13 July 2010

Riding the rock and roll school bus to Iron Maiden and Dream Theater

Last week I mentioned the fact that I was going to see Dream Theater and Iron Maiden on Sunday, 11 July at the Garden State Arts Center in Holmdel NJ. I promised a review.

I should start out the review by stating that I missed Dream Theater’s opening song, ‘As I Am.’ I missed it because I was sitting in a school bus in the North overflow parking lot about a mile or so up the Garden State Parkway from the venue. I was sitting in the bus because the show sold out…17,500 tickets, if the info on Wikipedia (and a brief Google search) is to be believed…and all the parking lots were filled. I’m not sure what it was about the whole situation, but I found it a little funny and a lot weird, as if I had been taken back in time 20-odd years (actually a little longer, but we’re not going to count, OK?) to my school days, and the rowdy noisiness of the kids yelling at the driver and generally making fools of themselves. Of course, the fact that most of them had probably been hitting their coolers pretty hard in the time before the show might have helped (or maybe hindered) their cause. In any event, I was standing in line at the merch stand to buy my two overpriced t-shirts (one DT, one Maiden, natch) as the band was finishing up their opening track.

‘A Rite of Passage’ was up next, off the band’s newest album Black Clouds & Silver Linings, and it got a decent response from the crowd, while the somewhat slower ‘Home’ seemed to set the audience where I was standing back a bit, despite it perhaps being a bit better known. The crowd’s energy was kicked back up with a pair of shorter, faster paced songs; ‘Constant Motion,’ from Systematic Chaos saw a big response from the crowd (some of whom were still flowing into the amphitheatre), while ‘Panic Attack’ seemed to be a big hit. It also got my one head shake of the night, as James LaBrie introduced it with the statement ‘If you have Rock Band 2 you’ll know this one…Panic Attack!’ I know it’s indicative of where the industry is these days, but it still strikes me as a bit of a downer that a video game has become a way of advertising a song, rather than the album its from. In any event, ‘Panic Attack’ got a very big response.

Dream Theater closed out their set with their biggest (and many would say only) hit, ‘Pull Me Under’ from the band’s 1992 release Images and Words. It’s become almost an obligatory track for the band to play, especially to audiences not necessarily familiar with the band’s catalogue, as it received extensive radio and MTV airplay despite its 8-minute length. As the opening notes played the crowd cheered, obviously familiar with this piece, and the band played the piece with enthusiasm, which was nice to see considering that by this point it’s likely that they have played the song over a thousand times since its release.

As things quieted down, I sat on the hill and thought a little bit about the show. The band sounded great…honestly. James LaBrie was in fine form, and I could hear John Myung’s bass playing pretty clearly. Mike Portnoy was killing it on drums, John Petrucci’s guitar tone was nice and crunchy, and Jordan Rudess sounded good on keys, albeit at times just a bit lower than I expected. It’s hard to tell if the band converted anyone…Maiden shirts outnumbered DT shirts by a 20 to 1 margin easily, and I know that amongst the cheers I did see people unmoved, arms crossed or talking to their neighbours. For me, while the set was strong, I know I'd have loved to hear some more diverse material. I know the songs were chosen to present DT at their heavier side to the Maiden fans, but it was a bit much of one thing for me. I will say this…I’ll try to make an effort to see them in more of a headliner position in the future, as I’d like to hear and see them play a wider range of material. That has to count for something, right?

1. As I Am

2. A Rite Of Passage

3. Home

4. Constant Motion

5. Panic Attack

6. Pull Me Under

As the sun began to set behind the hills of Holmdel New Jersey, the nearly 20,000 people gathered to see Iron Maiden play were growing restless. Every time another crewmember came on stage in the dark, a small cheer was raised in hopes that it was actually one of the band. A few idle strums or bass guitar thumps were evidence enough that things weren’t quite ready yet.

Then the lights went down. The crowd cheered. And as the opening kettledrum notes of Gustav Holst’s ‘Mars, the Bringer of War’ began to pulse out over the crowd, the expectant crown rose to life as one. The projection screens showed a series of images from the Hubble Space Telescope as Holst’s most recognisable tune continued to wash out over the crowd, with the slide show finally ending on an image of crossed halberds across a helmeted skull…the Iron Maiden ‘logo’ from A Matter of Life and Death. And as the band finally bounded on stage open with a powerful rendition of the newer classic ‘The Wicker Man,’ one thing was certain; Iron Maiden was in control.

