Metallica’s Orion Festival Rocks Atlantic City

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Metallica at the Orion Festival

By Brian Ives

ATLANTIC CITY (CBS) – “We’re not afraid, we’re just hoping it’s good!”

So said James Hetfield from the stage of Metallica’s first-ever Orion Music + More Festival. He was referring to the song the band was about to perform, “Escape,” for the first time ever. It is from their 1984 classic Ride The Lightning, which they performed in full during their set Saturday night.

Hetfield could have been referring to the festival itself, held at Bader Field in Atlantic City, New Jersey. It was an ambitious event that reflected not only the band’s musical tastes, but also their extra-curricular passions. The two-day festival featured four stages with over thirty bands and a handful of comedians, a film festival, a half-pipe, a surfing competition, a monster car show and a museum (or “crypt”) filled with horror film memorabilia.

Metallica headlined both Saturday and Sunday night (Sunday’s show featured 1991’s Metallica, also known as the “Black Album,” played in full). But their presence was felt throughout the festival, as band members gave onstage introductions to their favorite artists, and appeared at the events that they curated.

At a press conference Friday, Hetfield joked, “People probably think I’ve lost my hearing because of music,” saying that the high decibels of monster cars and motorcycles are just as responsible. The car show that he curated – featuring vehicles from 1972 and earlier – was packed all day, with awestruck fans admiring the unique machinery. Some cars were seriously tricked out, equipped with anything from beer kegs to machine guns. Others were simply remarkably well-preserved classics (including Hetfield’s own 1937 Lincoln Zephyr).

Lead guitarist Kirk Hammett appeared at a panel discussion each day at “Kirk’s Crypt,” where he put his extensive collection of horror memorabilia on display. Hammett told CBS Local that his collection was the impetus for his upcoming book, Too Much Horror Business, due out in the fall. Exorcist star Linda Blair appeared at the “Crypt” both days, doing Q+As with fans.

Drummer Lars Ulrich appeared at the “Hit The Lights” film tent, which screened HBO’s Hemingway and Gellhorn (in which Ulrich had a supporting role), Before The Wall: Body & Being (directed by Ulrich’s father, Torben Ulrich) and Mission To Lars (a documentary about a man with a learning disability on a quest to meet the drummer).

Bassist Robert Trujillo meanwhile, oversaw a surfing competition at a nearby beach and a skateboarding demonstration on a halfpipe.

The non-musical attractions (which also included a Metallica museum, a graffiti wall with artists creating Metallica murals, and “Ktulu’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Emporium,” a flea market of some of the top rock merchandise vendors) would be enough to occupy hours of time. But, of course, there were the bands. Although the festival centered around metal, it featured lots of other genres, and some unexpected bookings.

One of the more surprising acts on the bill was psychedelic rock legend Roky Erikson. A cult figure who led ‘60s group The 13th Floor Elevators, he has little connection to Metallica, and seemed a little out of place. A small, but very loyal, audience arrived at the “Frantic” stage to start jockeying for the best spots to see the mercurial guitarist/singer and cheered loudly for each song.

F***ed Up’s frontman Damian Abraham (also known as “Pink Eyes”) is an incredibly charismatic performer who gave new meaning to the term “stage fright,” jumping off the stage during the first song, and spending much of the show in the audience. He doesn’t like spending too much time on stage apparently, and also seems to have little use for shirts: a hirsute man of size, he tore off his shirt soon after he jumped into the audience. Hugging audience members, mugging for cameras (both from the press and from the fans), and roaring his hardcore punk in-your-face vocals, he made his way through the crowd as the band played to get to the area reserved for disabled members of the audience and hi-fived all of them.

Lars Ulrich took to the main stage (known as the “Orion” stage) to introduce New Jersey’s own Gaslight Anthem; as he walked off, The Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” played on the P.A.; frontman Brian Fallon proudly wore a shirt that said “RIP MCA” in tribute to that group’s late member Adam Yauch. The group looks like a hardcore band, but their sound transcends any scene: their songs “American Slang,” “The Diamond Church Street Choir” and “45” (the latter song from their upcoming album Handwritten) have as much in common with Bruce Springsteen (a noted Gaslight fan) and Tom Petty (who Gaslight Anthem has covered) as Black Flag or Bad Brains.

One of the largest non-Metallica crowds of day 1 gathered by the Fuel stage for Kentucky rockers Cage The Elephant. Introduced to the crowd by Kirk Hammett, the band blasted into “In One Ear,” and didn’t let up during a set that also included “No Rest For The Wicked” and “Back Against The Wall,” from their 2008 self-titled debut, as well as “Shake Me Down,” from last years Thank You Happy Birthday. While the festival was far more than just metal, many of the non-metal bands had to work harder to win over the audience, and Cage surely did that, likely acquiring a few new fans.

Modest Mouse didn’t fare quite as well. Playing Saturday on the main stage was a poor choice for them. It was set up for Metallica’s show, with a “snake pit” in front of the stage – a large, fenced in area, with admittance limited to members of Metallica’s fan club. The crowd was thin when Isaac Brock and company played their set, which didn’t really seem to move a good portion of the audience. They likely fared better Sunday, when they performed at the more indie friendly Governor’s Ball in New York City.

