Thrash has become the music of brotherly love. Backstage at the Big 4 fest on Saturday, all four of the day's speedy metal acts gathered for a quick group portrait with photographer Ross Halfin. And standing tall at the center was Metallica's James Hetfield, grinning broadly with his arms around Slayer's Tom Araya and Megadeth's Dave Mustaine. It's not a scene anyone might have expected even a decade ago.
The afternoon photo opp was to commemorate double-platinum sales of The Big 4: Live from Sofia, Bulgaria DVD, but it was also symbolic of the current state of affairs between these once-warring originators of thrash-metal. Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax essentially created this sound together 30 years ago, but have rarely collaborated in any meaningful way. It was Metallica, now one of the biggest names in rock music, who gathered them all this weekend as a loud-fast community on the epic landscape of Empire Polo Field in Indio, all lingering rivalries far behind them.
"We were kids when we started. Now we're here," said Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman backstage, still recovering from a devastating attack of flesh-eating necrotizing fasciitis on his right arm, caused by a spider-bite. "For us and Metallica, we've been around forever and we stuck together. I think a lot of kids appreciate that."
Some of the drama and excitement could be felt in the music. During Megadeth's hour-long set, the band ignited the steady, unhurried grind of "In My Darkest Hour," as Mustaine sang the words of betrayal with a look of real anguish. Fans shouted along, and then erupted into a moshpit near the stage when Mustaine ripped open an emotional guitar solo.
There was also Anthrax wailing through "Metal Thrashing Mad," or stopping suddenly during "Indians" to fire up the moshpits, or pausing to remember the late metal heroes Ronnie James Dio and Dimebag Darrell. It was Anthrax's first show in six months. "Even before we walked out and the siren started running, that wave of emotion from the crowd - I really felt the energy coming off of them," said Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian after their festival-opening set amid the desert heat and dust. "If it wasn't for that crowd, I probably would have passed out six songs in. It was hard work up there today."
One moshpit deep in the crowd remained at full-boil throughout Anthrax's performance, as a woman blew soap bubbles into the tattooed swirl, and vendors wandered past offering ice-cold lemonade ($6). The Big 4 fest was hosted on the site of the Coachella Music & Arts Festival, but there were clear differences in taste and tone. One tent was filled with vendors selling dozens of brands of ale, ambers, pales, stouts and lights. Trash was no longer neatly segregated into recyclables, but collected into simple steel barrels filled indiscriminately (and presumably ready for burning).
Slayer began their set with the title track from 2009's World Painted Blood. Sitting in for Hanneman (who wrote the tune) was his friend, Exodus guitarist Gary Holt, bearded and carrying a gleaming white guitar spattered with blood-red paint. He recreated the original lead-lines, but also stretched out sonically into something wilder and weirder.
The day's emotional peak came at the end of Slayer's set, when Hanneman stepped onstage for the two-song encore, his first appearance with the band since October. After giving Holt a warm hug, Hanneman pounded his fist into the desert air, the long-sleeve torn away from his infected arm. He was clearly energized by the moment, slashing at his guitar and pacing the stage, banging his head as always.
Backstage, Hanneman relaxed afterwards in a room barely lit by a single red bulb. He drove up via limousine from his home in nearby Hemet with his wife and two other women. "I had to be here. I was hungry for it. I was in the hospital for a month and a half," Hanneman explained. "I missed it so much. These guys have been on tour, and I'm sitting at home recovering and I'm like, aaahhh! I almost threw my guitar through my bedroom window one night."
As he spoke, Metallica's set had begun, and the headliners were deep into the intense melody of "For Whom the Bell Tolls." Metallica's two-hour performance was heavy on songs most familiar to fans ("Master of Puppets," "Ride the Lightning," "Enter Sandman") but also included a surprising choice in the lengthy instrumental "Orion." The song dates back to 1986, but it also stood as an example of what the music could mean in a larger way, far beyond the immediate needs of loudfastrules. These guys can play.
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The night was nearly done when a middle-aged Mohawk could be seen limping away from the moshpits and towards the remaining food merchants as "Nothing Else Matters" filled the air. For the first encore, Metallica brought out most of the day's players for a reprise of their grinding jam through Diamond Head's "Am I Evil?"
Looking over the endless crowd spread out in front of them, Hetfield said, "Can you believe it? Thirty years, man. I don't know how many of you have been around that long. It doesn't matter. You're here now."