Live Report: BLIND GUARDIAN & GRAVE DIGGER at Commodore Ballroom, Vancouver, November 16

Blind Guardian live at Commodore Ballroom 2015 (Photo by Kevin Eisenlord Photography)

Blind Guardian have been one of my favourite bands for years. So many important life memories have been coloured in some form by their music. I’ve bonded with friends over a mutual love for A Night at the Opera, and turned to Nightfall in Middle-Earth at times when I needed to escape someplace else and focus on the struggles of mythical realms instead of problems closer to home. I clearly remember the first time I listened to Blind Guardian. Just under a decade ago I was at a now-defunct music store and wanted to hear something of the group. Between the then-freshly released A Twist in the Myth and Nightfall in Middle-Earth, I chose the latter (purely on the basis that the cover looked cooler) and took it home with me. I slipped it into the car stereo in the parking lot and was immediately pulled in. The cinematic flair, the overpowering vocals, the dark-tinged fantasy brought to life by the likes of a heavy metal Queen. I was hooked instantly.

The single occasion Blind Guardian had played Vancouver must have been around that time. Several people that shared my anticipation for their performance alongside Grave Digger remarked how great they’d been a decade prior. Of all the bands in metal, I think they were the one I was most intent on getting to see at some point in my life. The quality of their studio output notwithstanding, there’s just something about Blind Guardian’s music that screams for a live performance. This isn’t hurt by the band’s legendary reputation for performances, and a set of live albums (especially the amazing Tokyo Tales) that demonstrates their live bite in action. Was I excited? You bet I was. When the date was announced months back, I spent weeks listening to nothing but Blind Guardian, going through each album and wondering which songs I might be seeing on the fateful evening.

Grave Digger opened up the show on a marvellous note, and it should say something that I heard just as many people fawning over their set as for Blind Guardian. While they certainly never achieved the same success as Guardian (and fewer ‘classic’ albums, to be sure) Grave Digger harbours an impressive live reputation of their own, and I’d say they earn it completely. High-powered heavy metal cheese abounded, but the seriousness with which they took their craft was apparent. Watching their set, I remember getting the impression (even moreso than Blind Guardian, in fact) that this was a band that had the stage confidence to be filling full stadiums with their sound. Chris Boltendahl’s vocals remain as powerful as ever, and the band’s finale was ripe with the sort of bombast I was hoping to hear from them. I actually think they are the sort of band that should be headlining a show, but I could never complain over the prospect of hearing two classic bands in one night.

Not a shred of this anticipation was hurt with the release of a new album I consider to be painfully disappointing. A few songs indeed were represented from Beyond the Red Mirror, and while the amazing performance Blind Guardian put on that night didn’t paint the fresh material in a new light, there is no small feat in simply mentioning how much material they have prepared for the current tour. Seventeen songs in one set. Two hours without pause. This is the sort of wonder I’ve seen only rarely from bands. Rush did something similar when I saw them this past June, but I came out of that show thinking a lot of their modern song choices could have been done without. While A Night at the Opera (their masterpiece, in my opinion) and the underrated Battalions of Fear were left unrepresented,  it was hard to fault the songs they chose. Even Beyond the Red Mirror was shown on its best notes; the band opened up their set in glorious fashion with “The Ninth Wave.” With such a long set, it’s not surprising they managed to cover most of the material I was hoping to hear.

Throughout the night, I was immersed in one of the most enthusiastic crowd responses I think I’ve ever seen at a metal show. The suspicions I had were true; people react at a Blind Guardian show differently, and there were a several songs where I could audibly hear large sections of the crowd singing along to every word. Just as impressive as the length of the set list (though less surprising, to be sure) was the fact that Blind Guardian managed to pull off their music with only scarce overdubs. The vocal harmonies (of which I consider to be their strongest trait) sounded crisp as perfectly mixed, no matter where I was standing in the crowded Commodore Ballroom.

Unlike Grave Digger, who were pretty crazy in their stage performance, Blind Guardian definitely offer a more introverted take on live performance, though you’d never guess it from the energy in their music. Above all else, I was anticipating how Hansi Kursch’s voice would sound live. As one of my all-time favourite vocalists (with an inimitable range and timbre to boot) there was a slight shock to my system when I heard him sing the first verses of “The Ninth Wave.” Although his range isn’t quite as profound as it is in the studio (between choosing a higher or lower harmony to lead with, he’ll always pursue the latter) he makes up for it live with extra power in the delivery. Not to mention that I think he can hit those notes; he just chooses to be more sparing, if only as a way to make sure his voice makes it through two hours. See: the glorious high note in “Into the Void”, itself one of the best songs of the evening’s proceedings.

Blind Guardian finished the night with not one, but two encores. Six songs over two encores for a two hour set that was seventeen songs over a career spanning over a quarter of a century. I already knew Blind Guardian were one of the best live acts out there, but I had to see it for myself. If you’re in any way a fan of these guys and haven’t had a chance to see them, make a certain point of going and having your own suspicions confirmed in full.

Blind Guardian

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Grave Digger

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Blind Guardian - Beyond the Red Mirror Tour 2015

Photo credits: Kevin Eisenlord Photography

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