Metallica vocalist/guitarist James Hetfield welcomed the thousands of people packed into the M&T Bank Stadium with a fist-bump of a greeting.
"We're Metallica, and we don't give a shit," he said right after he and his bandmates exploded through their opening two songs, 'Hardwired' and 'Atlas, Rise!,' both from "Hardwired To Self-Destruct," the band's 2016 album.
"We don't give a shit what you've done. We don't give a shit where you're from, what religion you are, what color you are," and finished by saying that the simple fact that you've come to see them means you're there for music and life, and that makes you a part of Metallica's globe-sprawling extended family.
Cynics may crow that's a different version of the "thank you, Cleveland" cliché of rock megastar stage banter, designed to pat fans on the back for spending their money on this brand—I mean, band. And given the band's political reticence—Hetfield, drummer Lars Ulrich, and guitarist Kirk Hammett have all been asked about America's current political clown circus—it would be easy to assume Metallica is merely protecting their bottom line. Everybody headbangs.
But as a guy who's been to his share of church basements, Hetfield's welcome sounded more like AA meeting's blunt but sincere open arms: Shit is rough out there, and if you've found a way to come here tonight, chances are how you've dealt with life maybe hasn't always been helpful. Our job isn't to fix all that, but tonight, while we're together in this space, we can remind you that it ain't just you wrestling with everyday life's slings and arrows.
This survivor's buzz ran through the entire 18-song, just over two-hour performance that kicked off the band's North American tour—which is, I think, Metallica's first stadium tour through the U.S. since 2000's Summer Sanitarium route last brought it to what was then PSINet Stadium. The band played songs from nearly every one of its ten albums, from its 1983 debut "Kill ’Em All" through last year's "Hardwired To Self-Destruct," and even with an 18-songs set list you know there could've been any number of other tracks dropped in there that would've delivered the same oomph. Metallica sells albums but has never really had any song perform well on Billboard's Singles chart—occasionally dominating Billboard's Mainstream Rock charts hardly counts, as that's basically asking America's many 98Rock-ish stations what they play All. The. Time.—and yet, 36 years into a career that has taken the band around the world multiple times and even to Russia back when Vladimir Putin was just a crooked bureaucrat in the St. Petersburg mayor's office. Fans can name that Metallica song by the opening few notes of a riff. And over the course of this solid evening, two things become blindingly clear.
The first is that the band, quite frankly, sounds great right now. I've only seen a single handful of Metallica concerts over the years so die-hards may quibble, but the quartet is tight and lithe, retaining the blistering speed to power early thrash cuts ('Hit the Lights') while also remaining responsive and pocketed on its more groove oriented heaviness ('Wherever I May Roam' and 'The Unforgiven'). And the new songs sound fantastic, from the breakneck opening salvo of 'Hardwired' to the serrated 'Moth Into Flame.' It even sounded like the group added a little extra space into 'Halo on Fire,' slightly slowing up the mid-tempo parts of the verses to give the chorus a heartier wallop. Listening brought to mind Hammet's praise for then-auditioning bassist Robert Trujillo in the 2004 documentary "Some Kind of Monster": the group wasn't looking to hire a bass player, they were searching for a band member. Trujillo brings a low-end heft to Metallica's wide-ranging sound, and he just gels with the band. Also: Age has shaded Hetfield's voice with a deeper grit, so he's not operating in the same register as he did on some of the early material. But that lower-end edge compliments songs such as 'For Whom the Bell Tolls' and especially 'One,' which land with a heavier blow when they're coming from a voice seasoned by time.
The second thing is that the four fifty-something dudes in Metallica look like they're having a blast, especially Hetfield. At one point he asked the crowd who had seen the band before and received a good roar. He then asked who was seeing the band for the first time and received an even bigger response. He smiled and added that if that means the band needs to play for another 36 years for its fans, then so be it. Later, all four came down into the part of the stage that extended into the standing-room-only floor area, where a drum kit rose up from the floor. Hetfield joked this area was about the size of Ulrich's garage when they first rehearsed after forming, adding that if anybody in the audience had been following the band since then they were probably about as old as they are.
They then launched into "Kill ’Em All's" 'Seek & Destroy,' a staple of the band's concerts over its entire career: "Say goodbye to the word you live in/ you have always been taking but now you're giving." Hetfield's been singing these lines in the second verse of 'Seek & Destroy' for decades now, and I wonder if the early twentysomething, aspiring musician who wrote it ever realized how much visible joy it would bring to his future fifty-something self. For a band to be doing anything for 36 years is pretty impressive. To be doing it and enjoying it—after "doing it" cost a friend and bandmate his life, has maybe run through a marriage or two, and maybe addictions and rehab—after 36 years, that's the makings of a singular career. Or, to think about it another way, of all the artists who released debut albums in 1983 that went on to leave some mark on popular or underground culture—REM, Cyndi Lauper, Whodini, Swans, Sonic Youth, Minor Threat—only one immediately springs to mind who could still draw stadium crowds: Madonna.
Opening up for that kind of star power can't be easy. I didn't make it to the stadium in time to see Volbeat, but I did catch Avenged Sevenfold, who delivered a commendable set despite having to hit an outdoor stage when the sun's still out. You got the impression vocalist M. Shadows understood his band might be killing time for some audience members, but he got people on their feet, raising their fists, and clapping along with a few standouts, such as 'God Damn,' 'Hail to the King,' 'Nightmare,' and closer 'Unholy Confessions,' before promising their fans out there that they'll be back on their own tour in early 2018.
That said, from the moments the giant video screens behind the stage lit up with the Sad Hill cemetery scene from "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," accompanied by a bit of Ennio Morricone's 'The Ecstasy of Gold' soundtrack, this night belonged to one band only. People were on their feet, and some well on their way to losing their voices singing along for the next two hours, from the get go. Sure, the stadium-show setting meant a few stadium-show showpieces—giant video screens, laser lights and projections creating a fake firefight as intro to 'One,' the pyrotechnics whose heat rim-light your skin even a few hundred feet away, the concert-closing fireworks—but mostly it four guys on a giant stage playing the living shit out of their music. Metallica closed their three-song encore with the monstrous 'Enter Sandman,' and then proceeded to hang around onstage tossing guitar picks and drumsticks into the crowd, giving fans high fives, and, it appeared, making faces for people taking smartphone pics and selfies.
They did this for a little over five minutes, a way to give a little bit of love to the people who pay stadium ticket prices and get to the show early enough to elbow out space in the front rows. Again, if you're so inclined you can view this souvenir toss as a business move—just FYI: you can see concert photos and preorder a live 2-CD recording of the Baltimore stop here—but it's also a way to give a giant space a hint of intimacy.
Thinking back to Hetfield's boisterous welcome at the show's start, these fan appreciation moments capped a loud night with quiet, ordinary coda. And maybe, just maybe, for the mere two hours and change of this concert on this night, nothing else matters.