The Masquerade, Atlanta, Georgia
November 27, 2015
Black Friday conjures up images of shoppers trampling each other to save a dollar on junk that they do not need, people overdosing on leftover turkey and mashed potatoes, and lots and lots of football. This year, however, the day after Thanksgiving took on a whole new meaning for Jen and me as we drove to Atlanta to experience a couple of German heavyweights on the penultimate night of their five-week North American tour. The venue was upstairs at the Masquerade, the venerable old cotton mill that has reportedly been sold and whose days as a concert hall are by all accounts numbered. The “Heaven” room holds roughly 800 folks and it was more packed tonight than I’d ever seen it before. It was wonderful to see denizens of Atlanta and surrounding environs come out in full force to support German heavy metal on this holiday weekend. Notwithstanding the congestion, I was able to stake out a nice spot in the second row (behind a short woman with dreadlocks) on the left side of the stage, so I had a great view the entire night. As enthusiastic as the crowd was, they remained quite docile. It proved to be a great environment for rocking out and singing along without having to worry about taking a boot to the cranium.
Promptly at 8:00 p.m., the lights came down and GRAVE DIGGER took the stage. A venerable, highly-respected institution of traditional Teutonic steel abroad, Grave Digger are largely strangers to these shores. Despite a handful of one-off dates here and there, this tour marked the band’s first full-scale assault of the New World in more than three decades of existence. Because they were here in a support capacity, the Diggers lacked full use of the stage, lights and sound. But make no mistake: Grave Digger are a well-seasoned, totally professional live act who delivered a headliner-caliber performance from the first note of their 10-song, 55-minute set to the last. Wiry vocalist Chris Boltendahl may have gone gray, but he knows how to work a room, juxtaposing amiable smiles with playful jabs at the audience (making mock disgusted faces and saying, “you sound like my 90-year old grandmother” in response to a less-than-impressive singalong). This was my first time witnessing Axel Ritt on guitar in Grave Digger, as Manni Schmidt had manned the six strings on each of the four occasions I’d witnessed the band previously. The bare-chested Ritt definitely brings his own personality and style to the mix, legs splayed as he attacks his black-and-white striped axe, and even dropping to his knees and leaning back during the triumphant “Heavy Metal Breakdown” finale as the denim-vest wearing (Saxon, Kiss, AC/DC patches) Boltendahl towers over him. Over on my side of the stage, bassist Jens Becker doesn’t do anything fancy, but he holds down the bottom end and peers out at the audience, singing along with just a hint of a smile on his face. The setlist was, in all honesty, a superb overview of the band’s lengthy career. There were three cuts from the 80s period (of which my favorite “Witch Hunter” was especially gratifying to hear), two from the latest studio album ‘Return of the Reaper’ (the lumbering, Becker-led, red-lit “Season of the Witch” and the more dangerous, high-octane “Tattooed Rider”), three classics from the Uwe Lulis era (who can argue with “Rebellion” and “Excalibooor,” as Boltendahl pronounced it?) and one from the Schmidt period (the truly awesome “Ballad of a Hangman”), plus an earlier Ritt song (the Scottish-tinged, green-hued “Highland Farewell”). Grave Digger expertly mixed fast songs with mid-tempo bruisers, sprinkling in a few singalongs and winning over the partisan Blind Guardian crowd to their brand of no-frills, muscular, defiantly old-school true German metal. Band and crowd alike were all smiles by the time the proceedings came to a close, Boltendahl grasping the necks of Ritt’s guitar and Becker’s bass as all three men turned to face drummer Stefan Arnold in triumph. I bumped into Axel Ritt briefly afterwards, and he seemed very pleased with tonight’s show and audience, although he was not so complimentary of the relatively dilapidated, amenity-free Masquerade, haha. Perhaps the band have gained enough of a foothold in the USA on this tour to justify a return engagement as a headliner. Ten songs and 55 minutes of Uncle Reaper is simply not enough! Setlist: Headbanging Man, The Round Table (Forever), Witch Hunter, Ballad of a Hangman, Season of the Witch, Excalibur, Tattooed Rider, Highland Farewell, Rebellion (The Clans are Marching), Heavy Metal Breakdown.
