Judas Priest & Whitesnake Concert Review

by Dan on August 19, 2009

“Dan, you were born in the wrong decade.”

That was the first response I got when posting on my Facebook that I was going to see Judas Priest and Whitesnake in San Diego at the SDSU Open Air Theatre.

I guess it makes sense.  Both bands have been around over 30 years, and both peaked in the 80’s with their biggest hits.

In the days before the concert, I jokingly referred to the performance as the “Catch ‘em before they’re dead” tour.  David Coverdale and most of Judas Priest are close to age 60.  For a rock star, that’s ancient.

I knew maybe two Whitesnake songs going in, having not even heard an album in its entirety.  I knew “Is This Love?” and “Hear I Go Again,” and chuckled at the silly 80’s hair metal silliness that I was going to be a part of.  It’s all in good fun, but my expectations were low. Judas Priest, however, has been a metal favorite of mine for years.  I have a half dozen of their albums, and knew enough songs to enjoy a great evening of hits.

The night ended up not going as planned.

After a forgettable but appreciated effort from Pop Evil, the night’s opener, we got to Whitesnake.  There was no smokey intro and no orchestration to warm the crowd up.  In fact, there were a number of empty seats, as much of the crowd was trickling in late, knowing that the main event would start hours later.

After the drummer got behind his set, David Coverdale just walked out to greet the crowd.  It was daylight still, so the entrance was very casual.  However, this man carried an astounding level of charisma.  There was this very familiar comfortable feeling as he approached us, as if all in the arena were his extended family.  Somehow, we all felt loved.

The band broke into their music.  The rest of the band didn’t have the radiance of Coverdale, but they played their instruments very well.  It should be said that with the exception of the lead vocalist, all the band members have only been in the band for seven years out of the total thirty one years of Whitesnake’s existence.

I am tempted to look up the set list for tonight, but I don’t think it could describe the experience.  The SDSU Open Air Theatre was still calibrating the acoustics for the night, so much of the set was muddy.  Somehow I didn’t mind.  The bass drum was way too loud, and it was hard to make out some of the guitar parts.  Why wasn’t this a problem?

The difference was that we as an audience were treated to Coverdale’s creation.  Beyond the dirty reception, the creativity and passion behind the songwriting was transmitted crystal clear.  Most importantly, we could see someone who defied age.

While the wrinkles on his face convey Coverdale’s time on the planet, they give no indication of any decay of body, mind or soul.  He’s in better shape, more limber, and powerfully graceful than countless frontmen half his age.  I would not be surprised if twenty years from now he is still going, in whatever incarnation Whitesnake is at the moment.

While a lot of “has-been” artists can come off annoyed when concert-goers don’t know their music, Coverdale displayed the deepest humility.  He would start off a song introduction with “You may know this song or you may not.  If so, feel free to sing along.”

He also could say the words of a glam rock sleazester without sounding sleazy.  He mentioned that this year was the 25th Anniversary of the “Slide it in” album.  He noted “We’re still sliding it in,” yet the comment somehow was devoid of any seediness or even crass humor.  It just felt like a justifiably proud statement.

Even the power ballads like “Is This Love?” and “Hear I Go Again” were expressed with passionate zeal, and not a hint of self-parody.  You could tell that he was serious when he wrote these songs, and his performance illustrated that the feelings he had writing them were just as compelling today.

When there were faster songs I didn’t know, I found myself singing along anyway.  I definitely will look up the Whitesnake discography in the future, as my generation has absolutely overlooked a gem of a band.

I’ve been to enough concerts where I’m so impressed with an opener that I doubt the main event will match up.  Not this time.  Judas Priest is known to be one of the most consistent acts of our time.  They have four out of five 1973 members still playing, and their “newest” member has been in the band for over twenty years.  Rob Halford, the lead singer, had been out of the band for a stint, and now everyone could enjoy his high pitched shrieks that made him a permanent image in metal.  Plus, the muddiness had near disappeared in the last few Whitesnake songs, so we could expect good production.  We were in for a ride.

Or so we hoped.

Judas Priest had every advantage Whitesnake lacked: the smoke machines, the light show, the evening’s sudden darkness, and most importantly, a crowd that came just to see them and knew the lyrics to most of their staggeringly long discography.

To give them credit, the musicianship has not gone down with age, nor has the songwriting.  Unfortunately, everything else has.

To celebrate the 30th Anniversary of the 1980 British Steel album (yes, you did do the math right), Judas Priest started the show by playing the album in its entirety.  This was a bit of an odd choice, for a number of reasons.  For one, the band has evolved through several styles, so taking up such a big piece of the set with one album seemed to be misrepresentative of the band’s career.

