INDIO, California — One week after indie hipsters and pop enthusiasts stood on the same desert ground for the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, an estimated 55,000 metal fans watched "The Big 4" of thrash share a U.S. stage together for the first time.
"This is history tonight and you're part of it," Metallica frontman James Hetfield told the crowd Saturday at the Empire Polo Fields in Indio, California. "Anthrax, Megadeth, Slayer and Metallica as one — with you!"
As members of all four bands gathered together toward the end of Metallica's set to perform the Diamond Head classic "Am I Evil?," fans roared. The group of friends, sometime rivals and ex-bandmates embraced one another affectionately and shared wide smiles. They've sold millions, popularized the thrash style and have long been hailed as "The Big 4" by the press and fans. They've shared members: Megadeth main man Dave Mustaine was part of Metallica's early lineup; Slayer's Kerry King was once in Megadeth. All of the bands except New York's Anthrax originated in Southern California.
The Big 4 played festivals together last year across Europe and the subsequent "Big 4 Live in Sofia, Bulgaria" DVD was certified double platinum. They've joined up in various combinations in the past in the U.S., but Saturday marked the first time that all four played the same show in America.
"We just wanna take the time to say 'thank you' to all of you metal fans out there who have supported all the bands — not only the Big 4, but the big however many out there," said Hetfield. "There's a lot of great bands out there and we'd like to celebrate all of them. And especially the Big 4, getting out here and jamming, just saying 'thank you' to the world of metal fans for just giving us your support, giving us your heart and giving us your passion, man, 'cause that's what it is for us."
Hetfield, Mustaine and Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian all referred to the event as "history" during the seven-hour concert. The backstage area was packed with members of bands like Alice in Chains, Sum 41, Dream Theater, New Found Glory, Throwdown and Fireball Ministry along with former MTV "Headbanger's Ball" host Riki Rachtman, MMA fighter Josh Barnett, comedian Brian Posehn and all three hosts of VH1 Classic's "That Metal Show" — Eddie Trunk, Don Jamieson and Jim Florentine.
Anthrax kicked off the show in the late afternoon with a set that drew heavily from their classic 1987 album, Among the Living. Singer Joey Belladonna busted out his signature headdress for a rousing "Indians" during which Ian demanded the crowd mosh more enthusiastically for the "war dance" breakdown. Their set included a few songs from their first two albums as well as two covers that have long been staples for them, Joe Jackson's "Got the Time" and Trust's "Anti-Social."
Belladonna, Ian, drummer Charlie Benante, bassist Frankie Bello and lead guitarist Rob Caggiano wore black T-shirts featuring Anthrax's pentagram "A" symbol intertwined with an American flag, presumably in tribute to the Big 4's first American appearance together. (Once upon a time, the guys in Anthrax famously took pity on a starving Metallica in New York City and gave them food and drink.)
Anthrax didn't touch anything from when John Bush sang for the band, but they did offer a preview of their forthcoming album (their first with Belladonna since 1990) with "Fight 'Em 'Til You Can't," a new song they've been playing live since late last year. Belladonna paused to remember "people that we miss" — the late Ronnie James Dio and Pantera guitarist "Dimebag" Darrell Abbott — and led the crowd in a huge sing-along to their comic book-inspired set-closer, "I Am the Law."
Ironically, an airplane flew overhead advertising the upcoming Mötley Crüe and Poison tour — two bands the thrash movement was very much reacting against when it arose in clubs in the early '80s with an emphasis on aggression, speed and musicianship over image, commercial appeal and flashiness. Fans at the Big 4 show wore T-shirts representing all four bands as well as groups like D.R.I., Nuclear Assault and Coroner.
Megadeth opened with one of the biggest radio hits of their career, "Trust," which is still harder in sound than most anything the "hair metal" scene ever offered. Brandishing a double-neck guitar, Mustaine led the band into "In My Darkest Hour" (the music of which was inspired by the 1986 death of Metallica bassist Cliff Burton), which was followed by a huge chant of "Megadeth! Megadeth! Megadeth!" Bassist and co-founder David Ellefson was right by Mustaine's side throughout, backed skillfully by drummer Shawn Drover and lead guitarist Chris Broderick.
