There are many thrills to seeing a big band in a big arena, and the first time one gets to do it, it becomes the memory of a lifetime, a formative moment that shapes one's musical outlook forever. Saturday night’s Metallica show at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena might have been that for many of the younger fans who've just discovered the band, and got to partake in that familiar rock & roll rite of passage — having their parents drop them off at the venue (those poor, poor parents).
Older fans who got there several hours before the show, cars stocked with six-packs and snacks, were able to spend the day living out their Heavy Metal Parking Lot fantasies, so by nightfall, they were probably wasted and happy.
But the rest of us? We were pretty much in hell until we got to our seats.
I’ll just say it: The Rose Bowl is not made for concerts, and when it does hold them, it offers the worst entry experience you can have at an L.A. venue. The flea market I can deal with, but I genuinely don’t remember the last time I went there for a music event. Some of the nearby freeway exits were blocked off, as were many of the surrounding streets, forcing everyone to take the same route, a clogged snail trail through limited residential streets (we were on Washington) that can take hours. The Uber and Lyft lines seemed no more expedient, either.
Trying to avoid the $40 (!) parking fees, I opted to pay one of the many enterprising residents in the area and parked on their lawn for 20 bucks. Then I walked about a mile to the venue. Before I did that, I guess I should’ve talked to someone who attended Arroyo Seco or U2 here last month, because everyone I’ve complained to about the disorganized mess told me they learned their lesson at one of those, especially the women.
When I finally got to the entrance, I discovered that the Rose Bowl has a rule that I've never encountered in my 20 years of reviewing concerts: You are not allowed to bring in a purse.
As of last year, the venue instituted a “clear bag” policy, meaning a bag of any reasonable size must be clear/see-through or you can’t take it in. The only purses they do allow are essentially wallet-size (OK, greeting-card size) with chains or straps — barely enough for a cellphone, some money and maybe a lipstick.
I’m a big-bag girl, especially at an outdoor stadium. Saturday it had my essentials: a little sweater, female products, a makeup bag, cellphone and backup charger. Security were not only adamant that I couldn’t bring it in, they were admonishing about it, chiding me that I should’ve known their policy because it’s on their website.
Anyway, my options at that point were to walk a mile back to the car or stand in an insane line to check the thing in. Since I also happen to have asthma and had meds for it, I opted for plan C — the first aid tent, where I got a special sticker that allowed me to finally bring it in. All this aggravation and rigmarole made me miss Avenged Sevenfold, a band I’ve covered since their first record and I wanted to see.
You might be thinking by now, “OK, but how were Metallica?” And I’m getting to it, but it must be stated: A concert is an experience and every aspect of that experience becomes part of the show and reflects on the band. The Rose Bowl is admittedly a not-too-often used (now I know why) and novel venue for music, and since James Hetfield shouted out it and Pasadena a few times, I’m guessing the band chose it for that reason. But it’s inconvenient for fans in myriad ways that artists should be aware of. Staples, the Forum and even Dodger Stadium do a better job in terms of parking logistics and security measures.
“In the name of desperation/In the name of wretched pain/In the name of all creation/Gone insane … We're so fucked/Shit outta luck/Hardwired to self-destruct.”
Needless to say, the lyrics to “Hardwired” — Metallica’s opening number off their 10th full-length release last year — were apropos after the nightmare getting in. But there’s no better music to shake frustrations off to than metal, and no bigger, bolder band to do it with live. After almost 35 years of playing shows — as singer Hetfield reminded us a few times Saturday — these guys still rock as hard and angry as ever onstage. The aggro vibes were saved for the music, though. Some of the first words out of Hetfield’s mouth were about unity: “We don’t care about the color of your skin, who you voted for or what god you bow down to,” he said. “We’re here to celebrate life with live music!”
Apparently Hetfield has been opening up with a similar spiel throughout the tour, which makes sense considering the political climate (and the Ted Nugent–like mindset in less liberal parts of the country). Some of Metallica’s early work had political undertones, but at this point they seem content to stir shit up sonically more than thematically or lyrically. Hardwired … to Self-Destruct is a great album and for many, it’s a comeback of sorts, filled with speedy tempos, wicked riffs and dark, wailing choruses recalling the band’s early work.
Metallica’s magnum opus is, of course, their self-titled 1991 record aka “The Black Album,” which yielded five hit singles: “Enter Sandman,” “The Unforgiven,” “Nothing Else Matters,” “Wherever I May Roam” and “Sad but True.” The band know that, for many fans, it was their last great record. They performed all five anthems throughout the show Saturday, backed by mega-LCDs and lights and lasers and requisite pyro. Peppered with other faves from the '80s, such as “One” off of … And Justice for All and the title track to Master of Puppets, it was a then/now playlist, all early '80s and '90s cuts, and a bunch of the new stuff, with nothing much from the period in between. The crowd (literally a sea of black Metallica T-shirts) dug it all, fist-pumping and singing along and thrashing nonstop.
The metal community is nothing if not loyal, but that doesn’t mean Metallica have necessarily maintained favor with all fervent contingents over the years. They didn’t come off exactly likable in the 2004 documentary Some Kind of Monster; more recently, the duet with Lady Gaga on the new track “Moth to a Flame” at this year’s Grammys was viewed by many metalers as a misstep, if not a total sell-out disaster. Hell, the hardcore hesher crowd still feels the need to pit the band against Megadeth, even though founding member Dave Mustaine was ousted decades ago, just as they were getting started. Metallica aren’t as heavy and they’ve had too many hits for some, but others think they didn’t write anything hit-worthy after 1991. And Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich cut their hair, which is so not metal, right?
As Hetfield basically said at the start of the show, the band don’t really care about any of that stuff at this point. Hetfield, Ulrich, guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Robert Trujillo are all in their 50s and they’ve been doing what they do and doing it well for a long time. It’s about playing the music for their fans, old and new (judging from the relatively youthful crowd, they have an equal split these days) and keeping their legacy alive. They’ve created a body of classics-filled work that can pack a stadium and keep them entertained, and that is something to be proud of.
You could tell they were proud, too. Saturday’s show was filled with mesmerizing solos; giddy, grinding jams; a drum circle; cool, creepy visuals; lots of fire; a second, smaller stage providing interactive audience time; and even cover songs, if you count half of Van Halen’s “Runnin' With the Devil,” sung in homage to Pasadena, where fellow stadium rockers VH grew up.
OK, so I didn’t like the locale, but maybe Metallica (and, apparently, U2) are the kind of band you have to suffer for. Big stadium shows are never easy when it comes to getting to them and navigating within them, particularly when it comes to metal shows, where it's usually dude-heavy and beer-soaked. But the payoff can be visceral, highly visual and magical, something that stays with you forever. Metallica’s show was all of these things, but only time will tell whether or not it was powerful enough to make me forget about the burden it took to see it.