Monday, 22 May 2017

Iron Maiden - Birmingham Review

It might surprise readers of this blog that, before last night, I had not seen the mighty Iron Maiden live! This is probably hard to believe for some of you, but it is true. In fairness, I was a bit of a latecomer to the band. I always respected their influence and legacy, but I put my efforts into other bands and only really started to properly explore the Iron Maiden discography when I went to University in 2010. Since then I have obviously become well-versed in the band's music and have become a big fan. Being an Iron Maiden fan in their home country of England can be an extremely frustrating experience as live appearances are often few and far between. They are one of those bands who now seem to think that a single appearance at Download Festival constitutes a UK tour, and this is the main reason which is why last night in Birmingham was my first experience of the Irons live. 2015 saw the release of The Book of Souls (which I reviewed here), the band's sixteenth studio album. The predictable headline appearance at Download was used last year to promote the album in the UK, but not long after that weekend a full UK tour, the band's first in six years, was announced. I knew as soon as I saw the announcement that I had to make every effort to go, so a ticket was duly purchased for their stop off in Birmingham at the Barclaycard Arena. Despite being slightly smaller (only very slightly) than the prestigious Genting Arena (which forms part of the out-of-town NEC complex), the Barclaycard Arena is my preference for arena gigs in Birmingham. It is right in the centre of town so is extremely accessible and there is no reliance on packed, late-night trains afterwards. I had only been to the Barclaycard Arena once before, and that was to see Status Quo in December of last year. With all the seats removed, apart from the fixed balcony-type seating where I was, the place suddenly seemed so much bigger than it had previously. Unsurprisingly, for a band of Iron Maiden's stature, the place was full.

Before the Irons took to the stage, the gathering crowd were treated to just under an hour of American rockers Shinedown, a band who are well-known in their own right. I saw the band a few years ago supporting Alter Bridge in Nottingham, but they have become much more popular since them. Despite having a few good songs, I have never really become a big fan of theirs. Their 'generic radio rock for the masses' is pretty bland on their whole, but they still managed to put on a decent show. They opened with Devour, a song I know quite well, and proceeded to play a collection of their well-known material; including many songs that I was familiar with. An early highlight was Diamond Eyes (Boom-Lay Boom-Lay Boom) which saw quite a lot of crowd interaction and there seemed to be quite a few in attendance who were familiar with the band. The thing that has always annoyed me about Shinedown however is frontman Brent Smith's over-earnest and lengthy speaches between songs about how heavy metal is a lifestyle (Shinedown would not know heavy metal if it slapped them in the face) and other needless clich├ęs that might well go down well in American, a country known for being over-sentimental, but just come across as strange over here. Plus, it was clear even from where I was sitting, that Smith had a lot of vocal 'help' throughout the set. I would not necessarily accuse him of miming, but there really were a lot of vocals on the backing track! This is never good to see, and it certainly put a downer on the band's overall performance. That being said, you cannot deny the quality and memorability of many of the band's songs, and they are songs written for arenas. The setlist was:

Fly from the Inside
Diamond Eyes (Boom-Lay Boom-Lay Boom)
How Did You Love
Second Chance
Cut the Cord
Sound of Madness

After the customary intro consisting of UFO's Doctor Doctor had been played over the PA, the lights went down and a short video was played before frontman Bruce Dickinson took the stage with a smoking cauldron and started singing If Eternity Should Fail from the latest album. When the whole band kicked in, it was clear that the crowd was going to be in for a good night as the sound was extremely clear and all six members of the band really seemed up for it. As this tour is promoting the material on The Book of Souls, a good portion of that album was played throughout the night, with older classics thrown in throughout. Speed of Light, also from the new album, was an early highlight, and saw both  Adrian Smith (guitar/vocals) and Dave Murray (guitar) trading leads and solos throughout. The punky Wrathchild from the band's early days went down a storm, before the rarely played Children of the Damned also received a huge cheer. While all six of the guys on stage really gave their all, it was Dickinson that impressed the most. While his voice is not quite what it was, you could tell he was straining to reach some of the higher notes, he still put in a top-notch performance and showed why he is one of the best frontmen in the business. He had numerous hats, costumes, and props throughout the evening to help him and he put on a real show. The new material came across really well in the set and Death or Glory, which is one of the more 'to the point' songs on the new album, was also really well received. The new song that I felt was overlong was The Red and the Black, which has never been a favourite song of mine, but the wordless vocal sections were belted out by the crowd with plenty of enthusiasm. The stone cold classic The Trooper predictably received one of the biggest reactions of the night, and Dickinson rushed around the top of the stage in his red coat and armed with his trusty Union Flag. He even tied up Janick Gers (guitar) with it at one point which was fun to see, and showed the chemistry the two have. Much is made of Smith and Murray in Iron Maiden, but Gers sometimes get forgotten about. This is a shame as he is a real showman and is definitely the second most active on stage after Dickinson (although founding member and bassist Steve Harris runs him close!). Plus, his rawer guitar style is a great contrast to the more precise styles of the band's other two guitarists, and he helps to add some real rock and roll to proceedings. He particularly impressed on The Book of Souls, a song which he co-wrote. From the delicate acoustic guitar intro, to the hard-rocking second half of the song, Gers really showed what an asset he is to the band. Two real classics were wheeled out at the end, and Fear of the Dark probably saw the biggest sing-along of the night before the band's self-titled song brought the main set to a loud and energetic close. There was of course time for some more and The Number of the Beast got the encore section off to a strong start while a big , inflatable devil observed from the rear of the stage. The newer number Blood Brothers also proved to be a big sing-along, before the evening came to and end with Smith's Wasted Years a song which is just packed full of great guitar playing. The setlist was:

If Eternity Should Fail
Speed of Light
Children of the Damned
Death or Glory
The Red and the Black
The Trooper
The Great Unknown
The Book of Souls
Fear of the Dark
Iron Maiden
The Number of the Beast
Blood Brothers
Wasted Years

Overall, this was a top night of high quality melodic metal from one of the all-time legends of the genre. I had been waiting many years to see Iron Maiden live so I am happy that I have finally had the opportunity to do so and they did not disappoint. I imagine that this will be seen as one of my gigs of the year come December, and it would definitely deserve that accolade.

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