Depending on one’s frame of reference, Metallica might be considered the godfathers of metal, an alternative rock band masquerading as authentic thrashers, or, in the case of one die-hard metal purist I know, simply “those short-haired posers.”
Rarely has a band or artist so prototypical of its genre ignited debate like these San Francisco superstars, who brought metal to the mainstream and produced one of the best-selling albums of all time in their self-titled Black Album. So when it was announced that the band would play the 7,000-seat venue at Hollywood’s Hard Rock Live during its limited 2021 tour, it came as something of a shock.
Just one of a recent string of unbelievable bookings at the venue, which include three sets from pre-controversy Dave Chappelle in late summer and an upcoming Rolling Stones concert, the show found singer/guitarist James Hetfield, drummer Lars Ulrich, lead guitarist Kirk Hammett, and bassist Robert Trujillo on a much smaller stage than the arenas and stadiums the quartet has become accustomed to headlining over the decades.
Unlike the band’s recent string of double-duty festival bookings, in which it headlines on two separate nights and performs its smash-hit self titled LP in full, Thursday night’s setlist at Hard Rock Live was everything a fan of the seminal thrashers could hope for. The complete Metallica experience, it comprised a parade of hits and fan-favorite deep cuts alike, even finding room for the intriguing inclusion of the non-album track “No Leaf Clover.”
Opening with the fan-favorite “Whiplash” and front-loading the set with early material was an inspired choice in a generally fantastic setlist, which featured most–if not all–of the band’s biggest hits alongside a smattering of beloved early material like the aforementioned opener and “Seek and Destroy,” both from its 1983 debut LP Kill ‘Em All.
The immense stage production that accompanied the show, clearly designed for festivals and stadiums, included frequently captivating graphics on large screens behind the band, a few so-called “movie breaks,” and the obligatory pyrotechnics that are expected for a band of this stature.
If the production made one thing clear, it’s that the Metallica of 2021 is a band fixated on the past. Immediately before the group took the stage at the beginning of the show, Ennio Morricone’s instantly recognizable “Ecstasy of Gold” blared from the speakers as a scene from “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” played on the venue’s two large screens. Clips from the classic western film would grace the screens again following “Through the Never,” and during “One,” the visuals consisted of vintage photographs of soldiers and scenes of war from the early 20th century. Particularly apropos was a ticket stub from a 1989 Metallica show at the Miami Knight Center that appeared behind the band during “Seek and Destroy” alongside vintage performance video of its early lineup.
Unfortunately, a solid setlist and arresting production couldn’t camouflage the concert’s flaws. Ostensibly organized as a promotion for the band’s private-label spirit Blackened American Whiskey, at times the gig felt more like an advertisement than an intimate show for adoring fans. As the group’s studio output has waned in recent years and produced diminishing returns, it’s hard to ignore the perception that Metallica has become simply a money-making machine rather than a primarily artistic endeavour for its members. When the group eventually opened the three-song encore with the track the whiskey is named for, 1988’s “Blackened,” it felt like hollow product placement.
While Kirk Hammett’s show-stopping guitar solos were fiery as ever and Robert Trujillo’s animated presence was a welcome addition to the stage, perpetually maligned drummer Lars Ulrich was, unsurprisingly, the band’s weakest musical link. He spent much of the show so far ahead of the beat that he was almost off time, with tempos that fluctuated wildly and a number of musical faux pas throughout the set, not the least of which were a pair of glaring mistakes in show closer “Enter Sandman.”
But perhaps the most disheartening aspect of the show was the seemingly apathetic nature of much of the crowd. Sure, there were the obligatory fist-pumping moments and ample sing-along moments during cuts both deep and shallow. But the lone lighter held in the air in the GA floor section during the penultimate “Nothing Else Matters” served as an apt metaphor for the disengagement of the affluent masses. When the barrier to entry is, at minimum, $150 plus fees for the “cheap” seats, what else can one expect in South Florida?
Thankfully, frontman James Hetfield’s inescapable cool, strong vocal performance, and enjoyable banter with the audience elevated a show that was otherwise marred by Ulrich’s technical mistakes and a crowd that generally seemed to be phone-first and passion-second.
At one point, mid-show, Hetfield asked who in the audience was seeing Metallica for the first time. A not-insignificant minority, myself included, raised their hands and cheered. He responded with a gracious “welcome to the family” before asking how many “veterans” in the crowd had seen the band before. After receiving a much larger response from a clear majority, he thanked the audience and added “we must be doing something right if you keep coming back.”
Despite all its flaws, and perhaps in spite of its strongest moments, after two hours with the band I was left with the feeling that this is as good as a Metallica show gets in the band’s fifth decade. Why did 7,000 people pay lots of money to gather in Hollywood, FL on Thursday night? Was it to watch a band that seems only tangentially interested in its own music? Was it to be sold whiskey? I’m still not sure. Maybe it’s because they just keep coming back.
- Ride the Lightning
- Harvester of Sorrow
- Seek & Destroy
- Through the Never
- Sad but True
- Moth Into Flame
- No Leaf Clover
- For Whom the Bell Tolls
- Welcome Home (Sanitarium)
- Master of Puppets
- Nothing Else Matters
- Enter Sandman