Back with a new name and new, wider horizons, the former Heavy MTL (now renamed Heavy Montreal to de-emphasize the metal part) finally offered the headliner everyone had been waiting for since the festival maiden voyage (pun intended) in 2008: Metallica! As the festival broadens its musical palette, adding punk acts like Pennywise and The Offspring to the bill, it couldn’t have landed a bigger act that Metallica, and it showed at the box office: from the day’s start at 12:30, the crowd was already pretty large. In past years, it was always easy to get close to the stage during the afternoon, but this year every act played to a solid crowd that only grew larger as the day went on. As it happens, I only covered the two main stages. I would have loved to see Unlocklng the Truth on secondary stage, but couldn’t be in two places at the same time!
The first act to hit the stage was Monster Truck from Hamilton, Ontario. Their no-nonsense brand of 70’s influenced rock went over well with the crowd of headbangers, especially their single Sweet Mountain River. The band was it usual energetic self, and set the town for the day. I love this band, and I hope they get the success they deserve.
Next came the most unusual act of the day: Babymetal! A lot of people showed up to hear the Youtube sensations, who marry crushing guitar riffs with J-Pop melodies and cheerleader dance routines. They were welcomed like superstars by the crowd who, I’m willing to bet, was mostly playing along. The teenagers (the lead singer is 17, and the other 2 girls are 15) are backed by a very proficient band, who end up carrying most of the show as the girls were often off stage or relegated to dance routines. Their most widely known track Gimme Chocolate was strangely played second, and the show sort of limped on afterwards, never really picking up momentum. Still, we have to give them props for trying something new (even though it’s manufactured), and while I expected tape backups, everything was live. It was the kind of gig you brag about seeing to your friends, because of the sheer strangeness of it. The funniest part was when they asked the crowd to sing the melodic part of Gimme Chocolate. I’Ve never heard so many people loudly mumble at the same time . 🙂
Fans of “true metal” finally had their first act of the day: East Coast thrash veterans Overkill hit the main stage. With many fans in attendance, the band tore through a high energy set that was hampered by a bad mix overly dominated by drums. I like Overkill on record, but the bad sound made it hard to appreciate their performance, although I’m willing to bet that anyone already very familiar with their catalog probably enjoyed it a whole lot more. The band played tracks from their first two albums, as well as their more recent efforts (including the live premiere of The Armorist from their latest album White Devil Armory) ending with a cover of The Subhumans‘ Fuck You.
The first punk act of the day followed on the second stage: California’s Pennywise started the show with their self titled song, and went through a set composed of older material, including a great cover of the Ramones’ Blitzkrieg Bop, and finishing with their classic Bro Hymn. The punk half of the crowd showed they could be as loud as their metal counterparts in cheering for their favourites. And while I’m sure some people were unhappy with the juxtaposition of styles, most seemed to enjoy the opportunity to broaden their horizons, or appreciate bands who were in a slightly different genre.
The music swung back to metal with the next act, but again in a very experimental way. Finland’s Apocalyptica proved that metal is a state of mind, and does not need to rely on guitars to work. A fitting choice considering their origin as a Metallica tribute band, the group played their own brand of metal on cellos, to the delight of the crowd. They were joined on some tracks by vocalist Type Johnson, and these tracks seemed more suited to a festival setting than the intricate instrumentals they played. Still, the musicians thrashed around and violently attacked their instruments, using every modern playing technique to pry away new sounds from their strings, or settling down for delicate passages. They ended their set with a cover of Edvard Grieg’s Hall of the Mountain King that was frantic and frenetic, bordering on insanity. Great show from a great band.
I decided to skip the next act, Three Days Grace, as I’m not really a fan. I set out in search of the famous Montreal food trucks that were on site, with one goal in mind: to finally taste the Pied de Cochon‘s famous Foie Gras Poutine. And let me tell you: it was worth the effort! It’s a great initiative by the festival to offer some more highbrow food. I also took some time to walk around the festival site, and it was easy to notice the crowd was growing rapidly.
