The tagline for Metallica’s “Night Before” show at AT&T Park in San Francisco was “too heavy for halftime,” and they might have been right. James Hetfield and crew wasted no time in bringing the metal as they blistered through early staples “Creeping Death” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” before any sort of pleasantries.
“It’s really good to see you,” Hetfield finally said, before noting that he’d heard about the petitions to let the hometown boys play at the Super Bowl.
Metallica didn’t start in San Francisco. Thirty-five years ago, Hetfield and co-founder Lars Ulrich met through an ad in a Los Angeles magazine. Only after seeing a shredding, head-bobbing bassist named Cliff Burton during a show at the Whiskey a Go Go in West Hollywood did they head north. They wanted Burton to come aboard, and he agreed, under one condition. Metallica had to move to the Bay. Soon after, they were off, to a house in El Cerrito about 13 miles from where they took the stage in a packed stadium to “The Boys Are Back in Town.”
Hetfield quipped that the band is in the throes of producing a new album — “for 20 years now” — but Saturday night (Feb. 6) was more an ode to the entirety of Metallica history than a look forward. Post-Black Album hits “Fuel” and “The Memory Remains” followed the pair of classic behemoths, but after that, the crowd didn’t hear a single song released after 1991.
“You want old stuff?” Hetfield asked. “Here comes old stuff for you,” before launching into the title track from 1984’s Ride the Lightning.
The screeching riff that dominates the song’s introduction was just one instance where guitarist Kirk Hammett was allowed to take center stage during the evening. Hetfield typically rules Metallica’s live presentation, but all night, Hammett continued to steal the show. At 53 years young, Hammett was somehow crisper than he’s been in recent years, flawlessly knocking out every intricacy packed into a set that could have been written a quarter century ago. The crescendo — of both Hammett’s display and the show as a whole — came during the hammer drop of “Master of Puppets” followed by “Battery.”
The solo from the latter is perhaps Hammett’s best flurry from Metallica’s entire catalog, and he rode it into a short guitar ditty that featured him alone on stage. Part of the display included an extended dip into the introduction to “Hero of the Day,” a gentler entry on 1996’s Load, but in this case, it seemed like a subtle nod to one of the band’s recently fallen idols. Lemmy passed away late last year at 70, and the single for “Hero of the Day” included four Motörhead’s covers recorded during a rehearsal for his 50th birthday.
His party was held at the Whiskey in L.A., where Hetfield and Hammett first heard Burton nearly two decades earlier, and when Metallica returned to the stage after showing off the call and response power of “Seek and Destroy,” they used “Whiskey in the Jar” to honor their late friend and bassist.
“This song is dedicated to the memory of Cliff Burton, who’s still alive in our hearts,” Hetfield said before noting that Thin Lizzy was Burton’s favorite band.
By that point, there had been no “Enter Sandman,” which gave the show’s final few minutes a predictable conclusion. Inflatable black footballs were launched into the crowd as Hammett smashed through the song’s solo, followed by an actual fireworks display over the right field fence, into the same sky where Barry Bonds launched hundreds of home runs.
Metallica may be too heavy for halftime, but nearly four decades in, this is a version of the band that’s never been less coarse. Each member is into his 50s. The f-bombs that use to line Hetfield’s onstage banter are gone. Rather than go out with “Seek and Destroy,” the norm in recent years, they went back to the song that made them the biggest band in the world. In a way, Metallica’s renegade show was actually an audition for Super Bowl Sunday.
And if last night is any indication, the NFL should consider giving them a call.