[live review] Iron Maiden and Alice Cooper @ Comcast Center, July 26: a Bread and Puppet show for the ages

When IRON MAIDEN mouthpiece Bruce Dickinson bounds onto a stage, he really bounds onto a stage-- and on Tuesday night, his performance demonstrated that perhaps the key to staying on top decade after decade in a competitive rock and metal world is unending enthusiasm.  A few songs in, Dickinson pithily commented on the fact that when a band of their stature plays the shed circuit, they often are stuck playing “to people in fucking VIP boxes eating fucking dinner” while the band enthusiastically plies their musical wares-- but Tuesday’s show was anything but, as Great Woods Comcast Center was packed to the gills with nearly 15,000 metal maniacs.  “Scream for me, Boston!”, as Dickinson continually shrieked to the crowd, may have contained a slight geographic innaccuracy, but it certainly spoke to the fervor of this audience, and the special bond that Maiden has with their fanbase.

The band’s current tour is a curiosity: while the last time they came through, in 2008, they were playing a general greatest hits selection, on Tuesday they re-created their 1988 “Maiden England” tour, a setlist that omits a number of the band’s most well-worn warhorses in favor of repeated dips into the deep recesses of the band’s 1988 album Seventh Son of a Seventh SonSeventh Son is a somewhat divisive entry in the Maiden canon: coming at the end of the 80s, it saw the band not only ditching the theme-park book-tv-and-movie adaptation schtick that filled so many of their prior albums (a phenomenon that I dealt with in more detail in my feature on the band last week), but adding synthesizers to their sonic mass.  The resulting vinyl slab was ponderous and somewhat melancholy, making it maybe one of the least Maiden-sounding records in their oeuvre.  Additionally, Seventh Son is arguably the band’s first and only concept album, a rambling meditation on prophecy and mortality inspired by Orson Scott Card’s fantasy novel Seventh Son.

So basically, it was Maiden-goes-Dio, a fact nailed down on Friday when the band emerged from the darkness and plunged headlong into album opener “Moonchild”.  Charging out screaming amidst the synth percolations of the tunes introduction, Dickinson viciously attacked the material, bellowing about mandrake screams, scarlet whores, and rising Gemini kisses as if the quarter century since the record’s release was but a blip.  It is a testament to the diehard mania of the Maiden fanbase that this material was eaten up with the gusto that it was: after all, Seventh Son was considered, upon its release, something of a letdown, at least in the States, where rock’s aversion to anything with a synthesizer resulted in Seventh Son being deemed too “Euro”.  But time has been kind to this material, and what once seemed overly stately and washy now comes across as epic and, well, rad.

Perhaps Maiden’s faithful are pleased with a tour like this because, no matter what the setlist, any Maiden show since Dickinson’s return to the fold in 2000 contains all the elements of the band’s classic appeal: you have chief songwriter/bassist Steve Harris galloping through every tune with his typical machine-gun aplomb; twin lead guitarists Adrian Smith and Smurf-faced Dave Murray jauntily jigging through each song’s weedly-dee guitar architecture; third guitarist and unintentional band ham Janick Gers twirling his axe around his shoulders and leaping around like a maniac whilst occasionally chopping out a chord or two; and an appearance or two from a dude in stilts in an Eddie suit, amidst pyro.  This show hit all of these points, but the focus on Seventh Son anchored the show in grim and atmospheric fantasy, and it was a rare treat even for this ever-crowd-pleasing crew.

“There’s a time to live, and a time to die/when it’s time to meet the Maker,” Dickinson howled during “The Clairvoyant”, “There’s a time to live, but isn’t it strange/as soon as you’re born, you’re dying.”  On paper, this sort of stuff might seem pompous and even (ulp) pretentious, the type of metal ode that lends itself to spot on parodies like this:

