The Aragon Ballroom, Chicago, Illinois • November 19, 1998

It is noble and just that Metallica has never forgotten where they come from (as evident on Garage Days Revisited, and the new double CD, Garage Inc.). It is absolutely gracious that fans were given the opportunity to see the band in such a small venue as the Aragon Ballroom, capacity 4,500. The near equivalent to the Rolling Stones doing a “surprise” performance last year at the Double Door (with a standing room of 450), the last time Metallica saw the Aragon Ballroom, Lars noted in a recent interview, Armored Saint opened up for them. If my memory serves me correctly, Metallica hadn’t sold out yet, bassist Cliff Burton was still alive, and John Bush of Armored Saint had yet to grace Anthrax.

With the release of Garage Inc. and its ensuing tour, a mere five dates in a few select major cities, including New York, Philadelphia, and Toronto, Metallica’s plan was to relive their more humble (garage band) days, stripping down their pyrotechnic laden stage production to a measly, red curtain backdrop, minimal lighting, big speakers, and pure, raw energy.

Fresh from an appendix operation and still in obvious pain, guitarist Kirk Hammett tiptoed up the ramp at 9:15 PM. He sat stone-faced, patiently sipping his drink, waiting for the show to begin. In fact, he would later have the best seat in the house, as he sat for the whole show, mustering up just enough stamina to keep his fingers twiddling up and down the fretboard, and his butt swinging side to side in the swivel chair.

“Kirk’s sitting down, but he’s playin’ like a motherfucker,” James mused. Sure, but, for obvious reasons, Hammett lacked that pure, raw energy Metallica is noted for. Still, an “A” effort —

much more than I’d give the rest of the band, who never did illuminate with that brilliant fire usually exhibited during their individual setlists. What would be expectable for another band just wasn’t befitting of these veterans of thrash metal — neither was their curious interpretation of Bob Seeger’s “Turn the Page.”

For those too young to remember, or simply unfamiliar with some of the tunes, James announced a few of the songs ahead of time before playing them: Thin Lizzy’s “Whiskey in the Jar” and a “huge ass twelve-minute song about Satan,” the most enthusiastic performance of the night, a medley of Mercyful Fate tunes. Most fans sang along to Metallica’s Grammy award-winning version of Queen’s “Stone Cold Crazy.” And Metallica even vigorously treated us to a little head, Diamond- and Motor-, for you gutter minded (“Helpless” and “The Prince,” and “Overkill,” respectively).

Yet a look of anticipation donned many faces in the audience, as if waiting for something more. “Master of Puppets” or “Enter Sandman,” perhaps? “This is bogus,” one fan blurted. He was merely iterating the sentiments of the many who brought Metallica to tonight’s sold-out show status. Fans were either in disbelief (that the band would actually have the gall to do a whole show of cover tunes at this stage in the game, and not break out an old one from their own archives), or just plain bored.

In fact, a few were disappointed enough to walk out, ironically sporting the T-shirts of old that typified the true “garage days” when Metallica, with teased hair still long and fried, refused to succumb to the video age; “Alcoholica” was their moniker; and metal was truly up your ass (in our collective consciousness).

The novelty of the whole affair for many was a chance to see Metallica up close and personal. (Or to see how long Kirk could play without bursting a gut.) If this were truly the garage days, Metallica could never have sold out a venue of this size, coasting entirely on cover songs. At thirty million albums plus sold, Metallica is too rich (and arrogant) to make us think they could ever truly go back. And any attempts to are somewhat contrived. If they were able to pull that off, they’d be actors, instead of musicians. Talk about needing to reload, what was supposed to be a gift to the fans on record turned out to be, in concert, a misfired orgasm.

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