Judas Priest's back-to-back performances in San Antonio this month come scant weeks after the groundbreaking heavy metal act made headlines — twice — for its induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
First, Priest — one of the few metal bands to headbang its way into the institution — reunited with estranged guitarist K.K. Downing and '70s-era drummer Les Binks for a three-song set. Second, frontman Rob Halford lit up the internet by singing with fellow inductee Dolly Parton during a show-closing performance of her song "Jolene."
The Current spoke with Halford via Zoom ahead of Priest's Tuesday, Nov. 22 and Wednesday, Nov. 23 shows at San Antonio's Tech Port Center + Arena. The performances are part of the band's 50 Heavy Metal Years tour, which also hit the Alamo City back in March.
No other U.S. city drew three performances from Priest on the tour. The repeat performances likely stem from the fact that San Antonio was one of the cities that broke the Birmingham, England-formed band stateside. In turn, that relationship helped cement SA's longtime rep as the "Heavy Metal Capital of the World."
During the conversation, Halford — one of the first metal performers to publicly come out as gay — talked about what to expect from the band's next album, his new book of essays titled Biblical, how long he plans to keep hitting the road and the "beautiful light of love" that is Dolly Parton.
Did performing with K.K. Downing at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ceremony help put aside some of the acrimony that he's shown about not being in band for these last few tours?
I think we should let the music speak for itself, really, because as you'll see from the performance — I think it's going to be on HBO soon — you'll see that all of that other stuff is irrelevant. All the things that have been said and suggested just float off into the air. What matters is what's going down on that stage at that time you're performing together. And there he is on my right-hand side. It just felt like he was always there. Look behind me and there's ['70s-era Priest drummer Les Binks], and the memories just are overwhelming. But, more than that, you're focusing on the moment that you're back together again and playing live. It was really a whirlwind. We were in each other's company for a very, very short space of time. We had very little time to communicate. But for the purpose of the induction of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame together, it was absolutely crucial that K.K. and Les were there. They were inducted, they needed to be in the room. And more than that, we were thrilled that they took the opportunity to say, "Yeah, we'll come and jam on stage again with you guys."
There was also a lot of attention given to you singing with Dolly Parton, another recent inductee, on "Jolene." How did that come about, and how important is her work to you?
I knew that there was going to be an opportunity a few weeks before the event. Again, it was just kind of floating around that she was going to do this song at the end of the show and bring all of her friends onstage with her. And I didn't realize that we were going to be so connected. I sang one chorus with Dolly Parton and the world's gone nuts. And I can appreciate that now. I didn't understand it at first. And now these days have gone by, and people are going, "Where's the album with Dolly and the Metal God?"
I'll tell you something about her: she's been here forever, a bit like Her Majesty the Queen, who left us recently. What I mean by that is when Dolly walks into the room, you feel this regal presence. She's just got this aura about her personality. She's a genuinely beautiful light of love and caring and philanthropy and humanity. It's all real, man. It's all very real. There are some people who are very different on and off stage. Well, no, not with Dolly. That's Dolly's thing. So, for me to have that opportunity, I was just blessed and honored and thrilled. I know her work because I've lived as long as Dolly, and I was aware of Dolly as a young person growing up and seeing her on British television. She'd come over and do these British variety shows. And here I am, this kid from a public housing estate in the West Midlands in England, and I'm standing next to Dolly fucking Parton, who is now a rock chick.
You released your autobiography Confess during the pandemic. And Biblical, your follow-up book of essays, was released Nov. 1. That's two books in quick succession. Do you see yourself continuing to write — and at this pace?
I think life is about doing whatever you want to try and do, and not being afraid to take the plunge. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. But you don't know until you try, no matter what it is in life. And I've always been an avid book reader, and I love autobiographies especially. So, for Confess, I'd been asked for years and years and years for the autobiography, and I said I wasn't ready. And then the year of readiness came along, and then I said, "Let's do it." Another incredible piece of it is that I was working with [co-writer Ian Gittins], a guy that walks the same street as I do. He's from my neck of the woods. His home is literally 10 miles or less from me. So, to have somebody with the same metal blood, so to speak, how did that happen?
To work with somebody that is so in your world, as a person, was incredibly important. And then, because of that, you're able to be so brutally honest and open with everything that you've had happen in your life. I had so much fun with Ian writing Confess. We talked for like 50 hours, man, over a period of weeks. By the time we were getting to the back end, I said, "I've got this crazy idea for a follow-up." I told him it would just be about the ups and downs, the ins and outs of how to get into this world of rock 'n' roll. "OK," he said. "Yeah, that's a pretty good idea." I said, "I'm also going to take the liberty with the Good Book, the Holy Bible." He goes, "This'll be fun."
So, I take Revelations and temptations and Acts and all this other kind stuff from the Bible and find a parallel. Temptations: booze and drugs. Revelation's revealing what it takes to get a band on stage, any artist on stage. It's one thing to see them, but how did they get there? What did those people have to do to stand on that spot under the spotlight? So, there it was, that was the template for Biblical. And we had a blast. I enjoy it. Of course, Ian does all the hard work.
You recently said you're pushing to get the next album out in 2023. You also said it's not going to be a sequel to the last album, Firepower, but something that breaks new ground — which Priest has done multiple times during its career. Can you give a hint what to expect from it?
