You gotta admire former Metallica bassist Jason Newsted. First, following the bus accident that took the life of original bassist Cliff Burton in '86, he was plucked from obscurity to fill the bass slot for arguably the most influential, successful live rock band of the latter-'80s through '90s. But even after nearly 15 years spent playing arenas and touring the globe, Newsted always remained the new guy (down to his nickname, "Jason Newkid"), with Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield keeping firm hold of the reins. Then he announced, in January 2001, that he was leaving Metallica to pursue his own projects (what was he thinking?). In March 2002, along with young unknowns Dylan Donkin and Brian Sagrafena, he released the trio's--now collectively known as EchoBrain--eponymously titled debut disc.Turns out that Newsted--or so legend goes--had met then 16-year-old funk/jazz drummer Sagrafena at a Super Bowl party in '95 and invited him to check out his studio, Chophouse. Sagrafena brought along his school pal, guitarist/vocalist Donkin, and the three started playing together. These improvisational jam sessions became the genesis for EchoBrain, in which Newsted, surprisingly, takes a backseat role.
Even though EchoBrain is out on a club tour, the show features full production: lights, fog, the works, as well as another guitarist and a guy doubling on keys and percussion. A huge semi idled outside the Lincoln Theatre, which, perhaps due to it being a Wednesday night, was only half full.
But if Newsted was disheartened at the size of the crowd, he didn't let on. He seemed thrilled to be playing his own music in a democratic band. After a trippy performance by Portland indie-rock drums/guitar/computer duo The Helio Sequence (Newsted let his young bandmates pick the opening group), who played to a front row consisting of a chick with a homemade Def Leppard tattoo, a big skinhead dude who kept shaking his empty beer bottle and then looking through it like a periscope--unable to believe it was empty--and a stocky, mulleted guy in a classic rock T-shirt, EchoBrain took the stage. (Newsted makes his entrée 20 seconds after the rest of the group.) Although the audience held a number of folks in Metallica tour shirts, anyone who'd heard the group's album knew what to expect--melodic pop metal. The album's first track, "Colder World," which they opened with, sounds a lot like Fastball.
But Newsted is undeniably the star--the presence. Just 20 minutes into their first song, he stopped playing and stepped up to address the crowd, saying, "Do we have the lights figured out? We're going to start this over again, because that's how I feel. We've got a whole night ahead of us, and we're going to share it together and do it right." He then retreated back to his monster bass rig--an Ampeg stack (two 8-by-10s laid sideways two mega-watt heads) and scads of effects and pedals. The show then proceded featuring impressive lighting effects and fog--no doubt on Newsted's dime.
Live, EchoBrain's music seemed more improvisational, more weed-fueled than the album. Donkin's impressive vocals call to mind Chris Cornell, but the songs are ambitious, even orchestral, featuring three-part harmonies and pro musicianship. And when Newsted played theremin with his bass headstock and the strobe lights were flicked on, the band turned into Zep for a moment.
Mid-show, Newsted again stepped up to address the audience: "So what do you think of this shit so far?" he said, obviously enjoying himself. But even though the crowd was with him, EchoBrain has got to raise their profile considerably to break out of being seen as more than just Newsted's expensive hobby.
Darren Jessee with Shark Quest
Thursday, May 23
Go! Room 4, Chapel Hill
There's something poignant about seeing a tested, 30-something singer-songwriter road test fresh material with a new band. The sly, sidelong glance at the keyboardist after a new tune is begun in the wrong key, the sudden broad smile beneath a downturned gaze after another song sets off on a gallop when it should be a canter: It's a little like watching a father teach his son how to work a clutch, with both grinning participants implicated in the car's herky-jerky progress across an empty parking lot. So it went last Thursday at Chapel Hill's Go!, when former Ben Folds Five drummer Darren Jessee took the stage around midnight, after the first Shark Quest sighting in almost a year. Jessee, who moved back to the Triangle seven months ago after a three-year stint in New York, brought serious talent with him to Go! for only his second live run-through of this material: Bobby Patterson of Dag on bass, Mark Wells of Sankofa on keyboards, Scott Carle of the Bad Checks, Dillon Fence and The b-sides on drums, and Ryan Pickett of Collapsis and Queen Sarah Saturday on guitar. Despite the fact that a few of these guys are new acquaintances of Jessee's, the set managed to sound like a real band effort rather than a front man's showcase.
Although the 11-song set was over in only 35 minutes, it was long enough for Jessee to announce his post-BF5 direction. Gone is Ben Folds' inimitable nickelodeon-style piano banging, replaced by more integrated organ textures and a fuller guitar sound, with only the occasional lyric (as on the new tune "All My Asshole Friends") revealing the BF5 DNA imprint. Compared to his former bandleader, Jessee also has a more mature, "new-dad" strain to his vocals, even managing a slight country twang on occasion without it sounding like an affectation. He molds his voice to the tune, showing influences ranging from Ryan Adams to Paul Westerberg, Rufus Wainwright to Elvis Costello.
Stepping out from behind the drum set into the bandleader position suits Jessee. Denim-shirted and reticent, the singer-songwriter--who penned 10 of the evening's tunes and co-wrote the other one, "Into the Blue," with Tom Maxwell of the Squirrel Nut Zippers--was a genuine, unpretentious presence whose melancholy, restful songs are more suited to the consumption of cigarettes than alcohol. It will be interesting to see what direction Jessee takes on his new album when he enters the studio after returning from a few more area gigs. What may set him apart is sheer songwriting talent. A great song will not be denied, and with "Novina," "Anatole" and "Emilia," Jessee proved he's got more than one radio-friendly gem in his pocket.
--Mark W. Hornburg