Talk to anyone the mission of SXSW, and you'll get the same answer: new music (with a post-script that "It used to be so much better, man"). Asking what kind of new music will splinter the consensus—unsigned bands? Texas bands? Indie bands?—but, ideally, people come to SXSW not to reinforce what they already know and love, but find some new stuff to know and love.
Ideally. Because in recent years, SXSW has become a destination for well-established artists looking for a quick victory lap or to generate buzz for their new material. The Hold Steady needn't be in Austin playing half a dozen times (though I respect that). And neither does one of the biggest bands in the world, Metallica. But here they were, playing a "secret" show at the 3,000-capacity Stubb's. Getting ready for that show swallowed up a lot of my day.
1:20 p.m. – Okay, I cheated on my rules today about not seeing bands I've seen before. The Thermals are playing our day party, which I have to attend, so it's not like I can ignore them, right? The Oregon poppy punk (or punky pop) trio makes charming music with the basics: power chords, awesome melodies, and smart lyrics. See, you don't need a therimin and children's choir to make something compelling. Their new record, Now We Can See, is pretty much guaranteed a spot on my year-end top 10.
1:36 p.m. – "We're gonna play over at Club Deville in like an hour or something," says singer-guitarist Hutch Harris. Many bands come down to Austin and destroy themselves, playing every day, sometimes multiple times, usually for little or no money. Even if you don't like the band, you have to respect their masochistic dedication. Although The Thermals are all over the festival this year—at least eight shows—they play our party like it’s the first and best show of the week. Bassist Kathy Foster hops around the stage, her bouncing curls making her even more adorable, and Harris and drummer Westin Glass all have big smiles on their faces. That should be the motto of SXSW: It's exhausting, but it's fun.
3:15 p.m. – And so the process begins. I'm to meet Metallica's press wranglers at the Four Seasons Hotel, where I will talk to an as-yet-undetermined member of the band for 15 minutes or so with three other writers for the upcoming release of Guitar Hero: Metallica. Round-tables like this are generally deal-breakers for us, but I'm not expecting an in-depth, A.V. Club-style interview from it.
3:46 p.m. – A frazzled man hands out the press credentials for Metallica outside of one of the hotel's conference rooms, including a badge that guarantees us entrance into the show tonight so long as we arrive before 7:45. (The band is scheduled to perform at 9:30.) Standing next to me is the unmistakable David Fricke of Rolling Stone, who looks slightly annoyed when the frazzled guy asks his name again. I don't think it was a full-on "Don't you know who I am?" moment, but it still made me chuckle under my breath. See, even having the same haircut for 30-plus years doesn't ensure people will recognize you!
3:50 p.m. – There are probably 25 or so journalists milling in this hotel conference room, eating the free food and watching people play Guitar Hero: Metallica. Another five or so press wranglers keep a watchful eye, assembling small groups and escorting the journos upstairs. It's all very structured and choreographed. There will be no ambling up to frontman James Hetfield and asking, "Bro, why do you rock so hard?"
4:06 p.m. – Finally my turn arrives, as I head to the elevator with writers from the Seattle Times, Denver Post, and Philadelphia Inquirer. We're going to small conference rooms on another floor for our one-on-one with guitarist Kirk Hammett. It looks like the band is split up on three different floors for these interviews, and I'm happy to have gotten Hammett. Mostly, I'm happy I didn't get Lars. Maybe that's unfair to say, but you've seen Some Kind Of Monster, right?
4:08 p.m. – We open the door to the hotel room and are immediately rebuffed, as another group is still talking to Hammett. There's even a cop in the room, presumably to keep us from throwing a shoe at him or something. We stand in the hallway and chat, before the cop opens the door and sternly shushes us.
4:12 p.m. – We finally enter the inner sanctum, where Hammett immediately sings the effusive praises of The Onion, which is always nice. He's wearing a black tank top (of course) with a black leather jacket (outside temperature: upper 70s/low 80s), and his chest looks a little red, like he's about to break out in hives. Regardless, Hammett seems nice enough, well aware of his age, his band's age, and the disconnect between his band's staunch anti-downloading politics and releasing a video game. Not to mention that fans preferred Guitar Hero's sound mix for the new Death Magnetic to the one on the actual CD.
7:15 p.m. – The sticker on my Metallica badge very clearly states to arrive at 7:15, and figuring it's gonna be a madhouse, I oblige and plant myself up front. Friday marks my second day in a row of seeing DJ Bassnectar, who lives up to his name: My lungs may pop from the low-end pounding out of the PA. I can feel the individual hairs in my scalp vibrating.
8:04 p.m. – L.A. band Silversun Pickups takes the stage, and in a way, I don't envy their position: They're playing to hardcore Metallica fans who waited for hours to get in and are beyond eager for their heroes to take the stage.
