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Puttin’ his pedal to the metal: James Hetfield of Metallica.

Martin Benjamin

We’re in This Together
By John Brodeur

Metallica, Godsmack
Pepsi Arena, Oct. 9

My girlfriend is a closet metalhead. You can always spot one of your own.

We try to hide it the best we can, but it comes out when we least expect it. So Metallica’s nearly sold-out Saturday-night show at the Pepsi Arena was a bit of a
coming-out party for those among us who still insist that Faith No More were the third most important band of the 1990s.

Of course we have different ways of showing our allegiance these days. On the walk to the show, we had a lengthy debate about the merits of Metallica, old and new. We both agreed that they’re not the same anymore, that they’ve long been corporate shills, but my argument that they’ve been workin’ for the man for much longer (every one of their records, with the exception of the original pressing of Kill ’Em All, is on the same label that brought us Jackson Browne and the Eagles) didn’t go over too well. In the ’80s, Metallica stood for something, she argued. Back then, they were uncommercial and anti-establishment, and their transformation into a monolithic radio-rock band during the ’90s was nothing short of treason. They used to belong to the fans, not the other way around.

Or at least that’s what they’d have us believe. About 14 seconds into opener “Blackened,” it was clear that they had the upper hand. Any semblance of composure we might have walked in with went up in smoke as the mighty James Hetfield took his position and growled “Blackened is the enn-dah! Winter it will senn-dah!” Resistance was futile, as they say. My head began involuntarily thrashing, and we all shouted along, “Opposition, contradiction, premonition, compromise!”

The next thing I knew, the guy next to me tore off his shirt and began to gyrate wildly, hurtling arcs of sweat through the foggy air. The entire arena erupted into something resembling a human tsunami, so I grabbed sweaty gyrating guy by the belt loop and heaved him up into the fray. And then . . . well, the guy behind me let out a guttural howl in celebration of the Yankees’ playoff win, his bellow nearly caving in the back of my skull. (Apparently checking the score after the concert wasn’t an option.)

When I came to, I realized that we had just experienced the high point of what would turn out to be a lengthy, tired revisitation of the hits, with a few classics (“Creeping Death,” “Master of Puppets”) thrown in to appease the old-school fans. The only real curveball—and it was a slow pitch at that—was “Jump in the Fire.” Other than that, it was Metallica-by-numbers: “Enter Sandman,” “Sad But True,” “Fade to Black,” “Seek and Destroy,” and so on. (Thankfully, they avoided most of the dreadful St. Anger.)

This really may be the last gasp for the mighty Met. While guitarist Kirk Hammett and new bassist Robert Trujillo turned in strong, if not inspired, performances, Hetfield seemed fatigued, his trademark stance—hunched over the microphone like an untreated scoliosis patient—more geriatric than menacing. Ulrich, resembling a cross between Richard Simmons and Ozzy Osbourne, often stumbled through fills, rushed beats, and made an uneven mess of the machine-gun double-kick patterns that defined his playing early in the band’s career.

But precision isn’t always the primary concern. As the band plowed through “Battery,” I remembered that metal is more about release, both physical and emotional, for both the fans and the band. At that moment, my head again did bang, and knowing that I had a fellow rock soldier at my side, all was right in the world.

Godsmack provided the most entertaining five minutes of live music I’ve witnessed all year in the form of a synchronized dual drum solo that found lead singer Sully Erna and drummer Shannon Larkin on matching kits, playing licks from “Walk This Way,” “Moby Dick,” and the Rush double-shot of “YYZ” and “Tom Sawyer.” In unison. Pure drummer porno. As for the rest of their set, I’ve never dug their grungy greaser metal, but hearing it in this setting made it more or less resemble the headliners’ mid-’90s output, which worked in context, and the crowd ate it up.

Crazy Brilliant

Bette Midler
Pepsi Arena, Oct. 7

We’ve had Kid Rock, Kiss, and Metallica at the Pepsi, but only one show has been deemed too heavy for the room. And that would be Bette Midler’s Kiss My Brass Tour, which as you might recall was nixed last spring because the weight of her staging, combined with some snow on the roof, threatened to collapse the Pepsi. Cool.

Surprisingly or not, this tour (which ran through the spring and re-formed for the fall) is the biggest-grossing tour of the year. Add to that one of the strangest and most entertaining.