It's amazing, isn't it, music? There's only so many notes, and yet it's like an endless mathematical equation. It never fails to amaze me how we can put music together with such a limited resource. Sad Wings of Destiny, Point of Entry, Screaming for Vengeance, Defenders of the Faith, Turbo, Sin After Sin, Redeemer of Souls, Firepower, Painkiller. Man, they all have their own legs to stand on, don't they? But they're connected just because of the sound and this voice. So, I think this next record is going to probably be full of those elements again, but a little bit more advanced, a little bit more progressive.
The Firepower album contained a lot of the classic vibes of Priest, if you want to call it that. So, we've covered that territory. But it's very important not to replicate something. We've always tried to push every record to have its own legs to stand on. So, this record, even now is on this phone. (Taps his cell phone.) I've got it on this phone, just the instrumentation. It's just roaring. It's absolutely roaring. It's got everything that you love about the band on it, and then some.
So, that's about as much as I can say, because how do you talk about music? It's impossible. The riffs are heavy, dude. But it's been a joy, and more than anything, I'm so proud of the band to have something of great value and texture coming this far on. This far on, man. Fifty years later, we're still able to make this kind of really important, strong music for ourselves and for our fans.
Once I've got my vocals done, then you have to work with the label, the vinyl and the prepping and all that kind of stuff. I'd like to think it'll drop in 2023, but we'll see. When you drop the record, it has to be for all the right moments. Because the other thing is Priest has always toured on the back of a new album. This 50th anniversary is the first time ever where we haven't toured with new music. It's been a blast, because of course we're also celebrating 40 years of Screaming Vengeance. And this conversation is really important in terms of our love for San Antonio, coming back so quickly. We're coming back, man. That just shows you the love that San Antonio has for Priest.
What should fans here expect from those two shows?
Anybody that saw us the first time around, this is a new show for you. You're going to hear "Screaming for Vengeance," the title track, for the first time in forever; "Riding on the Wind," first time in forever, "Jawbreaker," in forever. It's a very potent, strong, powerful show. I got a text from [Exodus and Slayer guitarist] Gary Holt a bit after the Ontario show the other day. He goes, "Dude, you are, without a doubt, the definitive heavy metal band of all time. That show just fucking blew my mind." And that means a lot, because we're friends and he's a great musician. In his place, in his world with Exodus and the genre of his music, he's the master of that territory. So, for him to be so kind and throw that kind of stuff to me on a text, means a lot. So, this set that we're doing right now, it's just a killer.
Clearly, it's very important for you to deliver a powerful live set. Given the age of everyone in the band, how much longer do you see yourself being able to deliver that kind of set? At what point do you decide, "Well, maybe it's time to take a step back?"
I look at what Mick Jagger does, look at what Roger Daltrey does, what Steven from Aerosmith does. I'm just talking about singers. They inspire me. They absolutely inspire me. And their voices are good, their voices are strong. They're able to do the work. As long as I'm able to do the work, I don't want to go home and just put the remote on ESPN or the Weather Channel. I can't do that. I can't do that. Some days, I do feel like, "Oh, man, I just want to go home." And then a week later I'm like, "Where's the tour bus?"
It's a crazy world, rock 'n' roll is. There's no doubt that the clock is ticking, that the heavy metal sunset is there, but let's not think about that. I think once you do, you start to decompress a little bit. So, rather than the dusk of heavy metal, I'm always thinking about the dawn of heavy metal. That's the way it is for me. We'll know when the time comes, and we'll do the right thing. But we're not even thinking about that at this point. The band is just red-hot right now, and we're just thrilled and honored to be in this place — to be able to keep making the metal as strongly as it should be.
San Antonio was one of the places in the U.S. where people latched onto Priest very early, thanks in large part to KISS-FM DJ Joe Anthony. Do you have memories of being surprised how rabid the fandom was here before it took hold in other places?
Totally, totally. I remember the first person I met when I got to San Antonio was Joe. And he took me to the radio station, and I couldn't believe it. He's sitting in this squeaky old chair, and there's pizza boxes and pop cans and everything around. And he's got a turntable, and we're talking — I didn't even know we were on the air. ... And we're talking, we're talking. And then, "OK, we're going to listen to some Priest now," he says and puts on the whole side of Sad Wings of Destiny — the whole side. And I go, "This is really cool." Joe says, "Yeah. I do what I want. I love music so much, and I know what my listeners want. And I know how important heavy metal is in San Antonio and how much more important it's going to be. But I'm just thrilled to be here with you and to share this music and push this music as much as I can."
So that kindness, that generosity, is something that I always feel when I come back to San Antonio. It's extraordinary, because I've been all over America a million times, but whenever I come back to San Antonio, it's like a little bit of home there for me. I just love to get on the streets and walk up and down the River Walk and go for some food or whatever. And so that's just a beautiful thing. It's a blessing when we come back. And, like I said, to come back so quickly, man, you guys love your metal. This is a real honor for us to come back so quickly and have some more good times together.
$34.50 and up, 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 22 and Wednesday, Nov. 23, Tech Port Center + Arena, 3331 General Hudnell Road, (210) 600-3699, techportcenter.com.