For a few triumphant hours last Thursday night, I was 14 years old again. Megadeth and Iron Maiden had come to town, and I was there with my lovely wife, one section over from a contingent of my college buddies, assembled from across five states for Iron Maiden’s first visit to Nashville in 21 years. I remember leaving East Tennessee for a 15,000 mile road trip in the summer of 1991, clicking on the radio in Dad’s Volvo and hearing an ad for the upcoming Atlanta date for that summer’s Clash of the Titans tour, which featured Megadeth, Slayer, Anthrax and Alice In Chains.
I was bummed out about missing the show, but of course my trip with Dad was the priority. The following year I would see Alice In Chains—an old favorite but an odd addition to the titans of metal tour, if you asked me—when they opened for Ozzy, but somehow I missed Maiden in Nashville that year. I never made it to an Anthrax show. Eventually I’d manage to see Slayer and other senior members of the metal hall of legend, including Queensryche, Metallica, Judas Priest and even Black Sabbath, but until last week, I’d never seen Megadeth or the mighty Iron Maiden—the living legends that most directly inspired my comic metal band of the mid-2000s, Keymaster.
Metal can get a bad rap sometimes; I have friends who like indie and underground music but never learned to appreciate a single subset of metal, not even the canonized big guys. I can understand that, I guess. To appreciate metal, it helps to have a sense of humor, though surely there are humorless metalheads and excessively serious metal musicians, but they're no fun. It's better if you don't take it too seriously, and there’s plenty of crap to sift through, but that is probably true of any genre of music. With metal, there’s often way too much cheese, not enough cheese, or not enough intelligible vocals. And speaking of rap, I like my metal without any. Yes, Rage Against The Machine is a great band, but the rap-rock genre they created spawned a multi-decade onslaught of utter garbage.
I don’t listen to a lot of current metal these days, though I do love Mastodon and Baroness, but I tend to reach for the aforementioned old-school classics if I’m in a metal kind of mood. That said, I dig it on the rare occasion when punk and metal influences merge for a smooth weld between the two genres, or when they subtly influence each other in interesting ways, as local heroes the mighty Asschapel (RIP) or Converge offshoot Doomriders have both accomplished effectively. You could say that they're both metal bands, but we'd be arguing seman tics. I think aspects of punk rock inform them both.
I also prefer a more intimate venue (usually the opposite of a hockey arena), and generally I listen to more punk, indie, classic and occasionally even folk-influenced rock, but my metal roots remain eternally fused to the core of my being like so much adamantium to Wolverine's skeleton--impossible to remove--and there was no way in hell that I was missing a chance to see Iron Fucking Maiden. These guys are pushing sixty now; band geezer and maniac drummer Nicko McBrain is already 61. Maiden may not have another 21 years.
Walking into the arena was sensory overload. I’m 37, but I felt like a youngster in that crowd. Cigarette and marijuana smoke mingled with the aroma of spilled $10 draft domestic swill and what smelled like Cinnabon. Cinnabon? I learned later that the smell was actually cinnamon sprinkled on bags of hot nuts. Perfect. A grizzled older guy with a lot more tattoos than me walked by in a sleeveless denim jacket with an old Maiden T-shirt sewn on the back, long biker’s braids and do-rag, leather fingerless gloves and a cup of beer in each hand. I stopped him and asked “Are those beers really ten bucks?” He turned and said “Nice beard. Yeah, but it’s better not to think about that, dude. It’s Maiden. Just get some! You have really pretty eyes.”
I just said “thanks man” and got into the beer line. I wandered around the dozens of merch stands offering every Iron Maiden t-shirt, hoodie and hockey jersey design ever imagined, along with those same images and more on posters and banners of every size and even what looked like sheets and wall-hangings. I didn’t even look at the prices.
It’s weird to squeeze yourself into a narrow chair between oversized fans on the opposite side of an arena from the stage in a 20,000-seat venue to watch a rock band from a seated position from which you can barely move...or maybe it’s not, and I'm the weirdo. I’m just used to being a lot closer to a band, standing up and moving around in a club fit for a few hundred or less, feeling like I can actually interact with a performer, which is the kind of place where the bands I usually want to see tend to play. It’s also weird for a rock show to start at 7:30, but this one did.
Megadeth was into their third song by the time we made it to our seats. Even though I haven’t purchased one of their records since the excellent Countdown To Extinction (1992), I recognized most of the songs on Thursday’s set list, which included songs from my favorite album, Rust In Peace (1990) as well as songs from Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying? (1986). There were a couple tunes I didn’t recognize, but that’s understandable, as I was surprised to discover that there have been nine albums (not counting live albums and compilations) since I stopped keeping up with Mustaine and his revolving door of band mates. I had to look that up.
For the first half of the set, I couldn’t make out anything but drums, vocals and guitar solos. The riffs and bass were mired somewhere in the mud of the sound system. Mr. Mustaine seemed to have lost a bit of the vocal pep he once had, as most of his performance amounted to low-range grunts with a touch of tonality instead of the higher, whinier singing on his albums of old. To add to the aural chaos, large video screens directly behind each band member flashed pulsating, strobe-like images throughout the set, blasting flames, blood, religious symbols and the requisite photos of warfare and world leaders in a visual cacophony that made focusing on the musicians difficult. Though Megadeth mostly just stood there and occasionally walked from one side of the stage to the other, the musicianship was solid. Soon the sound improved, and despite these issues, Megadeth still rocked pretty damn hard.
