Dec. 9 and 10, 2011
Better than: Turning 30 alone, we're assuming.
The birthday party for the biggest metal band in the world came to its finale this weekend with classic songs and surprise appearances from some of the hugest names in heavy music, including Ozzy Osbourne, Rob Halford, and Glenn Danzig. Like the previous shows on Monday and Wednesday, both Friday and Saturday night felt more like church for Metallica die-hards than any regular concert: Onstage there was plenty of chatter, (self-) congratulation, inside jokes, unusual performances, and shirtless, banana-eating, singer-playing-the-drums mischief. By 1 a.m. Sunday, with celebratory hugs and photos going off across the Fillmore stage, this Bay Area metal band had officially turned 30. Its members looked exhausted.
The partying seemed to have taken a toll by Friday: "Sloppy" is not a word we'd usually associate with Metallica's notoriously taut live presence, but this time it took the band three tries to successfully start instrumental opener "Suicide & Redemption," from 2008's Death Magnetic. There were numerous other lapses throughout -- not catastrophic errors, but missed beats and other messy passages that stood out after two nights in which Metallica played with near-robotic precision. Six songs in, after a version of "The Thing That Should Not Be" that was clumsy in a few parts, singer James Hetfield let out a long sigh. "Oh. My. God," he said, quietly. "I think I blew my voice out. I'm feeling kind of dizzy." The room, though, was forgiving. In some ways it was thrilling to see the four members interact like the imperfect assemblage we all know they are.
Each of this week's shows followed the same structure: An instrumental opener, a few songs by the four current members, a performance with a member of the fan club, then a parade of famous guests and former band members. Friday's notables included Danzig (the Misfits were a favorite of late Metallica bassist Cliff Burton), Judas Priest singer and metal icon Halford, Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell, and others.
Unsurprisingly, the guests' brief performances injected lightning into the proceedings: the somewhat diminutive Danzig came out looking like a black licorice jellybean, and proceeded to lash Metallica's fan club-only audience with fierce takes on Misfits tunes "Die, Die My Darling" and the sadistic anthem "Last Caress." (He proudly bellowed about having "raped your mother today" along with half of the crowd.) Later, Halford, looking dapper in sunglasses and a tie, yanked the band through "Rapid Fire" like a hell-bound locomotive. Dressed in leather, studs, and sunglasses, Anti-Nowhere League singer Animal delivered the lyrics to "So What" with just the kind of a scowling, cranky, indifferent presence the song needs. We just wish he'd had an effigy of Margaret Thatcher to disembowel.
But Metallica's extended performance of the Lynyrd Skynyrd lament "Tuesday's Gone," complete with a stageful of guests, dragged a bit more than the recorded version on Garage Inc. And while Cantrell is an excellent guitar player and a fine singer, he didn't contribute much verve to the hold-your-lighter-up power ballad "Nothing Else Matters." (It was cloyingly pretty anyway.)
Instead, the highlights of Friday's show were the performances of classic songs either by Metallica alone, or with its former bassist Jason Newsted: "Master of Puppets" and "... And Justice For All," delivered one after another, transcended the band's somewhat disjointed playing. Newsted helped turn "Fight Fire With Fire" into a slaying. And Friday's unreleased new song, "Hell and Back," was the best of all the Death Magnetic outtakes performed last week.
The band members were back to playing with their normal precision for Saturday's show. The set began with a soaring take on "Orion" -- Metallica's quintessential instrumental -- and later included an ecstatic Fillmore "Iron Man" and "Paranoid," with Metallica accompanied by none other than Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne and Geezer Butler.