When Metallica took the stage at New York City's Webster Hall, a venue that's minuscule by Metallica standards with a capacity of 1,500, they simply walked on. There was no intro video. They did not play their trademark Spaghetti Western opening music. They didn't even have an opening band. The guitar techs were in plain sight on the sides of the stage. They were simply four unassuming guys, ready to rock.
Once at his post, James Hetfield slowly scanned the crowd, offered up a chuckle and a "holy shit" into the mic and launched into the nimble, elastic opening riff of Budgie's 1973 proto-thrasher "Breadfan" as a crowd of fan-club members and music-industry VIPs threw the devil horns and formed a circle pit. They all knew Metallica, the arena and stadium band, the metal behemoths whose 1991 Black Album is the best-selling record of the last quarter century. But tonight, this was Metallica, the Bay Area club band that cut its teeth playing Brooklyn dive bar L'Amour in the early Eighties, stripped to the bare essentials. The event was electric.
For the group, however, the concert was business as usual. Metallica have had a long history of playing small, intimate gigs for their fans – especially as they've readied the release of new LPs – and they've played New York City's smaller Bowery Ballroom and larger Roseland and Apollo Theater in years past. But that didn't make it any less special to the fans who got in tonight after entering an online contest for a chance to purchase $25 tickets, the proceeds from which benefited City Harvest, an organization that delivers food to New Yorkers in need. Others in attendance included members of Tool and Volbeat and a cast member from Orange Is the New Black.
Tonight, at a club where Guns N' Roses and countless New York hardcore groups tested their mettle in the Eighties when it was called the Ritz, Metallica were teasing the November release of their upcoming 10th studio outing, a double LP titled Hardwired … to Self-Destruct, which will come out in November. "I don't know, eight years went by fast," Hetfield told the crowd at one point, referencing the amount of time since they put out 2008's Death Magnetic. "But not for you, I guess." He grinned. They then gave recent single "Moth Into Flame," an intricate, lengthy, technically demanding thrasher, its live debut and later performed the record's punky lead single "Hardwired" to an audience that already knew the lyrics.
The evening, however, wasn't all about hawking new music. "We're here tonight celebrating a lot of stuff," Hetfield said at one point. "One of those things is, obviously, Metallica is still alive and well and, we think, kicking ass. … We're all celebrating the new album. [But] here's some stuff from previous." Then they played the …And Justice for All crusher "Harvester of Sorrow."
The vast majority of Metallica's Webster Hall set list focused on their first five albums, occasionally opting for fan favorites over hits. While they did play Black Album anthems "Enter Sandman" and "Sad but True," they skipped the ballad "Nothing Else Matters" in favor of the thrashy "Holier Than Thou." And when it came to songs from their mid-Eighties high-water mark Master of Puppets, they of course played the anthemic title track and breakneck "Battery" but also made room for "Orion" – an eight-and-a-half–minute instrumental – in deference to late bassist Cliff Burton, who died in a bus crash on tour exactly 30 years ago Tuesday. Hetfield blew a kiss up to the sky, and Lars Ulrich held a drumstick to the ceiling as they finished the song. "Thirty years," Hetfield said. "We miss you, Cliff." The crowd responded with a "Cliff, Cliff, Cliff!" chant.
Throughout the night, the band's performances were tight but the musicians themselves showed a looseness that's hard to achieve on an arena or stadium stage. They had to be more spontaneous. They had to mind the drum riser, which is usually dozens of feet away from them, and dodge the photographer who would often walk right onstage with them. Robert Trujillo at one point twirled in a circle holding out his bass, but only after cautiously checking out his bandmates' whereabouts. Nevertheless, they had fun with the experience. Hetfield, Trujillo and Kirk Hammett would occasionally line up as a trio as they played in harmony on songs like "One," and Ulrich would sometimes step to the side of his kit to play the closing cymbal parts of certain songs. They indulged in a little theatricality – some dramatic lighting, some posing – but by and large they kept it simple.
The capacity audience had just as much fun. They were a lucky few who were aware of how special the gig was (scalpers outside wanted $400 for the tickets and online some sought between $7,000 and $96,000 for tickets). They moshed during nearly every song, chanted "hey, hey, hey" unprompted at the start of "Sad but True" and chanted along with the harmonized double-guitar solo in "Master of Puppets," a song that they sang half of themselves at Hetfield's prompting.
After "Seek and Destroy," the group's usual closing number, the audience chanted "one more song" over and over again, as the group threw guitar picks into the crowd. "We gave all the picks away," Hetfield said. "We can't play anymore. Go home." The audience booed. "You're gonna throw it back?" Hetfield asked the crowd, with a playful smirk. Instead, he knew that Metallica had given enough to make the crowd want to come see them next year at a venue that will likely be at least 12 times the size of Webster Hall.
Metallica Set List:
"Holier Than Thou"
"Harvester of Sorrow"
"Fade to Black"
"Moth Into Flame"
"Sad but True"
"Master of Puppets"
"For Whom the Bell Tolls"
"Whiskey in the Jar"
"Seek and Destroy"