The crowds were a little redder and a little more hoarse on Sunday at Orion Fest in Atlantic City, with a fair amount smelling as if they’d spent the night under the boardwalk. What they lacked in hygiene and sunblock, they made up in sheer numbers.
The night’s primary draw was a full performance of Metallica’s 1991 “Black Album,” ostensibly to celebrate its 20th anniversary. At 15.7 million copies sold, Metallica holds the number one spot in albums sales since 1991 and features five songs that remain in constant rotation on rock radio.
After the band’s first two songs mirrored Saturday night’s set, it seemed like the band might stick to the same setlist and then swap the Ride the Lightning tracks for Black Album tunes. Instead, fans were treated to “The Shortest Straw,” a rarely played, relentlessly pessimistic number from … And Justice For All, and “Fuel,” always a surefire crowd pleaser.
The Black Album set followed. As on Saturday, the featured album of the night was played from back to front – a smart call, given how crazily front-loaded the record is with hits. Several tracks were given their North American premiere, including the sinister “My Friend of Misery,” which features a spiffy twin-guitar lead break in the middle that sounded like it was always meant to be played live. Other highlights included “The God That Failed,” which delivered a primal stomp to complement some of James Hetfield’s angriest lyrics, and the spectacle of tens of thousands of Metallica fans unknowingly singing along to a Leonard Bernstein melody at the beginning of the chest-thumping “Don’t Tread on Me.”
Once the back half of the record was finished, almost all of the remaining Black Album songs were massive singles. The full-album concept almost washed away in favor of a deluge of hits and well-trodden stage banter, with Hetfield doing his “Metallica gives you heavy, baby!” rap (which always heralds a performance of “Sad But True”) and the band doing its best to deliver a faithful version of “The Unforgiven,” a song so driven by its recorded dynamics in its that it’s been historically difficult to pull it off live.
Avenged Sevenfold took the opposite stage an hour earlier and was seemingly granted what no other band was – permission to go all-out with staging, pyrotechnics and fireworks. Opening with “Nightmare,” the title track of the band’s 2010 album, Avenged Sevenfold featured more pyro in its first two songs than Metallica used on both nights combined. It was less than 10 years ago that the band was playing to 20 people a night and dressing like the Misfits, but on Sunday they drew a crowd that was second only to Metallica’s for the entire festival. They now divide their visual aesthetic among a Tim Burton hallucination, Marlon Brando in The Wild One and what Hollywood thought computer hackers looked like in the Nineties.
Their story parallels Metallica’s in a number of ways: coming from humble beginnings in southern California, rising through the underground, cultivating a sound that radio wouldn’t have considered playing until it became impossible to avoid, an original member dying at a young age and persevering to take their respective fifth albums to Number One. If Avenged Sevenfold felt they still needed a “congratulations, you’ve made it” party, it was held on Sunday.
Sunday also featured numerous non-metal acts, such as the meat-and-potatoes electric country of Eric Church, who proved that even if an audience hasn’t heard you before, all you need are some easily-understandable and likely-relatable lyrics like “Jack Daniel’s kicked my ass again last night” to whip a crowd into a lather. After receiving Kirk Hammett’s onstage blessing, guitar wiz Gary Clark Jr. played to a faithful crowd, alternating between delivering spiraling solos and percussive scratching on the strings and locking into slow, deep grooves that were undeniably heavy.
Best Coast didn’t fare quite as well on the main stage, as the band’s music drifted across the festival grounds but never took root. Band leader Bethany Cosentino tried to play to the audience, recalling something she’d once heard James Hetfield say in a live video. “He said, ‘Make some noise if you give a shit!'” Following the crowd’s tepid response, she added, “Then the crowd went wild. [pause] I don’t give a shit, either.” Their set ended 15 minutes ahead of schedule.
In the meantime, Hetfield was busy giving a shit of his own over at the metal stage, where he was downright giddy while watching Torche rip through the poppiest sludge-metal catalog on the planet. He air-guitared to the concise and catchy “Healer” and shook his head and laughed with a sort of “Damn, that’s impressive” acknowledgement at the complicated chaos the band was able to string together coherently. Feeding off the band’s upbeat attitude, Torche’s mosh pit was more hugs than body checks.
On the whole, the first incarnation of the Orion Music and More Fest was curated to be a tremendously fan-friendly experience. A smart layout guaranteed that any stage could be reached from any other within five minutes, and the lengthy gaps in between sets created a lack of overlap that reduced the stress of sprinting from stage to stage that other festivals sometimes create. Many who attended will fondly remember the antics of the delightful sign language ladies, who emphatically signed along to the bands, sometimes acting out the lyrics, and playing air-guitar during instrumental breaks. And the members of Metallica made themselves highly visible throughout both days – no doubt plenty of fans are going home with a “Lars Ulrich rode past me on a golf cart!” story to tell, while thousands more can tell of watching those same people chase after said golf cart and reveling in the schadenfreude from the look of defeat when they failed to catch it.