Written by David Herriott
Nov 20, 2008 at 07:00 PM

For one night, the home of the Houston Rockets and Houston Aeros was transformed into the epicenter of Heavy Metal fanaticism.  Fans, both new and old, came to pay homage to one of the greatest rock bands in history: Metallica.  Opening up for Metallica were The Sword, a young metal band from Austin, Texas, and Down, a southern metal/rock band from New Orleans, Louisiana.

The evening started out with a spirited performance by The Sword.  With J.D. Cronise up front on vocals, Trivett Wingo on drums, Bryan Richie on bass, and Kyle Shutt on guitar, these guys put on a good opening act.  Many of the Metallica fans missed these guys, but for those that did show up, they were treated to a fun performance by a fresh group.  The only detraction from their performance was the sound mix.  The guitars and drums came across well, but the sound mixers allowed the vocals to be lost in the heavy rhythms cranked out by The Sword.  The Sword is definitely worth checking out online at www.myspace.com/thesword and at www.swordofdoom.com .

As more fans arrived to witness a performance by the metal gods from Metallica, they were treated to the sounds of some rock/metal demigods that make up Down.  Phil Anselmo, lead vocalist for Down, worked to get the crowd amped up for Metallica.  He has plenty of experience along these lines stemming from his time in Pantera.  Along with Rex Brown, also of Pantera fame, Anselmo worked the audience between songs with forceful prompts laced with language that would have landed him in the La Marque jail, or at the very least, escorted out of the La Marque Walmart.

Luckily, this was a heavy metal crowd and they responded well to his approach.  As for Down’s music, they promote themselves as a southern rock/heavy metal band, and they delivered.  The music definitely encouraged serious fist pumping and head banging.  Anselmo and Brown were joined by Pepper Keenan on guitar, Kirk Windstein on guitar, and drummer Jimmy Bower.  Learn more about Down at www.down-nola.com .

As entertaining as The Sword and Down were, everyone was there for Metallica.  The stage was set up in the middle of the Toyota Center, so the bands were surrounded by the standing room only crowd.  As such, the stage was fairly plain in its look and function.  Stage hands did not have much to do in order to prepare the stage for Metallica once Down completed their set.  Many wondered what the show would look like, especially when large hazers, one on each end of the arena, began to blow haze into the arena approximately 20 minutes prior to Metallica going on stage.  Also visible with the house lights on were 8 large coffins, similar to the coffin shown on the cover of Metallica’s latest album “Death Magnetic”.  These large coffins were light fixtures, four fixed, and four floating, adjustable lighting fixtures cabled over the stage.

The questions about the hazers were answered as soon as the house lights went out and Metallica took the stage.  Lasers and spot lights took over, and what the stage lacked under house lights was quickly converted into form and movement provided by the optical effects.  This method was genius in that it allowed the band to play to all sides of the stage yet still have “form” to the stage that would not be in the way of any of the rabid fans.  Once the house lights went off, the fans went ballistic.  James Hetfield’s masterful interaction with the crowd just kept the whole audience at a fever pitch during their two hour set.  Adding to Hetfield’s mastery on vocals and guitar were an animalistic performance by Robert Trujillo on bass, a splendid guitar by Kirk Hammett, and a killer show on percussion by Lars Ulrich.

Metallica’s music set was a near perfect mix of new and old.  Their musical resume could easily fill a concert six hours long, so the odds of catching everyone’s favorites are slim.  But the crowd’s reaction showed that the choices were great.  Highlights included a heart pounding rendition of “Master of Puppets” that had the crowd screaming along and “One” that showed some pyrotechnic surprises built into the stage.  They finished off the night with another audience participation song, “Seek and Destroy” that included large Metallica beach balls raining down upon the standing room only crowd on the arena floor.

As a long time fan of the group, I have wanted to see them live since 1988.  20 years later, and the wait was very much worth it.  For those that could not catch the show, Metallica offers MP3 recordings of every concert now.  Just point your computer to www.livemetallica.com and purchase the download from Thursday’s concert.