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.
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."
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.
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