-exit/momentarily darkened stage prior to "Electric Eye") and, given the time of evening plus the one glaring absence from the setlist, a predictable, though still rousing, "Living After Midnight" followed as the sole real encore selection.

A decent show. Not a great show. Not worth the money and, frankly, nowhere close to the quality of performance Priest delivered when I last witnessed them in 2005. I'm so very pleased that Thin Lizzy far surpassed any of my expectations and still interested in catching Black Label Society elsewhere but, as for the Metal Gods, I would rather bask in memories of their long career than dwell on this particular epitaph.

Judas Priest November 8, 2011 Setlist:
  1. Rapid Fire (British Steel)
  2. Metal Gods (British Steel)
  3. Heading Out to the Highway (Point of Entry)
  4. Judas Rising (Angel of Retribution)
  5. Starbreaker (Sin After Sin)
  6. Victim of Changes (Sad Wings of Destiny)
  7. Never Satisfied (Rocka Rolla)
  8. Diamonds & Rust (Rocka Rolla / Sin After Sin)
  9. Prophecy (Nostradamus)
  10. Night Crawler (Painkiller)
  11. Turbo Lover (Turbo)
  12. Beyond the Realms of Death (Stained Class)
  13. The Sentinel  (Defenders of the Faith)
  14. Blood Red Skies (Ram it Down)
  15. The Green Manalishi (With the Two-Pronged Crown) (Killing Machine / Hell Bent for Leather)
  16. Breaking the Law (British Steel)
  17. Painkiller (Painkiller)
  18. The Hellion/Electric Eye (Screaming for Vengeance)
  19. Hell Bent for Leather (Killing Machine / Hell Bent for Leather)
  20. You've Got Another Thing Comin' (Screaming for Vengeance)
  21. Living After Midnight (British Steel)

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