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."
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."
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.
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."
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