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SXSW 2009: Metallica Perform, Are Loud, Well-Liked

Maximum Performance

It was a heady day of music at Austin's South By Southwest conference yesterday--ranging from dual performances by an obscure but interesting British band to one of the biggest bands in the world.

And get this: Some of it was quite good!

Where to begin? How about my swift jog over to the Spin party at Stubb's, where hipster bands galore were performing in swift succession? Though I'm sad to note missing two bands I really wanted to see--Passion Pit and Hot Leg, the latter featuring former Darkness frontman Justin Hawkins--my respected associate Lyndsey Parker reports that they were both fine indeed. Perhaps you should ask her about them! As for me, when I walked on the premises, it was during what seemed to be a respectably strong showing by the Atlanta-based Black Lips, whose brand of noisy, blues-tinged rock is oddly compelling, though perhaps less so when the sun is in mid-sky and people with short pants are walking around with Miller Lite beers in Miller Lite-branded beer holders. In some ways like a combination of the Flaming Lips and the Black Kids, they...aww, forget it.

Next up was an exciting DJ set by N.A.S.A., but--can I make a confession?--DJ sets generally mean nothing to me, especially since my brain involuntarily creates its own DJ set every waking moment of my existence, which at least partly explains my inability to construct a complete sentence verbally. More importantly, this N.A.S.A. had nothing to do with National Aeronautics and Space Administration, so as a consumer, I felt kind of gypped. Luckily there was a much better alternative waiting for me at the Stubb's inside stage!

And that would be the appearance of London's Hatcham Social, maybe the first band I've encountered since being here that I've actually wanted to see, and they were very good indeed. Strikingly similar in sound to several of the wonderful bands that recorded for Scotland's historically groovy Postcard Records label--and in fact their first American release is entitled Postcard In Colours--the band's approach can't help but remind one of fabulous bands Orange Juice and Josef K, and one doesn't usually hear that sort of thing in the States these days. In fact, one never has. Playing to a minimal audience, the band featured a trebly guitar sound, a drummer who played standing up, and an intelligent, driven charge that was captivating. In short: They were great! As an added bonus, when I wandered back to the same stage a few hours later, there they were, playing yet another set. Buy all their records for kicks!

Speaking of sounds that recall Scotland, I then watched a set by Glasgow's Glasvegas, a band I like a bit, and thought they were quite good. I think liking them for anyone is going to be a function of to what extent they enjoy the voice and overall charisma level of lead singer James Allen, whose strength--along with the band's underlying hints of affection for Phil Spector/Shadow Morton--is ultimately what makes the group. Only flaw, at least for me, is that I find a mid-afternoon performance of this type of music less appropriate than, say, a midnight performance at a large, darkened venue such as a church or school auditorium. Well, perhaps that's just me! Overall, one American radio hit and they'll be big over here for years. Fat chance.

Now I must make a horrid confession. I then went into the restaurant part of Stubb's to cool off a little, and as I sat, I heard the day's headlining band introduced outside. Those headliners were, you see, Echo & the Bunnymen--the same band I'd missed seeing two nights earlier at Emo's due to my then-lack of SXSW press credentials. As I heard them start to play--first "Rescue," I believe, then "Villier's Terrace," both from their 1980 debut album Crocodiles--I recalled seeing them play exactly the same songs back in, yes, 1980. The sad truth? I did not feel like seeing someone reliving their past glories at that very moment. Except for maybe the Teardrop Explodes. So out the door I went.

And, of course, I had to get ready for the night's big event. Back on these very premises in just a few short hours would be the "secret show" by Metallica--a band of significantly larger stature than most that appear at SXSW.

So I came back a few hours later.

At the festival to promote their upcoming Guitar Hero game--one rarely gets a chance to write phrases like that!--Metallica were, like, big, big news in Austin. So much so, in fact, that early on, before anyone actually acknowledged they'd be playing in the slot officially scheduled as the "Guitar Hero Metallica Madness Competition," the night's overly enthusiastic stage announcer told us that we were all soon about to witness the single biggest event of our lives! (Meanwhile, on the surface of the moon, a now-fading American flag sadly drooped yet another millimeter!)

But before the biggest event ever came an excellent performance by LA's Silversun Pickups, a band one would not normally associate with Metallica, but one which nonetheless managed to win over the audience with their audacious and (fortunately) feedback-laden playing. An arrestingly visual band, the band features a female bassist, a keyboard player with posture issues, a singing guitarist, and a red-hot drummer with an extremely high-perched cymbal. Songs, melodies, hooks--they were all there, and the audience was appreciative. As was the band, who offered "thanks for the gig" to the point of absurdity.

Finally: the big event. After a long wait, the band that launched a thousand ships--or something like that--emerged and were brutal, good-humored, and amazingly precise in their playing. Now, as always, Metallica are an awesome act to witness. The interplay between guitarists James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett is fascinating, and drummer Lars Ulrich's pounding thuds, much like his thudding pounds, were gloriously and noisily perfect.

I would be less than honest if I told you that I recognized every single song that the band played, so let me now thank Billboard.com for providing this precise playlist for those who care. Check it: 1) Creeping Death, 2) For Whom The Bell Tolls, 3) Harvester Of Sorrows, 4) One, 5) Broken, Beat And Scarred, 6) Cyanide, 7) Sad But True, 8) Welcome Home (Sanitarium), 9) Master Of Puppets, 10) Blackened, 11) Breadfan, 12) Whiplash, and 13) Seek And Destroy.

Who loves ya, Metallica fans? 

And while I am far from the world's biggest Metallica fan, I do get a charge out of seeing any musical artist who's a pioneer of his, her or their form, and this quartet is about the best you can get in their particular quadrant. Hetfield's between-song chatter was funny, warm, and, it struck me, the very antithesis of his band's music, and I wish them all continued success. And I suppose this new Guitar Hero game pretty much guarantees that.

Bye! 

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