The Big 4 Put Aside Their Differences for Spectacular Metal Show

Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax rocked for seven hours Saturday in the California desert

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There's nothing like a heavy metal parking lot, and the pre-show party going on before the sold-out Big 4 concert Saturday in Indio, California was maybe the craziest ever – an entire field of metalheads in sleeveless pentagram-emblazoned black T-shirts and devil beards tailgating, cooking brats on hibachis, drinking Coors tall boys and spraying sunscreen on tattooed shaven heads. The crowd was so hyped up for the seven-hour show with Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax that by the time the latter actually commenced the seven-hour proceedings with a sweaty opening set at 4:00 p.m., it already felt like a climax.

The Big 4 have played in Europe before, but the event's North American premiere felt especially historic, taking place in thrash metal's spiritual home; all the bands except Anthrax have roots in SoCal. And it proved to be one of the heaviest homecomings ever: the day was filled with memorable moments and intense live music played by bands formerly known to metal fans as bitter rivals. Slayer co-founder and guitarist Jeff Hanneman made a dramatic surprise reunion with his bandmates following an illness that threatened to end his music career. And with the success of the Indio concert, additional "Big 4" appearances appear to be highly likely, with an East Coast date the soonest probable follow-up. "Obviously, this thing should play more places in America," Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich told Rolling Stone.

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The shared legacy and longevity of those involved – Anthrax, Metallica, and Slayer all will celebrate their 30th anniversaries in 2011 – have clearly erased any remaining tensions. According to Ulrich, "The camaraderie is real. There's a segment of the metal community that would rather still have us feuding – it's like, 'It's much more fun when Dave [Mustaine, who was kicked out of Metallica in 1983] and Lars hate each other, or when Kerry King talks shit about Metallica.' Obviously, everybody was very competitive, but there's nothing to be competitive about now."

As Anthrax ripped into their 1987 classic "Caught In A Mosh" to open the show, concertgoers rushed the stage pumping their fists and throwing up devil signs, and didn't let up for the whole set despite the dusty desert heat, screaming along to the oi choruses and strumming along to each burst of staccato rifferama. Featuring classic-era vocalist Joey Belladonna, Anthrax ripped through 10 songs ranging from their earliest efforts like "Metal Thrashing Mad" to new track "Fight 'Em," which was as enthusiastically received as the hits. "We had a lot of adrenaline, playing a new song in front of 50,000 people," guitarist Scott Ian said moments after coming off stage. "It was pretty overwhelming – the emotion coming off the crowd was unlike any I'd felt in the United States before."

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At the beginning of Megadeth's set, the sound mix was initially compromised, with frontman Dave Mustaine's vocals submerged for nearly one-third of the set. Oddly, this mistake proved a virtue, as it drew attention to Megadeth's vicious musical interplay, which swayed, lurched and exploded in total communion. Megadeth's 12 songs provided perhaps the most stylistically varied performance of the bill, from the dynamically shifting hooks of "A Tout Le Monde" to the hyper, rockabilly-influenced maelstrom of "Poison Was The Cure." With Mustaine's red mane swinging in his face as he ripped fluid solos on a gold Flying V, it was exactly the Megadeth show fans wanted to see.

Introducing the final song, "Holy Wars… The Punishment Due," Mustaine invoked recent global tragedies involving earthquakes and tsunamis, and railed against how we pit "nation against nation." It was a sentiment only reinforced by songs like "War Ensemble" in the relentless, staggering set that followed from Slayer. They were a reminder of how topical and fiercely political the innovators of thrash metal were – and prescient, their apocalyptic musings borne out by current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. With no production other than basic lights, the brawny musicality of guitarist Kerry King and drummer Dave Lombardo inspired the most brutal moshing of the day. Songs like the serial-killer anthem "Dead Skin Mask" coagulated into unholy drones before leaping into double and triple time; despite the unparalleled aggression of Slayer's music, growling frontman Tom Araya couldn't stop smiling at the audience's rabid reception.

Slayer actually provided the heaviest moment in the season's heaviest concert: when Slayer co-founder/guitarist Jeff Hanneman came out for the group's last two songs, "South Of Heaven" and "Angel of Death." Hanneman's appearance was unexpected: He hasn't performed with Slayer for most of 2011 due to suffering from necrotic fasciitis, a flesh-eating bacterial condition that withered his right arm so much it was unclear if he'd ever perform with the band again. Hanneman even cut the sleeve off his shirt to defiantly display his disfigurement as he played.

Exodus' Gary Holt has been his primary replacement, although Hanneman claimed he'd be healed enough to start touring with Slayer again in a month's time. "It was so fucking great playing again," he said moments after Slayer finished their set. "It was rough for me to sit on the bench, watching the guys – I was like, 'They're playing my song!' I could see the look in the kids' eyes when I popped out on stage: when I get up there, it's Slayer again."

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Ultimately, though, the night belonged to the band at the top of the bill, Metallica. Arriving on stage to a clip from the spaghetti Western The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and its hypnotic Ennio Morricone soundtrack, the band ripped into "Creeping Death" from their second album, 1984's Ride The Lightning. Singer/guitarist James Hetfield led the crowd in a "Die! Die!" chant that was the first of many epic singalongs, only topped by the audience shouting along to every chorus in "Master Of Puppets." The crowd followed Metallica through a career-spanning 18 songs that didn't let up for two and half hours. The crushing anti-war ballad "One" proved to be the big camera-phone moment, but the most moving one occurred when the band paid tribute to late bassist Cliff Burton on the instrumental "Orion."

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During the set's peak with "Enter Sandman," fans got so worked up they started a roaring bonfire in the middle of a large mosh pit, lighting their shirts aflame and twirling them above their heads. It was an exciting, dangerous moment where everything nearly spun out of control, but Metallica maintained the crowd's attention. Lead guitarist Kirk Hammett shredded one deeply lyrical, intricate solo after another, while Hetfield repeatedly returned to the drum riser to jam in unison with Ulrich, and it was thrilling to watch them create their distinctive lockstep grooves in real time. Throughout, they clearly showed how they dragged thrash sounds to the mainstream through sheer musical charisma and commitment. This was a defining performance, demonstrating why Metallica remains one of the tightest, most powerful bands ever, metal or otherwise.

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For the encore, Metallica brought out nearly every member of the "Big 4" bands to play together on a raucous cover of "Am I Evil?" – a song originally by "New Wave of British Heavy Metal" band Diamond Head, and a key influence on this generation of headbangers. The crowd audibly gasped when Mustaine walked onstage – but the ensuing performance showed that the once infamous thrash-band rivalries were now a thing of the past.

And maintaining the momentum the "Big 4" kicked off in Indio seems to be an immediate priority – particularly for Metallica. "We are looking to book something on the East Coast because of the success of this – it should hopefully come together in a week or two," Ulrich said. "Maybe we'll do somewhere in the Midwest and South, too. Still, I don't think it will turn into a 40-date arena tour; that would make it less special. I like the fact that there's an element of chaos to the whole thing. It shouldn't be sterile, streamlined and perfect: it needs an edgy underbelly to remain authentic."