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MASTERS OF METAL TOUR: AN OLD FART’S WET DREAM

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The biggest metal tour of 2008 rolled through San Antonio at the Verizon Wireless this past Sunday with Testament, Motorhead, Heaven and Hell, and Judas Priest in tow. It was Heavy Metal Parking Lot come to life, only with several more “special” parking spaces for the decidedly older crowd.

The night started off with the triumphant return of Bay Area (and New York) thrashers Testament. It was my first time seeing the band since 1989 on their “Black is Back” tour and they did not disappoint. They ripped through “Over the Wall” and “Practice What You Preach,” before launching into some of the strongest cuts off of what I believe is the top contender for album of the year, The Formation of Damnation, including the title track and “More Than Meets the Eye.”

The band was decked out in all-black, of course, and they looked healthy and strong. Especially singer Chuck Billy, who looks completely recovered from his cancer scare of several years ago. Guitarists Alex Skolnick (whom I later interviewed – be on the lookout) and Eric Peterson sounded loud and muscular and appeared to be having a blast on stage with their energetic hops and literal back-to-back solo trade-offs. Unfortunately, the bass and drums were too muddy in the mix, as is usual for opening bands, but Paul Bostaph and Greg Christian made the best of their situation. It was a welcome return of the masters of thrash who have suddenly eclipsed (22 years later) three of the big four — Metallica, Megadeth, and Anthrax – and join Slayer as the epitome of Thrash Metal.

I was not privileged to witness the mighty Lemmy Kilmister and Motorhead for the second time this year as I was on Testament’s bus for the aforementioned Skolnick interview. You can, however, read my review of the band’s much more intimate concert at the 2008 SXSW Music festival here. I did sneak into a room where the bands were eating dinner and spied K.K. Downing, Chuck Billy, and Ronnie James Dio quietly enjoying the night’s Texan grub.

Never having ever been a big Black Sabbath fan, I can honestly say that I was not too stoked to see Heaven and Hell, which is Black Sabbath minus Ozzy Osbourne and Bill Ward, plus Dio and Vinny Appice on drums. I have, however, always been a huge fan of Dio’s so I knew I would at least look forward to catching him again for the first time in more than 25 years.

Thankfully, my lack of enthusiasm was quickly erased. Making his entrance onto the gargoyle-festooned stage, shimmering with glittery disco crystal balls and bloody red brick walls, the incredibly diminutive Dio graced the platform in front of Appice’s monstrous drumkit and proceeded to pull off a David Lee Roth leap replete with splits circa 1984. My first reaction was a less than pedantic, “Holy shit! Dio fuckin’ rocks!” As did the entire band. Tony Iommi looked much more energized with Dio than I ever saw him with Ozzy; Geezer looked anything but, and the true heart and soul of HaH, Vinny Appice, killed.

HaH ripped through such Sabbath classics as “Sign of the Southern Cross,” which sounded like Ground Zero for Doom Central, “Falling Off the Edge of the World,” complete with a wicked sounding breakdown that brought to mind Ozzy/Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” and “Die Young,” with Dio coming off like an even better sounding young Bruce Dickinson.

Hell, HaH had a little seven-year-old girl standing on the armrests of her seat screaming the lyrics and throwing the goat! It was truly a set for all ages and an eager San Antonio crowd that beckoned for more. The band delivered with a blistering version of “Neon Knights,” thanked the crowd, and exited their dungeonesque stage.

I turned to my friend Loryll and told her, “If I had to pay $100 for a ticket I would feel as if I just got my money’s worth.”

All Hail HaH!

After a fairly quick set change, the Metal Gods, Judas Priest were ecstatically welcomed by the crowd. Unfortunately, they led off with the title track from their latest 2-disc concept album, Nostradamus. Needless to say, most of the crowd was not familiar with the tune, so their enthusiasm was somewhat dampened. Despite the reaction, I actually felt that the song sounded much stronger live than on disc.

Priest immediately rebounded with their classic theme, “Metal Gods,” and soon had the audience eating out of the palms of their leather-stained greasy hands.

Rob Halford has obviously embraced his gayness in a big way with an over-the-top Elton John-esque silver sequined trench coat and leather bear overalls that struggled to contain his beefier frame. As he made his way down a cylinder that resembled a drive-in bank’s money tube, Halford joined his cohorts in metallic mayhem, Ian Hill, K.K. Downing, and Glenn Tipton, for a bit of synchronized headbanging that sent the crowd into a tizzy.

Chants of “Priest! Priest!” began in earnest.

The San Antonio crowd would be treated to a plethora of off-the-beaten path tracks such as the dig-in-deeper cuts, “Eat Me Alive” from Defenders of the Faith, “Between the Hammer and the Anvil” from Painkiller, and “Devil’s Child” from Screaming for Vengeance.

Loryll and I received our own surprise when Testament guitarist Alex Skolnick joined us with stogie in hand just in time to rock out to “Breakin’ the Law,” followed by a solid version of “Hell Patrol.” Pretty thrilling to witness one of the best guitar players thrashing to his idols up on stage.

Guitarists Downing and Tipton never seem to fade. They looked great and sounded better as they tore through “Angel” from Angel of Retribution and the ultimate crowd-pleaser, “Electric Eye.”

Halford then stopped the proceedings to remind everyone why Priest truly are the Masters of Metal. “We’ve been at this for 35 years,” he declared, “and we don’t plan on stopping anytime soon.” This elicited a huge roar from the crowd which rose higher as the band plunged into “Rock Hard, Ride Free” from Defenders of the Faith.

The band closed the set with a hyper-speed version of “Painkiller,” which featured the three guitarists and Halford adorning drummer Scott Travis’s kit for a rousing finale.

San Antonio was not about to unleash the Priest as they chanted the ubiquitous “Priest! Priest!” loud enough to bring out the Gods for three encore songs and Rob Halford on a shiny chrome motorcycle. His engine revved up the crowd as the band tore through “Hell Bent for Leather,” “The Green Manlishi (with the Two-Pronged Crown),” and “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’,” with Halford draped in an over-sized Texas flag.

The festivities, however, were not over. A trusty roadie wheeled out a large birthday cake with “Happy Birthday, Rob,” written on it. Halford was rejoined by his bandmates, Ronnie James Dio, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, Chuck Billy, Lemmy, and many others there to wish the metal icon a happy 57th birthday. Halford countered by smashing his face into the cake and tossing the remnants of it into the crowd. After a group bow, the house lights went up, the crowd cheered, and the Masters of Metal left the stage — ready to set up yet another 20,000 person heavy metal parking lot for the next town.

All photos © 2008 Loryll Bailey

*If you live in Los Angeles, be sure to get your free tickets to see Judas Priest tonight (9.2.08) on Jimmy Kimmel Live. The taping begins at 6:15p.m. I assume the concert will air later that night.

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