Metallica roars back

Times Staff Writer

The fans in the audience at the KROQ Weenie Roast on Saturday weren't the only ones looking forward to the headliners. Band after band, from Pennywise to Rise Against to the Offspring, took a moment to express their feelings of awe at warming the stage for a force as mighty as Metallica, whose name was usually preceded by an expletive indicating just how much awe was involved.

The Weenie Roast always has been able to snag the most popular bands from the modern-rock radio station's play list, but in its 16 years, the annual pre-summer blowout rarely has landed an act surrounded by the curiosity and anticipation that's swirling around these resurgent metal gods. (Motley Crue in '05? Get real.)

The undisputed heavyweight champs of hard rock put out their last album in 2003 and have played just a few shows in the U.S. since 2004, so their current awakening -- pointing toward the September release of an album with redoubtable producer Rick Rubin -- is setting off the sensors among their large and loyal audience.

Like last week's benefit show for the Silverlake Conservatory of Music, at the intimate Wiltern, Saturday's Weenie Roast, set in the wide-open spaces of Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre in Irvine, was a no-doubt-about-it reaffirmation of the Los Angeles-born, Bay Area-based quartet's primacy.

The clubs and concert halls are crowded these days with hard-rock bands inspired by Metallica, but few can combine skull-vibrating heavy with breathtaking agility the way this group does. As physically imposing and ridiculously fast as some of their passages are, you feel as if they could shift it around at any time without losing one bit of precision. It's a little like watching someone juggling boulders.

Metallica has performed extensively in Europe during this time between albums, so it's not as if they have a lot of cobwebs to clear, but the spirits were high at both Southland shows. Larger than life, yet down to earth, they remain approachable and genuine.

Casting back through their catalog for certified favorites, they varied the set list from the Wiltern show, adding "The Unforgiven," "Wherever I May Roam" and "Fade to Black." They ignored their last album entirely and kept their new material under wraps. That was a safe but slightly disappointing decision, one that kept them in step with the nostalgic tone that prevailed on the main stage, where bands such as Bad Religion and the Offspring could draw on histories reaching as far or even further back than the headliners' 27 years.

So the conquering heroes have returned, but do they have an empire to command?

Rock, especially the hard and heavy variety, has become one of those progressively more marginalized genres since Metallica's last round of activity and especially since its commercial peak in the early '90s. Still, it thrives in such headbanger havens as Ozzfest and the Warped Tour, and Weenie Roast '08 was a similar celebration. The metal wing also was represented on the main stage by such bands as Atreyu and Scars on Broadway, but for the pre-Metallica home stretch, it was mainly punk, and one notable wild card in the Raconteurs.

Even on what seemed like automatic pilot, Los Angeles stalwarts Pennywise and Bad Religion were efficient in churning up the mosh pit and airing the anti-authority sentiments that got the fans raising those middle fingers.

The relatively young Chicago band Rise Against (it formed in 1999) brought a touch of emo plaintiveness to its punk base. Singer Tim McIlrath actually did a song solo on acoustic guitar, and his thanks to "the bands that paved the way" had a sweet sincerity.

Metallica wasn't the only band returning from hiatus. The Offspring also is ending a five-year recording lull, and the clean-cut Orange County pop-punk veterans actually included a couple of new songs in their set without knocking the earth off its axis. The single "Hammerhead" fit solidly in the group's familiar hard-but-catchy sonic framework, though its lyric, from inside the mind of a school shooter, is pretty dark for a band whose best songs have been sometimes satirical, sometimes sympathetic social observations.

Their set had some flat stretches, but such staples as "Come Out and Play (Keep 'Em Separated)," "The Kids Aren't Alright," "Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)" and "Self Esteem" all reaffirmed the underrated band's gift for crafting deceptively dynamic songs with something on their mind.

And right in the middle of all this relentless, regimented music came the Raconteurs, and it was a completely different language. Co-led by Brendan Benson and the White Stripes' Jack White but clearly governed by the latter's restless iconoclasm, the band was ambiguous, impulsive and moody, and not very concerned about keeping the mosh pit moving.

But it was certainly intense, as White shrieked into a distorting microphone and unleashed a scathing slow blues, head-scouring rather than head-banging. The crowd at least got to hear the KROQ hit "Steady, as She Goes," but overall, they didn't seem to know what to make of it -- it was a lot like the Stripes' appearance at KROQ's Almost Acoustic Christmas a few years ago, when White's off-the-scale force similarly left the audience seemingly stunned.

Now that's what you call defying authority.


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