Concert review: Iron Maiden

2018 by JOHN McMURTRIE 2018 Copyright TALLINN IRON MAIDEN

PPG Paints Arena, Pittsburgh, PA – August 17, 2019

The euphoric high that is the natural byproduct of any rock concert worth its salt lingers for an indeterminate time after, depending upon whom you just saw, how well he/she/they played, how comprehensively the house in question was rocked, etc., but it can be expected, at a bare minimum, to get you out the venue door with a smile. Anything beyond that is some degree of bonus, one that can vary wildly. I’ve coasted down interstates riding a magic carpet of post-performance bliss, watching three-hour, music-soaked return road trips disappear in little more than the blink of an eye. I’ve followed awesome dreams out of a contented sleep and awakened the morning after still wrapped in a pervasive warm and fuzzy feeling. There have been certain shows I simply wouldn’t, or couldn’t, shut up about days later, so intense the impression made, so deep the impact. You’ve possibly read about one, four, or more of them on this very website. It’s far from an every-show occurrence, and, thus, well worth celebrating. I may yet be basking in the residual wake of Iron Maiden’s glorious mid-August performance at Pittsburgh’s PPG Paints Arena when my scattered familial units gather ‘round their respective Christmas trees months from now – you see how long it took me to finally write about it, and with what barely diminished enthusiasm – and, if so, it’ll hardly qualify as a holiday surprise, even capping off a year that has, for me, been replete with musical gifts. To the contrary. It will have been practically preordained.

Such mood-altering chemical modifiers also manifest themselves physically, of course, in the form of merchandise and memorabilia. I just look at home in an Iron Maiden t-shirt, always have. I did 114 years ago, when I was approximately a foot shorter and numerous pounds lighter, broadcasting immortal mascot Eddie the Head’s alarming visage from my otherwise sunken and withdrawn chest as a signal piece of black fabric armor as well as a point of gradually rising pride, and I do now. I wore one of the three (?!) Maiden shirts I purchased in Pittsburgh to a local club show by exquisite Arkansan doomsayers Pallbearer the other night, and though you could hardly find two concerts on the metal spectrum more diametrically opposed in terms of scale and pomp, pyro and population, I still received several affirming comments of the sort that used to absently launch life-long, or at least evening-long, friendships of the like-minded back in the days back before the internet ruined everything. Though pleasant, that wasn’t particularly surprising. Few bands in heavy metal’s storied history have ever approached Iron Maiden’s simultaneous level of relevant output and cultural cache, and nowadays, with the genre haphazardly splintered into so many not-really-piles of bloody stylistic toothpicks, they are one of if not the only bands upon whom most every fan, regardless of generation represented or poison preferred, can give a nod of recognition and unforced approval. If I had to pick one band through which to explain heavy metal to a novice, I would pick Iron Maiden, who, from their blue collar ethos to their tuneful and explosive music to their sinister yet fantastical visual image, have embodied it like no other for four decades.

That kind of ubiquity within the metalhead consciousness goes a long way toward explaining why Maiden still engenders such widespread brand loyalty and warm feeling, even four decades into its journey, but doesn’t tell the whole story. Certainly, Maiden itself has done little to make fans consider straying – the Blaze Bayley Era was admittedly an ordeal – but the last component of the formula, as tends to happen for any artist with staying power, is a purely personal concern. Nobody with even a passing awareness of this site, or an attention span that allows them to acknowledge and comprehend blog titles, let alone accompanying essays of between 9,000 and 13,000 words apiece, need question my position on the matter. I’ve told the story twice before – privately for my father, and, years later, written here for posterity – of how the serendipitous discovery of/ravenous indulgence in the music and milieu of Iron Maiden resuscitated my moribund senses of self and self-worth, helping to forge from scratch a welcome and desperately needed identity during my theatrically bleak middle school years. That tale is comprehensive, and complete. The best this review might provide it is (yet) another happy postscript, another tacked-on, arguably necessary Return of the King-like epilogue. Normally I would think such piled-on digressions unseemly, but Iron Maiden has provided me these sorts of wonderful memories for almost my entire life, or as much life as I can comfortably recall – as much life as rings authentically true – and, even with so many miles now behind me, I am overcome with gratitude. Iron Maiden may live in the hearts of metal fans everywhere, but it is my band. Unequivocally. Mine. Deal with it.

