Metal heroes Judas Priest hit Mohegan Sun Arena Thursday
In one way, the music journalist's career has come full circle. At college, as the arts editor for the campus daily, the writer's first-ever "big time interview" — in person, no less — was at the Waco Convention Center when Judas Priest came through on their 1978 "Stained Class" tour.
Backstage, an hour or so before showtime, the acne-clustered scribe was presented, much like a nervous supplicant before a pagan god, to Rob Halford, who was already well-regarded in an ongoing career that's established him as one of the greatest heavy metal vocalists ever. It was ludicrously intimidating: Halford, clad in leather, wearing sunglasses and holding a bottle of whiskey, seated sideways on a Harley with a blonde on either side.
The rookie journalist was overwhelmed. In an adenoidal voice and averting his eyes from the sheer wanton majesty before him, the writer made an excuse and scampered away never to return. It was just too much sheer ... Metal-ness.
Last week, for the second time in his life, the same journalist spoke with Halford, who was calling from a Manhattan publicist's office. Halford, now 66, and Priest are heading out on their latest tour, celebrating "Firepower," their 18th studio album, which brings them tonight to Mohegan Sun Arena.
Perhaps not surprisingly, of the thousands of shows he's played, Halford doesn't recall the long-ago stop in Waco. But, worse, neither does anyone else. The journalist's increasingly frantic searches of Priest and various rock fan/concert websites indicate the band didn't play a show in Waco in 1978!
"I wish I could help you, Rick," Halford laughs. "Those were my drinking days. I don't remember whole YEARS." Halford pauses. "I will say that sometimes shows would pop up that weren't on the original itinerary, so ..." He's genuinely concerned and trying to be helpful.
Yes, Halford, whose rocket-scream voice has delivered such malignantly titled tunes as "Ripper," "Screaming for Vengeance," "Devil's Child," "Sinner," "Killing Machine," "Saints in Hell" and "Beyond the Realms of Death," is in fact a very kind, cheerful and enthusiastic conversationalist.
He's clearly a devout advocate of heavy metal as a musical style and feels as though Judas Priest is an ongoing torch-bearer, though, by this point, only Halford and bassist Ian Hill remain from the original lineup. For decades, guitarists K.K. Downing and Glenn Tipton provided Priest's formative and formidable twin guitar attack; Downing left in 2011, replaced by Richie Faulkner, and, sadly, last month, after announcing a diagnosis of Parkinson's Disease, Tipton opted out of the "Firepower" tour. Veteran metal guitarist Andy Sneap, who coproduced "Firepower," is replacing Tipton onstage.
Though there's a new album to promote and Halford's in big demand for interviews, he's also done over four-plus decades of interview. As such, by prior arrangement, the Q&A is limited to 10 — count 'em, 10 — minutes. Quickly, then:
On an inference that "Firepower," with advance tracks "Never the Heroes" and "Sea of Red," might suggest a conceptual theme centered on the creepy and sad vibe of the world right now:
"We're certainly aware of the connotations of the album title; literally the fire and heat and elements of destruction. But those have always been and still are rallying cries for heavy metal music. But, in fact, 'Never the Heroes' is written from the perspective of a soldier at war. These are courageous individuals who perhaps didn't plan on heroism but react in noble fashion under horrible conditions. Similarly, 'Sea of Red' is a tribute to the soldiers who died in World War I. I think it's within each of us to act heroically — whether that's in war or everyday life. And there's a power there that resonates with what's going on today in a more positive way."
"Glenn is a heavy metal hero. Parkinson's is a horrible condition, and the patient undergoes through so many cruel changes. It's been a privilege to watch his courage going through this and during the recording of the new album. Andy was tremendous throughout, not just as a producer, but as a friend, and we all got on so well.
"So we'd go out for regular meals together at the pub, and one day Glenn said, 'You know, it is what it is, and the show must go on. The band's bigger than any of us, and I'm going to suggest that Andy take my place the road with you. He'll be perfect.'
"And our response, of course, was that however Glenn feels is the best way to represent his work and legacy is something we take very seriously. It's worked out very well, and we'll do our best to go out and make these shows something special."
On his attitude about singing metal today and whether he can look back and recognize the 22-year-old kid who co-founded Judas Priest:
"We don't change, do we? (laughing) Outside we do, but I'm a very happy heavy metal AARP guy. In terms of the early songs, there's absolutely nothing in the Priest catalog that makes me embarrassed. It all has its place, doesn't it? I look back, and the songs might represent different things I was going through, but those things were still part of my life, right?
"A lot of this music and our songs have been part of a soundtrack to people's lives. And, the way the music industry is today, we now have the luxury of streaming tracks in advance of the album release, so that fans are familiar with some of the new material when we hit town. Response to that has been great.
"That we've touched so many for so long is incredibly flattering and important to us, but it also speaks to the power of metal. On the road, we see a lot of the same folks over and over, and you get to where you recognize faces. It's a wonderful thing to see them again. Maybe we don't get to your town on every tour, but we try to make it ever few years — and for that one night, the family's reunited again. That's a remarkable thing."
Judas Priest, 7:30 tonight, Mohegan Sun Arena; with Saxon and Black Star Rider; $43.75-$63.75; 1-800-745-3000.