Although Mustaine is famously quotable in interviews, Megadeth let their technically complex but often brazenly melodic take on thrash do most of the talking as the band's leader traded solos with Broderick and the crowd sang along with songs like "Hanger 18" and "Wake Up Dead." The vicious and old-school-sounding "Headcrusher" from the band's most recent album sat alongside catalog hits like "Sweating Bullets," "Symphony of Destruction" and "A Tout le Monde."
The opening bass line to "Peace Sells" was used as the intro for MTV News reports for years but it's the song's chorus that really lit a fire with the crowd as band mascot Vic Rattlehead lumbered about the stage and the audience shouted the lyrics. Following "Holy Wars," Mustaine left the stage with his signature closing line: "You guys have been great... And we have been Megadeth."
Slayer stormed the stage with the title track from their newest slab of aggressive bleakness, World Painted Blood. Although health problems now prevent frontman Tom Araya from literally headbanging, the physicality on display from guitarist Kerry King and drummer Dave Lombardo was undeniable. The hot desert sun gave way to darkness while the band played; fitting, considering most Slayer lyrics.
Araya screamed "War!" as they launched into 1990's "War Ensemble" followed immediately by "Postmortem" and "Raining Blood" from their 1986 thrash masterpiece, Reign in Blood. Slayer dug into their 1983 debut album, Show No Mercy, for the song "Black Magic," and overall, the set spanned their entire career, including "Silent Scream," "Seasons in the Abyss," "Dead Skin Mask" and more.
Exodus guitarist Gary Holt has been touring with the band as a fill-in for Jeff Hanneman, who is recovering from surgery on one of his arms. Holt is a thrash legend in his own right but the crowd roared when Hanneman made a surprise appearance for Slayer's last two songs, "South of Heaven" and "Angel of Death," which featured an extended double-bass drum break from Lombardo.
Speaking of legends, all four bands have many successes to celebrate, but Metallica clearly have earned their headlining slot. Their 1991 self-titled "Black Album" has sold over 15 million copies in the U.S. alone, and their appearance at the Big 4 event boasted fireworks, fire, a two-story stage and an extra video screen that were all absent during the previous three acts' performances.
Composer Ennio Morricone's "The Ecstasy of Gold" from "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" announced Metallica's arrival to the stage as it has consistently for several years. Four of the first five songs of the two-hour set were from 1984's Ride the Lightning: "Creeping Death," "For Whom the Bell Tolls," "Fade to Black" and the title track, which was co-written by Dave Mustaine.
There were several solos from lead guitarist Kirk Hammett, whom Hetfield has taken to calling "The Ripper," between songs. Bassist Robert Trujillo had several chances to shine, as well, particularly during the rarely played "Orion," which Hetfield dedicated to late bassist Cliff Burton. With the exception of a couple of songs from the well-received Death Magnetic album, "Fuel" was the only post-"Black Album" song aired, with a heavy emphasis on Lightning and 1986's Master of Puppets. There was, of course, "One" from ... And Justice for All as well as the opening track, "Blackened."
The crowd roared their approval of the group's catalog (even singing along with guitar solos) throughout the Metallica set, and their energy never waned. The set included many fireworks, both figuratively and literally. One of Hammett's aforementioned solos transitioned nicely into the ballad "Nothing Else Matters." As Hetfield held out the note from the solo it led right into "Enter Sandman." It was a series of transitions that longtime Metallica fans welcomed with warm familiarity.
As the road crew spent some time getting things ready for the Big 4 jam, Hetfield addressed the crowd with a heartfelt speech about the bands' three decades in heavy music.
"Can you believe it? Thirty years, man," he said. "I don't know how many of you have been around that long, you know?! It doesn't matter; you're here right now to see the Big 4, and we're getting this prepared for a big jam, all right? It's pretty important."
After "Am I Evil?" Metallica jumped back to their 1983 debut, Kill 'Em All, for "Hit the Lights" and "Seek and Destroy," which has been their set closer for the past few years. Giant beach balls emblazoned with the Metallica logo dropped onto the crowd and were kicked back and forth.
As Metallica took their bows and said their goodbyes, drummer and band co-founder Lars Ulrich teasingly dubbed the event the "first" of Big 4 shows in America.