Judas Priest at The Warfield, by Jon Bauer
Judas Priest (photo: Jon Bauer)

Words by Aaron Rubin

I last saw Judas Priest over 35 years ago at the Long Beach Arena on the band’s Screaming for Vengeance tour — it was my first real concert. For me, a 15-year-old metalhead in those prelapsarian days (i.e., before the rise of hair metal), Judas Priest represented the Platonic ideal of a heavy metal band. Perhaps if push had come to shove, I would have said Van Halen was my favorite band — they were the hometown heroes, after all — and perhaps Iron Maiden was pushing boundaries in more innovative ways. But no band defined the look and sound of heavy metal like Judas Priest did.

Within just a year or two of that first Judas Priest concert, I discovered punk rock and stopped paying close attention to heavy metal bands. But now, in my dotage, I occasionally get nostalgic and put on one of the albums that defined my early adolescence.  Some hold up better than others but the Judas Priest records of that era remain remarkably listenable. The playing, production, and most of all the songs are among the best of the genre. In fact, genre aside, once you get past the leather and studs, those Judas Priest albums are simply great rock records.

Judas Priest is currently touring in support of their 18th studio album, Firepower, which was released earlier this year. The current version of the band, with only frontman Rob Halford and bassist Ian Hill remaining from the lineup that I saw in 1982, made a stop at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco.  I went not knowing what to expect but felt right at home as soon as I walked in the door and realized that the audience consisted largely of middle-aged versions of the heshers I hung out with in 10th grade. Think Heavy Metal Parking Lot meets 49 Up and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the vibe.

As for the show itself, it was great — the band was energetic, playing a career-spanning selection of songs like the seasoned pros that they are. Rob Halford no longer presents as the leather daddy metal god of my adolescent fantasies, instead stalking the stage more in the manner of a malevolent gnome than someone you would want to get whipped by at the Folsom Street Fair. These days, the heavy metal histrionics are left largely to guitarist Richie Faulkner, but fear not — Richie Faulkner’s command of heavy metal histrionics is unrivalled among modern practitioners (just check the photos below). But here is the amazing thing — malevolent gnome or not, Rob Halford still sounds exactly like Rob Halford. Given the physical demands of Priest’s music, that’s impressive.

And then there was the ending, with Halford riding his Harley onstage and original guitarist Glen Tipton making a surprise appearance for the encore to play the crowd-pleasing favorites “Metal Gods,” “Breaking the Law,” and “Living After Midnight.” For a while there, perhaps it could have been 1982 after all.

English heavy metal stalwarts Saxon and Black Star Riders, a band that comprises former Thin Lizzy guitarist Scott Gorham and other members of the most recent (post-Phil Lynott) lineup of Thin Lizzy, opened the show.