On the weekend of June 8 & 9, 2013, Metallica commandeered a thousand acre island positioned in a river dividing two countries and curated one of the grandest rock n’ roll backyard BBQ throw-downs ever conceived. In one week, the masters of metal make their triumphant return to The Motor City, making good on their four-years-gone-past “We’ll be back!” farewell.
As we look forward to giving “Hardwired…to Self-Destruct” a proper Motown baptism at Comerica Park (Wednesday, July 12), let’s commemorate ORION music + more, the historic—and groundbreaking—festival that truly shifted the paradigm of artist-curated festivals.
Artists evolve by charting new territory, constantly taking risks, cultivating their own passions, and trusting their guts—rather than pandering to cultural norms and expectations. Success lies in the eye of the beholder. Metallica? All they’ve done is create a sub-genre of rock, modernize heavy metal, and reign over the thrash kingdom they’ve ushered from the DIY-underground to the highest levels of musical arts in the world. Global domination, indeed, achieved not through divide and conquer tactics, but a relentless, boots-on-the-ground unification of the front. The cross-generational, worldwide Metallica family embodies the characteristics of the catalyst who’s brought them all together; beyond a business model or brand, Metallica represents freedom, strength, perseverance, and pride.
With their barrage of audio & visual innovation and performance, Metallica have forever altered the landscape of not only music—but culture—and forged an endearing relationship with their devoted legion of fans: the metal militia. Constantly redefining boundaries between band and fans, Metallica could have easily rested on the laurels of their Fifth Member initiative; however, it’s clear they conspire to connect with their fans beyond exclusive bonus media content. Metallica aims for hands-on, participatory sensory stimulation and experience. From this motivation, one of the greatest, experimental music festivals was born, built, and baptized on Belle Isle, the largest park in the country to cover a complete island.
ORION music + more was 100% Metallica’s baby. Seeking adventure and a mechanism to (in the words of James Hetfield) “bring people closer to music,” Metallica chose the music festival path less traveled…and that made all the difference. No knocking Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, or Coachella (and the scores of high quality music festivals that dominate the summer to-do lists of music enthusiasts seeking a maximized return on their investment). One can also include the most iconic international festivals on a list of musical events that has never rivaled what Metallica accomplished. While Download, Glastonbury, and Reading & Leeds all provide a rich tapestry of live music performance encompassing diverse genres, entertainment promoters and media corporations book the artists and plan and organize the festival itineraries. Not to mention: these buffet offerings are designed to appeal to a broad demographic; in providing something for everybody, there’s no opportunity to delve deeper into experiencing the essence of the band you came to see, aside from what they reveal in their performance. Never before (or since) ORION music + more has there been such an eclectic offering of immersive experiences to fully participate in the behind-the-scenes hobbies and passions of the headlining artist. In building this beast, Metallica wasn’t content to let the curious behind the curtain and sneak a peek at the wizard; ORION opened the gates to Oz and provided the faithful an opportunity to savor the marrow of what makes the band tick—not only on a collective basis, but according to individual preference, taste, and style.
Aside from the music, Metallica’s festival was a unique opportunity to get to know the band better, on an intimate level. It wasn’t outside the norm to mingle with James at the ORION Custom Car + Motorcycle Show next to a hotrod or custom bike, and chat about the paint or welding. To share his love of cinema, Lars personally selected and introduced films in a temporary movie theater for his “Hit The Lights” film festival. Robert’s love of skating culture was expressed at the Van’s DAMAGE INC. Stage + Vert Ramp. Seriously! Where else can you catch a high octane Dead Sara set with pro skaters grabbing mad air over the mosh pit below? Throughout the weekend, Metallica was naturally down to earth, approachable, and thrilled to interact with fans…and share who they are beyond music, explosions, and commanding metal. Make no mistake, Metallica’s outside interests are more than hobbies. All one needs to do is listen to their music, watch their videos, or best yet, attend a live show. These passions not only fuel the band’s music, their lifestyles are manifest in the Metallica way—all aspects. Kirk’s Crypt—the 10,000 sq. feet haunted attraction, full of priceless horror memorabilia—revealed more than a man fascinated by scary movies. Kirk was like a kid in a candy store, rolling up in his golf cart to participate in a sit-down forum with horror filmmakers, legendary actors, and horror/gore special effects artists. It was a thrill to see members of the band not only personally introduce bands they selected for the festival but participate alongside fans in engaging activities that highlight their unique personalities and pursuits.