I’d heard about her shows, and never quite believed what I’d heard. I believe now. Midler is out to show that she’s still absolutely the Divine Miss M, and fuck you if you can’t take a joke.

With a massive set meant to portray the Coney Island boardwalk in 1900, she made her grand entrance on a merry-go-round horse descending from the rafters. And the games began. We got revved-up Cab Calloway, we got the Harlettes, we got a kickin’ horn band, we got a lot of old-fashioned hoofin’, and we got a barrage of anti-Bushisms (starting with “I’ve got two words for Dick Cheney! Fuck Yourself!” and then “I don’t think I could run the world, but I’m sure I couldn’t fuck it up any worse!”) It’s curious that this sort of thing derails the Dixie Chicks’ career and gets Linda Ronstandt booted out of Vegas, but Bette’s merrily crisscrossing the country screaming at Republicans, and doing it in packed, roaring arenas. Go figure.

She did an astounding, extended Sophie Tucker routine of blue jokes. Raunchy, deep indigo blue, Jackie Martling-couldn’t-top-these jokes. She also did a batch of perfectly modulated, inside and hysterical local jokes, about things like Joe Bruno’s hair, Shelly Silver’s trips to Vegas, and Rensselaer.

Then there was the business with the mermaids, the synchronized motorized wheelchairs doing June Taylor Dancers routines, the hilarious show-tune parodies, and the dancing cabana tents. That’s right, you had to be there. Add to that some fine bashing of CBS, Britney Spears, and all the rest of the “divas” who don’t really sing on stage anymore.

And she did really sing on stage, and how. Lots of stuff from her 30-year career, a sublime medley of Rosemary Clooney songs (from her 2003 tribute album), and a duet with Mr. Rogers, who sang with her on the huge video screens. The Mr. Rogers thing could have been a devastating comment on all those treacly duets with the dead, except it was too damn beautiful to take such a role. Her “When a Man Loves a Woman” stopped the show, and the run-up of hits to close the show was as powerful as a run-up that includes “Wind Beneath My Wings” could ever hope to be.

There are plenty of big touring shows that are spectacles driven by staging, by costumes, by pageantry. This had all of that plus a brilliant, boundlessly talented, and totally self-aware and uncompromising lunatic at its core. Amazing.

—Paul Rapp

Honky-Tonk Men

Graham Tichy’s
Hillbilly Fun Park
Savannah’s, Oct. 9

Frankly, anytime this collective gets together, it behooves the discerning local music fan to get out and see them. And the fact that they were going to sink their teeth into some classic honky-tonk was all the more reason to get steppin’. Besides a packed barroom full of dancers and just-plain music nuts alike, one could spy, at separate times, local music critics Greg “Sarge Blotto” Haymes and Mike Eck—taking in the show on their own time and dime.

Getting to the show was a bit rigorous, all of the Saturday-night parking spaces having been absconded by young men with intermittent-rage issues breaking container laws and heading to see their godheads, Metallica. (I tell you, it was like Darwin’s waiting room out on Pearl Street for a bit, and I mean that in the best possible way.)

So why brave the storm? Well, let’s start with the players (keeping in mind that they are locals): You’ve got RPI Professor John Tichy, legendary founding member of Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, and his son Graham, who still in his mid-’20s has become one of the hottest rockabilly players in the country (playing with Detroit’s Bones Maki & the Sun Dodgers, among others). Then you’ve got nationally renowned steel player Kevin Maul, who’s played with Garrison Keillor and Robin & Linda Williams, along with his golden throated man-mountain of a drummer, Dale Haskell. Rounding out the crew were Lustre King Mark Gamsjager, fresh off a show with rock & roll legend Wanda Jackson at the WAMC, and stand-up bass player Todd Wulfmeyer, a well-traveled, widely recorded rockabilly bassist and guitarist.

Young Tichy fretted to me a little bit that they had thrown together a long set of country standards and had rehearsed only a couple of times, but to these ears it was a remarkable night of classic honky-tonk. Maul, Haskell, the Tichys and Gamsjager all took turns at the mic, moving through fare by such iconoclasts as Buck Owens, Lefty Frizzell, Little Jimmy Dickens, Merle Haggard, the Louvin Brothers, Hank Williams . . . and they even rolled out a Moe Bandy number. Maul, Haskell and Tichy senior have lived-in, soulful voices (I’ve often thought of John as the Ray Charles of country-rock), and they each bared themselves impressively on some heart-rending numbers.

