Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Maiden Flights of Fancy.

Iron Maiden - Hisense Arena – February 23rd 2011
The last time I saw Iron Maiden I was positioned, rather foolishly in hindsight, in the forefront of about 85,000 fervid fans on the opening night of the Wacken festival in Germany. To say that was a crazy gig is an understatement. Crowd surfers were in such proliferation that I spent most of my time ducking them, or holding them up, so much so that what I could see of the stage or the screen in front of me was greatly diminished, as was my ability to concentrate on the set. Add to that a would-be pick-pocket who had his fingers busted right in front of me, and a dude who insisted on warbling every damned word right exclusively into my ear, and in spite of the fact that Maiden played a wonderfully diverse set of recent classics, I was frustrated and disappointed. Amazing to be a part of, certainly, but that rather dismaying experience provided wise counsel for where I would position myself for later shows. Apart from hearing so many of the more recent ‘hits’ live for the first time I also managed to have my abstinence, and patience, rewarded by hearing the new single ‘El Dorado’ for the first time, live. To be able to say that I heard a Maiden song for the very first time during a live show is a pretty awesome boast.
   That I was pleased to be able to see the band again, so soon, and in a venue that meant I was going to actually be able to see the show, goes without saying. I still have mixed feelings about the new record, and some of them were manifested during the night. Playing in the relatively small Hisense Arena promised a veritable ‘intimate’ show, and this was something to be relished, and my view this time ( half way round to the left, and halfway down ) was excellent.
   Lights up to reveal the nifty space-station set, with an ocean-roar of applause to welcome the somewhat terrific tableaux. This is why Maiden are such a great live act, always offering a top-notch light-and-sound spectacular rarely matched by other bands.
   Launching into the show with the instrumental 'Satellite 15', with accompanying footage of planets and various other outer-space phenomena on the big screens either side of the stage, had a similar effect to that it has upon the album: it builds to a climax, which in turns becomes a wet fart. The title track of the new album is fairly routine and did little to whip up the crowd. In fact across ‘The Final Frontier’ and the following song ‘El Dorado’ I was struck, gazing down over the floor, at how immobile the crowd seemed to be. I actually had the impression, that in spite of the album being out for some time, the crowd wasn’t all that familiar with these new songs. Later during the acoustic intro to ‘The Talisman’ it was difficult to hear for the level of conversation going on around me. That was astounding. This is Maiden and people were chatting, instead of being enraptured.
   The band themselves seemed to be on a low-wattage and it wasn’t until ripping into their third tune, the essential ‘2 Minutes to Midnight’ that matters finally came to life. Janick Gers, for once, was playing the guitar, rather than performing some sort of liturgical dance, and his acoustic intros were beguiling. Regardless of the wayward audience during the start of ‘The Talisman’, the interplay between Gers and vocalist Bruce Dickinson, performing in a shaft of dim light on a darkened stage, was a great bit of theatre that was would perhaps have been benefited by Dickinson ditching the beanie and donning a cozzie in the fashion of ‘The Trooper’ or ‘Powerslave’. This moment gave a palpable sense of the band still ‘feeling out’ these new songs. When they did rip into the rest of the tune, an almost classic galloper complete with soaring chorus, it was apparent that Maiden knew that they were doing what they did best. The anthemic ‘Coming Home’ turned out a treat, yet with that recurring sensation of the audience being new to it. The sense of uncertainty was contrasted by the following songs ‘Dance of Death’, atmospherically lit and played with admirable aplomb, and a full throttle rendition of ‘The Trooper’, finally rousing the crowd to a clamour. ‘The Wicker Man’ had everyone ‘Who-oh-ing’ along, and ‘Blood Brothers’ further united us all in chorus.
   ‘When the wild wind blows’ isn’t a song from the album I expected them to play live, and I will admit to sending up my loudest cheer when they eased into it. With some of the catchiest harmonies of all the new tracks, plus that heavy rocking riff section at the end, this proved to be the best of the new material played live on the night. After this it was pretty much back to the Maiden staples, and a noticeable levity in the boys on stage, especially in the antics of the guitarists fooling about with one another. That sense of fun gave a shot of energy to the familiar last act of the show. ‘The Evil that Men Do’, ‘Fear of the Dark’, their titular signature tune, punctuated by a visit from the new look alien Eddie, and the ‘Number of the Beast’ finally yielded to a welcome treat; ‘Running Free’, which most of the fans here in Melbourne had probably never heard live before.
   For the first time in ages Maiden didn’t seem to be firing on all cylinders, and took a long time to warm up at that. Bruce’s banter for the most part, especially after his comment about the proliferation of booze-buses outside and that they were rock stars and that they were supposed to be pissed, gave me pause to wonder whether in fact that had partaken a little too heavily before the show. Dickinson himself, at one point, was so preoccupied with an oversized ball that someone had thrown on the stage, and the doodling on said ball, that he missed the second verse of ‘The Wicker Man’ altogether; and his rambling after the song (including a homophobic jibe) was a truly bizarre, and embarrassing moment. During the song Dickinson approached each member of the band showing them the ball, even going so far as to mount Nicko’s drum-riser to show him the offending article. This was all very distracting and strange. His attempts to show Steve Harris, as the bassist faced a speaker, seemingly to tune, were met with a noticeable lack of interest. I’m not sure if there has ever been a case of one band member actually killing another on stage but going by the look on Harris’ face, as Dickinson burbled on about the ball, I’m pretty sure he was contemplating beaning Bruce over the bonce with his bass. I found myself harkening back to that hilarious ‘Mission from ‘Arry’ clip, where Harris and Nicko had the most hilarious and drawn out argument over a misunderstanding during a gig, wishing that someone would record the ensuing backstage exchanges after this particular show.
   While the playing was all top notch, with the three guitarists in typically excellent form, and Dickinson’s strange antics not withstanding, there was a curious sense of everything not quite coming together. Excellent, entertaining, and so on through the superlatives, but for the first time I couldn’t say…awesome. Even a band as experienced as Maiden, with thirty years under their belts, are bound to have a duff show every once in a while, and think this was one of them.
   Beyond everything else though an absolutely true music-nerd moment came after the show. As I filed out the venue, and hit the footpath for home, I had to wait for a car that was blocking the way, paused to pull into the traffic. Who should be sitting in the back seat? None other than mega-manager Rod Smallwood, preoccupied with his mobile phone. That was certainly a cool little moment, indeed, to round out an already cool, if somewhat strange night.

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