In building one of the greatest musical mixers every assembled, Metallica left no stone uncovered. The Metallica Museum provided an insightful journey of the band’s progression—from the very first hand-drawn gig fliers to original Pushead artwork to Cliff’s famous bass rig to Doris, the Lady Justice prop made famous on the And Justice for All tour. The collection was curated with a Smithsonian-like attention to detail and rivaled the grandest band-centric exhibits assembled by The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and artisans (such as Pearl Jam) who painstakingly archive their development through packrat collect ‘em all attention to detail. A trip through the Metallica Museum afforded card-carrying members of the metal militia (and casual fans, alike) to chart not only their favorite band’s evolution but also provided supporting visuals to correspond with the critical soundtrack of their thrash-loving existence.
In addition to the museum and band-curated lifestyle elements, there were special live action spectacles scattered throughout the grounds that attracted adventurists. Most memorable—we could literally watch, transfixed, for hours—was the Globe of Death, a gigantic steel sphere that enclosed high-octane 360° motor-cross madness inside. Vertically, horizontally, the bikes raced full throttle, navigating steep inclines and declines with daredevil efficiency. In addition to the death-defying stunts, the uniquely regional food trucks, under the direction of Detroit chef, Phil Cooley, got peoples’ attention. These may seem like two random topics thrown together, but have you ever savored Slow’s BBQ smoky Mac & Cheese while watching a motorcyclist speed through a steel loop, upside down, right side up, upside down…There’s something magical about the experience I’ve never felt since.
Following the buzz from a rumor led us to perhaps the defining moment of the festival . It was early afternoon and we stood waiting in line in Detroit for a shuttle to transport us onto Belle Isle. The friend we made that day in line changed our entire festival experience before we even walked through the turnstiles. Isn’t that the way it often works? Some of the best conversations I’ve ever had in life took place waiting in line, either to buy concert tickets or to get into one. We stood scouring the event literature, planning our preliminary itinerary, according to the day’s scheduled performances and set times. Our new friend asked if we heard of dehaan. I certainly never had. He suggested that we might want to make our way to the DAMAGE stage at 4:00 PM; rumor had it that no band existed with that name, the official festival website lacked a proper bio, and Metallica was planning something special for those “in the know.” The line around the block was buzzing. Kill ‘Em All was celebrating it’s 30th year anniversary. Perhaps the band would commemorate it’s legacy building major-label debut by performing the landmark album in it’s entirety. After all, during the inaugural ORION: music + more, held the previous summer in Atlantic City, Metallica famously headlined both nights, playing their entire Black album one night and Ride the Lightening in it’s entirety the other. Before we boarded the bus, my son and I assured our new friend that we’d see him later that afternoon at the small stage next to the skate ramp.
After a cursory tour of the festival grounds, an introductory walk through some of the exhibits, and some fantastic live performances, we made our way over to the DAMAGE stage, arriving well before 4:00. The series of events that followed are forever etched in my mind. These are rock n’ roll moments that have to be directly experienced to be fully understood. The mayhem is never as vivid, captured on film or vinyl (or certainly camera phone). Looking back, the situation could have become dangerous—quickly. Of course, that unpredictability is part of the thrill.
Dead Sara was finishing up their aggressive set, while skaters drifted high above the stage scaffolding, launching off the attached Van’s ramp. What a rush! Audio frequencies and gravity being manipulated simultaneously. Both carving air, but with different instruments and objectives. Nonetheless, an exercise in creative synergy rarely witnessed on this level. So pure, raw, and real; Robert, you are a mad scientist! Perhaps this is what Iggy means by Raw Power? One of four bands playing at the exact moment, a crowd 500 strong gathered for Dead Sara and subsequently had their minds blown by the scene; clearly this was something new few had ever seen (and heard). When Dead Sara finished their set, the skaters continued their ariel assault, wowing the gathering crowd. While the rumor wasn’t yesterday’s news, clearly enough people felt the possibility warranted immediate attention—enough to stand in front of an empty stage while Dropkick Murphy’s kicked into high gear on the main ORION stage.