Legendary So-Cal skate-punk/metal band Suicidal Tendencies isn’t part of the so-called “Big 4” of thrash metal (that would be Metallica, along with Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax), but they’re certainly in the “big 5.” There was a lot of excitement over their set: firstly, they are bona fide thrash legends who have always enjoyed an intense cult following, but secondly, because Metallica’s Robert Trujillo is a former member of the group. Trujillo not only introduced the band, he also jammed with them towards the end of their set.

Introduced by Lars Ulrich as “the coolest of the cool,” Arctic Monkeys proved worthy of that title with a tight set, kicked off by “Brianstorm.” Playing the “Fuel” stage, they had the advantage of getting closer to fans than they are used to (particularly in Europe where they are more popular than in the US), but the disadvantage of playing right before Metallica, leading a good percentage of their audience to start migrating toward the headliners before the Monkeys wrapped up. Still, their songs, including “I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor” and “Crying Lightning” got the crowd riled up.

On Sunday, Kirk Hammett introduced up-and-coming guitarist Gary Clark Jr. Last year, he released his major label debut (the Bright Lights EP), and already he’s had some pretty high-exposure gigs, performing at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Festival and even playing at The White House. Later this summer he’ll play The Essence Festival, Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits. His Orion set showed why he can appeal to all of these audiences: his bluesy, soulful singing transcends genres, and, as Hammett pointed out, he’s one of the most exciting guitar players on the scene today. His “Bright Lights” and “Don’t Owe You A Thing” had new fans dancing, while the guitarists in the audience intently watched his fingers with amazement.

Like Modest Mouse the day before, Best Coast were ill-suited to playing the main stage. Their indie-pop sound didn’t seem to bother anyone, but they are probably better suited to playing smaller venues.

Country star Eric Church, the next artist to play the main stage on Sunday, didn’t have that problem. Fans were gathering there to vie for the best spots to watch Metallica, but clearly several people in the audience were familiar with Church’s music. During his hit “Springsteen” (about Jersey’s favorite musical son), the video cameras showed a young man with a large Mohawk singing along passionately. But several of his other songs – including “Drink In My Hand” and “Jack Daniels” – clearly resonated with the crowd. He closed his set with “Smoke A Little Smoke,” and his band threw in a few bars of the Black Sabbath paean to marijuana, “Sweet Leaf,” as a nod to the metal fans at the festival.

Avenged Sevenfold was one of the last bands to play before Metallica, and they might have gotten the largest non-Metallica crowd during the festival. There were more Avenged Sevenfold shirts in the crowd throughout the weekend than any other non-headliners. After they were introduced by Lars Ulrich (saying “We’re proud to call them good friends of Metallica”), they hit the stage with “Nightmare,” and the audience went ballistic. The loud and proud metal band pummeled the enthusiastic fans, and very few of them left until the set ended with “Unholy Confessions” followed by a brief fireworks display. They probably would have done well on the main stage, but the fact that the “Fuel” stage is smaller than their usual environment definitely gave their performance a sense of occasion.

Ultimately, though, it was all about Metallica, and they didn’t disappoint. They played classics both nights: “Hit The Lights” opened each show, with “Master Of Puppets,” following, and each night ended with “One” (accompanied by a huge fireworks display) and “Seek And Destroy” (with black Metallica beach balls raining down on the audience as the song kicked off). Each night, they played the featured album in reverse order, which turned out to be a great idea, particularly with “The Black Album.” That album, thanks to hit singles including “Enter Sandman” and the ballad “Nothing Else Matters,” catapulted Metallica to superstar status, and is often cited as a point where their music got more commercial. But listening to it in reverse order gave more emphasis to lesser known songs like “My Friend Of Misery,” “The Struggle Within” and “The God That Failed,” that, in retrospect, sound more like their earlier material than their more familiar hits from that album.

The performance of Ride The Lightning, including classics like “For Whom The Bell Tolls,” “Fade To Black” and “Creeping Death” showed that they haven’t lost any of their intensity, even as they’ve become one of the biggest bands in the world, and one of the few with the vision, drawing power and prestige to host an event of this caliber.

They threw in a few other choice nuggets as well, including “Blackened” and “Shortest Straw,” both from 1988’s …and Justice For All, and “Hell And Back” from their Beyond Magnetic EP, released earlier this year. The only grumblings heard from fans was over the band’s apparent “separation anxiety” from staples like “Enter Sandman” and “Nothing Else Matters,” both of which were played each night. But single day passes were sold – so not everyone was there both nights. And Metallica know that any show might be someone’s first – and they want to serve up their biggest hits to any first-time customers.

Before their performance of 1991’s “Sad But True” Sunday night, Hetfield asked the audience, “Do you want ‘heavy?’” As exhausted fans left the grounds at the end of day two, it was obvious that the answer was a big “yes.” There has been no announcement as to whether or not Orion will return in 2013, but judging by the great time had by Metallica, the other artists and, most importantly, those who paid for the tickets, it’s a solid bet that America has it’s latest heavy hitter on the summer festival circuit.

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