NEW YORK — Before Iron Maiden played the only new song of their 90-minute set on Wednesday night (July 30) at Madison Square Garden, frontman Bruce Dickinson offered a little sociology lesson.
Dickinson spoke of how 10 years of vapid trends and media manipulation have resulted in legions of manufactured, uninspiring hard rock bands with two good songs per album and careers that last no longer than two records. Then Maiden blasted into "Wildest Dreams" — a galloping track from their upcoming disc, Dance of Death — and it was as if the past decade never happened.
"Out on my way, out on the road again," wailed Dickinson before guitarists Dave Murray, Adrian Smith and Janick Gers traded deft, galvanic solos while bassist Steve Harris and drummer Nicko McBrain kept the rhythms pounding.
Sadly, time only really stands still in intensely boring classroom lectures — or, as Groucho Marx once said, "Time wounds all heels." The members of Iron Maiden are in their mid-to-late 40s now. Their faces are lined with wrinkles, their hair is growing grayer by the day, they all have families and they're not as freewheeling or impulsive as they once were. But they still have the energy, enthusiasm, agility and musical chops to win over an arena crowd.
One of the keys to Maiden's longevity is devotion. Through thick and thin, the band has never strayed from its epic metal course, and its fans have rewarded it with undying loyalty. That's why Maiden are still able to sell out Madison Square Garden and other large venues without the aid of radio or video exposure.
Fans at the Garden had plenty to be excited about. Iron Maiden were loud, dramatic, and looked so metal. Dickinson ran a marathon from side to side and across a platform at the back of the stage, vaulted monitors like an Olympic long jumper, threw his fists in the air as if slaying giant dragonflies and waved a giant Union Jack flag. Yet he never got too winded to sing with accuracy, passion and authority.
While the frontman led the crusade, the band's guitarists put on kinetic displays of six-string precision, and each sported trademark moves that helped establish their identity. When he wasn't navigating the stage, Smith stood stoic, knees bent, legs wide apart, and threw his head back when he ripped through speedy, melodic leads. Murray was less mobile, often looking down at his guitar as he played, though he frequently arched his back at the string-bending apex of his screaming solos. Gers, with his flowing blond hair, was the band's most acrobatic and hyperactive axeman. As he played he jogged in place, whipped his instrument in circles around his body, windmilled, hoisted his guitar against his outer thigh and kicked his monitor with his heel.
Such gestures would seem absurd from Nickelback, but Maiden fans expect nothing less than overblown showmanship. They screamed with joy when a giant metal robot version of the band's mascot, Eddie, ascended during the set closer, "Iron Maiden." As the creature's head opened on a hinge, a car-sized brain descended from the rafters and landed in the gleaming skull, causing the torso to wiggle and the metal jaws to make chewing motions.
|Motörhead and Iron Maiden live photos|
The set list chronicled Iron Maiden's career and offered a healthy dose of crowd-pleasers, but there were also numerous surprises. After opening with "The Number of the Beast" and "The Trooper," Maiden plowed into "Die With Your Boots On" and "Revelations" from 1983's Piece of Mind, though they didn't play the better known "Flight of Icarus" or "Where Eagles Dare" from the same album. And while they performed the nine-minute-long "The Clansman" from Virtual XI, an album recorded in 1998 when Dickinson was out of the band, they avoided their signature epic "Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Similarly, they played the somewhat obscure cut "The Clairvoyant" from Seventh Son of a Seventh Son and the title track of Fear of the Dark, but didn't perform "Aces High" or "Wrathchild."
Such quibbles are minor. Compared to other bands from their era and most contemporary hard rock outfits, Iron Maiden are theatrical, honest, even joyous. Staind and Metallica may sneer while they play, but guitarists Smith and Murray often exchange wide grins. Bassist Harris is such a fan, he sings along wide-mouthed even though he's nowhere near a microphone. Refreshingly, Maiden aren't too self-important to be self-deprecating. While other bands may avoid talking about scuffles with the law, Dickinson took two jabs at drummer McBrain, who was arrested last week for striking a parking attendant with his car (see "Iron Maiden Drummer Arrested After Allegedly Driving Into Lot Attendant"). "Don't get into a moving vehicle with this man," he said when introducing McBrain mid-set. Before Maiden encored with "2 Minutes to Midnight" and "Run to the Hills," Dickinson exclaimed, "Fresh out of San Quentin, madman Nicko McBrain on the drums."
With Maiden, stage drama heightens a euphoric experience. For show opener Dio, theatricality seems more than a tad bit absurd. Frontman Ronnie James Dio, who hasn't exactly aged well and kinda resembles the Cryptkeeper, continually saluted the crowd with the heavy metal "devil horns" sign and wiggled the splayed fingers to the beat like a Hell-bound orchestra conductor.
Guitarist Craig Goldy was similarly comical when he repeatedly yanked his instrument to the side to display Rockettes-style high kicks, and ran his fingers mystically up and down his guitar neck between fuzzbomb riffs. Simon Wright's insistence on playing along with a tape of the climax of Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" during his overly long drum solo was equally hard to take seriously.
Yet, those who closed their eyes or otherwise overlooked the visual display were treated to a thundering showcase of mystical, anthemic metal. Dio's voice is still a fine-tuned machine that is equally capable of delivering hushed, eerie passages and belting out daunting vibrato crescendos, and the band's musicianship was tight and gripping. The only recent song Dio played was "Killing the Dragon"; the rest of the set included '80s classics such as "The Last in Line," "Stand Up and Shout," "Rainbow in the Dark," "Holy Diver" and "Heaven and Hell," a song from Dio's two-album tenure with Black Sabbath.
Biker metal stalwarts Motörhead opened the show with 30 minutes of ground-shaking, teeth-busting clamor. Unlike Dio and Maiden, it doesn't matter how old frontman Lemmy Kilmister gets, because he has no aspirations to be cool or theatrical. Paradoxically, he's one of the coolest, most watchable figures in rock.
As he ravaged his bass, Lemmy craned his neck to sing into his downward-tilted mike. When he wasn't roaring in a shattered-larynx voice, he played with one knee bent while ponytailed guitarist Phil Campbell sawed hardcore-paced blues-metal riffs and drummer Mikkey Dee battered away on a double-bass kit so emphatically, it sounded like roadway construction.
Motörhead flawlessly ripped through "Motorhead," "Sacrifice" and "Killed by Death," but the showstopper was the timeless "Ace of Spades," which inspired an enthused sing-along from the crowd. Lemmy introduced the cut by saying, "If you know the words you can sing along, but I won't be able to hear you." Ever hear of earplugs, Lemmy?
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