Jack Black - Birthday Song by albita81

But on Tuesday, Maiden let loose a one-two punch of Seventh Son’s title track and “Clairvoyant”, nearly twenty minutes of shifting twisting dynamic rock-as-theater gotterdammerung, and goddamn if it wasn’t one of the most powerful rock experiences I’ve had in quite a while.  Is this nerd metal?  Certainly: it isn’t for nothing that, for the ten-minute duration of “Seventh Son”, Eddie appeared, not as his usual ass-kicking ghoulish self, but as a mild-mannered scribe, penning something in an ancient book with a quill by candlelight.  As much as Seventh Son rocks, it is also thinking-man’s-metal, asking the “big questions” as the instrumentalists pull out all the stops and toss every awesome song idea they have into one massive prog-flavored stew.  That it somehow works, and works so well, is a testament to the power of Maiden when they trust their instincts and allow themselves to stray ever so slightly from their winning formula.  On Tuesday, Maiden used to instincts perfectly to entrance a capacity audience with a metal force that was both mesmerizing and challenging.

Maiden wasn’t the only legend taking the Comcast Center stage Tuesday night, though: warming up was Vincent Fournier, d/b/a ALICE COOPER, whose shock tactics have lost none of their lustre nearly five decades after his Phoenix, Arizona group the Spiders (who later became the group Alice Cooper) first fused a rock and roll beat to the tropes of horror.  Back in the mid-60s, his old band showed up on stages adorned with a huge black spider web-- in 2012, Cooper adheres to the same aesthetic, his drummer playing a kit fashioned with cymbals stands shaped like spider’s legs.  But Cooper has perfected a number of tricks since the 60s, whether it’s the boa constrictors, fencing swords, mad scientist getups, or sanitarium straitjackets that fill his stage wardrobe.  Tuesday saw him trot them all out for the capacity crowd, as even in his 60s he lives up to his reputation as the man in rock we love to hate.

Tuesday’s set skewed towards Cooper’s 80s and 90s work, perhaps in keeping with Maiden’s late-80s set.  At this point he hasn’t had anyone from the original A.C. band in his lineup since that band’s famously acrimonious schism in the mid-70s-- but his newest group of young recruits was up for the task of keeping things intense, especially the lightning-fast digits of lead guitarist Orianthi, the 27-year old shred prodigy who was previously the guitarist in Michael Jackson’s final band.

Cooper used his opening slot to almost beat Maiden at their own game when, during “Feed My Frankenstein”, he ushered in a gigantic stilt-walking FrankenAlice-- between this and the gigantic Iron Maiden Eddie stiltwalker a few hours later, the thought crossed my mind that this tour has more of a Bread and Puppet Theater vibe than I would have thought.  The thing about Cooper’s theatrics, though, is that as awesome as they are, they often obscure what a phenomenal songwriter he is-- his last several decades of metal antics tend to obscure the fact that, for at least a ten year stretch, Cooper was secretly America’s finest songsmith, with a wry lyrical genius and an absolutely insane way with a hook.  If tunes like “Hey Stoopid” or “Brutal Planet” didn’t exactly make that abundantly clear, some glimpses of Mr. Fournier’s songwriting genius began to peek through when he finally broke into some of his classic 70s work, especially the wickedly clever “Billion Dollar Babies”, a savagely mordant lampoon of fame and success that effortlessly combines funk and cabaret while still rocking hard as a motherfucker.  Still, it is always a treat to witness the ritual guillotine decapitation of Alice Cooper that is always at the heart of his live show, and Tuesday’s night did not disappoint-- in fact, I’m still trying to figure out how the severed head held up by the executioner managed to keep singing the chorus of “I Love The Dead” until Alice’s eventual resurrection.


Iron Maiden:
Can I Play With Madness
The Prisoner
2 Minutes To Midnight
Afraid To Shoot Strangers
The Trooper
The Number of the Beast
Phantom of the Opera
Run To The Hills
Wasted Years
Seventh Son of a Seventh Son
The Clairvoyant
Fear of the Dark
Iron Maiden
Aces High
The Evil That Men Do
Running Free

Alice Cooper:
The Black Widow
Brutal Planet
I’m Eighteen
No More Mister Nice Guy
Hey Stoopid
Billion Dollar Babies
Feed My Frankenstein
Wicked Young Man
Killer outro
I Love The Dead
School’s Out/Another Brick In The Wall pt 2

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