BY STEFFAN CHIRAZI, SO WHAT! EDITOR
And so it began just over two weeks ago.
The first part of WorldWired 2017 kicked off in Asia – Seoul, South Korea to be precise – where the bright lights are plenty, the toilets perform wizardry, make cups of tea plus play symphonies, and the Metallica family filled the Gocheok Sky Dome to usher in the New Year. The tour was always going to be not only a valuable reconnection with fans and friends in Asia who Metallica has seen before but also a chance to break bread in that most wonderful way with NEW cities and thus NEW experiences. It was also a chance to work through HTSD material for the stage, as well as tweak and tuck elements of the live production. So yeah, the ‘Tallica Gang hit the Gangnam ‘hood hard, before making its way to China – a fascinating and exciting experience which truly showed how the juxtaposition of cultures made such synergetic sense.
In the last two decades, Shanghai has willfully (and successfully) elevated itself to being a city which can go toe-to-toe with the likes of Dubai, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. It courts the best of European culture; its British ex-pat roots informing many of the buildings along its world famous riverfront road The Bund, whilst the other side of the Huangpu River shows the explosive modern architecture which sees building such as The Shanghai Tower soar higher than most buildings in the world. In every sense, Shanghai is an east-meets-west blender, a place where the cultures mix and sometimes match but always successfully mingle. Q Prime, and especially Peter Mensch with Tony DiCioccio, had long-talked of the potential fan-base in China, and as such, the brace of Shanghai shows last time around in 2013 had broken important ground. So Shanghai offered the security of knowing what was coming in a country not well-traveled. Everyone knew of its world-class cuisine and cultural pockets, its European-influenced neighborhoods and magnificent temples, and critically, everyone knew the Mercedes-Benz Arena, thus there was perhaps always an air of comfort and even familiarity for Metallica in Shanghai.
Unlike the massive, mystical capital city Beijing. Whereas Shanghai is absolutely prepared to jostle for international mega-city bragging rights, Beijing is quite brilliantly very much Beijing. Of course, it has enormous elements of modernity, but if you want the cultural urban Chinese experience, then Beijing is your place. It is a huge city, both in scale and also tangible, physical size. Buildings are big and monolithic, main urban roads carry freeway proportions, and despite having high-end western stores within throwing distance of our hotel, Beijing is resolutely and proudly traditional. At the same time, it is a city that comfortably carries the sophistication, facilities, and structure necessary to host Metallica and doubtless many others. It is not New York, but equally, New York is not Beijing if you catch my drift, and perhaps the only thing which was tough to deal with was the pollution problem, and even this is something that the government is apparently making some stringent efforts to reign in. In Beijing, situations and circumstances are very straight forward. The rules are plainly laid out and as long as you respect them, then you will have a fine time. I was particularly fascinated to find the Art District, a place where modern Chinese artists might show their work, express themselves, hang out, and generally enjoy the urban tapestry around them.
This was Metallica’s first time in the imperious capital as a band, and no one wasted time seeing some of the sights which demanded to be seen. There was The Great Wall, where we went specifically to the Mutianyu section (a bit further out yet well worth the extra ride) and enjoyed a virtually clear, crisp and highly unpopulated visit to one of the World’s Seven Wonders. The Hetfields managed to scale the longest set of stairs until they reached the part with blocked access, as did Lars and Jess, whilst most of us got within touching distance but found the ice a little tricky. We all discussed how this magical place had been on pretty much everyone’s bucket lists (James had been a few years earlier but as he relays it, the experience was, shall we say, not ideal). It did not disappoint, as Ross Halfin’s photos show; he informed me later that night that this had been the first proper band photo session he remembered seeing here. Overall, I think most agreed this was a few steps beyond amazing.
The Forbidden City was the other hot-spot to see, and its vastness, its sheer scale and size were humbling, with palace after palace lined up one (huge) courtyard after the other. Apparently, the large painting of Chairman Mao which adorns the entrance is changed annually (I wonder what happens to the old one), and again, we lucked out on crowds (i.e. not many people) which probably had a lot to do with the freezing temperatures. I personally had one of my favorite moments of the trip, ambling slowly along behind our group with Tye Trujillo and chatting about punk rock, Metallica music, and Cliff. He’s a special young man and it’s impossible not to see the artist in him when he gets talking about music, his demeanor one of a person who is happier with an instrument in hand than not. I told him that having seen Cliff play and having seen him play, I saw similarities, not least when his hair launches skywards and his body lurches forwards. It's the truth. It’s just who he is.
