"This is history tonight," gushed Metallica frontman James Hetfield to a sea of sun-worn black t-shirts in Indio, California, Saturday night. "You're all a part of it."
After 30 years, it was the first American show to feature all the members of "The Big 4" -- Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax -- the bands whose speed-drunk riffs and apocalyptic imagery vaulted "thrash metal" from cult obsession/Tipper Gore irritant to chart-topping, arena-clogging cultural force. The legendary beefs between bands had been squashed, the phrase "heavy metal Woodstock" had been bandied about, it truly felt like one for the history books. But the reality was more like what Slayer frontman Tom Araya told SPIN a few days earlier: "Even though it's billed as the Big 4, it's really more of a Metallica show."
You could sense it in the crowd of 50,000-or-so, who were whipping out a constellation of camera phones to take photos of The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly playing on the video monitors before Metallica took the stage. You could feel it in the rapturous, reverent smoosh that took over the Metallica audience after a day of lackluster moshing. Hell, be it the 85 degree heat, the older and doughier age range of the attendees, or the mellow California vibes, the circle pits were small, sporadic and downright friendly until maybe 130 minutes into the afternoon, when Megadeth hurled out "Peace Sells."
But mostly, you could feel it in Metallica, who weren't going to get shown up by their three most formidable peers. By the end of their second song, 1984's catch-and-release "For Whom The Bell Tolls," guitarist Kirk Hammett had taken an extended, shredtastic outro solo, bassist Robert Trujillo had done his trademark crabwalk, and drummer Lars Ulrich was playing chunks of the song standing up.
And then... fireworks!
Metallica had no time for the nostalgia the event implied, and they did all the things that the 1986 Metallica would never do: allowing a plane fly overhead advertising a Mötley Crüe show, using those goofy stands that hold up your acoustic guitar, calling a song "All Nightmare Long" and then playing it. They were a perfect maelstrom of unashamed arena-grade showmanship (fireworks blasted for all the big reveals in "Enter Sandman") and human, danger-soaked playing (they included more flubbed notes and crooked tempos than the other three bands). The crowd loved them for both. There's a reason why they're the only band of the evening with a 10-times platinum album.
That burden should have come with a dash of humility. Even if insincere and forced, it was certainly expected that their stage banter should have maybe included a few more loving tributes to the other three bands, beyond the "Aw look!" when Anthrax's Scott Ian hugged Mustaine before members of all the bands jammed mightily on Diamond Head's "Am I Evil?" And after that historic, retweetable moment, Metallica still had to get two more of their own songs in, making sure they ultimately get the last word here.
But Metallica show or not: No matter where Slayer goes, a Slayer show follows. Their version of "Raining Blood" was downright terrifying, boasting an Armageddon-ready tension before that main riff kicks in. Just before the moshpit turned into a gaping maw, someone literally said, "We're getting the hell out of here!"
Slayer brought not only moshpits, but burly dudes who bulldozed handy thru-way lanes to get to moshpits. Slayer had no patience for the feel-good vibe of the fest even though you could spy the ferris wheel in the JumboTron while drummer Dave Lombardo did the aggro-jazz splatter of "Seasons In The Abyss." When founding guitarist Jeff Hanneman magically appeared to help on the last two songs (he's been sidelined due to a flesh eating virus) they didn't even say so much as "hello."
Anthrax and Megadeth both played tidy hour-long sets that were high on both hits and melancholy. Dave Mustaine had the most nuanced vocal delivery of the day, the open expanses of "Sweating Bullets" and "A Tout Le Monde" providing a great canvas for his cutting snarl. A Snuffleupagus of cascading hair and a double-necked guitar too heavy to whip around, Mustaine still captivated the audience by staring coldly into their very center. But his icy demeanor was clearly warmed by set's end, the way he so gratefully mouthed "Thank you, thank you."
Similarly, Anthrax knew they would be caught up in the moment -- two of them wore "Big 4" T-shirts, they waved an American flag with the Big 4 logo -- so they unleashed a fan-pleasing, all-hits, no-goofiness (sorry, "I'm The Man" fans) set of pre-1991 churners. They did deliver the brand new "Fight 'Em Til You Can't," but it was played meaner and harder than anything else in their set. A heavy metal superfan to the core, Scott Ian looked like he was going to cry as he left the stage. Try telling him that this was just a Metallica show.