Finally, the Big 4 made it to U.S. soil!
Last year European audiences were blessed with a number of Big 4 shows featuring Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax (the first big four thrash bands), but American fans were only able to witness the spectacle via a live global telecast to movie theaters from Sofia, Bulgaria on June 22, 2010. That performance then led to the release of the multiplatinum Live From Sofia Big 4 DVD, and finally, on April 23, 2011--after almost a year of waiting for this festival to come to the bands' native land--more than 50,000 metal fans showed up at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, California, more than READY.
As an invited guest, I was a bit spoiled with my access. Arriving at the venue, I went to the backstage area, which was set up like an old-fashioned chuckwagon circle. Each band had a couple of dressing-room trailers and an outside area enclosed with a white picket fence for their guests to hang out. When I arrived around 2pm, it seemed like the Anthrax "camp" was the party hang. The fun thing about metal is that it's a community. Backstage I didn't just see the band members that were playing, I saw Mike Inez from Alice In Chains, Chuck Billy from Testament, Deryck Whibley from Sum 41, comedian Craig Gass (who does a spot-on impression of Lars Ulrich and Gene Simmons), John Tempesta of the Cult, and comedian Don Jamieson, who hosts "That Metal Show" on VH1 Classic and was signing advance copies of his new comedy CD Live And Hilarious for all the metalheads with a sense of humor.
At 4pm, Anthrax opened the show with their crowd-pleasing classic "Caught In The Mosh." The crowd sang along to old-school numbers "Madhouse" and "Among The Living," and then were treated to the yet-unreleased song "Fight 'Em Till You Can't." Guitarist Scott Ian delighted folks with his signature stomp, while drummer Charlie Benante beat the hell out of his drums (with famed drummer Mike Portnoy watching sidestage, no less). With Joey Belladonna at the mic, Anthrax kept it to a pre-1992 old-school set selection (excluding the new track). You could even see Kirk Hammett of Metallica rocking out on the side of the stage to Anthrax's finale of "I Am The Law."
The desert sun and wind were a little brutal as Megadeth hit the stage on fire with "Trust," going into "In My Darkest Hour." Both Megadeth guitarists brought out brand-new axes for this show. Dave Mustaine sported a custom-graphic double-neck Dean, while Chris Broderick showed off his new signature series Jackson guitars in transparent white and blood-red. Like Anthrax, Megadeth kept it to a pretty classic old-school set, except for their Grammy-nominated song "Headcrusher" off of their latest album Endgame. Mustaine was plagued with a couple of technical difficulties, but the crowd didn't even seem to notice as they moshed in delight to "Symphony Of Destruction" and then chanted along to "Peace Sells" after bassist Dave Ellefson got them all clapping to the beginning bassline. Fans were even treated to an appearance by the band's mascot, Vic Rattlehead, before the set ended with "Holy Wars."
As the sun started to set, the almighty Slayer hit the stage. Gary Holt from Exodus was filling in for guitarist Jeff Hanneman, who recently underwent surgery on his right arm because of a spider-bite. Slayer brought out their A-game for this show. Armed with a wall of Marshalls (even though I only saw mics on four of them), their menacing presence was awe-inspiring as they busted out with "World Painted Blood." Dave Lombardo's bass drumbeats weren't only heard from the pit, they were felt in everyone's chests with every thunderous pound. "War Ensemble" and "Raining Blood" got the fans screaming, and then when no one was looking, and without saying a word, Holt was replaced onstage with Jeff Hanneman for the band's last two songs, "South Of Heaven" and "Angel Of Death." The big video screens kept zooming in on Hanneman's butchered right arm.
After three blistering metal performances, what could top that besides the almighty METALLICA?
It was pitch-black out, and as the giant video screens started the Metallica intro, the crowd sported a sea of cell-phone lights that would have been cigarette-lighter flames back in the '80s. Metallica hit the stage and exploded into 1984's "Creeping Death," then "For Whom The Bell Tolls." As an old-school fan, I was surprised by the insane crowd reaction to "Fuel," but it was intense. Not only could you feel the heat from all the pyro Metallica used in this song, but there was steam coming off of the thousands of bodies that had been squashed together for the last four-plus hours waiting for the kings of thrash metal.
Frontman James Hetfield gave a salute to their late bass player Cliff Burton and pleased fans by playing "Orion." Bottle-rockets and bullet sounds sprayed the stage as Metallica went into their first MTV hit, "One," ending the set with "Enter Sandman." The band headed offstage for a short encore break when the crew started loading tons of extra gear onto the stage. This could only mean one thing...they were going to do the jam with all four bands, just like they did on the Sofia DVD!
James Hetfield came out with praise for the fans and then said, "Should I introduce the slowest road crew in the world? Why don't we get the other bands out here?" As the other musicians emerged onstage, Hetfield said, "Aw look, it's like a family reunion," which was more than true considering these bands have crossed paths for the last 30 years. For only the second time ever, all four bands (minus a couple of Slayer guys) came out and jammed to the Diamond Head classic once covered by Metallica, "Am I Evil?" Hetfield, Belladonna, and Mustaine shared vocal duties, while everyone else pounded out the background. This could have been, and maybe should have been, the finale to the show, but Metallica came back and ended their set with "Hit The Lights" and "Seek And Destroy," as giant black beachballs with the Metallica logo were tossed into the crowd.
The Big 4 marked power of metal coming full circle, 30 years in the making. Let's hope they hit the desert again next year.