Metallica has always been at home in front of 70,000 of their closest friends. In a span of two weeks, the metal legends performed in Pasadena at the Rose Bowl and headlining their hometown Outside Lands Festival (though, James Hetfield left the Bay Area for Colorado last year). With different stages, different audiences, the band took on the old adage that headline shows are the best shows. It makes sense. At the Rose Bowl — with apologies to Avenged Sevenfold – people were there to see Metallica. They delivered.
“We don’t care about the color of your skin, who you voted for or what god you bow down to,” Hetfield exclaimed to the raucous Rose Bowl crowd on that night. “We’re here to celebrate life with live music!” He wasn’t wrong.
The metal legends blitzed through many of their greatest hits, with a slew of new tunes from Hardwired…To Self-Destruct sprinkled in. The Rose Bowl faithful were in phenomenal form and the energy clearly fueled the band’s performance. It had been nearly eight years since the Bay Area thrashers invaded Southern California and the crispness that’s defined their professional show was apparent. All of the pomp and circumstance — including mega pyros/explosives — only reinforced the bone crunching riffs, monster drums and emboldened sound that endeared Metallica to millions over the years.
The band’s monster-sized stage — covering most of the south end zone and was fairly high — had a huge M on one side and A on the other. The pyros situated in the open seats on the sides of the stage were spectacle. Activated and executed perfectly during songs like “Fuel” and “One” it added to the power and fury of those song’s riffs and bombastic drum beats.
With Metallica’s overwhelming Southern California popularity came diversity. This was easily one of the most diverse shows I’ve ever seen at the Rose Bowl, with men and women from across ethnicities filling up the House that USC owns. The band’s message of sticking to music in order to allow folks to enjoy themselves. Add to that a tribute to hometown heroes Van Halen in the form of a brief “Runnin’ With the Devil” cover made for a night filled with local flavor.
Now, two weeks and a couple of shows later, Metallica sought to replicate that mighty performance up north in their hometown.
Unlike the Rose Bowl, Outside Lands was a mix of folks who — just like in 2012 at their last headlining spot there — stumbled upon them, and their devoted fan base. Marking the 26th anniversary since the release of their seminal Black Album, Metallica mostly stuck to the script and weren’t as magnetic.
Festivals can be treacherous treading, even for bands like Metallica. Unlike the Rose Bowl where everyone was there for them, folks came and went even as the energy from the band remained the same. The band came on-stage between 5-and-10 minutes early, a bonus considering the major mishaps that plagued the festival’s tenth edition (including a number of schedule shifts and cancellations). The result, however, wasn’t as emphatic as two weeks earlier.
Sound issues plagued the first chunk of songs. Lars Ulrich’s drums came in hard and fast during “Hardwired” but the sound wasn’t ready for the blast. Following a hollow version of “The Unforgiven,” Hetfield asked if anyone could hear him, though one could only infer if he was trying to hype the crowd up. Needless to say, this didn’t happen at the Rose Bowl.
Even as that got sorted, the crowd wasn’t as fervent as it was five years ago. That can partially be attributed to the shift in music tastes, but this is still Metallica. Pockets of grass were open to roam freely through, making it easy to get near the soundboard in less than five minutes, which is fairly unheard for a Saturday night at a major festival. It’s not even that the fans weren’t into the set (plenty of fans were sporting Metallica gear) nor that the show was boring — it wasn’t. For one to fully get the Metallica experience, it has to be at a headlining show. The band was in much better spirits in Pasadena, and the crisp playing saw them in top, top form. Hetfield and weren’t worse in San Francisco, just different. Maybe a set tailored to a festival crowd would have been a better play, like it was in 2012 or like The Who did Sunday night. Yeah, they have a new album to promote and it makes sense to push that and to coordinate with their complex stage show. I’m just saying people wouldn’t have split in droves had they performed some familiar stuff to open instead waiting till song three to play “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”
Their split history with Northern and Southern California led to an awkward moment for those of us who saw both shows. Before “Seek and Destroy,” Hetfield said they were recreating their Norwalk garage and El Cerrito garage respectively. Guys, c’mon! Pick one and don’t pander.
The biggest thing that plagued the band was not being to use their full setup. Sure, that would have meant them possibly burning down the park — I think we can all agree that would suck — yet diminished the experience for anyone who saw a headlining show. A somewhat toned down Metallica is still a better live band than 95 percent of wanna-bes. Yet, if you saw them perform elsewhere, the result was a bit of a disappointment beyond the band’s control.