November 2, 2008

Broken, Beat and Scarred

Metallica/Down/The Sword
Rose Garden Arena Portland, OR
November 1

"What don't KILL YA makes ya more strong!" sang frontman James Hetfield during Metallica's pummeling metal avalanche in Portland. Older, wiser and returning from the edge of near-implosion with their new song cycle Death Magnetic, the leonine singer, drummer Lars Ulrich, axeman Kirk Hammett and bassist Rob Trujillo summoned the thunder and rode the lightning for two merciless hours.
While deafening ovations and arena-wide, synchronized fist-pumping were the norm, you can mainly credit timeless, male adolescent angst and Metallica's mere presence for that. Metallica, three decades in, is a tad predictable, especially for longtime fans. The guitars? Thrashing and speedy. The drums? Precise and insistent. The amps? Loud. The bass player? Inaudible. The surprises of today's Metallica mainly reside in eye-popping stage effects (the dancing lasers and multi-hued flames were undeniably impressive) and their well-advised dusting off of deep cuts in concert.
After opening with the hell-bound speed-coaster of Death Magnetic's "That Was Just Your Life," the band leapt right into the spiraling grind of "The End of the Line." Clearly, finality is on Metallica's mind these days. With a resurrection like the one they experienced after their near-breakup and almost universally despised last record, St. Anger , it's no wonder.
With a building full of forgiving, cross-generational fans fueling them, the metal legends thrashed away at songs both dusty and shiny, giving the house a fairly representative sampling of their songbook. Shockingly, only a single song from consensus favorite album Master of Puppets was performed (the title cut), but their previous effort Ride The Lightning was mined repeatedly with the truly unexpected title track, the ominous "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and the vicious yet most welcome "Fight Fire with Fire," which boasted the evening's most spectacular flame effects.
Throughout, Hetfield was in strong voice and displayed remarkable energy, headbanging and stomping about the in-the-round stage. Ulrich was metronomic in his drumming, reliable yet less spectacular to watch than when he was a seemingly eight-armed younger man. Meanwhile, Hammett and Trujillo were on point, plucking and slashing through riff-bombs like "No Remorse," "Sad But True," the latest single "The Day That Never Comes" and, at the encore, the covers "Last Caress" and "Stone Cold Crazy." Three decades on, and a shoo-in for a Rock And Roll Hall of Fame induction next year, Metallica may be broken, beat and scarred, to paraphrase one of their new tunes, but they die hard.
Opening this major concussion of an evening was The Sword, a gang of longhairs that offered a fleet, hair-toss-worthy brand of thrash that recalled early Metallica. After The Sword was run through the Rose Garden, the quite intimidating Down, fronted by ex-Pantera singer Phil Anselmo, offered a slower, sludgier brand of metal that gradually won the crowd over, big time. It didn't hurt that Pantera's bass player was also onstage, nor that a tribute to the defunct band's late Dimebag Darrell was included. Perhaps the most striking thing about Down's set was Anselmo's very noticeable evolution from Pantera's drunk, belligerent junkie to what looked to be a clean-cut, thinner Glenn Danzig. The deep-voiced menace, while still a badass, now exudes a gracious, humble bearing towards his fans, bowing down to them and applauding them throughout the show. Who says metal is a dead-end road? If Anselmo has a new lease on life, there's hope for us all.

April 2, 2008

Prove It All Night

Some unusual things happened in Portland, Oregon on March 28. It snowed. Then the sun came out. Then it snowed again. And Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band played the Rose Garden. It was a Friday to remember.

Playing to a slightly less than capacity crown, and on the road in support of his rocking, serious-minded new album "Magic," Bruce and his band of brothers breathed fist-pumping energy into an incomparably great repertoire and blew away any apathetic shadow that might have loomed over the hearts of all assembled. Springsteen was in the house, and Portland was on its feet.

Though the well-paced, career-spanning setlist for the Rose Garden show followed roughly the same pattern as most shows of this second leg of the "Magic" trek (Born to Run's saxophone-heavy call to action "Night" as the opener, into "Radio Nowhere," etc.), it was clear that the framework Springsteen wanted consisted of the "Magic" material. Indeed, the new songs came off more powerfully than the obligatory favorites ("Born to Run," "Dancing in the Dark") and Bruce geek-appeasing deep cuts (a slightly tentative version of "For You").

Standing out among the recent material was the driving "Last to Die," both a no-nonsense elegy to the soldiers and foreign civilians dying daily overseas and an indictment of the leaders and politics whose mistakes have cost those lives. Several songs earlier, the haunting title cut of the new album found Bruce in stripped-down mode, with only fiddle player Soozie Tyrell accompanying him. With its sleight-of-hand message and words of resignation, "This is what will be," it proved one of the most telling and resonant moments of the 2 hour, 20-minute show.

Despite his seriousness and sense of artistic responsibility, the stage has never been a bully pulpit for Bruce; if anything, it's the ground floor for rock n' roll revival, and reverend Springsteen preached from the good songbook. The defiant "Prove It All Night" was a triumph, as were the joyous "She's the One" and the harmonica-seared, stomping-blues take on "Reason to Believe."

The entire performance was spectacular, with Bruce, Steven Van Zandt, Nils Lofgren, Gary Tallent, Clarence Clemons, Max Weinberg, Tyrell and Charlie Giordano (subbing for the cancer-stricken E-Streeter Danny Federici) anticipating each other's moves perfectly and giving their all to every number. While the show's cruising altitude was high throughout, two songs that were requested by audience signs jetted even higher into the stratosphere: the devastating slow-burner "Lost in the Flood" (in place of "The River" on the setlist) and the gorgeous, climactic "Jungleland," where Clemons' soaring and heart-rending sax solo alone was a testament to the incredible power of rock n' roll. By the time Bruce and the E Streeters closed with the uplifting Pete Seeger rave-up "American Land," the Rose Garden was pleasantly exhausted. Bruce? He was just getting started, it seemed.