No-Cal scenesters, local yokels, friends and even fans of Jason Newsted’s old band showed up in force to witness the launching of Echobrain’s first tour at an all-ages show at the Mystic Theatre. Echobrain, with drummer Brian Sagrafena and singer/guitarist Dylan Donkin, is Newsted’s first steady gig since leaving Metallica in January 2001. The bassist seemed overjoyed at the intimacy of the show, which took place in a small theater in a town known more for its chicken industry than its cosmopolitan culture.
“It’s the first day of spring today, and it’s a fresh start for all of us right here,” Newsted told the crowd.
Echobrain came out strong with “Colder World,” an infectious tune with pop sensibilities and hard rock instrumentation. Newsted banged his shaggy head as Donkin, with dark crew cut and thick eyebrows, belted out the Beatlesesque vocals with a powerful set of pipes.
“The spotlight is on/ The spotlight is on/ Uh huh huh,” Donkin growled on the grooving riff-rocker “HWY 44,” while Sagrafena slapped the snare and tour guitarist Chris Scianni’s moaning slide tone recalled ’70s-era Joe Walsh. Newsted and Donkin thumped the descending chord progression as Scianni played through a talk box – an effect that allowed him to shape his guitar sound by talking into a plastic tube stuck in his mouth – making his slide playing sound like a raunchy harmonica. They let out the road-trip tune’s jam a bit, but still maintained its structure.
“This feels wicked good, man,” a sweaty Newsted assured the home field crowd. “It’s been a long time.”
Frontman duties were split between Donkin, who, as guitarist, singer and songwriter, was the central performer, and Newsted, who did all the talking. Scianni, in a knit Mets cap, and longhaired keyboardist/percussionist David Borla, both of New York duo Dangerman, helped fill out the band’s lush, occasionally psychedelic and deep-grooved heavy-pop sound with cutting guitar and oceanic washes of electronic organ harmonics and white noise.
Newsted prowled the stage throughout the show, locking horns with each player, his body moving – even during quieter parts – as if he were still thrashing it out on the arena stage. He enjoyed the hell out of all the music, but he still seemed most at home when the band was hard crunching. Indeed, Echobrain sound like a young, hungry band, with fresh-sounding tunes whose often crisp arrangements just happen to be informed by a guy who knows how to get it across in a football stadium.
The seeds of the band were sown at a Super Bowl party in 1995, where Newsted and Sagafrena met. They began to jam together, eventually inviting Donkin to join them and record their self-titled debut at Newsted’s home studio. The bassist’s departure from Metallica, with whom he had played since 1986 (one sticking point being Metallica’s policy barring members from side projects), paved the way for Echobrain to get serious.
Newsted said the band has its next album already written, and while the songs off the band’s self-titled debut were mostly short and vocal-dominated, the newer material the band previewed was more drawn out, allowing room for improvisation.
One new tune, “Jelly Neck,” opened up the mix so that Borla’s organ and piano tones could be heard clearly behind Donkin’s angry vocals. Another new one, “Dogfight,” borrowed the Yardbirds’ “I’m a Man” fast blues groove, popping it up a bit as Donkin played slide Telecaster, soloing with processed big rock tone, and Borla washed staticky white noise across the ending.
On tunes such as “Cryin’ Shame,” from Echobrain, Newsted messed around with a theremin. Moving the neck of his bass back and forth to manipulate the electromagnetic field created between the theremin’s antenna and a metal loop, he created eerie screams and birdsong wails, even while simultaneously rolling out a steady-grumbling bassline. The keyboards sounded like ripples in electric water as Donkin moaned intensely into the mic.
The night began with a set from kid-rock group the Moss Brothers, a favorite band and previous pet project of Newsted’s. The Moss Brothers, 13-year-old singer/guitarist Reuben Moss and 16-year-old drummer Evan Moss (bassist Kyle Wilson filled out the bottom end), delighted the crowd with a set of surprisingly capable and original rock. Diminutive frontman Reuben, in round spectacles and an Ernie-and-Bert style striped T-shirt, announced the tunes, with members of the audience sometimes hollering back requests to repeat the titles.
” ‘Whiner,’ ” the guitarist explained, somewhat frustrated, introducing a new one. “As in whining? You’ll figure it out.”
Wilson and Reuben locked in on melody runs with prog-rock synchrony on the tune while Evan rode the snare and hi-hat to upbeat punk effect.
“You never drink/ You never think/ All you ever do is whine,” Reuben sang, his youthful vocal tone juxtaposed against the band’s mature playing.
During their own set, Echobrain busted out the Moss Brothers’ “Promise to Promise,” a playful, crunch-a-munching tune that began with the braaap braaap of a distorted Newsted bass run. The drums and bass alone backed Donkin as he bemoaned being grounded by his parents. In the spirit of Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick,” Sagrafena took a few ferocious fills before the band laid back and gave him a drum solo (with help from Borla on percussion).
“I told you guys,” Newsted joked with his new bandmates. “The best song of our whole set was written by a 12-year-old.”