On Monday April 15th legendary heavy metal vocalist Bruce Dickinson performed a rare solo show with a talented backing band collectively known as The Mandrake Project at The Observatory Orange County.  Dickinson is most well-known for his “day job” as the lead vocalist for British heavy metal icons Iron Maiden.  However, the singer also has a prolific career of solo material, having released seven albums as a solo artist since 1990 with the newest being The Mandrake Project which was released on March 1st.  The album is full of heavy head banging music that fits Dickinson’s vocal style perfectly, and there are more diverse influences present in these songs than what might typically be associated with Bruce’s most famous tracks.  The new music also features some incredibly slick production and really intense songwriting  and it was a treat to see these songs performed live in such a small venue.  Especially given the fact that Dickinson normally plays to some of the largest audiences in the entire world.  When Bruce yelled one of his patented crowd interactions at this show – “Scream for Me!” the roar was still very much palpable, but considerably smaller than normal.

The sweat drenched fans at this packed show were absolutely shoehorned into the intimate Observatory Orange County.  The small club holds 1200 but it felt like there had to be at least 2000 people packed inside on this night. Fans were smashed into every possible open space and it was a battle just to get in and out of the audience.  It felt like the walls of the club were dripping, and the pungent smell of cannabis hung heavy in the air.  The Southern California metal faithful were clearly eager to hear some new tunes and to have the chance to get a good close up look at their heavy metal hero.  Dickinson stalked the small club stage, pacing with frantic energy as he delivered powerful soaring vocals.  Hopping up on the tall stage edge, he pounded his fists into the air and demanded the audience’s full attention.  At various points Bruce even played percussion and rocked out on a Theremin, obviously enjoying some much needed musical and creative freedom.   Going into this show I honestly had fairly little experience with Dickinson’s solo work, aside from the phenomenal track “Tears of The Dragon,” but watching him perform this new material live in such a small space immediately sold me.  The new song “Rain on the Graves’ has such a classic heavy metal vibe, it’s easily a new favorite.  Dickinson is an amazing performer and an absolute pro, even in a small club, watching him command every single person in the audience and draw them all together into a unified crowd was incredible.

The Mandrake Project also interestingly enough takes the form of an adult graphic novel.  Written by Dickinson as a different type of creative outlet, the story centers around a character names Dr. Necropolis.  As Bruce describes it in the Brazilian publication Omelete ,”He’s an orphan, he’s a genius, and he hates it, and he hates life, but he’s involved in The Mandrake Project. And The Mandrake Project aims to take the human soul at the point of death, capture it, store it and put it back in something else.”  Luckily enough you don’t need to read the comic to enjoy the musical album and vice versa. However thumbing through this rather spicy comic book I picked up at the merch stand was a great follow on after the concert to learn more about the concepts behind the album.  Dickinson apparently started the creative process on this project in 2014 and then expanded it greatly with extra time available during the COVID lockdown.

The band for this show cannot go without mention, as they are all phenomenal musicians in their own right.  Bassist Tanya O Callaghan was a ball of fire, a talented performer with impressive bass skills that was impossible not to stare at onstage. Keytar player Msitheria had crazy frantic energy and added a comedic flair to the show.  Drummer Dave Moreno was unfortunately positioned way in the back of the stage on an incredibly high riser but still made his presence felt with some rock solid pocket playing.  And lastly guitarists Chris Declercq and Philip Näslund each laid down some impressive shredding and tag teamed their parts back and forth on these tunes to great effect. One would imagine Dickinson can have his literal pick of the very best rock musicians in the world, and this group did not disappoint.  After this concert and a few other small warm-up shows in the LA area, Bruce and company are headed to South America and beyond for a World Tour.  And as Dickinson explained onstage at this show, after a separate Iron Maiden tour this summer, he plans to bring The Mandrake Project back to the US.  Here’s hoping Bruce and The Mandrake Project visit Southern California again with this fascinating music and art, and that they include some more of these intimate and incredibly intense shows.

Photos and Review by: Alex Matthews