Metallica Returns to Birmingham For First Show In 28 Years

By J. Matthew Cobb

Hard to believe it has been almost three decades since Metallica last rocked the city of Birmingham, Alabama. Twenty-eight years to be exact, on March 25, 1992. Back then, their meteoric rise to fame was already emblazoned in rock canon history, sealed by their commercially and critically acclaimed sixteen-times platinum self-titled LP (often referred as the “Black Album”), a disc that now boasts some of the greatest metal anthems of all time. And many of them were on display during their fierce two-hour-plus hour set on January 22, which followed a ‘Light It Up’ comedy-meets-karaoke teaser hosted by Jim Breuer. During this appetizer, stories about the tour, precious back-in-the-day memories and even a pop-up appearance in the nosebleeds to give out floor tickets to some lucky Methead were all rolled out. Breuer then hints at the magic that Metallica is cooking up for the crowded bowl-like arena. “I saw their set list. This city is gonna get it,” he yells. Then he turns around on the stage, pointing towards their dressing room, and blurts out, “How about Birmingham kicks Metallica’s ass tonight? The louder you are, the quicker they’ll come out.” Then more sing-along magic is rolled out as Iron Maiden’s “Run to the Hills” and AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” and “Long Way to the Top” blasts from the ceiling speakers. An onstage DJ also rolls out a rockier, louder and faster alternate version of “We Will Rock You” played by Queen. By this point, the crowd is more than anxious to hear Metallica. The wait, especially for fans who called the Magic City home, had gone on long enough.

Inside the 19,000-seat BJCC Legacy Arena (with 17,000 recorded in attendance), where Metallica last played in Birmingham, the stage was placed in a diamond form with standout boxy corners and was completely surrounded by a sea of standing room only ticket holders on ground level, giving off a glorious mosh pit vibe. Around 8:45 PM, the lights go dim for a hit-play summoning of Ennio Morricone’s instrumental overture “The Ecstasy of Gold,” leaving only the LED lights of individual smartphones to cascade the room. Then the pounding drums and rushing guitar crank up for “Hardwired,” one of their newer, thrasher pieces. After that, “Atlas Rise,” a brute firecracker served with intense drum timing and funky guitar struts, shatters the room like a raging rock rant. Then, Metallica frontman James Hetfield greets the Birmingham crowd. “We’re gonna play a bunch of stuff from all the middle of our careers, and if you guys are nice, we may play an old song,” he proclaims. And suddenly the familiar electric guitar solo of “Seek & Destroy,” a golden nugget from 1983’s Kill ‘Em All, buzzes from Hetfield’s finger strokes. And like that, the roaring crowd gets their way back throwback. “The Memory Remains” produces a bevy of “oohhh” chants sparked by the mantra of “ash to ash, dust to dust.” And then “The Unforgiven,” which plays like a smart interlude in the middle of a rock opera, slows the tempo of the thrash down some.

It’s almost hard for outsiders of this aggressive pounding metal rock to see this type of experience as being reverential, but Met heads were blessed with levels of grungy inspiration (“If you wanna live forever, you first have to die,” Hetfield chants before “Now That We’re Dead.” Then flashes of red beam unto the stage as pounding drum workouts are mixed into the exercise. Halfway into the number, descending boxes which mostly served as aerial screens for moving projected images transformed into makeshift drums for the band, leaving them with the spunk to pounce them like a devoted Irish drum brigade.

The energy remained at a triumphant high as the grungy, apocalyptic “Dream No More” blasted out with thrashing attitude and a swirling guitar solo from Kirk Hammett. It’s the second time in North America that the wicked foursome showed off this beast of a deep cut from their most recent album, 2016’s Hardwiredto Self-Destruct, and with Lars Ulrich’s fierce drumming and Hetfield’s passionate belting (“You turn to stone can’t look away/You turn to stone madness, they say”), it’s understandable as to why they’ve since packaged it in their live shows.

The show’s second half proved to be gargantuan in scope, which included earlier era throwbacks, gutsy jazz-meet-punk exhibitions, flashier stage optics and a handful of their bigger anthems. After kicking off with a rendering of “Welcome Home (“Sanitarium),” Kirk Hammett and bassist Robert Trujillo (whom Hetfield called his “brother and friend”) then cranks up individual solos while tossing in a personal homage to Alabama with a chorus of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.”  Hetfield did screw up the chorus a little, repeating “Lord I’m coming home to you” twice, but it’s an excusable blunder. Just hearing the room shouting in unison “Roll, tide roll” was enough redemption for the squandered moment. Much later, a visual tribute showcasing archival footage of the late Cliff Burton was projected on the screens. Then, heavy roars from the crowd transpire at the reveal of the introduction to “Sad But True.”

The onstage visuals are also intensified for the final act: Streams of pyro flares soar to the sky from the stage during the opening of “One;” drones appearing like LED-carrying fireflies circulated the stage like a Swan Lake ballet; visuals of wartime Vietnam-era footage, even men trapped in televisions with Poltergeist subtlety, etched on moving 3D boxes. Towards the end, Hetfield pours out words of appreciation to the gathered generations of fans, delivering lines of brotherhood and credence that tugged on every emotion. “We’ve been lucky and grateful to be playing for 38 years [and] live music,” Hetfield told the room as the house lights unveiled the faces of the large crowd. “You are a part of the Metallica family – whether you love one song or all of ‘em. We don’t care who you are. We don’t care what’s between your legs, what color you are. We’re here, celebrating life.” Then they kick into overdrive for the adrenaline-heavy “Master of Puppets” with the crowd shouting out “master, master” with an intense gusto.

The group returns to the stage for a deserved encore fueled by “Battery,” the almost-reverent “Nothing Else Matters” and a climatic “Enter Sandman” tagged with flying fireworks and an explosive sample of “The Frayed Ends of Sanity” on the outro. Afterwards for ten glorious minutes, all four band members greeted the audience on stage after the last note of their encore. Each of them tossed out bucket loads of commemorative “Metallica in Birmingham” guitar picks from virtually every angle of the stage, waving to the sea of dedicated fans that lingered. After getting a few snapshots from their official tour photographer with the roaring crowd, Hetfield finally proposes to the crowd on the mic that “we will be back.” After playing the BJCC for 2 hours and 20 minutes on this night, while on the second North American leg of their WorldWired tour, we’re all hoping so. Check out other great articles and interviews with favorite artist here.

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