Following on from the opening salvos of ‘The Wicker Man,’ Maiden kept things going with the epic ‘Ghost of the Navigator,’ with thousands of fans singing along. The band showed amazing energy on stage, with Dickinson running around the tiered, ramp bracketed stage like someone half or less his age. Bassist Steve Harris would jump, pogo, run and wield his bass like a machine gun, aiming it at the audience as he played his trademark galloping bass licks. While Adrian Smith and Dave Murray always seem a bit more restrained on stage, Jannick Gers is still playing the part of the energetic young hotshot, whipping his guitar around his back, dancing jigs, and generally continuing to act like someone getting to live his biggest dream even after almost 20 years in the band.

A brief trip to the past for ‘Wrathchild’ (from 1981’s Killers) set up the sole new track in the set list. Coming from the band’s forthcoming release The Final Frontier, ‘El Dorado’ is a crunchy mid tempo rocker that was released as a free download on 8 June. It seemed obvious to me that a good bit of the crowd had availed themselves of the download, as they seemed pretty familiar with the track. It was a powerful rendition of the new song, one that bodes well for the rest of the material to come on the forthcoming album. ‘Dance of Death,’ the title track from Maiden’s 2003 album, was played next, but it honestly seemed overshadowed by the tracks to follow.

A pair of tracks from A Matter of Life and Death (‘The Reincarnation Of Benjamin Breeg’ and ‘These Colours Don't Run’) got a huge response from the crowd, especially ‘These Colours Don't Run,’ which Dickinson explained was about people who believed in what they were fighting for…not necessarily wars, but also including people fighting for peace or whatever. The crowd ate both tracks up, and the energy continued through an epic take on Brave New World’s ‘Blood Brothers,’ which featured some of the most passionate audience response of any song in the set. Dickinson used this song as an opportunity to ‘indoctrinate’ the new audience members into ‘the brother and sisterhood of Iron Maiden,’ and after seeing what an Iron Maiden show is like, I can see that.

A few more newer songs led the band toward the end of their set, and a trip down memory lane. Maiden took the crowd back to the early 1990’s with ‘Fear of the Dark’ from the album of the same name, while the opening notes of the band’s ‘title’ song caused the crowd to go nuts, as much for what they knew was going to happen on stage as for the song. Sure enough, part way through the track Eddie the ‘Ead made his appearance on stage, harassing and interfering with the band as they played. All of this could be seen on the projection screens via the ‘Eddie-cam,’ which gave the crown a band’s eye view of the mayhem. Eddie finally stole one of the guitars and began to ‘play’ as Harris and Gers attacked with their guitar and bass, with the crowd screaming along in joy. Let me tell you, when you consider that Live After Death was a major album in my youth, hearing Bruce Dickinson call out ‘Scream for me New Jersey!’ in person was a huge thing :-)

As the final notes of ‘Iron Maiden’ finally faded and the band retreated from the stage, the lights dimmed and the crowd began their chant of ‘MAI-DEN! MAI’DEN!’ A few minutes passed before a familiar recitation came across the PA system:

‘Woe to you, oh earth and sea…for the devil send the Beast with wrath, for He knows the time is short.’

What little bit of sanity the crowd had was gone, as evidenced by the lanky gentleman near my spot on the hill, who was flailing around, headbanging and thrusting one hand in the air, fingers forked, as he tried to video the band playing through his violent dancing. It was a difficult decision, choosing to watch the band or watch this guy acting like a jittering fool. A second track from The Number of the Beast album, ‘Hallowed be thy Name,’ followed on, with the audience singing as loudly as their lungs would allow. Maiden finally drew the night to a close with a hilarious take on ‘Running Free,’ memorable for the audience participation Dickinson instigated. Between his comments to the audience about his hat, which he finally tossed to the crowd, to his British Bobby’s hat and his comment about getting one young lady’s ‘particulars’ later, by this point the crowd was fully in the band’s capable hands.

Dickinson came to center stage one last time as the band built to a final climax, barking out ‘You think it’s over? Well, it is now! Good night New Jersey!’ One last curtain call, and the lights came up as Monty Python’s ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ played across the PA.

The Wicker Man

Ghost Of The Navigator


El Dorado

Dance Of Death

The Reincarnation Of Benjamin Breeg

These Colours Don't Run

Blood Brothers

Wildest Dreams

No More Lies

Brave New World

Fear Of The Dark
Iron Maiden


The Number of the Beast

Hallowed Be Thy Name

Running Free

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