After 10 hours at Bader Field in Atlantic City on Saturday for the first day of Metallica's inaugural Orion Music + More festival, I headed back for more on Sunday, for a lineup that, for my money, was stronger and more varied, and turned out to be thoroughly satisfying.
But by any measure, Orion - despite the presence of the likes of indie fuzz-pop beach band Best Coast, Nashville hitmaker Eric Church (who got to New Jersey in time to celebrate his song "Springsteen"'s conquest of the country chart) and New Orleans brass band Soul Rebels - was pretty much hard as hell.
Sure, it's true that Orion - a festival named after a Metallica song named after a constellation that sound especially impressively when James Hetfield, pictured to the left, shouted out its three syllables with fists raised: OH-RYE-ONNNN!!! - is much more than merely a metal gathering.
The impressive two day lineup - which was put together by members of Metallica in conjunction with bookers at Austin, Texas concert company C3 Presents, who also do Lollapalooza in Chicago and South America, among other mega-fests, who estimated that the fest drew 32,000 per day (more on that later) - moved around genre-wise, doing its best to nudge mostly black clad, mostly male Metallica fans out of their comfort zones.
But even its non-metallic offerings tended to be toughened up - with Best Coast, whose Bethany Cosentino sadly had a hard time attracting attention on the enormous Orion stage on Sunday afternoon, being one notable exception.
The first band I saw on Sunday was Landmine Marathon, the only other female fronted act on the fest, unless I'm missing somebody. Landmine's light, sweet enough looking singer, Grace Perry, might not appear to be a likely candidate to front a death metal band if you saw her walking down the street, or even if you herd her normal speaking voice. But once the Arizona band threw themselves into songs from their latest album, Gallows, you got the picture. Thi woman has a voice like a succubus from h-e-double-hockey-sticks to make Ozzy Osbourne, or for that matter, James Hetfield, sound like a ninny.
Gary Clark Jr.
From there, on the Gary Clark Jr., the brooding Austin, Texas blues guitar slinger who brought two sign language interpreters along with him to the World's Playground. There are plenty of words to Clark's songs - like "Bright Lights," which emphatically promises "You gonna know my name!" and is a stone cold classic. But the signers spent most of their time playing air guitar, as Clark let loose one searing Hendrix-Steve Ray Vaughn-esque solo after another.
On Saturday, too much time typing in the media tent meant I missed some of the bands I most wanted to see - Gaslight Anthem and Lucero, but more than that, the punk rock army that goes by the name of "F--- Up." Sunday I was more free to roam between the four stages on the huge 142 acre site, which is certainly large enough to accommodate many more people than were in attendance at Orion.
Checking out Avenged Sevenfold.
The fest never felt uncomfortably crowded, or as packed as the decommissioned airport was last year for Dave Matthews' Caravan fest. It seemed to me there were far more people there on Sunday as Metallica prepared to play 'the Black album,' but crowd estimate wildly varied. At the gate on Sunday, an official said there had been 21,500 people there on Saturday; police positioned on the Albany Avenue bridge into Atlantic City proper various said that there had been 35,000 and 50,000 fans there on the first day.
In any case, if the 32,000 figure is accurate, C3 and Metallica ought to be more than happy with it, as C3's Charlie Walker said last month that they were aiming for 25- to 30,000 a day. All weekend long, Hetfield referred to Orion as "the first annual," with the only unanswered question seemingly being if next year's fest would be in Atlantic City. In a video message yesterday that's posted below, however, drummer Lars Ulrich said that decision whether to do Orion again would be made in the next few weeks.
After Clark, I sidled over to the Frantic stage, in fact a tent that provided welcome shade on a sbf 30 weekend, and some of the coolest bands at Orion. In this case, it was New Orleans' Soul Rebels brass band, who opened for Metallica on the heavy rockers' 30th anniversary stand at the Fillmore in San Francisco last year. At Orion, the funked up horn players returned the favor by covering "Enter Sandman," which worked well enough but no so magically as Stevie Wonder's "I Wish." The octet lost the crowd momentarily, however, when they asked a question not so popular at Orion: "How many of you like hip-hop?"
Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast.
Best Coast were next, and the indie quartet's music sounded sweet and wistful by the seaside. It occurred to me that I might not have heard an actual melody at any point in the previous two days. The band, who play Union Transfer on July 16, was greeted largely with a shrug by an audience looking for something more aggro. They were either on the wrong stage, or perhaps at the wrong festival. "I once saw a video where James Hetfield said 'Make some noise if you give a s--,'" Cosentino quipped. "I guess you don't give a s--." Next time, Orion is advised to book acts in non-metal genres in bunches, rather than hang them out to dry on the big stage, as was Best Coast's fate.
Eric Church, with pyro.
Not that being a lone representative of a a genre bothered Eric Church in the slightest. His reception may have been aided by Hetfield introducing him and vouched for the North Carolinian's "rebel" status. It didn't hurt either that the baseball cap wearing self-styled tough guy - whose stage backdrop was an oversized skull banner advertising Bud light - is a total pro when it comes to working the crowd.
"I'm into the same things you're into," he said. "Drinking, having fun, and singing. And if you give me your best, we'll give you our best." Church's band was tremendously tight, and his well crafted tunes - the raucous "Put A Drink In My Hand," and more thoughtful "Me and Jack Daniels," which he cannily dropped a Metallica reference into - kicked hard while generally considering Sunday morning coming down costs as well as Saturday night highs. To paraphrase a Hank Williams Jr. song he covered, Church on Sunday showed that a country boy can survive just fine, thank you, at a Metallica fest.
Other metal related musings: I checked out Miami quartet Torche's set for a minute earlier in the afternoon while on a quest for good grub and caffeine, things that were not so easy to come by at Orion, where the concessions were abundant but uncrowded and the beer selection was notably weak. (Long lines were reserved for the air conditioned Metallica Museum and 'Kirk's Crypt' horror movie memorabilia tents.) Demographic differences were manifest thusly: Dave Matthews fans last year got a Jose Garces taco truck and a wide variety of craft beer. Metallica fans seemed happy with corndogs, 'potato tornados,' and Bud.
Torche couldn't grab my attention, but maybe that's because I had more than my fill of sludge metal by then. Far better were Volbeat, a Danish metal band with actual songs, including one, "Sad Man's Tongue," in which singer Michael Poulson, whose forearms bear Elvis Presley and Social Distortion tattoos, pays tribute to Johnny Cash. And better still - in fact, truly epic - were Sepultura, the Brazilian metal band fronted by imposing singer Derek Green that closed out the Damage Inc. stage with an utterly explosive set that effectively recreated the tribal urgency of the band's classic 1996 album Roots despite the many lineup changes that have altered the band in years since.
From there, it was frantically back to the Frantic tent - all stages were named after Metaliica songs - for another indie representative, Titus Andronicus. The New Jersey born, Brooklyn based band fronted by Patrick Stickles (newly baby-faced now that he's shaved his trademark beard) created a mosh pit of their own to rival Sepultura's, though Titus crowd surfing was being done by fans considerably younger, skinnier and less tatted than the Brazilian band's body bangers. Stickles ended with a roaring version of his five piece band's historical essay in song "A More Perfect Union," and then left with a I-can't-beiieve-I'm saying-this bit of stage patter: "That's it folks. Metallica will be up in just a few minutes."