The staging for Metallica’s tour is built to do just that, though, on the kind of grand scale well-suited for football stadiums. The band performs in the round, on a big stage in the shape of a ring that surrounds fans with tickets to the VIP “snake pit.” That means anyone on the floor isn’t actually all that far from the band – but also that the traditional video screen setup doesn’t work. So the band put the screens, and most speakers, on eight massive towers to allow anyone to see them. During some songs, the colors were bleached out, making the footage one-hued to underscore the drama. Most bands would seem dwarfed by the scale, but Metallica rose to the occasion. More space just means more space to conquer.
The band opened with some ’80s favorites – “Creeping Death,” then “Harvester of Sorrow” and “Leper Messiah.” Only then did frontman James Hetfield actually say anything – the kind of welcome you give to an audience you’ve seen before. “Here’s a song you might not know,” he said. “I hope I know it.” It was “Until It Sleeps,” from Load, and he need not have worried – it sounded familiar to everyone. The band played three songs from its vital new album, 72 Seasons – the title track, “If Darkness Had a Son,” and “You Must Burn!” – but the focus was on early, heavier songs and classics from the Black Album. Some acts have eras, but Metallica has epochs, and every single one of them is heavy in its own way.
The only drawback to the band’s over-the-top staging was that the same scale that made it so spectacular drained a bit of the band’s chemistry. With multiple microphones and several drum sets for Lars Ulrich – one would disappear beneath the stage and another would come up so he could play while facing another part of the crowd – everyone could see everything, but not always at the same time. The ring was so big that “Wherever I May Roam” (stark and dramatic as ever, toward the end of the show) could have been self-referential. But Metallica wanted to out-do itself, and it did. This kind of maximalism is only silly if you can’t carry it off – and Metallica does.
By stadium standards, the band keeps the music fresh, too. Sure, it has enough classics to spread over two nights – “One” and “Welcome Sandman” on May 26, “Blackened” and “Master of Puppets” two days later – but it also pulled out “Whiskey in the Jar,” a traditional-by-way-of Thin Lizzy song that sounded very human even at this gigantic scale. For at least a few minutes, the stadium felt like the world’s biggest bar – if you can imagine a bar with eight 14-ton video towers – and if any crowd deserved a drinking song it was this one.
After “Whiskey” the band turned to “One” and then “Enter Sandman,” ferocious metal song that has acquired the patina of classic rock. There would be more surprises in two days at the next show, and the crowd pondered the possibilities as it filed out of the venue – more classics, a rarity, who knows? Like the best big rock shows, it would feel familiar but sound fresh. It was live but also, somehow, much bigger.