“Oh, watch the lightning strike
Feel the powers of the hammer's pounding on
Take it to your heart and understand
What must live on from father to son”
-“Father to Son” by Quorthon/Bathory
One thing my family always jokes about is how my dad was caught crying at the end of The Last Unicorn. It’s since been decades, and many other weepy movies, songs and moments therein, but my dad still gets embarrassed, tries to deny it, tries to deny that he cries at all, let alone often. So, when I saw him, in my periphery, remove his glasses and wipe his eyes during “Turbo Lover,” I thought to let it slide. For here was the man who had locked us in his truck when I was only five, maybe six, because “Iron Man” came on the radio and I had to hear the entire song before we could go inside. “This is important,” my dad said, turning it up, way up.
So, how to repay my dad, the man who introduced me to this wonderful underworld? Despite his being a metalhead since the genre’s bloody roots days, my dad’s never been to a proper metal show. Between family, work, barn and yard chores, town council meetings, and all the other pressing matters that life throws at adults, he just never had time. Though he was always happy to give me a little scratch and send me on my way down that infernal road. For years, he lived out his metal life vicariously through me. What’s changed now is that he’s near retirement; the company needs him more than he needs it and he can make his own rules.
On Friday, June 13, 2014, Priest dropped “Dragonaut,” the premiere single for their new record, Redeemer of Souls. I texted my dad immediately after hearing it. He’d heard it that day, too, on Ozzy’s Boneyard, his favorite Sirius station. It was decided then and there that the new Priest was not only mandatory, but would be exactly what its title claimed to be: a Redeemer.
A few weeks later I saw that Judas Priest was playing the Pitt campus on October 18, and knew exactly how to repay my dad for his years of TOTAL SUPPORT.
Fast forward to the day of the show and, thanks to Decibel, my dad and I are going to see Priest. We were getting in some crucial pregaming at Franktuary, a local gourmet hot dog joint with chi rho/Paul Chain-logo bearing chairs, and my dad was retelling his favorite live show stories. There was the time he saw UFO at the Stanley Theater and they were so loud that the ornate plaster ceiling rained down on the audience. He’d seen the Stones sometime back in the early ‘70s when the band was infamously joined on stage by an inflatable penis that Mick Jagger was wont to ride. And the time he saw Queen and Freddie Mercury strutted out wearing green spandex with a red rose in his teeth like a tango dancer. Stories I’d heard a dozen times before, at least, but were that day imbued with new meaning, for here was unfolding a new story: one I would someday tell my own child, regardless if he or she would be a metalhead.
In my dad’s truck, I drove us to the Petersen Events Center. My dad watched the city smear past, told me I drive like my mom for the thousandth time in my life; he updated his Facebook status. Apparently he was about to scratch something from his bucket list. I said: “See Judas Priest?” And he said: “See a metal show with my son.”
We parked a couple blocks away on University Drive, in front of the Physics & Astronomy Building, made our way up the hill toward the Pete, helped some out-of-towners in familiar shirts find their way; overheard some Heavy Metal Parking Lot action coming from the upper echelons of a parking garage. Climbing the hill on top of which the Pete sits, then all the stairs to reach its doors, and the several escalator rides once inside, gave me the sense of ascending to some heavenly place. A place among the clouds where age doesn’t exist and only metal matters.
My dad’s orange Under Armour hoodie was a comfort to me amid the wall of black that was the crowd out to see Priest that night. If we got separated for whatever reason, he would be easy to spot, reminded of deer hunting with him during those dark wintry mornings. We tried to find where our seats were, but the place was a labyrinth. We asked security and, after studying our tickets, they sent us back down, but toward the center of the Pete. As my dad has since explained to people: If we’d been there for a basketball game, we would’ve been seated right behind the team. True, there was seating on the court itself, facing the stage, but in fold-out chairs, and below the band, ever at the mercy of those taller and closer.
