Most fans of Maiden probably know by now that Castle Donington is sacred ground for the band. The former race circuit in Derbyshire, UK has been used as a concert venue since the early 1980s, and while nowadays it’s inhabited by the annual Download Festival, a hard rock/heavy metal festival that began in 2003, it was previously known for Monsters of Rock. Iron Maiden were chosen to headline the 1988 edition, and played to a crowd of almost 100,000. While the gig is considered by many to be legendary, it wasn’t without an unfortunate tragedy that struck- early in the day, two teenagers were killed at the beginning of Guns N Roses’ set, and Axl Rose’s words to the crowd to get them to calm down were sadly not enough. Maiden weren’t informed of the incident until after their set, and the next year, the tour was canceled. But since their landmark gig, Maiden have headlined 4 other times- the Fear of the Dark tour in 1992, the Give Me Ed… ‘Til I’m Dead tour in 2003, the A Matter of the Beast tour in 2007 (where the band played half of A Matter of Life and Death and half of The Number of the Beast in the main set to celebrate 25 years of the latter album, and most recently, the Maiden England tour in 2013. And I was even at 2013 edition, having traveled all the way from Canada to see them a bunch of times in Europe– they began their set with a Spitfire flypast, and launched into one hell of a gig celebrating 25 years since their first appearance at Donington.
The 1992 edition was broadcast via radio in the United Kingdom and Ireland, filmed for a video release and recorded for a future live album. The tour, supporting their ninth studio album Fear of the Dark, was one of the two last to feature vocalist Bruce Dickinson (before he rejoined the band in 1999), and one of the two tours with Bruce where the band performed with no set dressings, with just bare amps, backdrops and the usual Eddies. They also performed the songs with much more of a raw feel, and Live at Donington certainly reflects that. The album was produced with the idea of a “quality bootleg” in mind, and the album certainly feels like a soundboard recording, with absolutely zero polishing or overdubs, and very minimal crowd noise save for the quiet parts or between songs too. And never has a live album captured this time period so well- it was the early 90s, and Metal was in danger of being phased to the underground, as Grunge was well on its way. But the raw feel of Live at Donington showcases a defiant band, refusing to let themselves become irrelevant, and putting as much energy and emotion into their performance, showing the crowd that they’re not fucking going anywhere.
So it goes without saying that this certainly isn’t a Rock in Rio 2001 or Live After Death caliber performance. At times, Janick’s solos can be a tad sloppy, Bruce struggles and strains in a few places, Dave and Jan do lose harmony in places, the bass sounds a bit too high in the mix, and Nicko loses the beat here and there- but the absolutely zero attempts to polish things and to showcase the band at their most furious and ferocious yet is what makes Live at Donington such a satisfying recording to listen to. From Nicko’s opening drumroll on “Be Quick or Be Dead” to the finale of “Running Free,” the band are clearly having fun, in a good mood, and happy to be performing to a home crowd.
Since much of the setlist is peppered with Fear of the Dark material, with a healthy amount of classics and even some No Prayer for the Dying, the band give the songs quite a mean feel. Bruce sings in his raspy vocal style where required, but when he sings cleanly, his ability to hit the notes here are amazing. He sings with a bit more vibrato than usual too- especially on “Tailgunner”, where he alternates between shouting and clean singing, and even his little laugh after the second verse is a nice little touch. “Number of the Beast” and “Wrathchild” are played at their dirtiest and sleaziest yet, and the crowd participation that has been a staple of Maiden shows is present- the crowd sing along with every single nuance of “Fear of the Dark,” and before “Bring Your Daughter… to the Slaughter,” Bruce plays with the crowd a bit. Said song is also performed with a raw, almost AC/DC gusto, and Janick’s solo is absolutely fantastic. But arguably, the highlight here is “Afraid to Shoot Strangers.” The slow parts are peformed cleanly and beautifully, and the synthesized strings add a nice touch to the track, before the heavy part kicks in, and the organ from the original track sounds just as great here. And something that may surprise older fans- during “Running Free,” Adrian Smith comes out on stage and plays with the band, making this the first time that the Reunion era lineup has ever played together (before 1999). Bruce even sounds excited when he introduces him to the crowd, saying “You may recognize this guy… H...” It’s an absolutely magical moment and his performance truly is endearing to listen to.
While Live at Donington may not reach the heights of the “great” live albums, it’s one fun listening experience. It’s both a perfect depiction of a band at a time when Metal was in danger of being irrelevant, and a great standalone album that showcases the band at one of their most energetic performances. Its unpolishedness represents a more honest depiction of the band’s live show, and the sound of the band having fun has never been more endearing. HIGHLY recommended.