When we arrived at LeSports Center (which has a bizarre and impossible-to-ignore architectural design that looks like a perforated metal cube), Beijing’s famous pianist Lang Lang had received clearance to make a guest appearance with the boys. There was a soundcheck where the guys revisited the same arrangement of “One” with Lang Lang as was heard on the Grammys back in 2014, and this soundcheck showed the collaboration sounding much more fluid and generally much, much better than that Grammy moment. The other thing that hit me during soundcheck was how much LOUDER it sounded than the last two shows, with the whites of the PA bearing right in and on top of you, which certainly intensified the vibe.
I wrote about the show already, but what I might’ve failed to get across is just how electrified the Beijing crowd was by “Sad But True,” which in hindsight was the gateway and catalyst moment for these fans to get engaged with the sheer dynamic energy they had hitherto never experienced at a Metallica gig. It lit them up and stirred them, unleashing energy and emotions which you felt had been bottling for the better part of the preceding hour. The band fed off that like a pack of ravenous wolves. By the end, by “Enter Sandman,” the energy was close to full boil with a palpable electricity in the air that respectfully (on all sides of the coin) managed to remain both safe and civil. Everywhere in China the band members went, they were left alone to get on with life, enjoy the sights, go to restaurants, and generally do whatever it was that they needed to do without being badgered. Like anywhere, I’m sure daily life has its differences, however, I have to say that for Metallica 2017, Beijing (like Shanghai before it) was a highly hospitable and thoroughly positive experience.
One thing I must make clear about Metallica’s attitude in China; it was, is, and always will be one of total respect, which was likewise largely reciprocated. You will have read about the rules that exist here, and yes, there are songs which are “not sanctioned for performance” by the government. But as Lars said to me, this is a band that has more than a few, and as James added, when you go to someone else's country, you should respect their ways and customs, respect their requests and wishes, just as you want yours respected by visitors and invitees. It’s all about respect and also about ensuring that the fans in Beijing (and Shanghai) get to see their guys throw it down in person, as opposed to them never getting the chance because someone decided to go smart-ass and make a name for themselves. This is how people and cultures come together. And without wishing to seem over the top, music is one of the very few elements in life which can unite people from all walks and cultures so quickly and effortlessly.
From the heartily unique experiences of Beijing and Shanghai, we decamped to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, formerly under British rule, but back with China since gaining independence in 1997. Confused? Simply put Hong Kong is Chinese but retains special administrative privileges. And Hong Kong was everything I expected it to be: crazy, colorful, absolutely bustling with life, and bristling with a frenetic, electric energy. Skyscrapers are jammed dramatically around inlets all over the bay, and when night falls, the lights are almost overbearing. There are no limiters, there are fewer rules, there is more buzz in the air. It feels like everything is geared towards the night hours and what potential fun they can bring. Lars, Jess, Ross Halfin, and I wandered the madness of the Mong Kok at night, where neon and people pack into tiny streets stuffed with market stalls, almost dizzy at the blur of it all, whilst you’ll never be short of a bar or club to visit. Meanwhile by day, Hong Kong is one of the most significant financial centers of the world, which makes it a non-stop blend of money and action 24-7.
Unsurprisingly it was Hong Kong that created the liveliest show of the run, the AsiaWorld-Expo screaming and roaring from the beginning, the crowd closer to the band than at any other venue, the setlist perhaps the most organic and pure Metallica had performed. Thus the performances were probably the most unfettered. It was the first show where I noticed the guys starting to enjoy the rolls and grooves of “Now That We’re Dead” and “Halo On Fire” as opposed to simply executing them with great proficiency. And Hong Kong saw some more united fun off-stage too, with a late night meal at the famous and wonderfully-named Ho Lee Fook restaurant, which in Cantonese it means “good fortune for your mouth,” a statement which bore true. There was also a Victoria Harbour boat ride. It was very cool to see everyone out and taking in the sites together, another sign of what I see as the 2017 Metallica that is determined to make every minute of tour life count as positively as possible, from the travel to (obviously) the gigs.
I skipped Singapore for logistical reasons, thus am writing this after living the same day twice (thanks to the +16 hour time difference between Hong Kong and San Francisco), so hopefully there is a Fifth Member out there who can offer a few words as to how Singapore went. Each show I saw carried a unique atmosphere and environment that directly reflected that city’s energy, and perhaps more than ever, Metallica shows will be unique “events” that wholly absorb and reflect the local environment as opposed to “tours” in the sense of clicking a road groove that never shifts once it’s hit a gear.
If I am right, if each gig is going to be as such, then I’d best buy a wetsuit AND armor for Denmark…