On stage at Bader Field in Atlantic City on Saturday night, James Hetfield seemed the happiest of men.
The song was "Creeping Death" from Ride The Lightning, the 1984 Metallica album that his thunderous rock band was playing in its entirety for the first time. During the chorus, the crowd of 20,000 plus sang one word over and over in unison: "Die! Die! Die! Die! Die" Hetfiield looked out at the sea of black clad fans of his band on the opening night of their first ever festival, and beamed. And bellowed: "Orion! You're beautiful!"
For its headlining set, Metallica waited for night to fall on one of the longest days of the year - and also for the finish of the intro music, AC/DC's "It's A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock and Roll) running into Ennio Morricone's "The Ecstasy Of Gold" - before hitting the stage with "Hit The Lights," the first song on their first album 1983's Kill 'Em All.
The set that followed on a night in which a crescent moon hung stage left and the Atlantic City casino skyline lit up the sky to the east mixed in heavy hitters from throughout the band's Biblically-inspired career, from "Master Of Puppets" to "Hell and Back," along with the complete Ride The Lightning, which including such precisely played, non-thrashy near-symphonic breakthroughs as "Fade To Black."
After "The Four Horsemen," Hetfield - playing along with shredding guitarist Kirk Hammett, drummer Lars Ulrich and bassist Robert Trujillo (who also sat in with his hardcore punk former band Suicidal Tendencies earlier in the evening) - said, "Oh my God, this is a dream come true. I can't believe this is happening, and I feel it's kicking ass."
The band played Ride The Lightning in reverse order opening with the instrumental, "The Call Of Ktulu" and closing with the hyper-speed "Fight Fire with Fire." (On tour in Europe this year, they've been playing 1991's Metallica, which they'll close out Orion with Sunday, backwards as well.) For Metallica heads not attending both nights, however, the band threw in a taste of 'the Black Album' too, including "Sad But True," "Nothing Else Matters" and yes, a set closing "Enter Sandman," complete with pyrotechnics.
Orion raged on for more than 8 hours before Metallica hit the stage. The first ear assaulting notes were heard from Black Tusk, the unhinged metal trio from Savannah, Ga. who turned in a pleasantly pummeling set on the Damage, Inc. stage, complete with beardage to make ZZ Top envious and references to Satan. The band fronted by Andrew Fidler and James Athon pulled me away from the simultaneously-starting more hotly-hyped Baroness, also from Savannah, who played simultaneously on the main stage, but whose baroque songs took too long to develop under the hot afternoon sun.
My attempt to check out Ulrich's air conditioned Hit The Lights film tent - showing Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine on Saturday afternoon - was foiled. Free tickets were sold out in advance. Close by at the Frantic stage, however, Texas psychedelic rock legend Roky Erickson was in fine form. I've never seen the guitarist and still powerful-voiced singer - whose spent much of his life sidelined by mental illness and drug problems - seeming more together, and with the help of a sharp six piece band, the bearded front man moved through careeer highlights from the 13th Floor Elevators' "You're Going To Miss Me" to "Two Headed Dog."
Later, post-punk garage-rock quartet Hot Snakes - led by San Diegans Rick Froberg and John Reis, featuring Philadelphian Jason Kourkonis on drums - turned in a bristling, energetic set on the Frantic stage. Highly effective.
Not so much so were Modest Mouse, the Isaac Brock-led Pacific Northwest alt-rockers who played the oversized Orion stage before Metallica went on, and whose music seemed small, diffuse and not up to the challenge of the grand setting. Disappointing.
The Arctic Monkeys, who headlined the Fuel stage and were the only band besides Metallica to benefit from playing (at least part of the time) under the cover of darkness, played a tremendously tight set, led by charmingly loquacious frontman Alex Turner. The Sheffield, England quartet - a formerly overrated ban who have now become an underrated band - were the best thing I saw all day, and also the funniest thing going at the not-just-metal fest, where otherwise humor was often unintentional.
"Are you excited to see Metallica, Orion festival?" Turner asked the crowd, before introducing his also singing drummer Matt Helders as "the man at the back on your girlfriend's mind." Before turning out a terrific take on the band's loest thing to a hit, "I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor," Turner made light of the gender imbalance of the Orion crowd. "Are there any lady Metallica fans out there?" he asked. "A lot of people think it's boys music, but it isn't. It's ladies music."
UPDATE: For a recap of what happened on Day Two, go here.
Previously: Orion festival kicks off at Bader Field in Atlantic City Follow In The Mix on Twitter here