It`s been almost 10 long years since Metal titans, Judas Priest, last toured the UK.  With their 50th anniversary celebrations curtailed by Covid and a planned special guest slot with Ozzy Osbourne which was postponed, rebooked, postponed and then cancelled due to ill health kept Priest off the road for what seems like an eternity.

They are now back accompanied by a seriously strong cast of guests, featuring Uriah Heep and Saxon, both of whom are headliners in their own right.  Now that is a real treat for Metal fans of the UK to more than make up for Priest`s extended absence from these shores.

The Northern Echo: Judas PriestJudas Priest (Image: MICK BURGESS)

Uriah Heep had already released an incredible seven studio albums before Priest got off the mark and last year celebrated their 50th anniversary with an elaborate career-encompassing show.  Tonight they took the opening slot on Priest`s belated 50th-anniversary celebrations but with only half an hour to play with they wasted no time in showing just why they remain such an enticing live band with opener ‘Save Me Tonight’ and ‘Grazed By Heaven’ from their two most recent releases ‘Living The Dream’ and ‘Chaos and Colour’, getting things off with a bang.

Sure guitarist Mick Box, is the sole survivor from the heady days of the 70s but vocalist Bernie Shaw and keyboardist Phil Lanzon have both clocked up almost 40 years in the band each and that experience simply oozed class on stage.

The Northern Echo: Judas Priest, First Direct Arena, Leeds 13th March 2024Judas Priest, First Direct Arena, Leeds 13th March 2024 (Image: MICK BURGESS)

For a band of such a vintage, their last few albums have been of an astonishingly high standard sitting proudly next to the Heep classics with Bernie Shaw`s warm, melodic voice and charming stage manner winning over many new converts as the evening progressed.

Of course, Heep have a huge canon of their classics and they delivered them big time from the epic ‘Rainbow Demon’’, the heavyweight ‘Gypsy’ and the thumping Hammond organ-driven shuffle of ‘Easy Livin’ making them one tough act to follow. No wonder Mick Box was grinning from ear to ear as he walked off stage.

British Metal veterans Saxon are certainly no pushover and rose admirably to the gauntlet thrown down by Uriah Heep and made an immediate impact with ‘Hell Fire and Damnation’, the title track of their new album and a blistering ‘Motorcycle Man’

With original guitarist Paul Quinn`s recent decision to retire from the stage, it was going to take something special by way of a replacement and they certainly pulled a rabbit out of the hat with fellow NWOBH stalwart, Brain Tatler from Diamond Head who hit the ground running adding some crunching riffs and solos along with long-time guitarist Doug Scarratt on ‘And The Bands Played On’ and ‘Sacrifice.’

The Northern Echo: Saxon Live at the First Direct Arena, Leeds 13th March 2024Saxon Live at the First Direct Arena, Leeds 13th March 2024 (Image: MICK BURGESS)

Lead singer Biff Byford still sounds as powerful and commanding as back in the halcyon days of the NWOBHM and his Yorkshire accent was certainly warmly received by the enthusiastic Leeds crowd and he certainly played up to his roots at every opportunity.

Saxon seem to be on something of a fine run of form late in the career with ‘There`s Something In Roswell’ and ‘Madame Guillotine’ sounding as powerful and fresh as a band half their age but it was the big guns classics that drew the biggest cheers of their set from ‘747(Strangers In The Night)’, ‘Dallas 1pm’, which was chosen in a crowd vote and the rifftastic ‘Wheels Of Steel’ keeping the temperature bubbling right until the end until the boiling point was reached when Paul Quinn was welcomed back on stage for a special guest appearance on ‘Denim and Leather’ and a steam-driven, ‘Princess of the Night’.

The 10-year wait was finally over as the houselights went down and smoke swirled across the stage as strobe-lights zigzagged around the hall as the intro tape rolled before the guitars cranked into life exploding into ‘Panic Attack’ from their just released 19th album, ‘Invincible Shield’ as the curtain was raised to see the whole band positioned around Scott Travis`s huge drum riser.

For the next hour and a half, Judas Priest delivered a masterclass in Heavy Metal and no one does it quite like them.  They took the blueprint laid down by Black Sabbath and refined it with a twin guitar assault, thunderous drums and all topped off by the incredible bat bothering vocals of Rob Halford bedecked in leather, chains and studs while cranking up the speed to inspire future generations to the glories of Metal.

The Northern Echo: Uriah Heep at the First Direct Arena, Leeds 13th March 2024Uriah Heep at the First Direct Arena, Leeds 13th March 2024 (Image: MICK BURGESS)

With 50 years of material to draw from this was a setlist to cover all sides of the multi-faceted Priest machine from ‘Rapid Fire’ and ‘Green Manalishi’ from the early days to ‘Invincible Shield’ from their stunning new album and ‘Lightning Strike’ from its predecessor. ‘Firepower’.

Frontman Halford, now sporting a large, white beard, possesses a voice that defies his age.  The higher notes may be used more sparingly but his mid-range is rich, and powerful with a wonderful granite edge bringing to life the likes of ‘Trial By Fire’ and ‘Turbo Lover’ as he went through more costume changes than Madonna throughout the show.

Richie Faulkner, now in his 13th year with the band was a revelation.  Bringing a renewed energy to the band and delivering biting riffs and screaming solos, he is one of the rare breed of musicians who can come into a well-established band and replace an original member yet, make the position his own.  Sadly, original guitarist Glenn Tipton is unable to tour but Priest`s album producer, Andy Sneap, stepped in to ensure the full-blooded twin guitar attack was suitably ferocious, yet wonderfully melodic. Glenn Tipton however, was not forgotten, as videos of him performing were periodically beamed across the huge video screens that enveloped the rear and flanks of the stage.

Original bassist Ian Hill and long-term drummer Scott Travis provide the metallic backbone on which Priest`s music is built with minimum fuss but so essential to their classic sound.

As always, Priest mined their rich catalogue to serve up a few rarely played gems in ‘Saints In Hell’ from ‘Stained Class’ and ‘Love Bites’ from ‘Defenders Of The Faith’ sending their followers into delirium.

Of course, the fan favourites and hits were all present and correct with Breakin` The Law’ and ‘You Got Another Thing Coming’ coming surprisingly early in the show while the intense epic ‘Victim Of Changes’ saw Halford hitting eye-watering notes while ‘Electric Eye’ and a savage ‘Painkiller’, hammered home Priest`s brutal Metallic credentials. Closing the show in style with crowd favourites ‘Hell Bent For Leather’ with Halford straddled over a sleek black and chrome Harley Davidson motorbike and ‘Livin’ After Midnight’ brought the best Metal package you`ll see this year to a climatic close.