On Aug. 15, British metal legends Judas Priest played their first concert in nearly 25 months before a throng of 20,000 metalheads at England’s annual Bloodstock Open Air festival. For bassist Ian Hill and his bandmates, the well-received show was a relief. The band sounded tight, and although he was just shy of his 70th birthday that month, singer Rob Halford still commanded the spotlight.
“It was good to go back onstage and get back to work. It was a great experience,” Hill tells Billboard. “You know, it’s almost like your first gig. It was the first time in 40 years I had a tingling of nerves there. I was talking to the other bands, and they were saying exactly the same thing: ‘Is everything going to go OK?’ Crew as well as band, they’ve all got their parts to play. Everything went off fine. It’s pretty much back to normal. They didn’t let anybody in unless they had a negative test or double jab.”
Hill remarks that the quintet was “as well rehearsed as we’ve ever been” when it headed into Bloodstock. “We’ve been out of it for two years, so we overdid it, I think,” he says, laughing. “Once we got to Bloodstock, we were all shattered. We had two full weeks of music rehearsals, which is just basically the five of us in the library making a racket and trying to get a setlist together. Then a full week of production rehearsals with the staging and the effects.”
“I guess it was a little bit of therapy in a good way,” muses drummer Scott Travis. “Once we got onstage, [we felt like], ‘We’re back and this feels good.’ And it was great for the first gig back to be a festival. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to any European festivals, but they’re general admission, so you’ve got everyone packed up to the front of the stage. It’s just a really great atmosphere.”
Bloodstock was a lead-in to Judas Priest’s belated 50th-anniversary tour, which was delayed a year because of the pandemic. Dubbed 50 Heavy Metal Years, the trek starts tonight at Reading, Pa.’s Theater at Santander Arena, and the North American leg runs through Nov. 5. Judging from the Bloodstock setlist, fans can expect to hear some vintage songs resurrected for this trek (1974’s “Rocka Rolla,” 1978’s “Exciter” and 1988’s “Blood Red Skies” among them), plus tunes that have never been played live, specifically “Invader” from 1978’s Stained Class, and “One Shot at Glory” from 1990’s Grammy-nominated Painkiller. (According to Hill, the majestic ’80s anthem “Reckless,” once considered for the theme song to the 1986 blockbuster Top Gun, was rehearsed, a hint that other lesser-heard tunes could also emerge on the tour.)
With all of the revisited music to rehearse, Travis admits that set opener “One Shot at Glory,” from the first Priest album that he played on, was the most challenging to relearn. “Thankfully, I played it [originally],” he notes. “So when you try and learn something, you’re like, ‘Wait a minute. I played this at some point. I should be able to nail it again’ … It’s a pretty fast song that’s got some double bass in there. So it’s a ‘hurry up and wake up’ moment for me — you don’t have time to ease into the set; you’ve got to start this thing running at 90 miles an hour. But that song is fun.”
Travis also acknowledges that “Dissident Aggressor” (originally played by drummer Simon Phillips) and “Exciter” (played by Les Binks) were enjoyable to revisit. “It’s fun to learn other people’s styles,” he says. “Obviously, as any artist — a drummer, bass player, saxophonist, whatever — when you try and learn someone else’s style, it helps you become a more diverse player. I welcome the challenge. I try and do my best, at the same time keeping the song’s original feel and paying tribute to those other drummers who played before me.”
Among the tunes in the Bloodstock set was “Turbo Lover,” from 1986’s much-maligned, synth-heavy Turbo. In its heavier, guitar-driven live rendition it has become a singalong song. “It was one of those experimental things where we needed the next step forward,” recalls Hill of that song and album. “We’ve always tried to take a step forward, as most people do.”
Unlike many of its metal peers, Priest has not been afraid to try new things, even if it means temporarily irritating some fans — as with 1981’s bluesy Point of Entry and 2008’s double-disc metal opera Nostradamus. But the act feeds on change.
“We’ll embrace anything that’s new,” declares Hill. “We’ll give it a go. If it’s great, if it sounds good at the end of the day, we’ll keep it … With [Turbo predecessor] Defenders of the Faith, we almost reached the end of the road with that sort of direction, and we were looking for the next step. Along came these Roland guitar synthesizers, and we thought, ‘Well, maybe this is it.’ We probably overdid it, but it’s the direction we took.”
For fans who want to explore the band’s entire catalog, Sony Legacy is releasing the Judas Priest 50 Heavy Metal Years of Music limited-edition box set on Oct. 15. Along with new artwork, memorabilia, collectible items and a photo book, the massive, 40-plus CD package also contains remastered versions of every official live and studio album the group has released — including from when singer Tim “Ripper” Owens replaced Halford from 1996 to 2003, and the recent studio works with guitarist Richie Faulkner, who replaced K.K. Downing 10 years ago.
There are 13 discs of full concerts from such cities as New York, London and Denver between 1979 and 1991 (along with individually curated live tracks from over the years), plus a demo of “Epitaph” from 1976’s Sad Wings of Destiny and the unreleased epic “Mother Sun,” which was performed at England’s Slough College in 1975.
“A lot of live recordings came to light,” says Hill. “We thought we’d already emptied the vault … and suddenly, these things started to emerge from somebody’s loft or someone’s computer. [Longtime producer] Tom [Allom] cast his ear over it and made it fit for consumption.” The bassist adds that the live material came from two-track masters. (“Mother Sun” and some of the live tracks have floated around as bootlegs for decades.)
When asked how guitarist Glenn Tipton is coping with Parkinson’s disease, which led to him resigning from regular touring back in 2018 (Andy Sneap, who co-produced 2018’s Firepower, handles his concert duties), Travis replies, “He’s dealing with it. It’s a serious, serious disability, and I’m sure we all know that it’s not really curable. So he takes his meds and he does his exercises, and he’s dealing with it best he can. It’s got to be tough, not being able to join his own band onstage every night. But he’s handling it like a trooper. And that’s all he can do, you know: [put] one step in front of another.” Like he did at some shows on Priest’s last world tour, Tipton emerged for the final three songs of the Bloodstock set.
Given that Priest has been active since 1969 (the initial lineup that year was different) and Travis has been with the band for 31 — nearly twice as long than all of its previous drummers combined — he still feels like time has flown by. “I remember going to concerts in the ’70s and ’80s,” says Travis. “I’d see a band onstage, and I was like, ‘Man, all I want to do is be able to do one real tour of American arenas for a year.’ I had no desire to go to Europe or South America or Japan. I never even thought about playing those continents. I just wanted to be able to tour arenas and have that big PA sound and your drums sounding like cannons and shotguns. So I’ve outlived my early desires.”
He’s also impressed with how long Priest has endured. “I don’t care if you’ve been selling milkshakes or if you’ve been doing something [else] for 50 years. Half a century — that is insane,” says Travis. “So credit to the band, and I’m happy to have been a part of it. Hopefully, we can get a few more years out of this thing.”