The set changeover was startlingly efficient, as it took just under 20 minutes after Grave Digger left the stage before the lights went dark again, this time for headliner BLIND GUARDIAN. Part of the reason for this was undoubtedly the spartan stage setup. No backdrops, no banners, no video boards, no elaborate props. Just black curtains behind the stage, small designated areas to either side of the drum riser for keyboardist and bassist to inhabit, a few extra lights at the front sides and rear of the stage, an overworked fog machine at the back, and a lot of open real estate up front for Hansi Kursch, Andre Olbrich and Marcus Siepen to do their thing. I had seen the Bards five times before (in 1998, 2001, twice in 2006, and 2010). I’m certain I’ve never seen them better than they were tonight. The sheer sprawling scope and heft of their performance was awe-inspiring. Blind Guardian performed 18 songs tonight, including three epics of nine minutes or longer. They stayed on stage for two hours and 25 minutes, and the set was not bloated with extended solo spots for any of the musicians. Equally impressive was the band’s visibly high spirits, sustained positive energy and obvious joy throughout the night. By sheer chance, I had encountered Kursch and Olbrich the night before at their hotel in Mobile, Alabama. They were visibly exhausted that night and seemed ready for the long, hard US tour to be over. There was nary a trace of that roadburn to be seen onstage tonight, whether it was drummer Frederik Emke pounding on his skins and singing along like his life depended on it, or Siepen flailing hair and belting out the choirs, or Kursch all smiles as he alternately joked with Siepen and offered effusive praise to the crowd. I could tell that Olbrich was a bit under the weather, as he kept going over to the side of the stage to ingest caffeine (large red Starbucks cup and a 20-oz bottle of Coca-Cola, the latter quite appropriate for an Atlanta show) and blow his nose; however, his performance did not suffer for it in the slightest. His dizzying solos and glorious melodies were nailed to perfection on this night.
It ended up being a magical night in Atlanta. Surely some of the credit goes the crowd, who were loud, rabid and hanging on every lyric and melody all night long. They never seemed to get tired, even when singalongs during “The Last Candle” (“somebody’s out there”), “And Then There was Silence,” and “Valhalla” were repeated for minutes upon minutes. Audience familiarity with the material was also high, although some near me fell silent during the new songs, the lengthy “And Then There was Silence,” or the never-before aired “Curse of Feanor.” Blind Guardian seemed buoyed by the crowd, who seemed buoyed by Blind Guardian, with a positive feedback loop of energy that propelled band and audience alike to heights of euphoria. Kursch has grown in leaps and bounds as a frontman over the years too. He knows when to be self-deprecating (poking fun at himself for using the word “tiny” to describe the crowd when he meant to say “packed,” drawing attention to himself after he inadvertently dropped the microphone during “Banish from Sanctuary” and later calling it a “sound effect that I like to use from time to time”), when to express mock indignation at the crowd (“I give you the little finger, you take the whole hand” after chants of “Majesty” started up, then vowing “you’ve had your one wish, no more will be granted”), and when to tell us we were “fucking amazing” (a common refrain). Hansi also delivered truer renditions of his vocal lines than I’ve heard him do in the past, revving up to full power with less “cheating” then he has historically done to go easy on his own voice.
The real credit goes to the magical songs, however. Yeah, I know, anyone can bitch about a setlist. I can too. They didn’t play “Lost in the Twilight Hall,” or “Journey through the Dark,” or “Script for My Requiem,” or blah blah blah. But what they did play was really special. You want the hits? You got ‘em: “Bard’s Song,” “Nightfall,” “Valhalla” were all there. You want newish songs? You got those too: “Ninth Wave,” “Prophecies,” “Twilight of the Gods,” “Sacred Worlds,” “Tanelorn.” You want complex epics? “And Then There was a Silence” in all its 13-minute glory. An old-school smasher that hasn’t been part of the regular setlist in ages? “Banish from Sanctuary” and “The Last Candle” fit the bill in pure, spine-tingling glory. A touching semi-ballad about Frodo? “Lord of the Rings” is your answer. How about a 17-year old song they had *never* performed live before tonight? I give you “Curse of Feanor.” My point is this: Blind Guardian have written some of the greatest power metal songs ever. For them to select a sprawling setlist that plays to their strengths, while offering dynamics and avoiding predictability, is a guarantee of a great show. And that’s exactly what we got.
There’s really nothing else to say here. I used to think I’d missed out on the glory days of Blind Guardian, as the first four or five albums are far and away my favorites. While I’m still not particularly enamored of some of the newer material because (in my view) it lacks the urgency, power, thrashy attitude and emotional impact of the early stuff, I must admit that Blind Guardian are a truly formidable live act in 2015. I’m ever so thankful that they toured North America this year and am already anticipating their return to Atlanta in September 2016 as the Thursday headliner of the ProgPower USA festival. Be there!
Setlist: The Ninth Wave, Banish from Sanctuary, Nightfall, Fly, Tanelorn, Prophecies, The Last Candle, Majesty, Lord of the Rings, And Then There Was Silence, Curse of Feanor, Imaginations from the Other Side. Encore 1: Sacred Worlds, Twilight of the Gods, Valhalla. Encore 2: Into the Storm, The Bard’s Song – In the Forest, Mirror Mirror.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~