“Surprise, surprise — you’re all surprised, right?” singer-guitarist James Hetfield cracked in his sea-captain’s growl, leering at the heaving crowd two songs into Metallica’s poorly kept-secret SXSW show, March 20th at Stubb’s. “Thank you for letting us come to your party.” Then his voice changed. “We are an unsigned band from Norway,” he said in a terrible Scandanavian accent and Andy Kaufman-like chirp. “Maybe we get signed.” Any unsigned Norwegian band that could write and play anything as smart and brutal as Metallica’s next song, “Harvester of Sorrow,” would have been signed before it left the building.
So you ask: Why Metallica at SXSW? The answer: Why the hell not? SXSW stopped being only about alternative rock and regional baby bands when superstars started giving the keynote speeches and the acts playing corporate-sponsor day parties outnumbered the evening showcases. Metallica were at SXSW to sell their imminent edition of the interactive video game Guitar Hero. But they ended up proving something else: You don’t get anywhere in this world, with a guitar, in a band, until you get off the couch. (Hetfield talked Guitar Hero, the sound quality of Death Magnetic and more in a SXSW interview with RS.)
The promotion was in full effect — Metallica played in front of a giant Guitar Hero banner, and one of the opening acts was a trio of local Guitar Hero contest winners, who “played” a version of “Fuel” on Guitar Hero “instruments.” But the real deal came to perform, opening with “Creeping Death” and, except for two Death Magnetic numbers, giving the audience 90 minutes of greatest hits, including “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “One,” “Sad But True” and a scorched-earth tear through “Master of Puppets.” There was, surprisingly, no “Enter Sandman.” Instead, Metallica ended the set with a rare “Blackened” from … And Justice for All and started the three-song encore with their Garage Days-EP roasting of Budgie’s “Breadfan.”
The primary lesson of this show: You can learn how to play like Metallica with Guitar Hero. But this is what it takes to A be them: Lars Ulrich’s precision-cannon-fire drum intro to “Creeping Death”; Kirk Hammett’s wah-wah bark and furious shred-and-melody solo in “Cyanide”; Hammett and Hetfield’s elegy-harmony guitars in the bridge of “Master of Puppets”; bassist Robert Trujillo’s thick tight runs and prowling-animal crouch. Note to those Guitar Hero contest winners, who stared at their “instruments” like they feared electrocution: The stage is for posing.
“Live music is where it’s at for us,” Hetfield said midway through the set. “We’ve been road dogs since the day I left high school.” He repeated the message at the very end, after a Kill ‘Em All sandwich of “Whiplash” and “Seek and Destroy.” “God bless loud live music,” Hetfield bellowed, like he was marshalling troops for battle. In other words, have fun, play Guitar Hero: Metallica. Then get off the fucking couch.