Imagine my surprise then to return, for the first time in far too many years, to the heart of Pittsburgh’s majestic, convoluted, logistically punishing downtown and discover an off-duty hockey arena absolutely teeming with Maiden fans of sizes, ages, and varieties sufficient to make a Dr. Seuss narrator blush. Well over ten thousand Whos attended our arrival in this bustling and chaotic Who-ville, the tall and the small, the young, the older, and the just plain defiantly, delightfully old, the Eddie-wearing, beer-chugging, horns-throwing, unintelligibly shouting mobilized army division of your nightmares and my dreams. Iron Maiden was the first thing, as an only child, that ever consistently made me feel the least bit connected to something larger than myself, and no matter what manner of individualist or loner you might imagine yourself, that is, of course, a crucial component of human well-being. After a decade away as a disengaged wanderer, albeit one rocking a dependably killer personal soundtrack, I stepped inside, reflexively re-embraced my tribe and, in that same instant, rediscovered my sense of place. I had observed far too many semi-permanent Cheshire Cat grins in my travels around the PPG Paints perimeter, through security, to the box office inside, cutting through swaths of humanity to the floor level entrance and beyond*, to continue the convenient fiction that Maiden was somehow mine and mine alone, although by the time recognition finally fell on me like a summer sunset, as we entered the arena proper to the dying strains of yet another anemic opener fronted by one of Steve Harris’ children, I was far too happy to care. 

*Including a wraparound inner hallway to apparently nowhere so austere once you moved past the beer lines that I half expected to encounter Spinal Tap circa-1984 fumbling their way towards stage and shouting, “Hello, Cleveland!” Professing fandom for golden age heavy metal in 2019, even still active, still vital, Lamborghini-class product like Maiden, requires a certain willful, almost blissful dissociation from strict reality. There was definitely a peculiar and elusive vibe in the air.

“Arena Metal” never really caught on as a musical descriptor, and thank goodness. It makes little conceptual sense, the anomaly of Metallica notwithstanding. Metal is by nature a grimy sort of music that cuts (for many, on purpose) uncomfortably close to the bone and seeks to fill the limited airspace between listeners with aural shrapnel. As a rule, it is best experienced from the nearest possible distance within the smallest possible confines. Iron Maiden takes everything you thought you knew about live metal and turns it on its head, emphasizing the visual in ways only they seem equipped to do without ever downplaying their increasingly timeless music, offering the sort of big ticket spectacle that, for other bands, would be the sole purview of your imagination, filling a cavernous, communal space with sound that hits kids on the front rail and the 60-year-old granddad in the upper bowl with equal force and zeal. There is no substitute for seeing Iron Maiden live, and no experience quite like it once you enter the arena. Ostensibly created to sell-abrate an admittedly pretty wicked turn-based mobile fantasy RPG, the “Legacy of the Beast” Tour is another of Maiden’s off-album, greatest hits packages – by definition therefore unmissable – purportedly boasting their largest production yet. Memories of the last time I witnessed one of these undertakings, an unfathomable decade+ ago on 2008’s “Somewhere Back in Time” tour**, lingered long enough to make me momentarily question the math, but by all indicators available to the naked eye/ear, it was all that and more, a smashing success across the board.  

**You remember what I said above about how the right concert can convert good memories into hi-test fuel? “Somewhere Back in Time”, which, if memory serves, I namechecked in DAE’s “Iron Maiden Saved My Life” remembrance as the delirious, definitive “after” to my extended sob story “before”, would be exhibit A.

When the lights went out in PPG, the resulting twenty-second trailer for “Legacy of the Beast” did a reasonable job of making me want to revisit the cutesy, colorful game I had dabbled in on a single night years earlier when blessed with both insomnia and a 5G wifi connection all over again, but it was the last and only specific mention we’d hear.*** The breathless commercial cut to black and immediately gave way to the low rumbling sound of advancing weapons of war, punctuated by far off artillery blasts and the increasingly distinct scream of dive bombers. The voice of Winston Churchill, cracked and tinny, then appeared on the soundtrack, as it has for most every traditional Maiden tour o’er the last thirty years, imparting tone-setting words of defiant wisdom before the band slammed into the classic “Aces High”. With so many years separating me from the last time we’d shared the same room, I was struck at once by how young several of them looked, by how young all of them acted, and by how well they played. I was surprised to be surprised. Vocalist Bruce Dickinson vaulted out from offstage to its center as if conveyed by catapult, and sang the harrowing first-person tale of a doomed WWII fighter pilot slashing his way through a soup made of enemy planes as if his own life depended on it – which is, to be honest, the only way he seems to know – standing in the shadows of an impressive scale replica of a British Spitfire that pitched and yawed slowly but suggestively toward and away from the front row throughout the performance. This was Iron Maiden in outsized microcosm: mysterious, acrobatic, yet vividly musical music that moves and excites true believer and stationary cynic alike, paired with splendid, occasionally astonishing visuals, impeccably played by a band that reliably melds exuberance and professionalism like no other I’ve ever seen. 

***No matter how successful the various arms – gaming, beer, clothing and collectible art of any and all description, and, oh yeah, music too – of its ever-expanding business empire might be at any given moment, Iron Maiden doesn’t engage in the hard sell. It merely presents its legions of curious fans the opportunity to buy behind an implicit promise of coolness and quality and leaves the heavy lifting to us. 

