Mastodon at The Metro
Chicago, IL April 30, 2009
Twenty-three years ago, Ozzy Osbourne took a young band from San Francisco on the road with him for the Ultimate Sin tour. That band, Metallica, was supporting its new release, Master Of Puppets, and the tour provided them with enough exposure that began a slue of gold and platinum albums and lifted them to their own headlining status within a few years.
There’s a sense of continuity between Metallica’s tour with Ozzy in 1986 and Metallica’s decision to have Mastodon open for them on their upcoming 2009 Death Magnetic tour. Ozzy felt that Metallica embodied the spirit of early Sabbath and cited that as the reason he tapped them as openers.
Surely, Metallica must feel similarly about Mastodon, particularly since the Atlanta quartet mirrors much of the elder statesmen’s sense of heavy complexity and uncompromising arrangements. There has to be a sense of torch-passing with this decision and, in many ways, Mastodon certainly does appear ready for bigger things, thanks in large part to their latest release Crack The Skye.
The band’s immediate tour—one that finds them headlining large clubs throughout the country performing Crack The Skye in its entirety—gives fans an opportunity to see the band one more time before success vaults them to larger arenas. Indeed, the venue where Chicago fans saw Metallica before that tour with Ozzy was none other than the Aragon Ballroom (capacity: 4,500). Ask the Windy City fans now what they would do to get another chance to see them in that small of place again and you’ll understand why Mastodon’s performance on Thursday night at the Metro (capacity: 1,100) sold out a few weeks after tickets went on sale. Their fans understood that this might be an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The patrons were surprisingly subdued throughout the set. There was very little in terms of “head banging” or roughhousing; most of those in attendance seemed perfectly content watching in slack-jawed amazement as the band rendered a nearly note-perfect recreation of Skye. In a sense, I too went in to the performance with some doubtful cynicism only to admit that the band does indeed have the chops needed to pull off such a feat. Mastodon is clearly very good at what they do, and the bare-bones production of this club tour almost suggests that they get a kick out of making naysayers eat crow after being brutally assaulted with a two-hour set.
The backdrop was a video screen that projected a looping set of images that may or may not have helped tell the retardedly complex story of Crack The Skye. It didn’t take long to realize that the real visuals were taking place among the frets of Brent Hinds and Bill Kelliher. And when you got tired of that, you could always admire drummer Brann Dailor‘s flailing arms or bassist Troy Sanders‘ menacing stare.
The first few songs in the Skye set were plagued with vocal missteps and a few flubbed time changes, but everything was corralled just in time for the final three songs of the album, the massive song-suites where precision really counts.
The Skye material also forced the band to concentrate. There was very little interaction with the crowd and, aside from Sanders, the players seldom looked up from their instruments or each other, making sure that each piece of the performance matched what was laid down in the studio.
After a quarter-hour of “The Last Barron,” the band took about three minutes off stage and returned for a brutal sweep through their catalog. The set showed two things: how far the band has traveled over the years and how attuned they are to this material. Mastodon became a rollicking ball of chaos at this point, turning on dime at a moments notice and arriving at the destination in one solid piece. While Crack The Skye may be taking all of the band’s focus during the performance, the second set shows the band able to maneuver through their early material with eyes closed and complete precision. No wonder we were all slack-jawed: we were witnessing feats of sonic aggression as well as a band not content with becoming kings of that title.
This makes their next step all the more interesting. Will the upcoming tour with Metallica treat the band to a lifestyle that appeals to them? Will they follow Skye with something more commercial, something that will make it impossible for them to play in a venue like the Metro again? If so, I feel sorry for the passed out young girl I saw six security people carrying out during “Colony Of Birchmen.”
“This will be one night she’ll never forget.” Stated the longhaired fellow next to me, smiling as he noticed how I was watching the incident.
Sadly, she probably will. And even more sadly, she probably won’t have another chance to make up for it.
Photo by Dylan Burr from the Scion Rock Fest.