For another thing, that album isn’t even a huge fan favorite.  Sure, it made Judas Priest more mainstream, but I have a feeling that choosing an album like Screaming for Vengeance, Defenders of the Faith, or even Painkiller, would have made the fans far more happy.

A number of bands are playing old classics in their entireties, and I can only guess that Judas Priest joined the herd in order to market themselves better to nostalgic fans.  Motley Crue is now touring with the 20th Anniversary “Dr. Feelgood” tour, which probably gave Judas Priest the idea to run their tour this way.

Why am I assuming it’s for marketing reasons?  Well, from my perspective, ten feet away from the band, they didn’t even look like they were having fun playing the album.  Much of the British Steel segment had the non-drumming band members looking like a quartet of statues.   The band members had facial expressions ranging from neutral to mildly happy.  Sometimes the guitarist Glen Tipton would slowly walk up to where we were standing and sing lyrics with us, but it felt closer to a grandfather mouthing “Hot Cross Buns” to a 3 year old.

The bassist was rocking his instrument up and down, but it looked very forced, as if he felt obligated to have some movement.

And let’s not forget Rob Halford, supposed God of Metal.

I’ve never seen a singer so averse to making eye contact with fans.  He crunches up his body and sings at the ground with his eyes squeezed closed.  This is not just when hitting high notes, but even the easy mid-range songs of the British Steel album.  He does try to dance a little bit, including one bizarre move that looked like “the robot,” but it’s never really aimed at the audience.  Sometimes he even turns his back and faces the drummer while singing, or will just wander around the stage aimlessly looking at everywhere but us.  For most of the show, the guitarists were closer to the audience than the singer was, which isn’t a good sign for a frontman.

The whole British Steel segment felt like a band dryly going through the motions.  Luckily, the album is short so it only lasted forty minutes.

Then it got interesting.

The songs that followed varied greatly in their intensity.  They played a song off “Nostradamous,’ their most recent album, which hasn’t sold very well.  While not being a great song, the intention and emotion put into it was greater than the whole British Steel segment combined.  I found myself wishing they just played songs off that album for 40 minutes instead.  This wasn’t because I thought Nostradamus was a great album, but because I’d rather Judas Priest play something excellently they enjoy rather than a supposed classic they can’t even get into.

It’s very reasonable for a band to resonate better with its newer work than its old “classics.”  This is why playing a hit or two off your 30 year old album is usually a better idea than trying to run through the whole thing at once.  30 years of maturing will definitely put a band in a different headspace musically.

They followed that song with a couple tracks off “Sad Wings of Destiny,” and one each off “Screaming for Vengeance,” “Defenders of the Faith,” and “Painkiller.”

It was fascinating to see Glen Tipton’s face change from bored grandpa to fierce rockstar, depending what song he was playing.  There were clearly songs that got almost all players into the moment and ferociously pummeling out great metal.  Then they’d start a new song they hated and immediately they’d snap out their passion and go back to dry note by note playing.

I’d like to say all players had their moments, but Rob Halford was pretty poor across the board.  At this point of his metal career, he seems to be more of an icon than a performer, though he’s found creative ways to hide his lack of both musicianship and showmanship.

During a performance, he’ll change costumes once every few songs, as if this gives more character to his bland singing.  I should note that all members of the band were in phenomenal shape except for Halford.  While their clothes were tight, his costumes were so baggy I have to assume he’s hiding something underneath.

As if to make up for lack of performer presence, Halford will drive a motorcycle onto the stage.  It looks cool, until two songs later you realize he merely drove it on so he’d have an excuse to sit down for 10 minutes.  It was rather awkward once it became clear he wasn’t so willing to get back up on his feet.  I found myself wishing I caught the band eight years earlier when they had Tim Owens as a vocal replacement.

This is clearly a band that doesn’t work any harder than it can get away with.  A little less than an hour and a half of playing, they called it quits.  For such an unenergetic show, and so many hits missing, there was no reason why they couldn’t have at least played a half hour longer.  Halford said, “Ok, time for the finale…” in a way that felt like he was a quickie mart owner telling his assistant manager, “Closing time, let’s empty the register..”

In ways I didn’t expect, this was a powerful night of music for me.  In David Coverdale, I got to witness a man who refuses to leave his prime, no matter how many decades away he is from his last #1 hit.  In Judas Priest, I got to see what happens when a band realizes that after 35 years, they’re not going to lose any ticket sales for a half-assed performance.

Most of all, I’ve learned that catching a classic band before they’re dead is not enough.  You have to catch them before they stop caring.

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