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Metallica in peak form at Woodstock ’99

Two documentaries detail drama of infamous 1999 concert

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Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett, left, and drummer Lars Ulrich perform at the Lollapalooza music festival in Grant Park in Chicago on July 28.
Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett, left, and drummer Lars Ulrich perform at the Lollapalooza music festival in Grant Park in Chicago on July 28. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune) Photo Gallery

Limp Bizkit.

Rage Against the Machine.

Metallica!

This was the absolutely crushing Saturday night lineup of Woodstock ’99, one of the most infamous nights in rock history.

Those who were there, and those who watched from afar, are reliving it now in dueling documentaries on HBO and Netflix, both of which make the Fyre Festival look not so bad after all, and both of which make Woodstock promoter John Scher seem like some kind of monster.

Much of the focus is on two bands: Limp Bizkit and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. During “Break Stuff,” the Fred Durst-fronted rap-metal band prompted a crowd of 250,000 mostly angry white males to go wild and also try to dismantle the sound tower. During the Chili Peppers’ climactic Sunday night set, the candles passed out — idiotically, but with good intentions for a Columbine vigil — were used to set fires all over the sun-scorched grounds of Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, N.Y.

Both docs, for good reason, emphasize the negative — the abysmal setting, the unrelenting heat, the greed and naivety of the organizers and the amped-up testosterone of the fans, provoked by an era of music rife with unfocused aggression.

The weird thing about Netflix’s “Trainwreck: Woodstock ‘99” is that episode two jumps from Limp Bizkit to the rave hangar with Fat Boy Slim and the runaway van with no mention of Rage, who burned an American flag onstage during “Killing in the Name,” or Metallica, the headliner.

HBO’s “Music Box: Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage” centers one of its narratives around the Metallica set and the death of David DeRosia. The 24-year-old from Connecticut, there with a group of friends, died that night from hypothermia/heat stroke after venturing into the mosh pit for his favorite band.

Metallica hit the stage at 11:20 p.m. with a blazing cover of “So What,” a punk rock song from the British band Anti-Nowhere League. You can see from the video — the whole set is on YouTube — that the mosh pit is insane.

“You felt like you could just get trampled and no one would care about you,” one fan says in the HBO doc.

“You could feel your feet getting lifted off the ground and you moved with the crowd,” says another.

Metallica, to its credit, did nothing out of the ordinary to inflame the crowd. “We are Metallica and this is what we do best, (mfer)!” frontman James Hetfield declared before “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” and that’s what they did.

The band, at the time 18 years into its run, played its seminal thrash metal with a fury for 75 minutes and Hetfield engaged the crowd even during the slow parts.

The tragic death of DeRosia aside — the band bears no blame for that — this was Metallica in peak form before they hit a serious rough patch to start the next century.

New century, bad vibes

Metallica divided the music world In 2000 and faced a backlash when it sued Napster for copyright violation for the leak of the song “I Disappear.” Metallica, and drummer Lars Ulrich (whose live drumming ability is often questioned), have been branded by some as “sellouts” ever since. (Technically, the “sellout” charges went back a decade before that.)

The next year, in January 2001, Jason Newsted, the band’s rock-solid bassist since 1986, departed over a skirmish about wanting to work on a solo project. Six months later, Hetfield checked into rehab, wiping out the rest of 2001.

In all, Metallica was off the road for three years. With Hetfield recovered in 2002, they returned to the studio and emerged with “St. Anger,” which is anything but a favorite in the Metallica canon.

In 2019, Kerrang! ranked it 10th among the 11 Metallica albums, writing, “Upon its release, ‘St. Anger’ received rave notices; it was only later that cold critical analysis was applied and the band’s eighth album was met with frothing hatred. That noted, it is, let’s be honest, a dog of an album.”

The title track did win a Grammy, but you know the Grammys and metal …

With “St. Anger” came the utter embarrassment of the 2004 documentary “Some Kind of Monster,” which depicts the band’s management having hired a “performance enhancement coach” to work out internal issues and keep the band running. Newsted would call it “really f—ing lame.”

