NEW YORK — Just when some old-school Metallica fans were ready to write the band off for crafting St. Anger — which prominently features a snare drum that sounds like a screwdriver hitting a trashcan — and for playing snippets of Michael Jackson's "Beat It" and Lenny Kravitz's "Are you Gonna Go My Way" at the VMAs, the band has redeemed itself.
OK, they were doing fine before the VMAs. Few who attended Metallica's Summer Sanitarium concerts walked away disappointed. The tour featured the band in peak form, bashing out its oldest and heaviest songs. However, a show on Friday for fan club members and radio contest winners at the 500-capacity Bowery Ballroom was even more explosive. In a stadium, tunes like "Seek and Destroy" and "Ride the Lightning" are monumental, but in a small club they take on even greater significance, offering a two-hour glimpse of what Metallica were like in their infancy, when they had to rely on constant touring and word of mouth to spread the madness.
"Frantic" was the only song Metallica played from St. Anger, and "Sad But True" was all they performed from 1991's multiplatinum self-titled "Black Album" because, it seems, nothing else matters. The band ignored everything from '90s albums Load and Reload, acting as if they didn't exist. Instead of relying on hits like "Enter Sandman" and "The Unforgiven," Metallica focused on the more complex and brutal material.
They opened with "The Four Horsemen" from 1983's Kill 'Em All, and though they were on a stage less than half the size they're used to, the intimate setting left them more room to rock out. Frontman James Hetfield switched off between three mics as guitarist Kirk Hammett shook his frizzy long tresses, and when he wasn't strumming muted power-chord riffs or roaring background vocals, he coaxed fleet, classically based solos from his squalling instrument.
Without the echoing acoustics of a cavernous venue to contend with, drummer Lars Ulrich was able to play thunderous double-bass drum rolls, crushing blast beats and indomitable fills in perfect time while grimacing and sticking his tongue out like Michael Jordan driving toward the hoop. And newest addition Robert Trujillo practiced deep knee bends in place while laying down parts that complemented Ulrich.
The packed club was sweltering, causing as much action at the bar as in the mosh pit. But that didn't slow down Metallica, who sweated to the hits along with the crowd. "We're gonna heat this place up even more," Hetfield shouted before treating the crowd to "Leper Messiah," a song the band hardly ever plays live.
"Are you ready for something really heavy?" asked Hetfield, repeating a question he had posed before "Sad But True." But this time Metallica surprised fans with the dark, sludgy "The Thing That Should Not Be," a Master of Puppets track that surfaces about as often as Sasquatch. However, the biggest thrill for most fans came when Metallica closed their regular set with the speedfest "Damage, Inc.," which was akin to finding a four-leaf clover in the desert.
It wasn't just the rarities that made the night memorable. The bandmembers clearly enjoyed themselves, regularly interacted with the crowd. During "Creeping Death," Hetfield pulled two dudes onstage to sing, "Die, die, die, die." The pair remained well past the chorus and shared the mic with the frontman for much of the rest of the song.
The usually grim-faced Hetfield was in fine spirits throughout the night, smiling more than a few times and even sharing a couple of jokes. Before "Harvester of Sorrow," he prompted a call-and-response session, and when his shouts of "Hey" were mirrored by the crowd, he said, "Stop copying me. Mom, they're doing it again." Also, he preceded "Seek and Destroy" by asking, "Who's got Kill 'Em All on 8-track?" And after a false start to "Master of Puppets," he said, "Let's all play different songs at the same time," which led to a short, ragged jam.
While epics like "Fade to Black" and "One" sounded great, the band seemed to prefer the more no-nonsense cuts from Kill 'Em All. In addition to the four tunes they played from the disc — which included their first-ever song, "Hit the Lights" — Metallica started "The Four Horsemen" a second time before plowing into "Creeping Death," and jammed briefly on "Jump in the Fire" after Hetfield said, "Shall we turn the heat up and put another log on the fire?"
Metallica's second encore ended with a storming cover of Budgie's "Breadfan" and a breakneck performance of "Motorbreath."
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