When you get down to it, there are two Metallicas in this world: the Metallica that laid the groundwork for Bay Area thrash alongside Exodus, Testament, Forbidden and others, and then the Metallica that, via "Enter Sandman," ushered in metal's degeneration from rebellious, anti-authoritarian music to a white dudebro soundtrack played by smarmy morning DJs on stations with names like "The Bone" and "The Tool."
At AT&T Park last night, we got the old Metallica.
Forget the crowd of 30,000. Forget the huge, five-panel stage set. Forget the pyrotechnics so enormous that they toasted the faces of those even in the third deck, far away from the center-field stage in a huge stadium. Metallica put on a show that felt like home, in a two-and-a-half-hour set titled "Too Heavy for Halftime" that served as a sideways middle-finger to the NFL on the eve of its biggest event.
"I know there was a petition going around," said frontman James Hetfield, acknowledging an online effort to get Metallica booked as a Super Bowl halftime act. "But I think it works this way. We get to play a whole show, and we get to represent the Bay Area."
"The Bay Area" and "San Francisco" were repeated phrases from Hetfield, who led his bandmates in a pummeling set that opened with "Creeping Death" -- a thirty-two-year-old song that still sounds furious as ever -- and continued through early classics like "Sanitarium," "Seek & Destroy," and a one-two punch of "Master of Puppets" and "Battery" that whipped the general-admission field into six separate mosh pits and had fans wondering if they were at an enormous baseball stadium in 2016 or the Henry J. Kaiser Auditorium in 1986.
Such force rendered metal ballads like "The Unforgiven" anomalies, and it became easy to forget that Metallica essentially created the radio-friendly form: acoustic arpeggios, heavy mid-tempo choruses and distorted, Spanish-flavored guitar solos that would make Carlos Montoya do a double take.
But it was the set's centerpiece "One," the anti-war epic from 1988's ...And Justice For All, that crystallized the notion of Metallica not as a numbskull Super Bowl attraction but as a musical institution channeling its testosterone in all the right directions. As images of war and fallen soldiers splayed across gigantic LED panels, "One" served as properly delivered aggression in protest of misguided U.S. aggression; or, as fellow early Bay Area thrash band D.R.I. once put it, a form of violent pacification.
The effect was four tough guys fighting the good fight, which runs deep in Bay Area metal (witness the response of Robb Flynn, of Forbidden and Vio-lence, to the "white power" seig-heiling of Pantera's Phil Anselmo last month). Add to that the band's genuine gratitude at having lasted so long, their tribute to original bassist Cliff Burton and their love for their fans -- repaid in a full-stadium sing-along at the end of "The Memory Remains" -- and the night was, ultimately, a feel-good night, which seems a funny thing to say about a band whose T-shirts were once banned from junior high schools across the country.
And after the night's closer -- "Enter Sandman," naturally -- beneath a shower of fireworks, hell, who needs to watch the Super Bowl?