AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top” felt an appropriate choice of lights-down intro music for Metallica‘s concert at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey on Friday night (August 4) — the first show of the U.S. leg of the band’s M72 World Tour, and the first of two shows they’d play at the venue that weekend.
After all, it’s now been 40 years since their debut album Kill ‘Em All first made them metal sensations. Though they’ve spent most of those four decades as gigantic rock stars, not many years in between have been particularly easy for the band, as they’ve dealt at length with death, alcoholism, in-band turmoil, repeat fan backlash and extremely public humiliation. But here they were, unquestionably at the top — as drummer Lars Ulrich later pointed out, performing in the round at the 80,000-cap MetLife marked the biggest venue they’d ever played in the New York area, and they’d be back doing so again on Sunday night — and their gratitude at being there (and being anywhere at all, really) was infectious throughout the night.
The band was likely feeling extra thankful to have an audience so willing to go along with their fascinating gambit for this particular tour: a risky “No Repeat Weekend” strategy that sees them play two nights at the same venue with two completely different setlists — meaning that each individual show is invariably lacking a handful of the usual musts. Fans with the time, willingness and (most importantly) money to make it out to East Rutherford for both of this weekend’s shows could afford to be zen about such things, but those in town for one night only could understandably be anxious about some of the big misses from Friday’s show. After all, can you really call it a Metallica concert if there’s no “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” no “One,” and — in Yankees country, no less — no “Enter Sandman”?
The answer, of course is “yes,” as became fairly clear early in the set. Many bands throughout history, even great ones, are too defined by their hits to stray from them in an average concert; Metallica can start off with three deep cuts (“Creeping Death” from Ride the Lightning, “Harvester of Sorrow” from …And Justice for All and “Holier Than Thou” from Metallica) and not feel like they’re reaching. Besides, even with over two hours to work with, the band’s songs are epic enough that there was only room for 16 of them; Metallica couldn’t hit all the big ones with that setlist length even if they tried. So it was pretty easy to let go of the idea of a la carte song ordering, and let Metallica’s omakase setlist do its thing.
And both the song selection and the performance was pretty impeccable throughout. It felt a privilege to get near 10 minutes each of both the spellbinding Master of Puppets instrumental chugger “Orion” and the underrated 21st century “Simple Man”-turned-“Free Bird” power ballad “The Day That Never Comes,” with the band — minus the occasional Lars aberration — in total lockstep, guitarist Kirk Hammett’s leads in particular sounding as explosive and radiant as ever. Even most of the material from the new 72 Seasons, which can feel a little flat on record, came alive in this setting — sounding more credible than ever as forgotten b-sides or second-side cuts from the band’s classic period. (“If Darkness Was a Son,” though, will likely always be a tough hang.)
But just as important than the specific songs and performances was the band’s good vibes throughout. You wouldn’t necessarily expect to be able to describe a Metallica concert — particularly one that starts with “Creeping Death” — as “life-affirming,” but that’s how it felt watching these guys cheesing up a storm, raving about their own picks (“I like that song!”) dodging gigantic beach balls onstage (dropped on the crowd during “Seek and Destroy”), even throwing an entire red Solo cup’s worth of picks into the crowd after the show. “We are so grateful to be up there kicking ass and celebrating life with you,” frontman James Hetfield raved. Bassist Robert Trujillo, who’s now been with the band a full two decades (and is basically the same age as the other members), still bounds with a sort of new-guy energy to him; he’s a great argument for why all veteran rock bands should add a brand new member — preferably one who’s been a longtime fan — halfway through their lifespan, to keep things from ever getting too stale.
The show closed with “Master of Puppets” — a signature song which, after three and a half decades of fan worship, also become the band’s unlikely first Hot 100 top 40 hit in nearly 15 years last summer. The most indelible image of the evening — in our section at least — was a series of four pre-teens in matching Metallica shirts losing their minds (and eventually their shirts) to “Master”; all members-in-training of the Hellfire Club, no doubt. One of the adults supervising them was also wearing a shirt with a Napster logo — seemingly as neither an ironic nor confrontational gesture, but rather just as a winking acknowledgment of how much water under the bridge band and audience share after 40 years.
The most emotional moment of the night, however, came earlier, as Hetfield acknowledged thanked the crowd for “remembering my birthday” — the frontman having turned 60 just on Thursday. “My seventh decade on the planet… I can’t believe it,” he rhapsodized from on stage. “Younger me would be saying, ‘You made it. You effing made it.’” Then, before launching into “Fade to Black” — from the band’s second album, and still one of the most vivid, heartbreaking, and still strangely empowering songs ever written about suicidal ideation — he reflected, “I’m glad I didn’t listen to my head when I was young.” It’s a long way to the top, but Hetfield and Metallica made a very good case on Friday for why getting there is worth the trip.
“Harvester of Sorrow”
“Holier Than Thou”
“If Darkness Had a Son”
“Fade to Black”
“Nothing Else Matters”
“Sad But True”
“The Day That Never Comes”
“Seek and Desteroy”
“Master of Puppets”