Live Review: Iron Maiden, July 26, 2012
"Scream for me, Calgary!"
24 years ago Iron Maiden released their seventh album, the aptly titled Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, and kicked off their world tour that spring by playing straight across Canada with Guns N’ Roses opening. Obviously, a rather incredible double bill. A Maiden fan of four years by then, I had seen the band play an incredible show on the “Somewhere on Tour” the year before, and I was primed to see them one more time. So when the band announced the ten dates across the country, I was quite devastated that the band had not booked a show in a city near the town where I lived this time around. A couple years later I did see the Maiden England VHS concert that showcased the complete Seventh Son stage show and setlist, but by then it was little consolation. Missing out left a little void in this metalhead’s heart.
Needless to say part of me was after a little redemption as I made my way with fellow Maiden fans in the warm summer sun through downtown Calgary, Alberta towards the Scotiabank Saddledome. In keeping with their “new album tour”, “retrospective tour” routine, Iron Maiden followed up 2010’s world tour in support of the album The Final Frontier with this summer’s Maiden England tour, which sees them revisiting the stage show and song selections from that run back in 1988. Seventh Son was the last great album of Maiden’s phenomenal eight-year run that saw them become one of the most popular bands in the world, so to see a set devoted to that album is a real treat, especially for the older fans.
Some older fans have actually been saying, “wait, Maiden already threw Seventh Son a bone on the Somewhere Back in Time tour in 2008 by playing three songs from that record, so wouldn’t it make sense to play a set devoted to 1990’s No Prayer For the Dying and 1992’s Fear of the Dark?” That’s as may be, but to which I retort:
1. No Prayer For the Dying and Fear of the Dark are two of the worst albums in the Iron Maiden back catalog. They flat-out suck, and I personally would not pay money to see them trudge through “Bring Your Daughter…To the Slaughter” and “Wasting Love”.
2. I’d be skeptical if Bruce Dickinson would want to revisit a part of his career where he wasn’t exactly at his happiest.
3. The Seventh Son stage show was phenomenal, especially compared to the comparatively stripped-down tours that followed.
Perfectly content to hang outside the arena while openers Coheed and Cambria were playing – why sully an otherwise glorious night with awful music? – I ventured to my spot minutes before Maiden’s trademark overture, UFO’s “Doctor Doctor” cranked over the PA, kicked in. Most of the crowd of 10,000, a few thousand shy of a sell-out, recognized the song as the moment to start to go nuts, and the cheers went up, beer started flying, and security guards started chasing down misbehavers in their typically agro fashion.
After a filmed intro that showed on the two video screens to the left and right of the stage, the recorded opening notes of Seventh Son opener “Moonchild” started. The acoustic guitar overture, the synthy intro, the entrance of crunching guitars, the snare beats that built and built until, with a burst of fireworks, the band ran onstage and launched into the song, Dickinson on the back riser snarling, “I am he, the bornless one…”
In keeping with the Seventh Son theme the stage was adorned in the same lush sky blues and iceberg whites that dominate the album cover, a direct contrast to the lavish Egyptian set and more minimalist sci-fi look of the last two tours. What the band has done so well in recent years is give the audience a real sense of depth to the stage. It’s not just a band playing against the backdrop; there’s the backdrop (each one emblazoned with Derek Riggs artwork corresponding to which song is being played), space for props like the various incarnations of band mascot Eddie, the back riser for Dickinson to run around on, the back line, and the forestage. It’s a simple theater trick but extremely effective, and coupled with the carefully planned lighting, the pyro, and the always crowd-pleasing pillars of fire, it makes for a veritable feast for the eyes.
The setlist itself was not without its quirks. While it wasn’t a carbon copy of what was performed back in 1988 (no “Killers”, “Still Life”, “Infinite Dreams”, “Die With Your Boots On”, nor “Heaven Can Wait”), a good chunk of Seventh Son was performed, highlighted by the theatrical ten-minute title track, which went over exceptionally well. The usual standards were dutifully carted out (“Run to the Hills”, “The Number of the Beast”, “The Trooper”), a few more popular ‘80s classics (“2 Minutes to Midnight”, “Wasted Years”), but personally the best moments were when the band dug a little deeper into their discography. “The Prisoner”, complete with its famous intro from the TV show, was a great pleasure to hear once again, as was 1980’s “Phantom of the Opera”, the first truly great song the band ever recorded. There’s been a lot of grumbling about the inclusion of Fear of the Dark’s “Afraid to Shoot Strangers”, and I certainly was as skeptical as anyone, but that song – one of three tolerable tracks from that record – was a very effective change of pace, its typical galloping climax, one of bassist Steve Harris’s predictable but endearing songwriting crutches, igniting the crowd.
For all the sing choices and stage gimmickry, though, at the end of the day Maiden remains an extremely potent live act, and I’d dare say more so now than ever before. Back in the ‘80s they had loads of adrenaline, but playing hundreds of shows every tour they could also be a little sloppy from time to time, Dickinson often over-singing and straining his voice. Now at the age of 53 he paces himself better, and has learned to maximize the power of his voice without killing it. And in concert can you ever hear the difference these days; on a song as demanding as “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son”, he was hitting all the right notes, and with power. Mind you, he was doing all this singing while manically running around, jumping, gesticulating, and getting the crowd going at every opportunity. No frontman in metal is as engaging.
As for the rest of the band, it was the same old, same old, which everyone was perfectly fine with. Steve Harris was nearly as active as Dickinson, pointing his bass at fans and mouthing lyrics. Guitarists Dave Murray and Adrian Smith were largely static, while Janick Gers did his usual antics on stage left, dancing, kicking, posing, goofing around with Eddie, and occasionally playing guitar. And of course Nicko McBrain was buried behind his drum kit, only visible from the video cameras stationed behind and above his set-up. From where I was, the mix was impeccable. Mixing three guitars can’t be easy, but whatever was called for was executed, and not a solo or dual or triple harmony was missed.
After three appearances by Eddie – a “General Custer” Eddie walking onstage, the feather pen-wielding Eddie from the Seventh Son inner sleeve, the disembodied version from the cover art – there were a few more surprises during the encore. Winston Churchill’s “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech started, introducing Powerslave corker “Aces High”. As far as I can remember this is the first our to feature that song as part of the encore, and it worked like gangbusters, sending the crowd packed on the floor into a frenzy. After “The Evil That Men Do” and “Running Free”, though, that was it, no “Hallowed Be Thy Name”, which caught a lot of people off guard. If there’s one thing Iron Maiden doesn’t like to be, it’s too predictable, and although some were a little annoyed at the exclusion of this much-loved concert staple, the performance of “Aces High” more than made up for it. Overall it was a taut, professional show, light on the between song chatter by Dickinson - minimal monologues actually kept the momentum going - and always jovial.
Exiting the arena, I could se no disappointed faces, as people wore exhausted and gobsmacked expressions on their faces, many of whom flocked to the many merchandise stands to buy whatever t-shirt hadn’t sold out yet. As my peers and I strode out into the night, passing a busker playing Maiden songs on acoustic guitar on our way to a pub to further discuss the show as any Maiden nerds would do, it dawned on me that all the factors that make a concert by your favorite band great – setlist, stage show, band performance, venue, camaraderie in the audience – converged as well as they could have. Coming from a guy who saw them in the glory days of the 1980s it might sound blasphemous, but this was without a doubt the best Maiden show I’ve seen.