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A Rage in Harlem: Metallica Storm the Apollo

Metallica at the Apollo Theater, New York, NY, September 20, 2013 / Photo by Joe Papeo

Metallica have always wanted to be either the biggest band in the world or the smallest. After they finally hit the big time in 1986, when their thrashy opus Master of Puppets went gold with no video and scant radio support, their next move was to release an EP called Garage Days. They then went on to put out one blockbuster after another. Even then, they wanted less. Last night, in anticipation of the Friday release of a 3-D IMAX movie, Metallica Through the Never, they played a relatively stripped-back set at the small-for-them Apollo Theater in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood.

The venue is as iconic as Metallica. Since 1933, the Apollo has hosted an amateur night, a proving ground for fresh talent. It introduced the world to Ella Fitzgerald, as well as a number of less lucky (and less talented) performers who were booed off the stage, or forced off by “the Executioner.” In the ’60s, James Brown recorded his knockout Live at the Apollo there, and its stage hosted the likes of Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, “Little” Stevie Wonder and Bill Cosby. When Aretha Franklin played it in the ’70s, the Apollo’s marquee read, “She’s home.” So if ever there were a stage on which Metallica could prove that they’re not all just stage props and pyro, it’s the Apollo’s.

Luckily for Metallica, the audience was more receptive than the crowds who come to heckle pitchy singers at amateur night. The show was an invite-only affair put on and broadcasted live by SiriusXM, who’ve done similar events with Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen at the Apollo in the past — accordingly, the Apollo’s 1,500 or so seats were filled with contest winners, industry types, and Howard Stern. More important, they were filled with Metallica fans, nearly half of which wore Metallica T-shirts and all of which knew the words to almost every song. (Even the usually stern-faced Stern shook his head and sang along with “Enter Sandman.”)

From the minute the band hit the stage, playing its oldest song, 1982’s “Hit the Lights,” the audience was standing at attention. They clapped, they chanted, they headbanged, no matter what the crowd did, it seemed to do it as a whole.

“I can’t believe they let us play this place,” said frontman James Hetfield to loud cheers before “Harvester of Sorrow.” “This place is so rich with music history, we’re going to come in here and mess it all up.”

In an unusual way, the band seemed fierce yet vulnerable. That’s not just because the venue lacked a barricade. Lars Ulrich’s drum kit was sort of center stage and a little to the right. Hetfield had to look out for guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Robert Trujillo when he moved from mic to mic. There were no explosions or six-foot flames to introduce “One,” only strobe lights. When an especially sweaty Hetfield needed water mid-song in the instrumental “Orion,” he had to ask his tech to pour it into his mouth in front of the audience. When Hammett flubbed a note in “Nothing Else Matters,” the whole audience could see Hetfield jokingly mouth at him, “What was that?” In essence, Metallica had once again become that garage band. They were performing without a net.

It was a pleasant surprise to see the band members break out of their shells. While their annual Orion Fest has “lifestyle” components that show off their extracurricular interests, the format of last night’s show forced some band members to show off their musical obsessions. When Hammett had to play a guitar solo early in the show — while Ulrich changed out a drum after crushing his kit on “Harvester of Sorrow” — he doodled a bit on guitar line called “Voodoo Child” written by 1964 amateur-night winner Jimi Hendrix. And when Hetfield knelt down to take his own solo of sorts after “Sad But True,” he opted for a genuine noise-rock moment, tuning down his guitar, turning up watery delay effects and generally reveling in his own metal machine music. The most telling moment came after the rigid thrasher “Blackened,” when the band launched into a grooving, almost funky new riff for about a minute, giving fans a glimpse of where their heads were at.

The group kept its energy up for the evening, playing roadrunner-fast thrashers like “Battery,” “Broken, Beat & Scarred” and ” Ride the Lightning,” as well as heavier fare like “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and the indomitable “Creeping Death” and its “Die! Die! Die!” chant. And by the time the band decided to end the set, Hetfield was joking with the audience, pointing at his wristband as if it were a clock, baiting them on before playing “Seek and Destroy.” By then, of course, they had won over the Apollo audience.

Set list
“Hit the Lights”
“Master of Puppets”
“Ride the Lightning”
“Harvester of Sorrow”
“The Day That Never Comes”
“The Memory Remains”
“Broken, Beat & Scarred”
“Welcome Home (Sanitarium)”
“Sad but True”
“For Whom the Bell Tolls”
“Nothing Else Matters”
“Enter Sandman”
“Creeping Death”
“Seek & Destroy”