Metallica gives hard-rock fest redemption

I believe in concert karma.

Here are the rules. If you have an extra ticket, you find out which friend needs one, because someday that friend will be you. If you have one at the door, give it someone waiting who isn’t a scalper. If you’re thinking about going to a show at the last minute, you go, because it will be amazing.

Rock on the Range 2017 earned its concert karma.

It’s easy to lack empathy for large festival promoters, but the Rock on the Range team not only had to deal with the loss of a headliner following the death of Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, they had a weekend of uncooperative weather that spawned evacuations and delays.

So the third day of ROTR was due for some karma. And it got it — eventually.

The Sunday lineup was one of the strongest single days organizers have managed, which is going to happen when you’re a hard rock festival that has landed the biggest possible get. For this crowd, Metallica is the Beatles. The band headlines festivals that aren’t even in this vein, and it was finally going to play Rock on the Range. Probably. Because this weekend, who knows?

It was the kind of schedule that proves why I love festivals. Yes, it’s not the same experience as a more intimate venue, duh, but to pop in and out on one act after another is the point. I caught Every Time I Die to remind myself that there is such a thing as great metalcore. I popped over to see Biffy Clyro remind us all why it headlines festivals in the U.K. (the same experience I had when I saw the band at the friggin’ Basement a few years ago).

After catching the Pretty Reckless playing the fest for the third time, we come to the one moment where I will openly criticize the organizers of the festival for putting me through hell: scheduling Deafheaven and the Dillinger Escape Plan at the exact same times on opposing stages. I went Dillinger, if only because it’s the band partly responsible for breaking my favorite pair of glasses — not that I even cared.

Back on the main stage, Les Claypool led an unexpectedly joyous and expectedly weird Primus set. Claypool has long been actively provoking the knucklehead segment of the Primus audience, but he treated the crowd to the staples of the catalogue as well as a great story about buying his first dime bag off of his high school classmate, Kirk Hammett of Metallica. (I cannot vouch for the veracity of the dime bag story, but, fun fact, Claypool actually auditioned for Metallica after the death of Cliff Burton.) 

After the Viking metal stomp of Amon Amarth, the schedule cleared for the main events.

Unfortunately, the skies did not. During Volbeat’s set, fest organizers had to again delay events, and with an eye toward the western skies, I’ll admit I had some concern that they may have to clear the grounds again.

But the lightning threat that plagued the fest this weekend held off, replaced by an intensely soaking rain that would test the die-hard status of Metallica fans. And nearly everyone stayed. 

When Metallica went on about an hour after its scheduled start, Mapfre Stadium was as full as I’ve seen it for any single ROTR act. The stands and the floor were at capacity. I’m not even sure anyone was in the restroom.

I’ll sheepishly admit this is the first time I’ve seen Metallica live. And this was the moment when I understood why it’s the biggest heavy band on the planet.

For two-plus hours, Metallica put on a clinic in hard rock, swirling through three decades of its catalog with a precision that was jaw-dropping. James Hetfield and company worked a crowd of tens of thousands like it was a basement show, albeit one with lasers, fire and pyrotechnics.

Fans who had waited through a weekend of trials finally got the rapture in a set that peaked with back-to-back beasts: “One” and “Master of Puppets.” The set once again pushed past curfew, but the Rangers of 2017 finally got to leave truly happy. That’s concert karma.