8:23 p.m. – To the band's credit, Silversun wins the crowd over and makes it look easy. Frontman Brian Aubert is clearly thrilled to be there, and looks a little stunned by the enormity of it. He looks at the Metallica logos on the flight cases onstage and mentions how he's been seeing that image for years, going back to the live album Binge & Purge. "It's coming, I promise," he tells the crowd. "Spin Doctors are coming!"
8:33 p.m. – Aubert prefaces the band's next-to-last song ("Lazy Eye") by thanking the crowd profusely. When he says "Thank you very much," he repeats "very" literally 20 times. It's easy to read into the song's lyrics after that: "I've been waiting for this moment / all my life…" (Not so much the line right after that, "But it's not quite right.)
9:20 p.m. – On stage are three dudes who won a Guitar Hero contest to play a Metallica song on Guitar Hero before the headliners take the stage. It's kind of awesome, really: three dudes rocking a Metallica song on Guitar Hero in front of an enthusiastic capacity audience at Stubb's. The schmoe radio DJ who's the evening's de facto emcee playfully rags on them for being nerds, but by the looks of him, he's not one to talk.
9:35 p.m. – The interminable line-checking before Metallica continues. A roadie tests out Rob Trujillo's bass., and I think if I had any kidney stones building up in my body, they were just smashed. Standing in front of the stage-left speakers at a Metallica show: If there's a proving ground for my Quiet Please! foam earplugs, this is it.
9:45 p.m. – Still waiting.
9:55 p.m. – Still waiting.
9:57 p.m. – At long last, Metallica walks out to and tears into "Creeping Death." The crowd goes ballistic.
10:15 p.m. – "Surprise!" frontman Hetfield tells the audience. "Everyone's surprised, right? The best-kept secret in rock 'n' roll." He then introduces the group as "a young struggling band from Norway." ("Harvester Of Sorrow" follows.)
10:23 p.m. – No disrespect to Cliff or Jason, but new(ish) bassist Rob Trujillo is a fucking badass. All of the guys look like they're having a good time—though the speaker's blocking my view of Lars, yay?—but Trujillo seems to be having the most fun, like he still can't believe he's in Metallica.
10:25 p.m. – Someone in the crowd keeps holding up an LP sleeve for Metallica's widely reviled 1997 album, Reload. I can't figure out why.
11 p.m. – Metallica closes out the set of wall-to-wall hits—only two new songs by my count—with "Blackened." If they don't do an encore, there may be rioting.
11:08 p.m. – The band returns. "Have you seen some good bands here?" Hetfield asks. "I hope we're one of 'em." After "Whiplash," Hetfield gives the audience a choice: old stuff or new stuff. Guess which one everyone shouted? Even Trujillo said "Old stuff!" Still the fanboy, that Trujillo. "Seek And Destroy" follows, and the crowd really loses it.
Watching Metallica makes me think of this whole hullabaloo around the disappointing first-week sales of U2's No Line On The Horizon. It sold "only" 484,000 copies its first week—not enough for No. 1 on the Billboard chart—and gave writers plenty of ammunition for the "battle between the world's biggest bands" story with Colplay, who sold 721,000 copies of the sleep-inducing Viva La Vida its first week. But everyone seems to forget Metallica in this equation: The band sold 490,000 copies of Death Magnetic in three days and set a record for five consecutive No. 1 debuts on the Billboard charts, surpassing yes, U2 and even The Beatles. Roughly a week later, Death Magnetic had sold roughly 827,000 copies. Maybe it's time to rethink who the biggest band in the world is.
11:25 p.m. – And when you're the biggest band in the world, you can have handlers waiting to put a robe on you as you walk offstage. Hetfield's has flames on it, presumably to look less wussy. It's still a robe, dude!
12 a.m. – I do an interview with the great Nick Digilio of WGN Radio in Chicago about SXSW. You can hear it here. I love the show, and Nick's a big music fan, so it's always a great time talking to him.
1:15 a.m. – My feet are about to fall off, but I head to the Polyvinyl showcase to check out shoegazer outfit Asobi Seksu, whose singer-keyboardist, Yuki Chikudate, is unbelievably tiny. I didn't realize she was on stage until I moved in a little closer—I couldn't see her over the heads of the people in front of me.
1:19 a.m. – The band tears into "New Years," the standout track from 2006's Citrus. The album as a whole didn't do a whole lot for me, but that song just slays. And the band really brings it live—again, impressive, because they're playing SXSW a lot. I have to get Asobi's new one,
1:45 a.m. – "She kinda sounds like Wing to me," says Marc. "She doesn't need to be singing all falsetto all the time." Maybe, but I kinda love it.
2 a.m. – Time to go home. Tomorrow will be the longest day yet.