Next up was Boston’s Dropkick Murphys, who set the mood as they kicked off with the boisterous The Boys Are Back. Their Irish tinted punk rock was a hit with the crowd, with many of the band’s t-shirts being spotted everywhere. At one point, bassist Ken Casey told the crowd “you look like a hard working crowd; you don’t look like a bunch of pussies. You could almost pass as a Boston Bruins crowd!” Which drew some boos, but not as much as I would have expected. (Sign that a significant part of the crowd comes from out of town?). It takes some balls to try something like that in Montreal, considering the rivalry. He then introduced his son Liam, saying he hated nothing more than the Montreal Canadiens, and the kid came on stage smashing down a Habs teddy. Vocalist Al Barr joked that he should stop as he “still needed to go out there”. All in good fun, but it shows the amount of good will the band had with the crowd. In a different context, they might have been pelted with debris! They played a great set that included a cover of AC/DC’s T.N.T. before wrapping up with I’m Shipping Up to Boston.
Up next were metal legends, and local darlings Voivod. It was a special day for the band from Jonquière as singer Denis “Snake” Bélanger turned 50 on that day. (Time flies!) As relevant as ever, the band offered a short tight set that included 2 tracks from their latest album Target Earth. Classics like The Unknown Knows, Ripping Headaches and their cover of Pink Floyd’s Astronomy Domine rounded up the setlist. The band featured new bassist Dominique “Rocky” Laroche and one can hope that the band will now stop ignoring the Jason Newsted era. It was mildly understandable for them to do so with original bass player Blacky back in the band, but Laroche has no special connection to any era. There’s some great material there.
Next up was the first member of the Big Four of the weekend: Anthrax! Music has a way of transporting us back in time, and for me, Anthrax always brings me back to my high school years when I was listening to Spreading the Disease and Among the Living on my Walkman. They opened the show with the title track from the latter album, and then plower through a predictable set that contained all their biggest songs. The band deployed banners honouring the late Ronnie James Dio and Dimebag Darrell for the track In the End from their latest album Worship Music, and despite being an excellent track, it brought down the energy level a little too much. For such a short set, The Devil You Know would have been a much better choice. Still, for their third Heavy MTL appearance, the band was in fine form with singer Joey Belladonna walking the ramps, and playing with the cameramen.
It was then time for The Offspring to close out the second stage for the night. A great choice on paper to close out the punk segment of the day and prepare the way for Metallica, but their set didn’t live up to their status. They played the Smash album from start to finish, and most of the people didn’t seem to dig the deep cuts, only reacting to the hits (of which there are precious few on this record). The energy level rose after they were done with the album, but their set concluded shortly after. For a festival crowd, a greatest hits approach would have worked better. And whoever decided not to play Pretty Fly (For a White Guy) was just wrong.
And, finally, it was time for the main event. For their first ever Metallica By Request concert in North America (and only concert of the year on this continent), the fans requested a classic filled set, with nothing later than the Black album! All the usual hits were there (too bad the voting wasn’t a bit more adventurous), but also rarely played gems like Orion, …And Justice For All or Ride The Lightning. The penultimate track was voted on during the day by SMS, and despite James’s effort to skew the vote towards Fuel (a favourite of his), The Four Horsemen (still missing its slower bridge section) edged it out as well as Fight Fire With Fire (would have been cool to hear too!) Metallica can be a little sloppy live, especially on the older trashy stuff, but they were on this time, with James Hetfield even managing to channel some of the rage his younger self had when singing these songs. Ever generous, their set ran for close to 2.5 hours, leaving the 40,000+ people in attendance with ringing ears and smiles on their faces.
This year’s edition is by far the most successful edition, both on stage and at the box office. Heavy Montreal is a festival in search of an identity, and a place in the world of metal. Faced with extreme competition from the multitude of European festivals (bands can easily do the festival circuit over there while filling gaps with headline shows for much more money), it must be a nightmare to book. Getting bands for a one off appearance is costly, and has pretty much restricted the lineups over the years to North American acts, with very few exceptions. Promoter Evenko stated that this year’s edition was the coming of age event that would establish the festival’s reputation and place. I hope so, but there’s no bigger metal or hard rock band around than Metallica. It will be hard to repeat. Still, from the festival’s inception, people have been clamouring for Metallica to headline (as James put it “if it has Heavy in the name, we better be involved, right?”) and we finally got it. Let’s hope it does prove a turning point in the festival’s history. Billboard published the attendance at 63, 794 out of a possible 70,000. Considering Evenko claimed that more than 40,000 people showed up for Metallica, that doesn’t leave a lot of people for the day 2 (unless 2 day passes are counted as 1, which I doubt).