James Hetfield of Metallica. Photo: Russel Gardin
On Sunday metal pioneers Metallica ventured back to Houston where, like in every other city, an enormous crowd welcomed them with open arms. The diversity of the crowd — old white guys mixed with young(er) white guys — was so apparent that vocalist James Hetfield turned the show into a questionnaire and came to the conclusion that approximately half of the crowd were old-school fans, the other half having discovered the band more recently. Unaware that the set was going to exceed two hours prior to arriving at NRG Stadium, I, perhaps one who prided myself on being more of a Megadeth fan, figured I might find myself rather bored about midway through. However, that was not necessarily the case, being that the production of the show was almost as much of a spectacle as the band itself. The two-and-a-half openers — giving more credit to Mix Master Mike, more credit than others might — Volbeat and Avenged Sevenfold were, I hear, alright. Not sure of where to enter to redeem my photo pass, I ended up missing both of these sets. But, luckily, I felt rejoiced to enter the photo pit while Mike spun the deep cuts like Trapt’s “Headstrong” and some track about an army that involves seven nations.
The size of the stage honestly seemed a bit overwhelming at first, but once I realized that VIP ticket holders had certain pit access, I realized that the band could likely sell those costly tickets out, so the size made sense. Also, the stadium is so massive that the stage needed to be larger than what most are used to seeing elsewhere. Not knowing what to expect when the band took stage, a photographer was kind enough to give me the scoop on where they would be swaying to after each track. So I took my place, ready to try to get some shots while fretting about where I would have to put my camera bag before I made my way back to my seat after the nerve wracking first three songs. Regardless, the general consensus as I turned my head back to the wall of cellphone light was that something cool was about to happen. And I must admit, that was pretty accurate.
Opening with “Hardwired,” the title track of the band’s last album, their 10th studio, the quartet looked just like I imagined they would, based off of the videos I used to say I didn’t watch. Hetfield proved he’s just as steady on vox and guitar as he’s been for as long as anyone could remember; guitarist Kirk Hammett shredded on his horror-themed guitars; bassist Robert Trujillo went just as crazy on stage as I thought he would; and drummer Lars Ulrich, well, was Lars Ulrich, which isn’t a bad thing. I’ve always considered him a fine drummer, but the internet decided to alter that story a while back and most just go along with it. The band made way for a number of tracks of their newest work, but being that they are Metallica, they were also expected to play the hits, which they seemed excited to do. Hence the third song, the acclaimed “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” It was at this point I had to leave the pit, missing the next few songs, including another classic, “The Unforgiven.”
Once they made their way into the track “Moth Into Flame,” i.e. the track they performed at the Grammy’s, a line of synchronized flames pranced around the stage. Fortunately, sound wasn’t an issue for this live version. Well, nothing other than the flawed sound that’s guaranteed with playing a venue made for 70-something thousand rowdy football fans. But this was combatted with the speed that the band played, so it was not as apparent. Later on, four large drums came out and the band turned into more of a drum pit with Ulrich also serving as the hype-man in the beanie while directing the crowd when to clap their hands. A few songs later the band took a few minutes to change their shirts while Trujillo took the stage to perform a phased-out solo while a montage of the late Cliff Burton appeared on the screen, with people almost saluting him like they would the flag. It was a thoughtful addition to their set, and I certainly give Trujillo props for being able to keep the playing for the majority of the set while other members took breaks.
After the band landed on “One,” it became clear that there were nearing the end of the show and had to pump out the songs that people spent an enormous fee to see, so the list then included tracks like “Master of Puppets,” “Seek & Destroy,” and “Battery.” The band went on to encore with “Nothing Else Matters” and “Enter Sandman.” Going into this show with expectations of being potentially underwhelmed, I realized that people are going to see this band every time they have the opportunity, and for good reason. For a group that has been around for roughly 36 years, they do not appear to be slowing down, and they seem to have fun playing these songs night after night. Or maybe they’re good actors. They did have that movie, you know. In short, Metallica played the way Metallica has always played. As a band that has played stadiums for longer than I have been alive, they have proven time after time that they are the forerunners of the metal community. I do not see that changing for as long as they are together, and perhaps it shouldn’t.