THE FOUR[TH WALL] HORSEMEN!
Metallica plays the most unique live event yet in the COVID-19 2020 era from their own Northern Californian HQ.
“We have punctured the fourth wall!”* Lars Ulrich said something like that during the second All Within My Hands Helping Hands Concert & Auction live event on Saturday November 14, 2020, and if I can take his words slightly out of context, he is so right.
The fourth wall was punctured.
Seeming impossibilities became not just tangible realities but engaging, exciting, and very spontaneous moments.
The physical distance which millions upon millions of us have been deprived of by COVID-19 felt a damn sight closer than at any previous live event since this pandemic visited the world.
There was fluidity in the motion of the show, the performances, and the interactions. Even the vibe, the goddamn VIBE, was crashing through the fourth digital wall and flowing into HQ thanks to a combination of excellent production and the fact that when you put Metallica in a live setting together, their chemistry and sense of humor permeates every known element from flesh and blood to surgical steel… let me explain a little more for those who did not tune in.
The band set up in Studio A with four video walls encasing them. Within each wall was a series of honeycomb-shaped video cells. Within each of those cells were fans who would swap in and out throughout the show, and not only were they watching, they were also seen. Not only were they able to hear, they could be heard. And this meant that for some today, they got closer in terms of interaction to the band than ever possible before. Jack in Cleveland, Christof in Northern France, and Lynette in Florida were among many to have a quick natter with James, Lars, Kirk, and Rob, and despite the physical distance, it was as though their energy and enthusiasm burst through the screens into the room and directly energized the band… there’s that fourth wall again.
Things started with great gravitas and mood – perhaps, on reflection, an air of trepidation. A lot could’ve technically gone wrong. What would it feel like? How would it sound? What about the overall projection?
There was fierce focus etched on each band member’s face as they started with that eerie, creepy, almost Eastern sounding interpretation of “Blackened,” and as the final note was played, to see and hear those walls talk and roar and clap was something of a revelation and a relief. However much a plan is made, only in its execution can you determine its success. Clearly, this was going to be a special afternoon.
“Creeping Death” arrived as a steamy, swampy Bayou swing, a twisted take on an old classic. “When A Blind Man Cries” got to a more traditional acoustic performance place, and both “The Unforgiven” and “Turn The Page” saw (in my opinion) James’ best ever vocal deliveries of said songs, each word carrying more weight and emotion than I remember hearing. “Now That We’re Dead” got a unique acoustic treatment, feeling like a natural fit for the format, and enjoying almost jazz club moody lighting. Throughout the performance, visually (and thus technically) both the lighting and direction were excellent. Every light enhanced a moment or mood with a seemingly impossible mixture of subtle power, and the live direction was perfect, allowing you to take in the music and yet see the people on those walls. Don’t write off how hard that is to pull off live, especially when the life of that “live” depends solely on how well such tasks are handled given that the audience isn’t actually “there.”
The band was clearly enjoying the between-song fan banter, being able as they were to laser in on specific people and share personal moments with them. I don’t think the deep value of that can be underestimated in a time and era where so many feel so unheard and ignored. This was live and direct one-to-one, and it wasn’t always just a quick, happy exchange. Sue Kelly told the guys that she misses seeing the friends she could see in other spots on the wall, that she missed seeing the band in person, while Nadiko (forgive me if I have misspelled your name Nadiko) from Osaka, Japan explained to Lars that it was sad how so many have died, yet he expressed gratitude for his health and the moment. This was a true communal exchange, a reminder that we all have the same hopes and dreams right now when it comes to the COVID era. And call me a rambling old romantic fool [you’re a rambling old romantic fool – Asst. Ed.], but I think being able to share it with your favorite band in a personal live chat – whether in Osaka or Orange County – is extraordinarily special. The fourth wall being breached again…
“Nothing Else Matters” saw Henry Salvia add some large yet subtle keyboard movement and felt Avi Vinocur with his mandolin magic help elevate this classic ballad to something bigger and richer (both musicians are veterans of the 2018 Helping Hands benefit show and added their craft and soul to several songs in the earlier half of today's set). By the time “All Within My Hands” was unveiled, Layne Ulrich and Castor Hetfield had been brought in to add percussion (stationed beside Vinocur), causing Lars to comment that, “This is all theirs in the future, we’ll just show up for encores.”
Following a quick “intermission,” we saw the unofficial part two embrace the electric ‘Tallica, with the acoustic baton being handed off via an acoustic arrangement of “Disposable Heroes” played conventionally (and thus causing Ulrich’s initial “fourth wall” comment), resulting in a raucous Celtic-tinged interpretation. When James sang the words to “House of the Rising Sun,” it took a snap-check to realize he had not written the lyrics, fitting him – as they did – snugly, and not for the first time during the event, Kirk ripped a colorful and engaging solo. His performance was sharp and fiery, as was that of everyone. Clearly, these men are at their best expressing themselves with these tools, and double-clearly, they have missed using those tools regularly together in Metallica. By the time they thundered into “Wasting My Hate” for the first time since the 30th Anniversary Fillmore shows, it was clear that this was in no way, shape, or form either acoustic or experimental anymore.
With the sound being supremely handled by Greg Fidelman and Sara Lyn Killion via the control room, this was full-roar, “fuck you and love you too” Metallica, and judging by the mobile, blurring heads and hands on the screens around them, everyone was feeling it. “Bellz” just carries an extra edge and bite in the COVID context, but again, it was lean and very mean, whatever slight rust there was blown away by the power of it. “Puppets” saw everything upped a further notch, and as the band started to really bounce around and get up in each other’s spaces. I saw the likes of Ramirez and Victor rocking-the-goddamn-hell out, and it was exciting! Exciting to see people throwing themselves all-in and exciting to hear Metallica rip a few coats of paint off HQ all loud and rude style. “Sandman” brought to a fitting close an event which I am still – in all fairness – processing.
For Metallica to be able to touch so many people around the world, in so many different places and time zones live at the same time, is almost beyond comprehension. Did I allow myself to think about the next time we can all press the flesh and sweat together in person? Of course! But we cannot even do that with our friends and some of our families right now, so you take the best there is at this moment, and this is it. That people were able to engage, listen, speak, and rock out with Metallica (and I mean with) is… yeah, you’ve guessed it… serious fourth wall breaking stuff. It was a monumental effort given that it was the first time such an event had been attempted, and it took a lot of tremendous and dedicated work by the crew and various tech teams to pull it off. But hands down, I think this event is the landmark live event of the COVID-19 era thus far, and I further think you’re going to see a lot of people explore its parameters.
And if you missed it, there’s still a chance to see the whole event by purchasing the show any time before 11:59 PM PST on Tuesday.
Here’s hoping there’s more of this to come.
*The fourth wall is a performance convention in which an invisible, imagined wall separates actors from the audience. While the audience can see through this "wall," the convention assumes, the actors act as if they cannot.