BLIND GUARDIAN, GRAVE DIGGER - Deutsche Duo Dazzles Philly

November 2, 2015, 2 years ago

Mark Gromen

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Been almost 12 years since I first brought Grave Digger to the second BW&BK 6-Pack Weekend, for their initial show on North American soil. Since then, have become friendly with the guys in the band, the most recent material just galvanized my ardent support, and while still a fan of early Blind Guardian, must be honest that my fandom there has (over the same period) waned a bit. So imagine my surprise when they trotted out a helping of Tales From the Twilight World material, part of a planned live CD being recorded at each show. Still, the prospect of seeing both, on the same American stage, was a can't miss event. Now only if Union Underground could import a couple of Germany beverages, for an authentic feel!

Hanging out in the tour bus, beforehand, the Grave Digger guys confirmed that they've re-upped with Napalm Records for a trio of records (and at some point, a live DVD, although no new studio effort before January 2017!). Talk turns to golf (singer is avid golfer, drummer has a chipping hole in his backyard), the inefficiencies of Germany's Internet, eagerly anticipated tourist stops (San Francisco) and the Guardians playing in Halloween costumes, the night before. After an hour, leave them, so they can have some personal time and get ready.

Intimate stage on which to catch both of these European headliners. A scorching “Headbanging Man” got the crowd involved instantly. Following “The Round Table (Forever)” silver haired vocalist Chris Boltendahl, black fingerless gloves on both hands, mockingly chided the crowd for their lack of mimicry, failing to sing "whoa whoa" adequately. This also gave guitarist Axel Ritt time to remove his shirt. On “Witch Hunter”, he plays his black & white striped guitar, legs splayed and full head of hair flopping all around. On keyboards is "The Reaper," his skull mask actually has a movable jaw. “Ballad Of A Hangman” boasts a robust sing-along. Longtime bassist Jens Becker began the slower paced “Season Of The Witch”, Boltendahl center stage, lit in blue from below. Later the color scheme was predominately blood red.

Axel contorts his body at obtuse, seemingly unnatural angles. For the clickety clack locomotion of “Excalibur”, the stage is green/blue as the shouting fans were clearly having fun. Boltendahl is a consummate frontman, working the crowd, often with his foot on the monitors. He raised his hand to his ears, feigning not enough noise, or mouth agape, mugging to the fans, playing air guitar. 'Tattooed Rider' sees the album artwork backdrop highlighted. The audience clapped along to the melodic Scottish intro of “Highland Farewell". Sounded like pizzicato strings on the purple tinged “Rebellion (The Clans Are Marching)”.

People couldn't wait for the final song, the ubiquitous closer, “Heavy Metal Breakdown”, screaming the title while Boltendahl was still thanking the fans. Drummer Stefan Arnold kicked things off. Like a guitar wielding limbo dancer, Ritt dropped to his knees, bent backwards, back on the floor, still wailing away. Great to see kids, not even born when the song was recorded, singing and headbanging. Apart from a couple of select dates, this is Grave Digger's first tour of North America in their 35 year history and judging from the reaction, probably won't be their last. Shake you ass & bang your head!  

Under deep blue hues, Blind Guardian strolled onstage to “The Ninth Wave”, the biggest roar reserved for singer Hansi Kürsch. All but Kürsch are fairly static onstage. As I have a history with some of the guys (including Kürsch & I taking a helicopter ride around Manhattan Island, to promote the “Fly” single, years back), in the course of photographing tonight's show, noticed his zipper was down and several in the front row were giggling about it. Not wanting to call any more attention to the situation, I quickly scribbled a note and handed it to the unaware frontman (not wanting the Bard in the forest to make a sudden appearance, ala Lenny Kravitz), but he simply pocketed it. After the first song, André Olbrich switches to a red guitar, which is used for most of the set. A storming “Banish From Sanctuary” was up second. In fact, most of the running order has been standardized throughout the tour (lighting cues, pre-recorded music and the click tracks in the headphones of the rhythm section/keyboardist needing to remain constant). However, towards the end of the proper set (before the encores), there's some space, a revolving door for some older tracks that (hopefully) will make it onto that aforementioned live CD.

Chants of "Guardian! Guardian!" erupt after each song. Kürsch giving a thumbs up or playfully interacting with the crowd. “Nightfall” becomes a red/purple staged sing-along, ending in a sea of red. A flash of purple lights, for “Fly” is interrupted by pulsating white strobes. Kürsch is mobile, his hand often on his knee, as he balances on the monitors, or stands back, feet wide, as he shakes his head back & forth. . “Tanelorn (Into the Void)” raises the speed a bit. Hilariously introduced when Kürsch continues to push for more for more response: "This song is for..." Cue screams. "He can't hear you." Louder screams "He's not real!" Laughter all around, including a knowing smirk on the singer's face. Cupping the mic with both hands, in reality, Kürsch doesn't have to sing, the crowd knows all the words and adds their voices to each song. Arms outstretched elicits a response, as does pointing to the balcony.

The green, backlit “Prophecies” and deep red “The Last Candle”, which is punctuated by maniacal laugh and rare lead break from Marcus Siepen, follow. Kürsch teased, "Now something from Tales From The twilight World. Ah, one fan over here knows it. It's about Frodo. Girls over here like him! And Sauron. Girls like him too (laughs)!" With the backdrop lit in red, was time for the almost a cappella begun “Lord Of The Rings”. While the crowd couldn't carry the lyrics themselves, so Hansi reinserted himself in the mix. Off their Battalions Of fear debut (way back in '88), it was “Majesty”. As the calliope intro was piped in, the crowd swayed their outstretched arms side-to-side, the pre-recorded music gives way to a sonic blitzkrieg. The heads down, proto-thrahser is something the Grave Digger fans can enjoy, possessing an urgency missing from much of the Guardians' new millennium stuff.  

The oldies kept coming (certainly my favorite part of the show, even better than the encores!), first: “Welcome To Dying”, with an Olbrich solo under multi-colored lights. Initially never thought I'd see Blind Guardian in the US, so headed overseas, witnessing festival sets. Since then, caught them repeatedly in the States (and 70,000 Tons Of Metal), but never in such a small venue. A blue lit “And The Story Ends” was an apt number to close the proper set, but the boys returned for the first encore. A still black stage hears the pre-recorded symphonic intro to the lengthy “Sacred Worlds”. After another newbie (“Twilight Of The Gods”), it's another fist thruster, “Valhalla”, which see the band depart once again. The second encore ends with a back-to-back, fan fave sing-along duo: the forceful, yet folky “Bard Song - In The Forest” and rousing “Mirror Mirror” anthem.

Can't wait to see this again, in Cleveland, then in Germany, right before Christmas.

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