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Metallica Surprise With Deep Cuts, Rarities at First 40th Anniversary Concert

“After 40 years, there’s still firsts,” James Hetfield tells the audience after playing Reload song “Fixxxer” for first time during the first of a two-night San Franci…

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In a break between songs about madness and war during Metallica’s concert Friday night, frontman James Hetfield paused for a moment of sincerity. “We are grateful that you have been along with us for 40 years, and we are so happy that you’re here still after all this time,” he told the audience at San Francisco’s Chase Center. “It still blows my mind. Because we were created to do this. I know it.” And then he and his bandmates proved his point by riling up the crowd with “The Shortest Straw,” a jagged, nearly seven-minute deep-cut thrasher from their …And Justice for All album.

Of course, it helped that the audience contained only their most diehard fans. When Metallica announced they would be playing two 40th anniversary shows this past summer, they released tickets exclusively to members of their worldwide fan club. So the nearly 20,000 people present Friday night came with high expectations.

“We caught them on the only show that they played in India,” Parta Das, who lives in San Jose, says while waiting in a merch line with a friend outside the venue. “We feel lucky to be here. Most of the big, international acts don’t go to India.”

Stefanie Herold and her boyfriend spent 15 hours traveling from Santiago, Chile to San Francisco for Friday’s show. Although she’s vaccinated, she was nervous about Covid but decided, “Sometimes you have to stop being nervous and start to live again, and this is the best way to certainly live again.”

Randall Mull, age 46, came to the show from West Virginia on Friday with his 75-year-old mother, Rebecca Beboud. The concert would be his 21st time seeing the band, and mom’s 17th. “I learned to love [Metallica],” Beboud says of the generational divide while standing on the concourse inside the Chase Center, “and it’s kept us together as friends; we’re best friends.”

Judging from the audience’s reactions during the concert, Metallica exceeded expectations. Over the course of two hours, they played at least one song from each of their studio albums, presenting a mix of hits, deep cuts, and fan favorites. Throughout the night, they played montages that recognized different aspects of their history — the importance of early bassist Cliff Burton (who was the reason the band relocated to San Francisco in the first place) and interviews about what being in the group means to them — but largely kept their set list moving. And other than some requisite pyro and flashy video screens, their most interesting special effect were the light-up wristbands they distributed to the audience; the band was able to make them flash in unison via remote control during some songs, like their own bespoke cigarette-lighter displays.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the concert was how straightforward it was. A decade ago, Metallica marked their 30th anniversary with a run of concerts that focused on special guests (Ozzy Osbourne, Lou Reed, former Metallica members Dave Mustaine and Jason Newsted.) On Friday, after a montage that showed some of the band’s former members, Hetfield gently broke it to the crowd that there would be no cameos. “Hopefully you got to see [the past Metallica members] live at some point in your lives,” he said. “We were blessed to have them in the band.” As it happens (and as should be expected), Hetfield, lead guitarist Kirk Hammett, bassist Robert Trujillo, and drummer Lars Ulrich can handle a set perfectly fine on their own.

The band opened with “Hit the Lights,” the first song Hetfield and Ulrich wrote and recorded together, before shifting into “Creeping Death,” one of their first collaborations with Hammett. They played a handful of their biggest hits — “One,” “Sad but True,” “Nothing Else Matters” — but largely indulged more obscure songs. They had not played Ride the Lightning’s “Trapped Under Ice” since a full play-through of the album in 2012, and they had never played Reload’s moody “Fixxxer” before, period. “After 40 years, there’s still firsts,” Hetfield told the crowd, which wholeheartedly embraced the rarity.