It’s two weekends before the end of another tumultuous year in this world gone mad, but at least we got live music back in 2021. Thus the heavy metal heroes of Metallica are celebrating their 40th anniversary as a band with a weekend-long party in their native habitat of San Francisco. It’s hard to fathom that it’s been four decades since Metallica’s formation. Still, here we are with San Francisco Mayor London Breed honoring the occasion by declaring that 16 December will now be known as Metallica Day in the City and County of San Francisco!
When “The City” needed a big-time local headliner to fill the San Francisco Giants’ ballpark in November 2017 for the Band Together Bay Area benefit show for Napa/Sonoma wildfire relief efforts, it was Metallica who topped the bill over co-headliner Dead & Company. When San Francisco was ready to christen its sparkling new bayfront arena in 2019, Metallica was again called in to do the honors in a historic team-up with the San Francisco Symphony. Now two years later, Metallica are back at the Chase Center for a pair of career-spanning shows on Friday, 17 December, and Sunday, 19 December.
These 40th anniversary shows thus commemorate Metallica’s rise from a merely great metal band in the early ’80s to genuine global icon status by the early ’90s. The band became a cultural phenomenon that grew out of how they weren’t just supremely talented musicians but also ambitiously thoughtful songwriters whose music addressed the multitude of ills that plague our society’s race to the bottom. Anti-war anthems like “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, “Blackened”, and “One” were also accompanied by songs that spoke out about the injustice and mental anguish that our fear and greed-driven society is based on. Metallica thus became the voice of a generation for many fans, in a rebellious way that was soon echoed by the alternative rock revolution that grew from the same era.
The weekend-long party also includes a slew of complimentary club shows featuring rising metal bands, bands led by sons of Metallica members, and a special treat here on Saturday, 18 December with Kamasi Washington and the Next Step set to perform at August Hall near Union Square. Washington’s inclusion in the festivities might seem an odd selection at first glance, but the visionary saxophonist was one of the many contributors to The Metallica Blacklist album project this year with his own jazzy version of “My Friend of Misery”.
Washington was also born in the same year that Metallica was, and so it somehow seems fitting for the 40-year old sax virtuoso to help celebrate this weekend’s milestone occasion.
Kamasi Washington at August Hall – Saturday December 18
The venue seems only to hold a few hundred people, which is somewhat surprising since Washington packed the nearby Warfield Theater in 2018. But these are different times, and it’s a treat to catch Washington in a more intimate setting. The audience seems rather bored during the set from DJ Dials in the 9:00 pm hour though. The sounds coming out of the speakers feel fairly groovy, but no one is dancing, and it seems like everyone is just biding their time for the main event. However, the vibe shifts dramatically when Washington and his band hit the stage.
“We gonna have some fun, y’all ready to blast off?” Washington asks as he leads the band right into an incendiary jam on “Conception”. Washington seems to suggest this is a new song, though an internet search finds it popping up as a track on his obscure 2007 album The Proclamation. It’s a dynamic number from the start, with the fierce rhythm section of Miles Mosley on upright bass and drummers Ronald Bruner Jr. and Tony Austin establishing themselves as a force of nature. Keyboardist Brandon Coleman, trombonist Ryan Porter, and Washington all deliver hot solos, and the audience responds with excitable appreciation as it becomes clear that this crowd is indeed lit.
Washington introduces the next number, “Announcement”, as a song from his soundtrack work for the Michelle Obama documentary Becoming. The simmering R&B style track is only 49 seconds on the album, but here the band takes it for a groovy ride. Washington introduces the new “Sun Kissed Child” as a song he heard in his head shortly after becoming a father. Vocalist Patrice Quinn stars here, singing “You come from greatness you see” as she implores the newborn child to reach for the stars. There’s some excellent ensemble playing here from Washington and Porter over a simple yet deep groove, as well as a dazzling flute solo from Ricky Washington (Kamasi’s father, who plays most of the set as he often does).
The set starts to feel like one sustained high-level performance as the band are clearly out to make every minute count. Washington speaks of his 2017 EP Harmony of Difference and how the meaning of the album closer “Truth” has evolved for him. He suggests that one can see things in a different way as one’s perspective changes and that what you’re chasing can change as you continue to seek an elusive truth. “And you’ll hear a sonic journey in the realm of trying to find this idea,” Washington says. It’s a stellar sonic journey indeed, filled with dynamic peaks and valleys, including a tease on Herbie Hancock’s “Rocket” that gets the crowd rocking. As the journey through “Truth” continues, it starts to feel like a jam band concert with the soloists laying down compelling improvisations over an infectious groove.
Members of Metallica fail to materialize for Washington’s performance of “My Friend of Misery” as Kirk Hammet and Robert Trujillo did at the Hollywood Bowl this summer, but it’s still another highlight. Washington says he knows there’s a lot of people who wouldn’t consider the song one of their favorites from the Black album, but that it was one of his favorites because “I heard words that I thought I could do things with.” He goes on to relate pitching the song to vocalist Patrice Quinn as what would it sound like if Billie Holiday covered Metallica? The results sound more like a new Kamasi tune than a Metallica cover, but it’s a fascinating experiment to hear Quinn singing James Hetfield’s gritty vocals with a torchy flavor over a dark jazzy landscape. Washington goes to town with his sax work here, taking it way out over a hard-hitting groove to demonstrate how jazz and metal can indeed share a similar intensity.
