A month or so ago, Lars Ulrich was exhausted after putting the finishing touches on the mega-project that is Metallica's album S&M
. Recorded during the two concerts with the San Francisco Symphony in April, Ulrich called that collaboration a grand experiment -- but one that he was anxious to repeat in New York. "Those [shows] were a learning process," he said. "But we're gonna enjoy the shit out of the one in New York!"
In fact, the main difference between Metallica's home openers and the one at Madison Square Garden Tuesday night was the band's enjoyment level. All four of the metal pioneers were as relaxed as testosterone-fueled boys on spring break, perhaps enlivened by Friday night's successful concert in Berlin, and knowing this was the last symphony outing scheduled. So they made the most of it, cavorting around the huge stage, grinning at Academy Award-nominated conductor/composer Michael Kamen, playing off each other and jousting musically with the seventy-eight classical musicians who make up New York's Orchestra of St. Luke's.
And it was still a grand experiment, one that yielded moments of
frustration when the sound balance was off, and moments of sonic glory when it all came together. There were more of the latter than the former during the
three-hour, sweat-drenched show, even though it was never a fifty-fifty
collaboration. This was Metallica backed by a symphony orchestra -- only
occasionally did the classical musicians get the spotlight.
Kamen, who first worked with the band on orchestrating sections of "Nothing Else Matters," hit the stage first and took a deep bow, to surprisingly voracious response. The orchestra launched into "Call of Ktulu," building steam slowly with the epic instrumental. By the time Metallica arrived, the audience was primed and the screaming all but drowned out the orchestra. After all, the crowd was composed of ninety percent rock fans, but the nicely attired symphony fans were easy to spot.
The segue into "Master of Puppets" was not an easy one. Taking off like a rocket into the speed-metal classic, Metallica left the orchestra behind at times and the sound became dissonant. Thankfully, they got it together for the next song: "Of Wolf and Man," which singer/alpha male James Hetfield joked they had renamed to "Of Wolfgang and Man."
"The Thing That Should Not Be" was dark and operatic, a reminder that Kamen's plan was to pick songs that weren't necessarily big hits but had a deep sense of drama. By the time the band revved up into "Fuel," they were ready to rock. With its complicated time changes and machine-gun pace, band and symphony worked together shockingly well.
Occasionally Hetfield would sit on a stool in front of a music stand, as he did for "No Leaf Clover," one of three songs written especially for the symphony collaborations. Bassist Jason Newsted was everywhere -- playing in amongst the tuxedoed musicians, circling the stage, singing in a fine bass bellow -- even doing harmony with Hetfield. Guitarist Kirk Hammett, all in black like the rest of Metallica, was also enjoying the orchestral give-and-take, dazzling the audience one minute with his classic screaming riffs, then grinning broadly at the symphony members and listening to their contributions. And Ulrich was having such a good time that he got up on several occasions to whack his drums from a standing position.
"Devil Dance" was memorable for its savage bottom-beat, rendering it reminiscent of the theme to "Peter Gunn." "Bleeding Me" was invitingly spare and emotive, with Hetfield singing from the middle of the orchestra.
After the intermission, "Nothing Else Matters" and "Until It Sleeps" drove the energy level up for "For Whom the Bell Tolls," which exploded like TNT. And the synergy between Metallica and the orchestra peaked with "Wherever I May Roam," with its crushing intro and relentless guitar work by Hammett. Hetfield knew that they'd nailed that one, howling exultantly at its conclusion.
On "The Outlaw Torn" he shared lead guitar duties with Hammett, to delirious result. Metallica and crew closed the show with the one-two punch of "Enter Sandman" and "Battery," and the crowd sang along with abandon. Screams of appreciation greeted both classical and rock musicians alike as they took their bows.
Later, an exhausted Kamen said he was sorry that his concert series with his new friends in Metallica was over. "Although," he grinned, "Lars is already saying, 'Maybe we should think about next year...!' "
Afterwards, at the post-party at a chichi West Village club, Ulrich said that this was the best show yet. "Berlin was pretty good, but this one was over the fucking moon!'"
Written by JANE GANAHL for RollingStone.com News