Under the cover of darkness, Metallica had just one message for ACL Fest 2018 onlookers and humanity at large: We’re out of luck, hard-wired to self-destruct. The band offered songs about death and addiction, and piped in black-and-white images of war. Despite the dire themes, it was a celebration.
“We’re all a Metallica family now,” James Hetfield told Zilker Park. “Are you alive?”
Saturday may have been Metallica’s ACL debut, but it’s no stranger to city limits. As old concert footage flashed on-screen, the band reminded locals that apparently on Feb. 21, 1985, Metallica played in town. And in 1983. Heck when the band showed up at Stubb’s in 2008 to promote its “Guitar Hero” video game, it was a mob scene of star-crossed fans who couldn’t get in and filled up the then-neighboring parking garage.
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Some generations point to “Stairway to Heaven” as their rock epic; millennials have “Pyramids” by Frank Ocean. The Reagan-era “One,” with its thrash breakdowns and boiling chants, endures as a somber reminder that the human experience is suffering. In the meantime, fans gave a middle finger to cameramen and yelled along to feel better.
“Metallica is with you, City Limits — it’s about time,” Hetfield said as he oversaw a two-hour, 16-songs-plus set.
Here the setup was maximalist and all-encompassing: It featured a large, circular catwalk more fit for Bono. Multiple microphones were planted stage left and right for Hetfield to sing from. 2016’s “Hardwired” opened proceedings five minutes before the scheduled 8 p.m. start, drowning out Nelly across the park. It was hot and crowded, though less densely packed than Friday night’s Paul McCartney show. (Hetfield’s biker jacket lasted about two songs.)
Metallica was at a runaway train pace. Four songs and nearly 25 minutes in, drummer Lars Ulrich left his purple kit and took a breather.
The band is big business and forward-thinking. (These guys just released a $43 branded whiskey.) Ulrich may have hated Napster but Metallica reportedly mines its regional Spotify plays to forge set lists. I thought about this when “Nothing Else Matters” was performed, a song I’ve heard on 101X more times than is reasonable. University of Texas football plays “Seek and Destroy” prior to kickoffs, and sure enough the song was an early barnburner.
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Predictably for a festival, the set was heavy on hits. “Are you still out there?” Hetfield asked as fireworks signaled “Enter Sandman.” That one just doesn’t age. On “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” riff machine Kirk Hammett stole the stage with a mammoth, song-ending solo that was liberal with the whammy-bar wailing.
The band has also been performing geographically minded covers on tour recently, and Austin enjoyed Hammett and bassist Robert Trujillo duet a Stevie Ray Vaughan “deep cut.” (I didn't catch which one; please let us know in the comments.)
Trujillo also honored late bassist Cliff Burton, who flashed on-screen, with a long-winded bass solo. It was the kind of solo showing off you’d catch someone doing at Guitar Center, but fans ate out of his hand.
Each band member took a turn addressing the crowd before a final group hug. “Metallica’s just getting started,” Ulrich said after bragging about performing over the years across other area venues like the defunct X-Games and the Frank Erwin Center.
“We never take it for granted,” Hetfield said. “Thank you for caring.”
Judging by the league’s worth of team apparel on hand, that was an understatement.