“Fists of Fury” from 2018’s Heaven and Earth double album brings the glorious 90-minute set to a rousing conclusion with another compelling sonic journey through an anthemic plea for social justice. The song’s cool jazz intro opens the door for Washington to lay down some fluid melodies over a Latinesque groove as the band build wave after wave of sonic glory. Quinn stars again here as she sings of how “Our time as victims is over, we will no longer ask for justice. Instead we will take our retribution,” a sentiment that has resonated deeply over the societal chaos of the past few years. The show is over around 11:30 pm, but that’s okay since another big Metallica show is to wrap the weekend on Sunday.
Metallica at the Chase Center – Sunday December 19
The scene shifts a few miles south to Mission Bay in the southeast corner of San Francisco 24 hours later, as thousands of metal fans from around the world fill the Chase Center for the climactic conclusion to the weekend’s festivities. It’s a chilly, damp night, so the tallboys of Campfire Stout from Highwater Brewing that only seem to be available at one obscure auxiliary bar location really hit the spot. Fans are abuzz about Friday’s show, which saw the band open with “Hit the Lights” from their 1983 debut album Kill ‘Em All and proceed to move forward through the years, hitting every album in the catalog.
There’s a bizarre moment of cognitive dissonance when the arena’s fire alarm system starts blaring with the lights coming up and a voice indicating that a total evacuation will be necessary, just minutes before Metallica are due to hit the stage! Whether this is genuine, a prank, or some kind of staged theater is unclear, but it’s a bit of a shock to the system as the message goes on for a harsh few minutes before finally ceasing. Praise the metal gods that such an evacuation is not actually necessary, a circumstance that would have been most unpleasant.
Metallica soon hits the stage and flips the script from Friday night by opening the show with the furious title track from 2016’s Hardwired… to Self Destruct, then following with “The End of the Line” from 2008’s Death Magnetic. Lead guitarist Kirk Hammett wails some insanely hot melty licks over the heavy groove from bassist Robert Trujillo here, as the audience seems to revel in how this set will keep going further back in time.
The hard-hitting “Dirty Window” from 2003’s tumultuous St. Anger album finds singer/guitarist James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich locking in tightly as Hetfield sings of being judge, jury, and executioner too. The making of the album saw the band’s future in quite a bit of doubt with production being stalled when Hetfield had to go to rehab for alcohol issues (as documented in the band’s documentary Some Kind of Monster), so it’s somewhat heartwarming to see Hetfield in high spirits on this number. The set moves into deep cut territory with the infectious “I Disappear” from the year 2000’s Mission Impossible 2 soundtrack, conjuring visions of Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt spy character making a dazzling escape from danger.
Band members speak about some of their favorite cover songs in referencing 1998’s Garage Inc. release that documented some of Metallica’s early influences, and the set moves into peak metal mayhem with the classic “Am I Evil”. A fan favorite headbanger since the band’s early days, this number gets the whole arena rocking out with timeless energy that has some Gen-X attendees flashing back to the three-hour rager at the Cow Palace on 9 May 1992 that saw a climactic version of the song in the encore sequence.
Hetfield remains in fine form on “The Memory Remains” from 1997’s Reload, before rocking out even harder on “Fuel” as Reload gets a second song. “Bleeding Me” from 1996’s Load takes things down a notch with a bluesy yet still heavy vibe before “Wasting My Hate” cranks things back up to full headbanger level. And then the set reach’s 1991’s pivotal “Black” album that elevated Metallica to global superstars. “The Unforgiven” fills the obligatory power ballad spot that was a hard rock hallmark of the era, but it’s the anthemic “Enter Sandman” that really ignites the evening. The quartet locks in on the song’s signature riffage here as the arena explodes in metal glory, boosted higher by Hammett’s face-melting fretwork.
For many heavy metal fans, the only question of the greatest metal album of all time is whether it’s Metallica’s third or fourth album – Master of Puppets from 1986 or And Justice for All from 1988. The set becomes like a runaway train with “Harvester of Sorrow” from Justice, as Hetfield delivers some of his most menacing vocals over one of the band’s heaviest grooves. There’s a heavy syncopation that Metallica took to a new level on the Justice album, embodied here with a sound that conjures headbanging like it’s as natural as breathing. The title track from Puppets follows, and it’s one of the greatest anti-drug songs of all time. The tight intricate riffage is also one of the band’s most ambitious compositions, a skill they honed to fine art in this seminal era.
The existential angst of “Fade to Black” is the show’s selection from 1984’s Ride the Lightning, with the first-person tale of a suicidal soul who’s “lost the will to live” and has “simply nothing more to give”. Hetfield’s haunting vocal never fails to stir emotion, with the crashing power chords in the song’s outro section providing a spine-tingling accompaniment. The band concludes the career-spanning show with two songs from their debut album, delivering a raucous “Whiplash” before the climactic finale of longtime fan favorite “Seek and Destroy”. The song’s opening riffs became one of the quintessential portals to learning metal guitar, setting an influential tone for hard rock guitarists worldwide.
The fact that Metallica have stood the test of time to reach the rare 40-year career mark is testimony to both the power of their music and the fortitude of the band members to battle through adversities that have sunk numerous other groups.