Saturday, October 15, 2005

Precious metal

Judas Priest reconciliation, tour and album like striking gold for fans of powerhouse British quintet

Sat Oct 15 2005


Rob Halford is back in front of Judas Priest.
JUDAS Priest singer Rob Halford was always the toughest guy in heavy metal, a fact that had nothing to do with all his leather, studs and Harley Davidsons.

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Rob Halford is back in front of Judas Priest

Well, maybe a little. As a gay man leading one of the biggest bands in the history of an extremely macho genre, Halford had to contend with incredibly loyal but often homophobic Priest fans who were oblivious to his sexuality, despite the "nudge-nudge, wink-wink" subversiveness of album titles like Hell Bent for Leather and British Steel.

Halford stayed in the closet during his original stint with Judas Priest, which began in 1971 and ended in '92 when he suddenly quit to pursue a solo career.

In retrospect, you can't blame the guy. Back in the '80s, when nobody could have envisioned Will & Grace or Queer Eye on TV, the only gay men in pop culture were Boy George, Paul Lynde and Liberace.

Halford didn't come out until 1998, when he was fronting the industrial duo Two, while Judas Priest was led by former fan and Halford impersonator Ripper Owens, the real-life inspiration for the Mark Wahlberg movie Rockstar.

In total, Halford and his Judas Priest bandmates -- guitarists K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton, bassist Ian Hill and drummer Scott Travis -- were estranged for 13 years before pressure from fans led to a reunion.
Suddenly, Judas Priest is playing arenas like Winnipeg's MTS Centre (Tuesday, $59.50 to $34.50) instead of theatres and small clubs. The British quintet's image has been upgraded from aging has-beens to classic metalheads who deserve the same respect afforded to Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.

And there isn't a Priest fan on Earth who isn't overjoyed to have Rob Halford back shrieking out Screaming for Vengeance and Diamonds and Rust, machismo or no machismo.

"When a guy like Rob Halford comes along and announces to the world he's gay, it's a step in the right direction," says Downing, 53, a guitarist who helped define the sound of heavy metal through the dual-lead harmonic style he developed with Tipton in the early '70s.

"Today, you'd be a totally uncool dude if you don't accept the modern society we live in. Things like (sexuality) don't matter. It makes no difference how we sing, perform, play or write songs.

"Whatever we do in our life, it makes absolutely no difference in Judas Priest -- whereas before, people thought there was something weird. I'm glad we're moving forward as a world."

Some fans admire Rob Halford as a role model. But most just love his voice -- the combination of his unusually powerful pipes and the Downing-Tipton guitar attack is a sound many other bands tried and failed to imitate for decades.
During Halford's absence, fans never accepted replacement Owens and kept clamouring for the original lineup.

"It didn't matter how well we played at the concerts. Obviously, Ripper was a great singer and a great guy and he has a great future. But I think people wanted the voice of the band," Downing says.

"And that voice was Rob Halford, just like Freddie Mercury was with Queen, Mick Jagger is with the Stones and Bruce Dickinson is with Iron Maiden.

"These fans came to the concerts, wore the T-shirts, bought the records and followed the band for two decades or more. A lot of them felt let down, and I think quite rightly. I understand that."

The reunited Judas Priest has released a passable new album, Angel of Retribution. But the band's classic '70s and '80s material remains the chief live draw.

Tuesday's show with veteran thrash-metal purveyors Anthrax is set to last more than two hours and feature all the kitschy visual gimmicks that made Priest a top concert draw 20 years ago: Expect Halford to be elevated from the stage at some point, and charge in on a Harley at the beginning of the first encore.

"We're bringing as much as we can pack into the trucks," says Downing. "We're going to play as long as we can and won't stop rocking from the beginning to the end.

"People will enjoy it, but we know when they drive home they'll say, 'Hang on, they didn't play The Sinner.' They'll start talking about the songs we didn't play, which is hundreds of them."

Back in the '80s, Canada was the best market in the world for Judas Priest. Downing says he has more gold records from Canada than any other country and is psyched to return to our chilly soil -- but even more excited to be back in arenas.
"To be honest, I love it. I think we all do. Without pushing (it) too far, I'd say that's where we belong. We have a lot of fans every where we go.

"We wouldn't be here now doing this, I can promise you, if we didn't feel we were as good or better as we ever were. We better be, because our fans are as good or better: The reaction and support has been fantastic."

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