Old Maiden singers never die, they just go bald. Yeah, I know Blaze shaved his head awhile ago, but just for a split second as he wanders outside Water Rats, I wonder if I've misread the PR jargon and this is, in fact, a Paul Di'Anno gig. But I digress.
I'm here tonight to check out two bands: Blaze's, of course, and also a thrusting buncha youngsters called Black State Highway, whom I was treated to a preview of last night at a 21st birthday party jam. Lovely Liva from Latvia enjoyed as much champers as the rest of us but, my oh my, no amount of fizzy bubbles could diminish this lady's lung power! A voice to shatter bottles (so that's where they all disappeared to…).
Tonight, she is as undaunted by the sizeable rock/metal crowd as she was by the small, exclusive mix of thesps/Sloanies last night, and I get the feeling she'd feel at home anywhere. The lady not only has lungs but legs and, shall we say, a sensual largesse that could fill a stadium. St Jude's Lynne Jackaman has made dominant rockin' ladies fashionable again, and Liva is an obvious contender.
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Anyway, there are four other members of Black State Highway, most significantly two guitarists, Yonnis and Olie, who flank Liva with blinding synchronicity.
The name suits them. Visions of cruising at breakneck speed through desert highways instantly manifests itself in the form of the superlative slide guitar of opener 'Conclusion'. Never mind Liva's skintight micro-shorts (or is it a skirt?), Yonnis and Olie are indulging in some excruciatingly skintight fingerwork, especially for 'Doctor Doctor' (no not a UFO cover), with some seriously skilful twin guitar harmonizing a la Lizzy.
BSH know their dynamics too. 'Coming Home', dedicated to Liva's dad, is bittersweet without too much schmaltz, and mellows the pace just enough to give the next song, a new one (tentatively called 'Trouble'), more impact. But then we have the mighty 'Tekkers', a wall of guitar that drives smoothly into 'Truck Driver'…and then they're off, to much applause, and many pleas for more, if not tonight (with five bands, simply no time), then sometime soon.
So, Blaze – much later than (even he) expected - finally stomps a sturdy route to the stage, bandana'd, chunky and very HEAVY METAL, looking a bit like a wrestler about to jump the ropes and do battle. Bets have been going on all night as to how many Maiden songs from 'X Factor' and/or 'Virtual XI' he'll sneak into the set. Well, the answer's seven of the fourteen on the setlist, the rest a fair smattering of songs from his own three 21st century albums.
"Good evening London!!" he roars, and then "scream for me London! Scream for Metal!". Could've sworn we were in the legendary dive that is Water Rats, not the 02. Blaze bellows all this with such bravado, he's either doing it for the benefit of the metalheads, or he really means it.
He and the band launch straight into 'The Brave', the venue turns into Valhalla, and a clutch of devoted fans jostle for Blaze's attention front of stage. And he obliges, reciprocating by hugging as many disciples as possible, cuddling one bloke's head so hard, I'm amazed he's still breathing ('death by Blaze!').
Regular fist-pumping and more than a few between-song nuggets of 'wisdom', and everyone is hanging on his every word, while the rest of the band hang around as patiently as possible, even though they're obviously gagging to get on with the show.
"Much as I loved my time with the lads from Maiden, next year I will be playing only my own stuff!" A massive roar goes up, which just goes to prove most people aren't at Water Rats tonight just to hear 'a Maiden vocalist'.
'Sign Of The Cross' and 'Lord Of The Flies' are greeted like a mass karaoke session, word-for-word chanting with Blaze, but this is also true of his own songs, including 'City Of Bones' and 'The Launch'.
Another speech, in which he advises us to forget yesterday and tomorrow and "be here, now!" (we are!) and, close to seventy minutes later, after pulverizing Water Rats with a set of definitive Metal, moshing and more fist-pumping, he finishes with Maiden's 'The Clansman' as encore. None more Metal!
Blaze has had more than his fair share of tragedy in recent years, and perhaps that's where he gets his passion from, because tonight he's been an absolute star, flying the flag for Metal in a minuscule venue as if he's playing to the world. What a Trooper. Oh no, that's Bruce.