‘Scream for me, Liverpool – SCREAM FOR MEEE!’
A lot’s happened since the last time we heard vocalist Bruce Dickinson utter that at an Iron Maiden gig in this city: your humble correspondent was still a young man in his twenties at the time for one thing, Liverpool FC were league champions, few had heard of Nirvana and the site where the Echo Arena now sits was a large overspill car park for the Albert Dock. That gig, a staggering 27 years ago this year, also came before Dickinson exited the band to be replaced by Blaze Bayley (guitarist Adrian Smith had already packed his bags, being replaced by one-time Gillan guitarist Janick Gers), before he and Smith returned to the fold in 2000. So the anticipation of this gig was palpable, even though when the tour dates were announced last autumn, I for one didn’t want to believe it until I saw Bruce, Steve, Nicko, Dave, Adrian and Janick on that Echo Arena stage!
The band members are now either approaching 60 or have already passed it; consequently in recent years they’ve eased back on the relentless, extensive tour schedules they are known for in favour of large outdoor festival dates. Their last arena tour was in 2011 and for this run, they made a point of including cities they had either not been to before or hadn’t played in a long time. The fact that many more cities have a large-scale venue suitable for their stage show now made that possible, and the fact that this date fell on a Saturday made this show attractive to travelling fans. On the day of the show, you could not move for Iron Maiden T-shirt clad people, with the focal point being the Baltic Fleet pub, normally a quiet dock road pub which brews its own beer on the premises but on this occasion, the setting for the ‘Trooper’ gathering. The band had chosen the pub as host for its pre (and post show) gathering, with ‘Trooper’ beer on sale and band mascot Eddie stationed outside to greet fans.
When the dates went on sale much was made of the band’s efforts to thwart what is euphemistically described as ‘secondary ticketing’. The system put in place was not to print out tickets, rather you needed to produce photo identification plus the card used to purchase the tickets with. That meant if there was a group of say, four going, all had to be together at the venue entrance. The band and manager Rod Smallwood also put in place a system for fans who genuinely could not make the date that they’d booked and who wanted to pass on their ticket, although as the date drew closer, actual tickets were issued to fans who had booked for the seated areas. For those who had plumped for the standing floor, the original arrangement of turning up at the venue with ID and payment card stood. On the night, there were massive queues at the Cityside and Riverside entrances, while those of us booked for standing were directed to a low-level entrance away from the main doors. Expecting a massive queue, I arrived shortly before doors to find only a small line in place. At this point, venue staff asked us to have our cards ready with ID, as a team of staff worked their way down the line. They were armed with what looked like bus ticket machines (!) and upon verifying the card and ID, their machines printed a small ticket out there and then for entrance. The doors soon opened and I’d noticed the queue I joined ten minutes earlier had quadrupled in size, so my timing for once was excellent! The system worked better than I’d anticipated and I soon found myself in the empty arena, where a crowd was already gathering at the barrier. I’d expected to be at least halfway back, as it turned out I was about five off the front, right of centre.
As the crowd began to filter in, I noticed several different languages being spoken in the crowd around me. It turned out there were fans over from Italy, Poland, Argentina, Brazil and several other countries. As someone who has had to do a fair amount of travelling myself to see bands, this was a big deal that this show had brought so many foreign visitors to Liverpool. It also brought it home to me how important it is to have such a venue in your city, from a tourist standpoint – these people could have gone to say, Manchester instead (and probably did fly into the country via Manchester Airport before heading to Liverpool).
With the doors opening just after 6pm, it was quite a wait before openers Shinedown arrived on the stage, the place had filled up a lot by then. Having seen these guys twice before in similar settings (last year in this same hall) I had few expectations. I like their music – at least, the material they focus on (they generally overlook their first two albums of the five they have done) but, I’ve never really taken to frontman Brent Smith. When I first saw this band in 2013, as special guests to Alter Bridge, I was unimpressed with his tendency to make long, rambling speeches (while standing on a box) between songs. Last year’s set was an improvement however, his between-song chats were shorter and this time out, he and they were more focused on the songs, not the speeches. Opening with ‘Devour’ from their breakthrough album ‘The Sound of Madness’ they gave a hard-hitting but enjoyable set taking in material from that record, plus follow-up ‘Amaryllis’ and most recent offering ‘Threat To Survival’. Smith’s vocal sounded stronger this time too, and he was well backed vocally by guitarist Zach Myers. He did try his usual trick of encouraging the audience to turn to each other and shake hands, to usual British resistance (!) and his main speech part came when introducing ‘Enemies’ – he came out into the crowd and urged the crowd (‘the legendary Liverpool’ as he called us!) to start jumping when he brought the band in. By and large however, it was more rock killer than filler, though he (like many of us) was shaken by the shock death of Chris Cornell just days before this show. He asked for – and got- a brief moment of silence from the crowd in memory of the Soundgarden frontman before resuming proceedings with ‘Cut The Cord’ from the last album. They ended with ‘The Sound Of Madness’ before making way. This was another improvement on the last time I saw them, as stated earlier I do like their music but had this been the performance I’d first seen from them, I’d probably be more of a fan than I actually am now.