The atmosphere in the growing crowd was festive. International flags waved, favorite Metallica stories were exchanged, rumors of an intimate Kill ‘Em All afternoon side-stage performance were compared and fact checked. The family was together and the air was electric. All these people couldn’t be wrong! With all the gear being loaded onto stage, these dehaan cats (who nobody knows) must have some serious financial backers. Personally for me, it was when I noticed Ray Burton positioned on the side of the stage. Either Cliff’s Dad was a huge supporter of this little-known upstart, dehaan, or the whispers were true: the crowd of 2000 was getting ready to be blown away by Metallica, playing one of their smallest stages in recent memory. As soon as the Metal Up Your Ass backdrop unfurled, the crowd went nuts. The heat, the humidity, the alcohol, the weed, the acid, the rumors, the anticipation, the realization of fantasy becoming reality: whatever it was (all rolled into one), the metal militia turned savage during the introductory instrumental ramp-up of “Hit the Lights." The faithful chanted the thrash battlecry, word-for-word, starting with the famous opening declaration, "No life till leather!" and intensified throughout Metallica's 55 minute blistering assault of Kill ‘Em All in it’s entirety—all the way through “Metal Militia.”
I distinctly remember several crowd-related residuals, which forever preserve this afternoon as legendary and iconic. Foremost, when Metallica started their set, what started as a trickle quickly grew to a mad rush. Festival-goers from all across the grounds began to sprint toward the small stage, realizing that history was taking place. Within minutes the DAMAGE crowd swelled to over 10,000…and that’s when things got real. I tried explaining later to my son that this was business—nothing personal; these people we chatted with as the stage was being prepped were still civil…still part of the loving music collective. This was the day my son learned the true meaning of mosh. These weren’t violent psychopaths, bent on destruction and pain. Aggressive? Yes. Hostile? No. Multiple pits opened up front where we stood, holding our ground amongst the crush and sway of compressed bodies. My son stood on the fringe of a pit, wide-eyed, aware of the danger. Most often fear is heightened at night, but here on the grassy open park of Belle Isle in the peak of the afternoon the uncertainly was as real as Leatherface encounter. No one expects to be trampled by a mosh pit or gored by a chainsaw—especially in daylight. This wasn’t the cushy, upholstered confines of The Joe Louis Arena, where we saw Metallica on their last trip through The D, four years prior. Welcome to ORION: music + more, where you must prepare for the unpredictable.
The founding fathers of American thrash weren’t satisfied to rest on the laurels. While Kill ‘Em All and the following night’s festival-closing headlining full production extravaganza, with all the bells & whistles, were the main servings everyone came for, Metallica had it’s sights set on throwing one of the most elaborate mixers ever concocted. It wouldn’t be enough to invite all the great metal bands or curate a thrash-centric fest; Metallica’s objective was to introduce people to diverse bands they typically wouldn’t be exposed to. They wanted to bring people together and have them organically discover something new…and fall in love…or at least walk away with newfound appreciation. Consider some of the musical performance highlights from the first ORION: music + more festival: Artic Monkeys, Eric Church, Gary Clark, Jr., Cage The Elephant, and Suicidal Tendencies. Wow!
Besides Metallica (and of course the Day 1 headlining performance of The Red Hot Chili Peppers) several performances continue to resonate in me. And I’m forever grateful; if not for ORION: music + more these bands may not have come across my radar and I would have never been part of their amazing live performances. I couldn’t catch all the bands—there were typically four playing at the same time, on the four stages, spread across the festival grounds. Dead Sara, Japandroids, Death, Gorgol Bordello, and Death Grips each inspired me enough to explore them further after witnessing their art live. Late in evening of Day 2, by happenstance, as I waited to meet my son—I discovered the beauty of the amalgam: the sweet spot in the middle of the field—where the sound waves generated by each of the four respective bands merged together and fused into an eclectic sonic stew. That’s when it hit me. People standing alongside me in the stew, immediately knew. They could feel it pulsating—alive—through their bodies, occupying their hearts and minds. They breathed, bounced, and bobbed to the rhythm of the sonic stew. EDM, Rap, Gypsy Funk: turns out Metallica aren’t just curators, they’re chefs, continuing to influence taste, develop new flavors, and impact the way we experience and celebrate the musical palate. Talk about cultural influence and currency!
While it’s not the return of their ORION music + more festival, any Metallica stadium show is a carnival of sorts…and cause for celebration. Prepare, Detroit! The family is getting back together, it’s gonna get loud and heavy, and this gig isn’t merely commemorating the next album cycle. Hardwired…to Self-Destruct is a sign of the times and thematically Metallica’s grandest socio-political exercise since And Justice for All.
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