I’d seen Metric twice before, as an opening act. Are opening bands supposed to upstage the headliner? Consciously or not, Metric stole those shows with their frenzied guitar riffs, funk-laden bass lines, and new-wavey synths. The most memorable aspect was frontwoman Emily Haines’s command of the stage, a combination of sexy swagger and militant fierceness.
This time around, they were headlining, and I wondered: would anything be different? Would they be more in control? They’d be playing to their audience as opposed to disinterested chatterboxes waiting for the main act.
So, this was a moment of truth. Who makes up Metric’s fan base? If you judge by this sold-out Chicago gig, the Montréal band’s parish is a mix of indie-rock twentysomethings in jeep caps, a handful of geezers, and a heap of teenage girls in thrift-store seventies castoffs. Like the band, the Metric fan is boisterous and passionate. Their screams and squeals lit the band’s fuse, igniting an explosive attack. I don’t remember the last show I saw that opened with such ferocity. Jimmy Shaw played his guitar like a buzz saw, cranking out sheets of screech and then shifting to big, hooky lines as anthemic as Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock N Roll”. Drummer Joules Scott Key and bassist Joshua Winstead were in lock step while Haines stood center stage in a white tank top, neck scarf, white shorts and ankle-high, sparkly boots dancing with a manic robotic energy and singing her heart out. Metric was nervy, agitated, and ready for a punky new wave dance party.
Cue “Wet Blanket” from Old World Underground Where Are You Now? with its synth pop electric beats, tight riffs, and do-do-do choruses. The teens start to pogo and step in time to Haines’s frenzied fever.
The one thing I wonder about Metric’s live show is whether their rather keen cynicism, Haines’s sarcastic tongue, and the band’s overall social and political rancor get lost behind the sheer joy and energy of their performance. Do the masses hear the ache and the existential emptiness of the protagonist of “Poster of a Girl”, who “hates to sleep alone / surprises always help so I take somebody home to find out how I feel”? Or do people simply groove along with the warm and bouncy keyboards, the bubbling bass beats, and the wonka-wonka fuzz of the guitar?
A more overtly barbed song like “Handshakes” clearly hit its target, skewering the consumer culture that catch-22s a deadened soul to “buy this car to drive to work / drive to work to pay for this car” amidst the spot-on riff and roll of electric guitars and Haines’s frenetic hammering of her keyboards. Herein lies Metric’s skill: they make rebellion, cynicism, and irony fun. Metric gets you dancing even as they get you thinking. “Hustle Rose”, for instance, is an insidious tune that takes a jab at the zombies and vampires haunting the dance clubs “who can’t feel a thing / their dreams are so tight”, all to the most groove-packed new-wave beat this side of New Order and a bass riff as funky as Bootsy Collins. The sea of bopping, kinetic bodies proved that maybe dancing at a rock show can be fun.
Yes, I said fun. Emily Haines’s dance steps were infectious and contagious. She prowled the stage combining moves that looked cribbed from Jack Lalane, Ian Curtis, and the Herbie Hancock “Rock It” video. I dare you not to move.
Encores are a strange tradition. Bands walk off stage knowing that moments or seconds later they will come back and play the two or three more songs they should, or would, have played in their set anyway. If you have ever seen Metric before you know what the real last song is: “Dead Disco”. “Dead Disco” hits like heavy artillery. The guitar is set to kill, and Shaw strangles and attacks his ax with manic glee. Winstead hammers and pops his bass like mad while drummer Key batters the beat into a thundering wall of rhythm. Meanwhile, Haines’s electronic fripperies and filigrees swirl into the maelstrom with a jittery jolt.
Haines rides this chaotic tsunami while screaming out the anthemic chorus “dead disco / dead funk / dead rock and roll.”. Her scream is a screed against the re-hashing of tired ideas. Haines begs and pleads for originality. “Make it new,” she seems to be demanding. The music cascades in waves: gurgling, crashing, and eddying with nervous energy. Five minutes, seven minutes, ten minutes of screech, skronk, fizz.
I have often fiendishly wished that Metric would one day open the show with “Dead Disco”‘s ten-minute fantabulous freak-out and then just walk off the stage. Now that would be some show, and some statement. Of course, it’d make more sense if they were an opener, and from the look of things, Metric won’t be opening again anytime soon.