Some things never change, and after some feverish work from the crew in decking out the stage in preparation for the headliners, a huge cheer went up when UFO’s ‘Doctor Doctor’ came through the PA. The traditional prelude to a Maiden show, as soon as it was over the lights went down, as Bruce Dickinson appeared at the back of the stage atop a massive platform, behind what appeared to be a witches’ cauldron. He sang the intro from the back before the rest of the guys burst onto the stage, kicking their way into opener ‘If Eternity Should Fail’ from the current album. From that point it was traditional Maiden; Dickinson running all over the stage ramps while guitarist Janick Gers ran straight to the front, throwing his shapes, and balancing his left leg on the ‘speaker cabinet’ prop placed there specifically for his use! Gers comes across as the fan in the band; he remained with them even after Adrian Smith returned and it is he who has the most ‘face time’ as it were, always grabbing the attention alongside bassist Steve Harris while Smith and fellow axeman Dave Murray handle the majority of the lead guitar work. Janick’s role is more cheerleader, his guitar parts live tend to duplicate Adrian Smith’s (he replicates the solo in ‘The Trooper’ note for note for instance) but acts as the foil for Dickinson’s stage antics. It’s Gers who gets grabbed by the head, or has a flag dangled in front of him by the singer for instance, but amazingly, never misses a note while all that’s going on!
The set obviously was slanted towards ‘The Book Of Souls’ album with six tracks played from it, but if you aren’t familiar with those songs help is always at hand from Steve Harris; as usual he was up there at the front of the stage, resplendent in his West Ham colours and P-bass, mouthing the words along so we could all join in! There was room for older songs of course, and Bruce made mention of the fact he knew that there were many there who weren’t born when ‘Children Of The Damned’ was first released, which they then played. Naturally ‘The Trooper’ had me reaching for the air guitar, at least until a pit started (!)
The current album has its fair share of epics including ‘The Red And The Black’ and the title track itself, which saw a ten-feet tall Eddie make his customary stage appearance. He joked around with Janick Gers before Bruce appeared to ‘remove’ his heart, and spray us all with fake blood! As well as that the guys reached back to 1984 for another epic, ‘Powerslave’ from the album of the same name which saw the singer don a mask for the track. You know it’s getting near the end when ‘Fear Of The Dark’ is played, with the crowd chanting it’s opening refrain and of course, the main set ended with ‘Iron Maiden’ as the huge Eddie head appeared over the stage. The encore was (of course) ‘Number Of The Beast’, with ‘Blood Brothers’ and finally, ‘Wasted Years’ – which is another air guitar favourite of mine!
This was a night that will live long in the memory; Bruce was in jovial form all night and you could see him laughing away as he joked with bandmates throughout. He can be spiky at times, if he feels the crowd isn’t with him but there were no worries on that score tonight, as he gave shoutouts to the various flags he saw in the crowd – pausing to ask what someone from San Antonio was doing in Liverpool! He then risked a few jeers (and cheers from this punter!) at the mention of Liverpool FC boss Jürgen Klopp; the singer revealed that Klopp (a fan of the band) was meant to be there tonight but because of ‘other commitments’ (i.e. his team’s game the next day) he was unable to attend. Bruce then reiterated that all who come to a Maiden gig are welcome no matter who you are or where you’re from, to universal cheers.
This band have maintained their status throughout many musical trends, never fitting in with what’s popular and never caring one iota, while their fans just kept on coming. In that respect they’re similar to AC/DC or even Rush, bands who also exist in their own bubble with a fanbase which turns out regardless of trends. Watching these guys do their thing for two hours left me amazed, it was as though they were still in their thirties, their fitness levels must be off the scale to keep that up night after night. In addition, Dickinson’s vocal performance was top-notch, for a guy who recently battled cancer he was astounding.
Almost three decades since they were last here, it was well worth the wait. Whether we’ll see the guys do this again in arenas is unknown, but they wouldn’t be the first band to want to keep it going as long as possible. It was a privilege to see their return to this city at long last, and if they do decide to go around once more, they’re welcome back – hopefully not in another 27 years’ time!