Last year at Glastonbury, Metallica faced one of the toughest headline crowds that an established rock behemoth might possibly encounter. Not because Glastonbury goers are all about peace ‘n’ love and Metallica are all about riffs and grunting, but because Metallica are still, in many minds, a niche act, and Glastonbury is a mainstream festival. Added to this was the controversy over a documentary on bear hunting that James Hetfield provided a voice over for, and – as is becoming traditional – a resulting online petition to get them knocked off their perch.
Metallica’s response was an act of spin doctor-like genius: they opened with a specially created video in which the band dressed as bears and turned the guns on the hunters. When they eventually appeared on stage it was with a huge crowd of flag-waving fans behind them. The message: if you want a fight, here’s our army. And then – most importantly – they played a set designed to silence the doubters: it was Metallica at their most palatable, and it was great.
Just over a year later they’re at Reading, and the situation is flipped. World’s biggest rock band, Britain’s biggest rock festival. It’s a no brainer, right? But it isn’t. Reading is a changed beast. Its heritage is that of a rock festival but walk around the site today and you’ll see as many people going nuts for DJ Fresh as any given guitar band. Metallica represent Reading’s past, but not necessarily its future, and tonight they played it like a home game anyway. Where at Glastonbury they gave us a lean set, here they luxuriated in an epic timeslot. From the opening – a clip from The Good, The Bad & The Ugly set to ‘The Ecstasy Of Gold’ – to the group’s final bows, it was two hours and 20 minutes of solid Metallica. For a group with fewer hits than the fingers it took for James Hetfield to spell out RIFF in tattoos, that’s a Marmite-thin spread.
The show was, of course, a consummate display of the beauty, power and aggression of heavy rock. It showed Metallica for what they are – one of those rare bands in which each player is a star in their own right, and in which each player has their own special move, whether that’s bassist Robert Trujillo crab-walking around the stage in a low squat, drummer Lars Ulrich gurning his way through ‘Master Of Puppets’, guitarist Kirk Hammett peeling cascading riffs from his guitar or Hetfield laughing like a mad professor.
But it can’t be denied: Metallica were preaching to the converted, and by the midway point, it began to feel like a grind. As at Glastonbury, they had a crowd of “Metallica family members” behind them, albeit without the flags, but even they were a bit subdued at points.
Everything picked up, of course, for the encore, for which the band saved all of their tricks. There was a cover of ‘Whiskey In The Jar’ dedicated to their late former bandmate Cliff Burton, there were some really quite impressive fireworks and there was a release of hundreds of bouncy black balls with the Metallica logo printed on them, which were immediately pounced on by thousands of die hard fans.
It was – for the faithful – a triumph. For the casual fans? A few thrills and a bit of slog. As for those DJ Fresh fans, they were elsewhere – and probably having plenty of fun, too.