For Thursday night being Metallica’s first time playing Lincoln in 37 years as a band, the Bay Area thrash metal pioneers seemed right at home.
In front of 15,000 strong at Pinnacle Bank Arena, Kirk Hammett, Lars Ulrich, Robert Trujillo and James Hetfield burned through decades’ worth of material, spanning from “Kill ‘Em All” to “Hardwired… to Self-Destruct.”
At multiple points throughout the show, Hetfield, sporting a fresh white handlebar mustache, referred to the Lincoln crowd as the “Metallica family,” even though the band hadn’t been to Nebraska since an Omaha show in 2008. The only requirement to be part of the family, Hetfield said, was to “be here.” And for nearly two and a half hours, PBA was one big loud family reunion.
“The more of a misfit you are, the more you fit in here,” he said.
The show got off to an explosive start when, after 30 seconds of “Hardwired” played over the PA, Ulrich struck his snare and the rest of the band came in with full force and galloped around the stage like a game of musical chairs.
During that song, red and orange lights blanketed the stage, which sat in the middle of the arena’s floor and gave the capacity crowd a more intimate experience than the standard arena setup with a stage flanking one wall. Ulrich’s drums rested on an elevated, rotating circle in the middle, and eight microphones stood for Hetfield to point his attention to one arena section at a time. Depending on which mic he chose, it sometimes felt like he was singing right at you.
“Hardwired” ended, but Metallica didn’t slow up to address the crowd until after two punchy and solo-filled blasts of “Atlas Rise” and “Seek & Destroy.” “Now That We’re Dead” saw the band toss their guitars over their shoulders to form a four-person drum circle on drum stations that had risen out of the floor (Hetfield is surprisingly deft with a snare drum). And the crowd combined voices into a growling stadium-sized choir in the chorus of “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”
But Metallica was at its best on Thursday night when the guitars were the focus, because after all, Metallica is a guitar band. With countless guitar changes and half a dozen wah pedals littered around the stage, Hetfield and Hammett didn’t disappoint. Nothing topped the one-two punch of “One” and “Master of Puppets” at the end of the band’s main setlist, when Hetfield and Hammett dueled through jangly, Zeppelin-esque clean guitar interludes into blood-pumping speed metal solos.
It wasn’t often when their intricate harmonizing was at the forefront of the mix — that was dominated by Ulrich’s kick drum and Trujillo’s bass. But when it was, it was a cathartic display of two guitar virtuosos going head to head.
Was it indulgent sometimes? Yes. And did it matter? Not at all. It was Metallica.
The band played with a youthful spunk that’s hard to find in artists 25 years younger. Ulrich in particular walked around between songs and pumped his fist with the swagger of a basketball player who just drained a last-second three-pointer.
Hetfield, however, didn’t shy away from acknowledging the wealth of middle-aged metalheads at the show — being one himself. He even gave Hammett crap for being the oldest member in the band. But he also pointed out a healthy showing from what he called the youth of Metallica.
That’s what was beautiful about the show: even with an aging fan base, the audience was still populated by hundreds of people younger than 30. It’s a testament to the staying power and long-term ubiquity of Metallica. Headbangers who grew up with Iron Maiden and Motörhead shared the arena with millennials who found metal through Slipknot and System of a Down.
Before launching into “Sad But True” near the end of Metallica’s first ever Lincoln show, Hetfield asked the Lincoln family reunion crowd if “they [wanted] heavy” — something all metalheads could appreciate.
On Thursday, Metallica gave it to them.