Seeing Metallica in the flesh is like finding out that Batman is real. It's acrobatic, a little cartoonish and employs a few gadgets and explosions. But the most remarkable thing about Metallica might be that, like the Caped Crusader, they give you the sense that you're watching incredible acts performed by mortals. These don't seem like guys with Odin-given talents--there isn't an Axl in this band. Their everyman status may have disintegrated several platinum albums ago, but somehow they can still play it when they take the stage.
Jerry Cantrell from Alice in Chains once noted that with James Hetfield, you'll never see a bigger rock star with absolutely no sense of ego to him. There are no messianic poses, no world-saving or intellectual pretenses, no make up or costume changes (or even costumes, for that matter). No ostentatious act about how what torments him is deeper than what torments you. Just a devastating blend of energy and intensity, that rare performer who can pull off Ready to rock and You will probably get killed before this show is over in the same moment. His chemistry with Kirk Hammett is amplified by 25 years of experience prowling arena stages together, plus a supernatural ability to make each of those stages feel as intimate as at the 9:30 Club.
Much is made of how Metallica are a "guy's band," and anyone who ever waited in line for the bathroom at the Wherever We May Roam tour will attest that that's a fair claim. But in concert, Metallica walks that line better than maybe any other band. It's the most masculine show that you'll see without ever getting macho. Sure, they write songs about war, horror, Hemingway, monsters, nonconformity and repressed emotions, but they never fall into the kind of arrogance, chauvinism or lunkheadedness that people tend to stereotype with metalheads. I'd offer Metallica as exemplary metal show to anyone, whether I wanted to terrorize or win over a nonbeliever.
No matter how many missteps Metallica record and publicize, they will always have one of the greatest discographies in rock music. Maybe one night you'll get "Trapped Under Ice," or "Dyers Eve," or maybe even "Jump in the Fire." There are three bands left in this feature (and if Lars had practiced his drums at all since 1991, maybe there'd be none), but no band in metal, or even the last 30 years of rock, has a stronger, deeper playlist to choose from. At this point, maybe Metallica shouldn't be able to give those songs the performances that they deserve, either from aging or world-weariness. But even if Metallica has stopped fighting to be the world's greatest metal band on record, they are still owning that title onstage. Every time they tear through "Creeping Death" or "Master of Puppets," you can tell what "Nothing Else Matters" is really about. If you care at all about rock music, for recreational or historical purposes, you need to see Metallica.