While the nods to their late friend may have been subdued, the rest of the show was anything but -- a wall of sky-high Jumbotron screens and equally large pyrotechnic flames provided the backdrop to the high-octane rock show, marking the first time the band has embarked on a U.S. stadium tour in 14 years.
Two long walkways jutted out into the general admission pit and connected to a smaller secondary stage, creating a pit within a pit. (That said, the packed pits weren't nearly as active as you'd expect at such a show -- perhaps just a sign that Metallica fans have aged gracefully alongside the band over the past 34 years, since debut album Kill 'Em All was released.)
While the overall performance was quite the spectacle, the stage itself was rather simple: stark white with just the bare necessities -- mics, amps, instruments and the four band members (Hetfield, Trujillo, guitarist Kirk Hammett and drummer Lars Ulrich). It was an impressive statement, considering most major rock bands rely on extraneous touring musicians to fill in the gaps and pick up the slack.
Well, not Metallica. Their tight, fast-and-furious musicianship was on full display with barely a glitch. At one point, however, Hetfield poked fun at a blunder at this year's Grammys that left him with a dead mic while duetting with Lady Gaga on "Moth Into Flame," a song performed at Gillette while a giant fireball rolled back and forth across the stage.
Sometimes the emptiness of the stage worked against them, though. The band members had to move around so much to fill space that it was occasionally hard to keep track of who was where. Hetfield moved his mic stand at least a half dozen times trying to keep the crowd engaged -- and it certainly worked, but sometimes the stage just seemed too big and barren. But if that's the worst complaint about the show, Metallica must feel pretty damn good about themselves right now.
Also making them feel good? Being able to fill stadiums in support of their most recent album, 2016's Hardwired... To Self-Destruct, which is a bona fide hit -- debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and so far producing three Mainstream Rock hits: the Grammy-nominated "Hardwired," "Atlas, Rise!" and "Moth Into Flame." It's no small feat when a band with 30-plus years under their belt releases new music that proves their relevancy rather than brands them with the dreaded "nostalgia act" moniker.
Band members put their gratefulness on full display throughout the night by thanking the fans. Even after the music stopped and the fireworks finale lit up the sky and the lights came up, the band refused to leave the stage, instead choosing to walk several victory laps while handing out picks and sticks, smiling and waving at fans, and even shaking hands. They stuck around so long, the crowd started filing out of the 66,000-seat venue en masse while the band continued to linger.
"You make us feel at home!" Hetfield yelled.
But it wasn't just the group that was filled with joy. Everyone who left had smiles on their faces and devil horns in the air from having just witnessed a full-throttle, 18-song set that literally put pedal to the metal every chance it got.
Aside from a few tracks off the new album (including show openers "Hardwired" and "Atlas, Rise!"), Metallica mainly walloped the crowd with their biggest hits and fan favorites from the '80s and '90s: from "Enter Sandman," "Nothing Else Matters," and "Sad But True" to "Master of Puppets," "Seek and Destroy" and "For Whom the Bell Tolls."
One of the most memorable moments of the night came with "One," the anti-war track that catapulted Metallica into the mainstream in 1989. The video, an MTV staple at the time, intertwined footage of the band performing with scenes from the 1971 film Johnny Got His Gun, in which a young soldier wakes up in a hospital to find he's a quadruple amputee who's unable to see or speak. At Gillette, Metallica momentarily transformed the stadium into a battlefield to set the stage for the song: setting off flash pots and other fiery explosives as laser beams shot into the audience with a nonstop rat-a-tat rattle of gunshots as a steady stream of soldiers marched across the Jumbotrons to their deaths.
Largely, though, Metallica steered clear of political chatter, except for right at the beginning of the show when Hetfield announced that anyone is welcome at a Metallica concert: "We don't give a shit about what you've done in your life, what you wear, what color your skin is, what you believe in -- religion, politics -- or even what you eat. It doesn't matter. All are welcome! You are Metallica family!"
And with family like this, well, let's just say everything will be all right.