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Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford looks back on a headbanging half-century

Rob Halford of Judas Priest performs at War Memorial Auditorium in Nashville, one of the band's stops on its "50 Heavy Metal Years" tour.Jason Kempin/Getty

There was a time when Judas Priest, the studs-and-leather titans of late-’70s/early-’80s heavy metal, was the boogeyman of rock music, the band that parents and church leaders were terrified their kids might be listening to. But singer Rob Halford doesn’t hesitate to describe the live Priest experience in terms its most fire-and-brimstone critics could appreciate.

“Faith and spirituality for me personally — I never speak for the band, because I’m just a voice for who I am — but that’s very important to me,” says Halford. “I understand the spiritual power of music and being together in this metal community. And regardless of your position on that, there’s just something very potent about everybody feeling the same way. And surely that’s part of the spiritual connection. Everybody’s got this glorious feeling of togetherness.”

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As Priest brings its COVID-delayed 50th-anniversary tour to Lowell’s Tsongas Center on Monday, Halford, 70, has had plenty of opportunity to see how that togetherness has persevered across generations. “It just amplifies the goodness of what we represent in Judas Priest,” he says. “Good always wins over evil. That’s been our philosophy with our music, in the message sense, for decades, and it always will be.”

Q. How is it being back on the road after the last two years?

A. I think musicians would agree that the reason we’re here, the reason we love what we do, all becomes reality in the true sense when we’re onstage with our fans and the music is live and the music is loud. There’s so much power and energy and connection and community. That’s what music is about, isn’t it, really? I mean, we love to listen to music by ourselves at home, in the car, whatever. But when we’re with friends at a rock show, at any kind of show, at a party, there’s always music playing. It’s part of the human spirit, really. So to be back in that world has been sorely missed. It’s just beautiful to be back onstage and to hear the metal maniacs screaming and putting the horns up. It’s a blast.

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Q. 2020 was Judas Priest’s 50th anniversary, but obviously whatever plans you had for that had to be postponed. How did the band handle that frustration?

A. Everybody’s been very cool about stretching out the timeline of the 50th anniversary. We’re focusing on a band that has been in the heavy metal world for 50 years, which is an extraordinary event anyway. So why shouldn’t we keep celebrating it?

Yes, we had to put the blocks on. The whole world ground to a halt. For some people, it was incredibly difficult. Some people lost their beautiful loved ones or had great challenges. We were busy, we were all doing various things, writing music. I had the opportunity to put my book together, “Confess: The Autobiography.” I dealt with my own health issues with prostate cancer. So in that respect, the timing, in a weird sense, couldn’t have been better. Because especially with my own health thing, if I had [been dealing with] that while we were on the road, everything would have been upended.

Richie Faulkner (left) and Rob Halford of Judas Priest perform at War Memorial Auditorium in Nashville on March 23.Jason Kempin/Getty

Q. In theory, punk and heavy metal should have appealed to the same fanbase of disaffected, marginalized youth finding solidarity by grabbing on to loud, fast guitar rock. Did you ever see any sort of kinship with what was happening in punk at the time?

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A. Yeah. We understood the anger and the frustration of youth. Because I was a youth myself. And I was angry, and I was frustrated at the world and the system and the “Man” man. I think that’s a very natural experience for every young person to go through. But we saw that in music in its most volatile and explosive sense. In my country [England] at the time [during the 1970s], it was very, very difficult. Society was in upheaval. All the workers were on strike, the coal people were on strike, the steel workers, the garbagemen, schoolteachers. The whole country was really angry, everybody was angry. And so out of that, I think, poured this music. But we could relate to it. We understood how people were feeling at that time, and the reason why they attached themselves to that kind of musical experience.

Q. Judas Priest is currently nominated for the third time for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. What would it mean to you if the band were to be inducted? Do you welcome that sort of quote-unquote respectability, being canonized, as it were?

A. Those are two great words, “respect” and “canonization.” I’ll take both of those, because that’s what it is. For the Rock Hall, you have to put about 25 years of your life into music, which we’ve done twice. For us, it’s as much about heavy metal music having its rightful representation as it is for anything else. The Hall is a beautiful place, because if you really love music and you pull down all the barriers about, Oh, I hate this band and I hate that band, I hate this music and I hate that music, if you could throw it out the window, music is music is music. So what you’re left with is looking at all these incredibly talented, powerful musicians, either bands or individual artists that have really poured their heart and soul out into their art, into their craft and shared it with probably billions of people by now.

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We’re keeping our fingers crossed that we do get in. Personally, I’d love it. I think there’s nothing wrong in celebrating each other’s achievements. Because we all do the same thing. It doesn’t matter whether we’re in a country and western band or a soul band or a rapper, we all do the same thing. There’s a connectivity in the craft that we make. We’ll wait and see. I think it’s gonna happen eventually. When I’m alive, please, would be nice.

JUDAS PRIEST: 50 HEAVY METAL YEARS

At Tsongas Center, Lowell, April 4 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $49.50-$150.50. tsongascenter.com

Interview was edited and condensed.

Marc Hirsh can be reached at officialmarc@gmail.com or on Twitter @spacecitymarc