What exactly did you expect from this review? Impartial reporting?! 

Ugh. How useless, and utterly boring.

One song in, and already I feared for my voice. My mind cast back in an instant over twenty years of sadly limited live exposure to my band, to “Somewhere Back in Time” and its all-encompassing sense of a prophecy fulfilled, and then almost another decade earlier, to an amphitheater on the outskirts of Pittsburgh in the summer of 2000, where, enveloped in an extended, white light reverie, I yelled so loud for so long that I literally felt my feet leave the floor and stay there, before snapping back into my shoes this night, heart racing, face of a loon, body not shaking per se, but still thrumming. Dickinson, grinning like a hatter, aglow in the rush of performance and so much instant, overwhelmingly positive feedback, unleashed, for the first of many times this evening, his trademark battle cry, “Scream for me, [insert city here]!” from a suggestive crouched perch on the edge of the stage. “SCREAM FOR ME, PITTSBURGH!” As if we had any choice. The stage backdrop, which is often adorned with the Derek Riggs artwork for the song in current question, then changed to something with which I had only passing familiarity, heralding the happy arrival of “Where Eagles Dare”, one of my favorite ever Maiden songs, and one I’d never seen live. This kind of potential surprise is why I steadfastly refuse to read leaked setlists before attending a show, preferring to react in real time. There was a time when it seemed most every Maiden song had accompanying artwork, and their inclusion as interchangeable backdrops really helps the show move while setting it far apart from those of the band’s peers. Apocalyptic favorite “2 Minutes to Midnight” yielded to the stirring, “Braveheart”-inspired “The Clansman”, with Dickinson quipping, “there is no ‘K’ in this spelling” before doing the best song of the Blaze Bayley more justice than ever seemed possible in 1998.  

The hits alternated with slight curveballs from there on out, keeping an audience primed for classic red meat at or near fever pitch even through comparative lulls like the terrific 2006 banger, “For the Greater Good of God”, and atmospheric but meandering Bayley-era chestnut, “Sign of the Cross”, which, despite some of the evening’s moodiest visuals, should have just as well remained buried. The stilt-walking, eight-foot-tall live mascot Eddie materialized in full British Light Infantry regalia to do comical battle with Dickinson during the immortal “Trooper”, while “Revelations” was a revelation indeed, dramatically unveiling the full stage setup as a gothic cathedral containing stained glass reproductions of notable Eddies through the years. Dickinson stalked the stage in Mr. Hyde trench coat and top hat, warding off the titular darkness with a handheld gas lamp, during the dependable audience singalong “Fear of the Dark”, while Steve Harris locked into place wielding his bass like an M-16, classic guitar tandem Adrian Smith and Dave Murray lobbed tasty, note-perfect solos at one another in an elaborate, ongoing game of one-upmanship, personal drumming idol Nicko McBrain was rendered largely invisible, having apparently been swallowed by his massive kit, and “new kid” (circa 1995) Janick Gers galavanted around the stage, as is his wont, like a kid off his Ritalin playing contentedly in the park. The showstopper came with the reintroduction of Piece of Mind classic “Flight of Icarus”, back in the set for the first time since 1986, boasting the breathtaking visual centerpiece of a giant winged angel suspended above the stage in throes of despair, as Dickinson shot off dual-wielded flamethrowers in its and other general directions as wild, cackling punctuation to the insistent chorus. Wow.

After so long off headlining European festivals or other equally obscure parts unknown, here was Iron Maiden in its utter glory, stateside, finally, in full, triumphant command of both its instrument and its audience. What more possibly needed to be said? And yet, even after the “Icarus” angel tumbled dramatically from its heights to crumple behind the drum riser, the band could not, and would not concede the last word. There was still the appearance of the giant, demonic, horned Eddie head during main set closer “Iron Maiden”, and the signature gallop of the three songs that comprised the encore – the surprising “Evil That Men Do”, another song I’d never borne witness to live, flawless perennial “Hallowed Be Thy Name”, with Dickinson adopting the ever-affecting persona of a condemned French revolutionary as a symbolic noose swung by him in a gradually receding arc, and, finally, “Run to the Hills”, the greatest singalong in metal history, and the song that, in a serendipitous moment I’ve talked about twice before and, thus, won’t go into here, first made me realize that a band that was unequivocally my band could belong to others as well with no sacrifice involved whatsoever except perhaps that of my limited worldview. On this sublime night, on a spot made sacred by its presence and our collective will, Iron Maiden belonged to everyone. By the time Nicko finally materialized from behind/within/beneath his staggering drum riser to warmly thank us for coming, my heart was full close to bursting. We spilled out into the night and off to our homes, well satisfied. It won’t be another ten years until I next see them, I promise. Until then, and for the foreseeable future, at least I’ve got PPG to coast on.

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