We took our seats and Steel Panther already had been playing for a while. We walked into a song whose chorus was about blowing all your money at the glory hole. My thoughts on Steel Panther: They’re not serious enough to dislike, nor are they bad enough. Sure, they’re misogynists, and they wouldn’t know subtlety if it was calling them at the crack of dawn to tell them they’ve got herpes, but they are exactly what they aim to be. Their costumes were egregiously tight, their hair well-styled. They aren’t so much imitating that bygone hair metal era as mocking it while somehow seeming also to pander to it. Though I must admit that vocalist Michael Starr squeals just like a heyday David Lee Roth, and that makes him A-OK in my book. My dad and I laughed because we were grateful for the experience, and laughing was the least we could do. They closed with a stupid, but short song called “Death to All but Metal.”
Before Priest appeared, “War Pigs” played on the PA and the just-about-filled Petersen Events Center was up in arms: singing, air-guitaring/drumming, fist-pumping, beer-spilling, horns-throwing. With the lights on in the stadium, I saw that my dad was not the only gray-haired veteran present. In fact, men and women of his age group could’ve dominated the crowd were it not for all those in mine (mid-20s to early 30s). Right in front of us, all in different Judas Priest shirts, stood a group of five white-haired old heads rocking out to Sabbath as if they were once more gathered around the Firebird in the high school parking lot. Not only did “War Pigs” wash away any remaining “blech” from Steel Panther’s set, it seemed poignant, too, that Priest’s performance was being ushered in by a Black Sabbath song.
Judas Priest took the stage amid a roar of approval and challenge. “We paid your ticket price, now give us our metal!” the audience seemed to say. Everyone was out there except Rob Halford. Ian Hill and Glenn Tipton were so close I could’ve hit them with my shoe, if I were the shoe-throwing type. Scott Travis was elevated behind the rest of the band. I nudged my dad, said: “That dude’s the main reason why Painkiller is so good.” A bold statement, but he nodded. The new guy, Richie Faulkner, envy of many axe-slayers worldwide, was leather-clad, long-haired, a worthy replacement for Downing. Then Rob walked out. He had the easy movements and confidence of a wealthy man showing us around the mansion he built with his own means. He wore a studded leather jacket adorned in hanging chains, the first of many leather jackets he would don throughout the night. Faulkner got it all started, his guitar sounding like he was revving the engine of a ‘68 Road Runner Hemi. “Dragonaut” was the spot-on opening choice, warming up the band and audience alike while removing all doubt concerning vocal abilities. Raze all naysayers and skeptics: Halford is forever!
After “Dragonaut,” they went into “Metal Gods.” I was hoping my dad would take off his hoodie to show off his British Steel shirt, but he must’ve been feeling as I did: without body, mind or direction, merely a conduit for the shreddage. At one point during the song, Rob did the Robot. It was subtle and quick, but it was the Robot, all right. Around this time, I also noticed that behind the band was a giant screen whose visuals changed to fit each song. These visuals were pretty bad, like PlayStation 1 graphics, but this endeared the experience even more for me. I thought of my dad’s semi-recent fascination with video games.
Seriously, what Priest set isn’t going to be too short? They could play for six hours and many songs would still be forsaken. They played 16 songs, managing to sneak in four new ones among all the mandatories. Rob underwent about as many leather jacket changes, ranging from a long, purple trenchcoat to a prismatic affair that had to be seen to be understood. My personal favorite Rob of the night wore no leather jacket at all, but what was underneath? A long-sleeved black button-down shirt with metallic silver leaves. It gave me a sense of how Rob might dress when he goes to his local grocery store. As we knew he would, he rode out and remained seated on his Harley for the fake closer, “Hell Bent for Leather.” He did his own thing with the vocal melodies to “Victim of Changes,” so rather than belt along, we listened and took it in. They played “Beyond the Realms of Death” very much to the enjoyment of both the old and the young. That night, Priest was mythological. It seemed the new blood of Richie Faulkner had revitalized the band, and the songs from Redeemer were some of the best of the night. Indeed, I saw as many people wearing shirts of the new album as I saw people in British Steel or Screaming or Defenders shirts.
The second encore, played just after 10 p.m., was “Living After Midnight,” followed by “Defenders of the Faith,” with the audience singing along, every lung bursting with righteous metal pride. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, grandparents and grandkids all pumping their fists, giving voice to that timeless pledge. And if it never happens again, at least it happened this one time: I saw Judas Priest with my dad.