Never let anybody convince you that the visual aspect in rock 'n' roll doesn't matter, because – in some instances – that graphic shorthand is all you have to go on, when the day of decision arrives (am I buying into this band's spiel, or not?). So it was the Clash, and Metallica, to name two bands that won me over, without even playing a note – because the look was compelling enough to catch my attention.
In Metallica's case, my attraction focused on their down-to-earth dress sense. Cliff Burton's ensemble of choice – those perennially ripped jeans and worn punk T-shirts that he's sporting in nearly every photo session made a powerful statement during the early to mid-'80s, when bands were encouraged to think of themselves as gods from another planet.
Either way, the minute I saw those images – typically, while leafing through the pages of Kerrang!, which covered Metallica extensively during its earlier days – I figured, “We're gonna get along beautifully...now it's time to buy the record.” Burton's tragic death in 1986 signaled another game-changing quest – which his successor, Jason Newsted, ably carried off over a 15-year tenure. Now, he's back with a band named after himself, aw the primary songwriter, and frontman; suffice to say, Mr. Newsted is in charge.
So, on this night, it's only appropriate that Newsted's Battle Creek hoecoming takes place at Planet Rock – whose stated capacity (335) puts the “mini” back in mini-bar! All jokes apart, however, it's an ideal setting to see someone of Newsted's stature...sweaty, thunderous 'n' unrelenting , and only a matter of inches from your face.
Jason and his merry men – Jesse Farnsworth (guitar), Mike Mushok (guitar, formerly of Staind) and Jesus Mendez Jr. (drums) – respond with 75 minutes of meat-and-potatoes old school metal of the kind that doesn't get airplay, but never fails to inspire frenetic air guitar flourishes. The sounds being cranked out here may not be trendy, but if you're not whipping your head around like everybody else, you're the odd one out here, got that?
A good snapshot of this approach makes itself felt on the night's third song, “Soldierhead,” a graphic account of warfare from the soldier's point of view (“ Never quite ready/It just becomes your turn/Every time steady/No more light to burn”), and one of the standouts from the METAL EP. It's fast, brutal and to the point, driven home by Mushok's peerless lead work, and Mendez's churning double bass drums (as Newsted notes, later in the show: “You can't go wrong without Jesus on the drums back here!”)
If you're thinking, “Black Sabbath and Judas Priest pick up all your favorite obscure New Wave of Heavy Metal combos for a drink, and take 'em for a chat,” you'll know what's happening musically on METAL, and Newsted's debut album, HEAVY METAL – to which the bulk of tonight's show is dedicated.
As far as the newer material goes, the standouts include “As The Crow Flies” – a midtempo cruncher that wouldn't sound out of place on MASTER OF PUPPETS, or AND JUSTICE FOR ALL – and “Long Time Dead,” whose punchy chorus recalls the tragedy that propelled Newsted towards his destiny (“Live while you're living. because you're a long time dead!”). Other new songs, such as “Godsnake,” and “Nocturnus,” carry more of a slow-burning doom metal vibe.
Like many smart musicians, Newsted knows that intensity doesn't come from tempo alone, but any number of contributing factors, such as the overall vibe of the song. The latter quality rings loud and clear on “Skyscraper” – whose martial tempo offers a thrash metal summary of the human condition (“As the giant chokes in the mud/Ashen street soaks up the blood/Disappears, it never was/Wheel spinning, just as it does”).
For all the seriousness of the subject matter, and the dark, churning drive of his band, Newsted is a surprisingly casual. As a frontman, he seems relaxed, happy, and in his element, whether he's recalling former triumphs (“last time I played in Battle Creek, we set the attendance record in Kellogg Arena...it's just good to come home”), or dedicating “King Of The Underdogs” to his sister (“ it's a lot to ask of you, to come and listen to a lot of new music, and enjoy it with us like this, give us positive vibes back...I really appreciate that, I really fuckin' do!”).
One measure of Newsted's confidence is the lack of reference to his former band. Other than a brief foray through “Creeping Death,” the only nod to the past comes late in the show, when Newsted slyly introduces “Whiplash” by saying, “I didn't write this one, but I did bring it some life over its life.” The crowd's clearly caught off guard, at first (“Wow, dude, he played somethin' from KILL 'EM ALL? No way!”), but the hammerhead tempo quickly gets arms and heads flailing in unison.
The casual mood continues with the first encore of “Spider Biter,” and “Skyscraper,” which finds Newsted switching to guitar. “This one's got a couple extra strings on it – don't worry, I only use the little ones, anyway,” Newted cracks. However, not even the crisp, no-nonsense aura of this song is enough to satisfy everyone, so the band comes back out again, to deliver “one more for my good friends,” as Newsted puts it – “We Are The Road Crew,” Motorhead's classic ode to the touring life.
“I've been playing this song for a lot of years, man...I used to do it in every band, I think,” Newsted notes, but however many times he's done it, there's no denying the ferocity on display, as the band barrels through a clenched-fist delivery that leaves nothing to the imagination. By the fall, Newsted should have 70-80 shows under its belt; with a band this strong, it's tempting to think how much sharper – and tighter – they'll sound.
As Newsted has acknowledged, he wouldn't have gained the freedom to explore his current path without his Metallica experience – but, unlike many former members of big league bands, he already seems to have worked out how to establish his own identity, without the “ex-this/that” suffix dogging his name. Like the old saying goes...here's looking at you, kid.