We made the arrangements months in advance – in my case, to purchase the tickets for the festival and get a week off work. In the case of Kate and Pete Burton, they had to make significantly more complicated arrangements for someone to look after their children for a week, and get flights to and from Sofia from England. Sonisphere Sofia 2011 was supposed to be a massive festival, featuring the likes of Alice Cooper, Slipknot and a bunch of other bands, but none of that really mattered – there was only one band playing as far as we were concerned, and that was Iron Maiden. Impatiently, and with great anticipation, we were counting the days backwards until the coveted June 21 arrived. Heavy metal D-Day. It would be an amazing experience, and a great week to spend in Sofia with a couple of good mates – but then we did not count on the factor called Balkan Music Entertainment.
With seven days to go, it was announced that the festival was collapsing, due to several factors, and in large part, due to Balkan Music Entertainment themselves because of their poor choice of location and ridiculous pricing. The news of the cancellation felt like a bucket of cold water, followed by several long minutes of sheer disbelief. Was this really happening? Surely they can't mess this up? How can the festival be collapsing? Then followed the inevitable surge of anger, and the growing desire to vent my frustration somewhere, or on someone. Anger was followed by the sobering realisation that we had to come up with an emergency contingency plan, or miss the tour altogether. Consulting the tour dates on the Iron Maiden website, I realised that the only realistic option was the Sonisphere festival in Athens, on June 17, or the one at Istanbul, on June 19.
A couple of hours later, I was on the phone with Tina Pappas, the head of the marketing department at Didi Music Big Start Promotions, the Greek promoter of the event, literally begging her to sort us out with accreditation for the show, so that we could attend the concert, and why not – even meet the band and take some pictures for posterity. Tina, to my amazement, then said that she was sorry about the cancellation, adding "we would be glad to offer you a press pass for our festival". I don't remember packing my bergen ever as quickly as I did that sunny afternoon!
We disembarked in Athens on the morning of June 17, and made the short walk from Syntagma Square down Panapestimiou Street and then onwards to Alexandras Avenue from where the coaches were ferrying hordes of fans towards TerraVibe Park. I was considering buying a ticket for the festival, just in case, as it all seemed too good to be true. I decided to make a quick call to Tina who reassured me and lived up to her words: "Don't worry Nick, just get to the main gate, your name is on the list". I thanked her, thinking to myself that she is worth her weight in gold. I stocked up on water, a bottle of vodka and I boarded the coach to TerraVibe.
TerraVibe Park is a beautifully chosen location for a summer festival, a large field surrounded by a forest, flanked by a beautiful mountain to the right. It is about 37km north of Athens, towards Malakasa, and the round trip to and from Athens cost seven euro from Stathmos Larissis (Athens central train station) or the Paedeon to Areon Park (which is at Alexandras Avenue and just across from Revenge of Rock club.)
The venue was getting packed nicely as, eventually, more than 25 000 people congregated on the festival grounds – a welcome break from running around and trashing the centre of Athens and battling police. A band called Virus was playing at the Saturn stage just I was getting my bearings and having a refreshing drink of cold water. The list of bands consisted of the Greek black metal outfit Rotting Christ, Virus, Gojira, Mastodon, Slipknot and, of course, Iron Maiden. I could not be in several places simultaneously, so I decided to conserve my strength, head for the main stage and wait for the main acts.
Slipknot came out wearing masks and red overalls and their fans loved it. I reckon they had a great gig. Personally, I did not enjoy it but that's just me. The line-up of the band was the size of a rifle section, and for all those musicians, there wasn't that much music going on. No less than three drummers, and Nicko McBrain could have taken on all three of them with one arm tied behind his back. The most notable part of their concert as far as I am concerned was when one of their drummers was suspended in the air with his entire drum kit. My opinion doesn't matter however – the important thing is that the people who went to see Slipknot enjoyed themselves. Some of their fans said they sounded great on the night, so I guess they did.
Then the lights went off, and the sound of Satellite 15 rumbled out, followed by El Dorado, 2 Minutes to Midnight and Coming Home. Iron Maiden were out in force, but to my amazement, the crowd was rather subdued. It's hard to create a mosh-pit and slam into people when everyone seemed busy with filming the concert on their cameras or mobile phones. What have metal concerts become nowadays?
Maiden produced an energy-sapping two-hour display, with a set list which consisted of Dance of Death, The Trooper, The Wicker Man, Blood Brothers, When the Wild Wind Blows, The Evil That Men Do, The Talisman and Fear of the Dark.
Musically, Iron Maiden were as crisp and meticulous as they are in the studio, and long-term Maiden fans expect nothing less from the band. Great sound and stunning backdrops and lighting effects, as always, although my only complaint is directed against Bruce Dickinson who once again managed to insult the Greek fans. Every Greek fan lives with the dream of listening to Alexander the Great live, at least once in his or her lifetime. Given that every time Maiden release a new album, it goes straight to number one in the Greek charts, you would think they can make an exception and play it just for them, at least once – as a bonus. And even if they don't play it, at least don't tease them about not playing it. Bruce, that was not nice, mate, you weren't funny if you thought you were, and it was bang out of order.
The encore consisted of The Number of the Beast, Hallowed Be Thy Name and Running Free. I left with a big smile on my face and a sense of contention which is still keeping me tingling. On behalf of myself, and the Bulgarian fans who made it to Athens, thank you TerraVibe for setting up a lovely festival. Personal thanks also must be extended to Tina and Christine Milner. Maiden – see you again, somewhere on tour. Up the Irons!