Haskell sang Haggard’s moving “Sing Me Back Home” like he had just written it. By contrast, Tichy junior has a clear, boyish set of pipes, and he particularly shone on the Ferlin Husky’s rockabilly-by-way-of-honky-tonk tune “Slow Down Brother.” (The lines between rockabilly and country aren’t as clear as the populace might think.)

On guitars, Gamsjager offered up some inspired acoustic-solo flights (in between trying to spot his teenage kid among the Metallica returners flooding the street) to augment Graham’s trademark glistening silvertones. It was a classic night of music—here’s hoping these guys do it again. And if you walked out of there still thinking that Gram Parsons created country-rock (whatever that is), Buck Owens would like to have a word with you. And these six fellas have his back.

—Erik Hage

The Neu Style

Wilco, Hem
Skidmore College, Oct. 8

Simple, solo-Lennonesque pop tunes team with droning Krautrock on Wilco’s latest album, A Ghost Is Born. It’s the latest creative arc for a band who are palpably older, wiser, and more sober than they once were. They’ve come to favor nuance over abandon, and at the same time, say haters, they’ve gotten too arty and uninteresting. Judging by Friday’s performance, a reassessment might be in order—heck, they won the attention of a few thousand drunk Skidmore students, so they must be doing something right.

The boldest indicator that Wilco have fully embraced their inner artiste was the presence of a projection screen behind the stage. Mixed live on a laptop, in synchronicity with the music’s dynamic ebb and flow, the well-chosen film footage (mostly of cityscapes, bugs, and birds) more often served to enhance the performance, rather than distract. Don’t be fooled—Wilco, the rock band, are alive and well, they’ve just changed their battle plan . . . again.

Jeff Tweedy is a complex dude. He’s a prog-rock guy who just can’t seem to write anything but folk songs. That must be frustrating. After years of tinkering, it looks as if he’s finally found the right combination of players to bring his oddly orchestral vision to life. New hires Nels Cline (guitar), Mikael Jorgensen (keyboards) and multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone colored the songs live, adding and altering texture. They reproduced every last click, whistle, clank, bell, squeak, and crank on “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” and conjured a jarring dose of cacophony that sounded like a fleet of 747s landing on the gymnasium floor during a drastic reworking of “Poor Places.” Older tunes like “Kingpin” and “A Shot in the Arm” were revelatory in their transformation, as if they had been disassembled, the parts shaken up in a big bag, and put back together while blindfolded.

As for the old hands, bassist John Stirratt again showed why he’s the only guy besides Tweedy who’s been in the band since day one. He’s the band’s informal conductor, his lurching upper-body movements guiding them through the more awkward changes. And he’s the perfect counterpoint for Tweedy, his fluid basslines and tightly woven harmonies bringing life to even Tweedy’s simplest songs (e.g., the otherwise bland “Handshake Drugs”). Glenn Kotche’s unusually melodic drumming rounds out a truly crafty rhythm section.

The material from Ghost is dynamically diverse, oscillating between creepy pop melancholia and surprisingly spry blasts of rock abandon, often within the same song. Live, “At Least That’s What You Said” barely jarred the VU meter during its hushed opening passage, then exploded for the second half, as Tweedy turned in an emotive, slightly neurotic solo over the band’s Crazy Horse stomp. Purposefully sterile and undeniably Bauhaus (as in the art movement, not the band) on wax, first-set-closer “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” could have been a self-indulgent bore live, but as Tweedy flailed about the stage, recklessly hacking away at his Gibson SG, it looked as if rock & roll had saved his soul . . . or at least possessed it and sold it off for scrap. It was a moment of true abandon, the kind that comes from being older, wiser and more sober.

Hem, a Brooklyn-based co-ed soft-rock quartet, had the unfortunate circumstance of being added to the bill at the last minute, and showing up without a drummer. Their songs are quite pretty, vaguely reminiscent of Cowboy Junkies, and would go nicely with a cup of herbal tea and some candlelight, but it was hard to tell over the din of the social-hour crowd.

—John Brodeur


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