In 1977, while most wannabe London rockers were embracing punk's stripped-down sound and fashionista aesthetic, bassist/songwriter Steve Harris was defiantly creating Iron Maiden - a hairy, denim-clad band that proudly performed heroic, escapist heavy metal. Over a generation later, his brave brainchild sucked over 25,000 fervent followers into this desert mega-venue last night (the show was delayed 40 minutes while everyone squeezed in).
Ostensibly, Maiden mulls traditional metal themes (war, religion, death) accompanied by often gruesome imagery (personified by their zombie mascot, Eddie). Yet their lyrics sympathetically portray the oppressed rather than the oppressors and lament, not glorify, conflict (as in "Paschendale", aired at the show).
The middle-aged Maidens scampered tirelessly around the stage from the opening chuggy guitars of "The Wicker Man" through the fifteen songs that followed. In sleeveless T and camo pants, Bruce Dickinson skipped and prowled like a boot camp trainer while deftly delivering lyrics in his melodramatic, Dio-esque tenor. And, even from the good seats, Harris remained an apparently ageless, foot-on-the-monitor figurehead.
Touring in anticipation of its 15th studio album, The Final Frontier (due August 16), the sextet's stage set was more Star Wars than Star Trek, while garish backdrops referenced individual songs. The galloping "El Dorado" (already available as a free download) was the only newbie performed in a selection which otherwise largely oscilated between material released since Dickinson's return to the band in 1999 ("Blood Brothers", "Ghost of the Navigator," "Brave New World"), and faves from the band's first three albums ("Wrathchild," "Iron Maiden," "Running Free").
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Though its earlier material (much of which was originally recorded with vocalist Paul Di'Anno) has more simplistic, street-wise hooks, Maiden has retained certain sonic signatures: Thin Lizzy/Wishbone Ash-inspired twin-axe harmonizing; ominous Black Sabbath-y riffs; a prog-lite sense of structural adventure; Harris' clanking basslines; and flecks of folk-rock (like the intro of last night's "No More Lies").
Iron Maiden has prevailed (without so much as a radio hit) through earnest craftsmanship, a give-'em-their-money's-worth work ethic, a force-of-nature frontman and a deceptively diverse musical palate. But at San Manuel there were constant reminders that this was, after all, a heavy metal show: the robotic Eddie's masturbatory gestures and elevated middle-fingers; tasteful guitar solos devolving into frantic slot machine jackpot jingles; and the teen two seats in front of me who was comatose by mid-set.