As far as I could tell from the between-song commentary I could actually discern though the sound system, Dave Mustaine hadn't been hanging out with Ted Nugent lately and didn't spout any of the truly crazy shit that he is known for on Thursday night, but there were a few gems worth noting. He dipped his toe into current events with a brief argument against attacking Syria and against war in general, which is all well and good, but then he said something that made no sense at all: "War's not good for metal."
Say whaaaat?? How many of the best metal songs of all time (by just about any metal band you can possibly think of) are about war? Most of them, I think. Hell, how many of Megadeth's best songs are about war? Nearly all of them?? Maybe Dave should just try not to talk at his shows. At the end, well after the synchronized, theatrical, hand-holding stage bow with his band, long after they had all left the stage, having completed his third applause-seeking Christ-pose, Mustaine addressed the audience, saying: "You were great. And we were AMAZING!" Bag o’ hot nuts, indeed.
I will likely be revisiting at least two of my old favorite Megadeth albums in the near future, thanks to this nostalgic experience. After all, according to one anonymous Nashville Scene reviewer, the last band I actually played a show with sounded "like Dave Mustaine got tricked into playing in a Victory Records band with a lot of feelings." I felt honored to have been so thoroughly dismissed by Nashville's hipster elite. I really do love that description, though I don't entirely agree with it. You be the judge.
Anyway, Iron Maiden, its members collectively averaging roughly a decade older than the members of Megadeth, blew their young charges off the stage. But who can open for Maiden, anyway, right? Tripling the depth of Megadeth's one-dimensional stage, Maiden’s elaborate set looked like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, featuring three tiers of snowy peaks and valleys on which a still limber Bruce Dickinson was constantly running, leaping, spinning, kicking, swirling and gesturing like the mad sorcerer that he most certainly remains. Is there another rock frontman that can move like this? Nope, not Jagger. Is there another frontman who is also a pro-level fencer and happens to pilot Ed-Force One, a commercial jet that flies the band and crew from show to show? I think not.
Dickinson hit all the notes* all night, soaring majestically through a parade of hits, mostly drawing on classic 80s albums like Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son (1988), The Number of The Beast (1982), Piece of Mind (1983), Killers (1981), Somewhere in Time (1986) and Powerslave (1984). Bruce wasn’t the only one running around. The rest of Maiden crisscrossed the stage repeatedly and got their exercise. My wife was most impressed by the “adorable” Janick Gers, who, in his sparkling black tights and white sneakers, skipped and danced around with youthful glee.
As I mentioned, there are precious few bands with the power to draw me into an arena, but if ever a band was made for spectacle, that band is Iron Maiden. Behind the ice fortress, gigantic images from various album covers rotated, usually featuring the band’s menacing mascot Eddy and his glowing red eyes. At least a couple versions of Eddy emerged into three dimensions, one pressing through the stage background to tower over the set, the other a 15-foot giant stomping across the stage around the band members. Between his perpetual twirls and pogo hopping, Gers and Dickinson darted between Eddy’s legs.
No detail was spared, as pyrotechnic gear spewed fire along the length of stages right and left; even fireworks exploded over the set. Perhaps the most elaborate light show I’ve ever seen only added to the show, coating the arena with bands of color and adding depth and shadows to the stage at appropriate intervals, but the music was flawless. The melodies soared, the bass and drums marched in galloping lockstep, and magic happened. Somehow the spectacle only enhanced the experience and never overshadowed the band itself. Iron Maiden is just that good. Even if you’re not a metalhead, Maiden could be your gateway to the other side. Check their tour dates, grab a bag o’ hot nuts and see them live. You’ll be glad you did.
*Okay, so Bruce sat out some of the highest parts of Aces High, but I'll cut him some slack. It was near the end of the night, and the vocals on that one launch into the stratosphere.
It was a weekend of rock for us. After the Maiden show, we caught The National at the Ryman, and the contrast between theatrical metal in the hockey arena and sad shoegazer indie (now mainstream) rock in country music's most hallowed hall could not have been more pronounced, but we had a blast at both shows. The Ryman sounds incredible from virtually any angle. You squeeze into an ancient wooden pew and just have to hope that you aren't sitting behind a roof-supporting pillar or people who choose to stand up all night. Openers Frightened Rabbit were very good, though I didn't realize there was to be an opening act and thought the singer had said they were called "Freight and Cabin." His deep Scottish brogue over the PA threw me a bit. My lovely wife wondered why he seemed to be pointing out "the gays," but the singer of the all-male band was actually lamenting the fact that whenever audience members whistled at them, the whistles always came from "the guys." Again, it was the accent that threw her. We laughed. I couldn't believe how many times these guys changed instruments. It seems like that would get old on tour.
I guess video screens are an expected part of large rock shows these days. Even at the Ryman, The National's stage-to-ceiling, stage right-to-left backdrop was a house-sized video screen that began with live, verite-style backstage prep footage and continued with colorful, artsy abstract visuals with superimposed live impressions of the band, along with weather effects and some sections that looked like old Atari games. The sold-out crowd was stoked and knew all the hits. We were on the balcony and watched a guy on the front row pogo up and down with a hand in the air for the entire show. Sometimes Matt Berninger would even bend over and scream his vocals in this bouncing pogo-guy's hyper-enthusiastic face.