It’s a Monday night, the sky is spitting, and Metallica’s surprise show at Metro is the talk of the town, but there’s nothing that can take away from the excitement of seeing Judas Priest in the live setting. To think that two of the greatest heavy metal bands of all time will be playing simultaneously just a dozen miles apart made the air in Chicago, well…. heavy.
One of the great perks of this Judas Priest 50th Anniversary Tour is the fact that they brought a seasoned veteran act with them to open their shows. Sabaton is a Swedish metal band that is often swaddled with the power metal sub-genre tag. Their style of heaviness has traditional European folk elements with some symphonic leanings, all of which dance around on a foundation of traditional metal bass and drum backbone and shredding guitars. What makes Sabaton more dynamic than most is their love for history, especially that of war time, and the fact that they’ve been in existence for more than twenty years.
I knew of Sabaton’s music going into this show, and I was aware that they often have a pretty sensational stage set that includes a drum riser that is a tank. So, as you might imagine, I wondered if they may have been told to leave the war machines at home for this tour. As Sabaton was about to take the stage to flashes of white light that simulated explosions on a battlefield, it became obvious that they brought all of their stage artillery along. Now my only question was whether they brought their musical chops to the fight.
As the uplifting chant-like choruses had much of the crowd throwing up horns, it was clear that this band was capable and confident. Singer Joakim Brodén, equipped with blackened shades and a buzzcut landing strip down the center of his skull, was strong and clear in his uplifting vocal delivery. The rest of the band were on point as they backed up Brodén with their gang vocal chants. Where Brodén has almost no hair, the rest of the band has hair swinging from one end of the stage to the other. As guitarists Tommy Johansson and Chris Rörland traded licks throughout the set, I loved the fact that their playing was controlled and precise. This band didn’t overplay, but definitely exhibited their talent through excellent song structures. The only regret I have with their set is the fact that they don’t bring a keyboard player with them. Some of these songs have very strong symphonic keyboard elements, which are presented as tracks playing underneath the live band. A completely acceptable and practical way to handle the parts, but I always like to see that live musician.
And we have to address the tank in the room…
Complete with cannons, continuous treads, and Yamaha logos, this monster war machine is a sight to behold. As drummer Hannes Van Dahl is perched atop the turret, it doesn’t get too much more “metal” than having a tank on stage. As Brodén said at one point in the set, it’s not too many headlining bands that would allow their opener to bring a tank on stage. He gave thanks to Judas Priest, and all of us in the audience did the same.
In Flanders Fields (Pre-recorded track)
The Last Stand
The Red Baron
Defence of Moscow
Fields of Verdun
The Attack of the Dead Men
To Hell and Back
I’ve been fortunate enough to see Judas Priest a number of times over their 50-year history, but the last time I saw them was way back in 1986. What I remember from those shows are the elaborate stage sets, the dual guitar solos, and the ear-shattering vocal power of the Metal God himself, singer Rob Halford. With his daunting stage presence and paralyzing gaze to accompany that voice, he was truly something supernatural. But, this isn’t the 70’s or 80’s. The band has lost its legendary guitar duo of K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton, and Halford is now 70 years old. The questions I had going into this one were: 1) Would guitarists Richie Faulkner and Andy Sneap have the same chemistry as Downing and Tipton?, and 2) How much power and range has Halford lost in the voice?
As the venue suddenly exploded with the hammering riff of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” the near capacity crowd erupted and sang along to the brooding heavy metal anthem. As about 4,000 metal maniacs screamed along with Ozzy’s “Oh Lord yeah,” the lights fell and the mighty Judas Priest was ready for action.
As the intro to “One Shot At Glory” started to play, Faulkner buzzed through the riff and rolled out a red carpet of sound for Halford to take his place center stage. This is a song that has Halford in a mid-range which was handled perfectly, and it has a dual guitar solo which was simply slayed by Faulkner and Sneap. It was immediately evident that these guitarists were set to handle whatever the Priest catalog might throw at them. Do Faulkner and Sneap have the talent? Oh hell yeah. Do they have the chemistry and comradery that Downing and Tipton once had? Not exactly. I don’t remember any time in the set that they got together and banged heads in unison or interacted at all really. They remained on their assigned sides of the stage and just melted faces. They didn’t try to replicate what was once there, and I can appreciate that. These are definitely two different players and the stage antics are different but make no mistake, Faulkner and Sneap are freakishly great players.
As Halford got deeper into the set his voice began to explore the range and power we’ve come to know him for. “Freewheel Burning,” “The Sentinel,” and “Victim Of Changes” are songs that most 70-year old singers would find a way to avoid, but not Rob Halford. Halford is not a victim of the changes that have come to his band or his body. He had every metalhead in the Rosemont Theatre crippled in awe of his voice. “Victim Of Changes” is kind of the litmus test for a singer. It’s a song that takes the voice to the very bottom and the very (very) top of a vocal range. The song culminates in a long, strong, high-pitched scream; a scream that only one 70-year-old man can handle. That particular man happens to be Rob Halford. The guy is just a freak of nature.
This set is filled with spectacular moments all around. The setlist is made up of a lot of deep cuts as well as the expected hits. The beautiful lighting rig is stunning and captivating as the Judas Priest cross symbol descends and throws light in every direction. There’s a film screen along the back wall, which kindly showed images of former guitarist Glenn Tipton during “Victim Of Changes.” (For those not in the know, Tipton has Parkinson’s Disease and has stepped down from his role in the band) “Hell Bent For Leather” is still the moment that finds Halford riding a Harley onto the stage and singing from the bike’s seat. It has been a classic moment in every Priest concert since that album's tour, and it remains a pivotal moment to this day. But, perhaps the most stunning part of the stage set is the giant inflatable bull that joins the band for the final songs of the night. With his red glowing eyes, he looks like a demonized version of the Merrill Lynch logo.
Judas Priest is heavy metal. They define the genre. Go see them live and you’ll understand that statement to its fullest. My favorite part of the show comes as the band is exiting the stage. It’s the part where the screen in back has the words “THE PRIEST WILL BE BACK” emblazoned on it. Nothing makes me happier than that.
JUDAS PRIEST SETLIST
Battle Hymn (Pre-recorded track)
One Shot at Glory
You've Got Another Thing Comin'
A Touch of Evil
Victim of Changes
Blood Red Skies
The Hellion (Pre-recorded track)
Hell Bent for Leather
Breaking the Law
Living After Midnight