SAN FRANCISCO Former Metallica bassist Jason Newsted made his first live appearance with his new band, EchoBrain, on Sunday, playing an hour-long set of heavy yet melodic rock to close out Nadine's Wild Weekend, a showcase of Bay Area bands.
Newsted left Metallica in January, partly due to a strict policy barring side projects (see "Bassist Jason Newsted Leaves Metallica"), and he had an air of rebirth about him at the posh Bimbo's 365 Club.
"Playing other types of music with other people always enabled me to play better for Metallica," Newsted said before the show. "It really kept me fresh to hit that loud stuff, my forte. I was always on my game, and I did my thing for that part of it, for that 15 years, and now I'm moving on to the next bit of it. And I am able to let myself go a little bit more because I don't have to be on call 25 hours a day for Metallica."
Newsted is busy with numerous projects (he's getting ready to produce Texas aggro-rockers Speedealer's upcoming record) but for now, EchoBrain is the main thing on the veteran bassist's mind.
After Newsted met teenage drummer Brian Sagrafena, now 23, at a Super Bowl party six years ago, the two jammed together regularly, eventually including singer/guitarist Dylan Donkin, now 24. The trio recorded an album, EchoBrain, at Newsted's home studio between the bassist's commitments with Metallica.
"It'd be whenever he had time," Donkin said. "He's kind of a busy guy."
"Yeah, he was so busy with his other band," Sagrafena joked.
With most of Newsted's former other band guitarist Kirk Hammett (who shows up on EchoBrain) and drummer Lars Ulrich in the audience, along with producer Bob Rock, EchoBrain took the stage as a trio for "Say the Word," a quick tune with a thumping, swing bassline and a punk-rock breakdown.
Guitarist Chris Scianni and keyboardist David Borla (the two comprise New York duo Dangerman) joined EchoBrain for the rest of the night, helping to re-create the full, layered sound of the band's debut disc.
On "Colder World," Newsted thundered joyously while the mohawked Donkin sang with Beatles-esque vocal inflection and Scianni screamed the tune's hook on slide. "Spoonfed," too, was hook-laden, with power-chord melodies and abrupt stops melting into darker, minor keys, beneath Donkin's ready-for-pop singing voice.
"I got a case against people who waste all their power/ As they're spoon-fed," Donkin crooned.
Newsted paced and prowled the stage throughout the set, checking in with each bandmember in turn, sweating profusely and banging his head in essence, the same guy who once patrolled arena stages with Metallica. But this time, Newsted did most of the talking, thanking the crowd regularly and asking his bandmates, "Feels good, huh?"
Donkin rang out dry, rootsy chords to lead the band into "The Feeling's Over." Newsted laid down a bassline subtly reminiscent of classic Allman Brothers Band, locking in with Sagrafena to sculpt an easygoing, rolling groove, while Borla washed across the background with an assortment of sounds from string sections to electric organ.
"How bout a little dancin'?" Newsted asked the crowd before the band cut into the big-riffing groove of "HWY 44," one of several tunes inspired by a Mexican road trip.
The crowd of San Francisco scenesters and followers of Sagrafena and Donkin (and their other band, the Discojefes) seemed to dig the new group's sound, which is a departure from the full-throttle metal crunch they're used to hearing from Newsted.
"If they're expecting Cookie Monster vocals, it's not gonna happen, man," Newsted said backstage. "I took that stuff to the mountain already. EchoBrain can go all the way from real mellow piano to full-on blasto punk and everything in between. That's one thing that's different, playing live for this thing. Metallica, you can just rock it and just go, go, go, because most of the stuff's in E flat minor like 97 percent of the songs. In EchoBrain, the songs are all different, so you actually have to play it and finesse it and stuff like that. Pretty cool. Cool challenge."
Newsted, Donkin and Sagrafena have eight songs written for a second EchoBrain album, but they're waiting for a record deal before they go into the studio. For now, the group hopes to play a few more gigs with Scianni and Borla in the next few weeks.