“By the time ‘St. Anger’ came out,” says Jason Myers, bassist for the veteran Pittsburgh metal band Icarus Witch, “Metallica had been going hard for 20 years and achieved unprecedented levels of success so they were bound to take a dive. I applaud them for always trying to progress and take artistic chances. But personally, I’d already moved on from their music in the ‘90s, and watching them turn into a reality show in the early 2000s wasn’t what I wanted from a band that once defined anti-establishment underground metal.”

Lou Hetzer, a former Pittsburgh promoter, first saw Metallica in 1982 at the Whisky a GoGo in L.A. and hasn’t missed a tour since (including going to both Woodstock ‘94 and ‘99). He says, “The albums after the crossover of ‘Metallica’ seemed to have Metallica trying to evolve. Most hardcore OG fans wanted them to continue spewing ‘Master’ and ‘Lightning.’ Not me, I liked the changes.”

The next few years brought the triumph of the Rick Rubin-produced “Death Magnetic” — hailed as a return to late ‘80s/early ‘90s form despite the CD’s compression/loudness issues — and the disaster of the Lou Reed collaboration “Lulu.” Chuck Klosterman wrote, “If the Red Hot Chili Peppers acoustically covered the 12 worst Primus songs for Starbucks, it would still be (slightly) better than this.”

“‘Death Magnetic’ was a return to form and got them back on track, but then they followed it up with ‘Lulu’?” Myers says. “By that time the metal scene had grown and diversified so exponentially that there were more than enough options on the table for anyone seeking that rebellious thrill that Metallica once provided.”

Throughout this volatile stretch, fans were still more than happy to see Metallica on its various world tours.

“Metallica was still Metallica,” Hetzer says. “Even with bass player No. 5 — that would make producer Bob Rock No. 4 — they did NOT disappoint. Did they give us old-school fans albums like the original four? No, but they didn’t give us a discography of garbage either. After 40 years together, you’re gonna have peaks and valleys.”

“Hardwired … to Self-Destruct” came as another piece of redemption for Metallica. The 2016 album, the band’s sixth straight chart-topper, was embraced for being another throwback to early Metallica, and a generous one at that (77 minutes), despite guitarist Kirk Hammet losing his iPhone with roughly 250 riffs.

Christian Groblewski, who fronts the Pittsburgh hard rock band SuperMonkey, has stuck with Metallica through the good and bad, calling them “the Beatles of metal/hard rock.”

“I completely support them, actually,” he says, “and I love that Lars had the (guts) to say something about (Napster). He’s like a junkyard dog about guarding and protecting his art. Also, how could you not love that ‘Some Kind of Monster’ movie? It was a complete train wreck on film.”

Strange thing

Metallica has had an eventful summer outside of the group’s tour.

“Master of Puppets,” the band’s revered title track, reentered the charts when the character Eddie Munson riffed through the song in an episode of “Stranger Things.” It was the first appearance by Metallica on the singles charts since 2008.

It didn’t take long after that for Metallica to be put on the cancel culture chopping block for “problematic” past behavior, starting with a viral TikTok video by user Serena Trueblood.

Metallica has decided to refrain from comment on that, but it has addressed a smaller backlash. When Metallica shared a video of the band performing “Master of Puppets” live on TikTok, someone commented, “I’m sorry Metallica for all the fake Stranger Things fans, love ya.”

Metallica responded with “FYI — EVERYONE is welcome in the Metallica Family. Whether you’ve been a fan for 40 hours or 40 years, we all share a bond through music. All of you started at ground zero at one point in time.”

As someone who started at ground zero with the band, Myers says, “You can’t overstate the impact they made in their early years. Aside from Sabbath or Maiden, perhaps, it’s tough to name a major metal band who came out swinging as hard as Metallica did for five albums in a row.”

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