Love or loathe English metaltitans Iron Maiden, you can't deny the band's lasting legacy in the world of heavy metal, or even, um, rock 'n' roll sword 'n' sorcery play. Indeed, the group's name is arguably more synonymous with metal itself than any other. By the late 1970s, Maiden had already perfected the art of crafting borderline-prog and expertly memorable anthems, and then mixing it up with over-the-top imagery and chest-hair-sprouting machismo. And in frontman Bruce Dickinson you got the world's first articulate and "tattooed millionaire" who fenced in the English countryside!
The men of Maiden are simply kings of the metal castle. But, and we have to say it, every king needs a queen. Boom!
OK, there are other all-female tributes to all-male bands. Hell's Belles (AC/DC) and Lez Zeppelin standout, but there's also Paradise Kitty (Guns N' Roses), the Ramonas, Cheap Chick, and the eyebrow-furrowing Vag Halen.
Los Angeles' The Iron Maidens formed in 2001, and were one of the first of the all-female combos honoring all-testicle combos. Of course, there are elements of "novelty" about it, but make no mistake—these are solid players who do Maiden justice.
Some backstory: They've all been in (or still are in) other bands. In fact, drummer Linda McDonald, aka Nikki McBurrain, was in'80s hair band Phantom Blue, which signed to Geffen, had minor MTV hits and toured the globe. But The Iron Maidens is so much fun, why would they stop doing it?
"Everybody really likes Iron Maiden," says bassist Wanda Ortiz, who plays as Steph Harris. "I think everybody wanted to do something challenging. There were other all-girl tributes but nobody was doing anything as challenging or as complex as Iron Maiden. We though it would be fun."
McDonald admits that the band was originally conceived as something of a goof—a bit of fun on the side, once a month at local bars. But as word spread, the popularity of The Iron Maidens grew. Bookers began calling regularly and the band suddenly had momentum.
"We didn't aspire to be professional tributeers," the drummer says. "Sometimes you just get involved with a freak-of-nature thing. Like a lightning strike or something. It just stuck. It's been 15 years, and we're having the time of our lives."
The band is completed by singer Kirsten Rosenberg (Bruce Chickenson), and guitarist Courtney Cox (Adriana Smith), with guitarists Nita Strauss and Nikki Stringfield rotating in the Mega Murray role. So how does a group of American women set about working something so overtly masculine, and British? It's all about feminization, which heavy metal needed for years.
"Obviously, the vocals are going to sound different," says Ortiz, who has also performed with the South Coast Symphony Orchestra. "We've feminized the costumes. We've added our feminine touch. ... We've just had a bit of fun with it, and a lot of women are happy to see it. Unwittingly, we've become kind of an influence for other female musicians. They think it's cool that girls can get up there and play that too."
"You might smell a little bit more perfume instead of sweat," McDonald adds. "We do get sweaty though. It's very intense, sweaty music."
They certainly put their all into the music, and are far better than most regular male Maiden tribute bands. Of course, they perform at much smaller venues than the real Maiden, so the famous stage productions must be scaled back. Maidens do their best with what they have.
"We try to produce the arena-sized stage show as best we can on a much smaller scale," says McDonald. "Obviously the venue sizes are much different, but we still have fake fire, monsters, the Grim Reaper, the Devil, Eddie—we've got it all. We don't have three guitarists though [as Maiden currently does]. I don't think there's space for three guitarists on stage. Plus, I think it's a little late in the game to add a third guitar player at this point."
The Iron Maidens focus heavily on the Live After Death era, the live album released in 1985, but that doesn't mean they don't throw in early, Paul Di'Anno-sung songs, as well as new tunes, when it stirkes their fancy. Ask them their fave songs to perform, and between them all you'll hear a list of every Maiden standard, from "Infinite Dreams" to "Phantom of the Opera," from "Revelations" to the more recent, "Ghost of the Navigator."
"It just depends on your mood," McDonald says. "It's like saying, what is your favorite one to listen to?"
The Maidens caught the attention of Steve Harris and Bruce Dickinson when they played on the same bill as Harris' Daughter Lauren Harris a couple of years ago, and the Maiden gents stuck around.
"Of course, Steve came out to support his daughter, but he stayed to see us as well," Ortiz says. "It was really nerve-racking. I could see him in the audience, and we also saw this cap bobbing up and down and it was Bruce Dickinson. I think we pulled it off. There were all these rumors that the whole band was going to be there. It wasn't the whole band, which I guess was kind of a relief, but in a way we wished the whole band was there. Steve came backstage after the show and let us know that he enjoyed it and that it was 'brilliant.' It doesn't get any better than that, although it would be nice if one of them sat in with us or something."
Unusually for a tribute band, The Iron Maidens have released three albums—all Maiden material—and they're planning to return to the studio this summer. The band wasn't originally planning to record, but McDonald says that the demand was unrelenting.
"We were actually shocked," she says. "In the earlier days, people were saying that they want a recording of us playing all this stuff, and we told them to go and buy the Iron Maiden CDs out there. They said that they already had them, but they wanted to hear our versions. The requests just kept coming in for us to do that, so we did and it was pretty crazy. They just wanted to hear the female vocals. A lot of them wanted to go home with some proof. If there wasn't interest, we wouldn't do it."
While Maidens have played Tucson many times before, this is their first show at a venue other than the Casino Del Sol. "You're gonna get some of the classics, standards and favorites in case there are people seeing us for the first time," McDonald says. "But then there'll be some more obscure ones. You'll get a good hour-and-a-half of solid Maiden."
After that? Maidens will be looking to fill the 2017 calendar with tours and shows, as always. And as gloriously silly as it might sound to some, the mix of skilled women playing muscular Maiden classics—onetime thought to be a heavy metal castle for hirsute dudes only—is irresistible.