Happy happy, joy joy: Metallica at Nassau Coliseum

metallica-beach-ballsMidway through Metallica's roughly two-and-a-half-hour set at Nassau Coliseum tonight, James Hetfield drew a line in the sand. Between songs, the towering frontman posed this simple inquiry to the audience: "I want to see a show of hands: How many people here are seeing Metallica for the first time?" A loaded question, for sure. Metal being the cultish, even tribal world that it is, no one wanted to out themselves as a newbie, least of all me. And yet, I felt compelled to turn myself in—yes, this was in fact my first Metallica concert.

But that, to quote a Metallica song—one they played tonight, in fact—is a thing that should not be. My first Metallica concert should have been the infamous Guns N' Roses coheadlining tour, which I had a chance of catching at Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium on September 17, 1992. (The magic of Wikipedia allows me to date this precisely.) My absence wasn't due to lack of a ride or a ticket: All that was square. The problem was, simply, that the show fell on a school night, a Thursday to be precise, and at that time—my eighth-grade year—my parents did not permit me to attend concerts during the week.They loosened up shortly after that, and soon my dad was even escorting my friends and me to metal shows on a routine basis—including two Megadeth gigs in close proximity—but at this time, the rule was hard and fast. I'm sure my adolescence was marked by more-traumatic disappointments, and yet I can't recall one: At that time, I was as obsessed with Metallica as I've probably ever been with anything. My fandom waned in subsequent years, as I discovered a slew of heavier, more overtly challenging bands, and though I maintained a passing interest in Metallica, I never did manage to catch a show.

So there I was tonight, seeing Metallica for the first time—16 years and change after I should have. What strikes me as I reflect on the show is that I didn't just see an older Metallica, I saw a way mellower Metallica—and probably, a much happier one. By now, it's old news that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame--bound band lost its way for a good many years, detouring into tepid radio rock during the Load era and nearly breaking up while making 2003's group-therapy-propelled St. Anger. To many die-hard fans, Metallica ran out of chances long ago, and I pretty much felt the same way until I heard Death Magnetic, the burly and fiercely memorable disc the band issued in '08. (I got behind the album in TONY back in September, and it ended up making my year-end top-ten list—alongside, among other things, the new record by Metallica's '92 tourmates, GN'R.)

But I don't think I realized what a great record it really is until tonight. Metallica doesn't have to sell anything to anybody in the literal sense; all the members, even newish bassist Robert Trujillo, are rich, rich men. But they were definitely selling Death Magnetic in the metaphorical sense tonight: This could've easily been a victory-lap greatest-hits show sprinkled with perfunctory cuts from the new disc. Instead it felt like exactly the opposite—a full-on celebration of Death Magnetic, seasoned with back-catalog favorites.

I sensed a real pride emanating from the stage when the new tunes were played. The set included the first six songs on Death Magnetic (the first two of which—"That Was Just Your Life" and "The End of the Line"—were the evening's first two selections) and each one of them ripped in its own way: I found myself marveling all over again at the head-scratching, rhythmically displaced vocal line in the chorus of "Cyanide," the genuinely anthemic refrain of "Broken, Beat & Scarred" and the finger-busting guitar trills at the end of "The Day That Never Comes." I remember Hetfield and guitarist Kirk Hammett facing each other during this latter section, grinning like they were riding a roller coaster together. This joy came through each time the band arrived at one of the new songs.

There were plenty of highlights in the rest of the set as well, including a vicious "Damage Inc." and a satisfyingly meaty "Sad but True." But the band wasn't as tight on the old stuff. Never the sturdiest or hardest-grooving drummer in the world, Lars Ulrich demonstrated again tonight that tempo isn't his strong suit: He raced through the classic double-bass breakdown in "One," nearly spoiling the section's monolithic power.

Other buzzkills were the surfeit of power ballads—did we really need to hear "The Unforgiven" and "Nothing Else Matters"?—and the geriatric pacing of the set. The band took breaks after nearly every song, and though the breathers served as effective palate cleansers at times, they became tedious. Also contributing to the show's arena-rock bloat were the (thankfully brief) Hammett and Trujillo solos, the rotating drum kit, several gigantic and spaceshiplike suspended coffins, an in-the-round stage that featured roughly six different lead-vocal mikes, multicolored pyrotechnics, the corny (but actually kinda fun) black-beach-ball drop (depicted above) and several appearances of Tron-esque laser effects.

But these factors ended up seeming like quibbles. The bottom line is that Metallica has made an awesome and enduring new album, and this show was all about driving that home. The band is happy to play its old tunes, but it doesn't pretend to be what it once was: namely a foreboding thrash-metal juggernaut. Metallica still rages, but it does so with a smile. "You made Metallica feel great!" Hetfield yelled at the conclusion of "Enter Sandman," the last tune before the encore. "Thank you, friends!" No, thank you, James!

A beautiful positive vibe, for sure, and a vibe very different from the one I would have picked up had I actually attended that show back in 1992, when Metallica was still in its angry, cocky, standoffish phase. In a way, then, I guess I'm happy this was my first Metallica concert—the band may have softened up, but tonight proved that that might actually be the best thing a veteran metal band can do. The joy emanating from the Nassau stage was palpable, inspiring and, yes, magnetic.

For the curious, a few more photos and a full set list can be found here, on my personal blog.