The Big 4 Festival at Empire Polo Grounds Last Night

James Hetfield of Metallica performs at The Big 4 Festival in Indio.
James Hetfield of Metallica performs at The Big 4 Festival in Indio.
Mike R. Meyer

The Big 4 Festival (Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax)
Empire Polo Grounds, Indio, California
Saturday, April 23, 2011

It's not an understatement to say that yesterday's Big 4 Festival was an event nearly three decades in the making. Since the advent of thrash metal in the early 1980s, four bands have towered above the pack: Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax and Slayer.

Unfortunately, due to a combination of hurt feelings, bad blood and natural rivalries among the bands, the "Big Four" had never shared the same stage in the U.S. before last night. In fact, prior to last summer's Sonisphere festival in Europe, they had never shared the same stage anywhere. Thankfully, cooler heads -- not to mention the promise of a huge payday -- ultimately prevailed to bring us yesterday's epic event.

I'm actually among the thousands of people lucky enough -- and old enough -- to have seen three of the Big Four tour together 20 years ago on the Clash of the Titans tour, which featured Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax rotating as headliners from stop to stop. Ironically, on the night I saw them in Omaha, Nebraska, the three bands played in the same order as they did at the Big 4 Festival: Anthrax took the stage first, followed by Megadeth, with Slayer closing out the night. I was a fan of all three bands at the time, but I admit, I was definitely looking forward to seeing Slayer and Megadeth more than Anthrax. Much to my surprise, Anthrax stole the show that night with an incredible, high-energy set that gave me a greater respect for the group. And this time?

Anthrax at Big 4.
Anthrax at Big 4.
Mike R. Meyer

​Well, Anthrax might not have stolen the show last night, but they definitely set the bar high. As the lone East Coast band on the bill, Anthrax played a set of classic material that set the tone for the next seven hours. Joey Belladonna probably had the hardest job of any of the day's vocalists, but his voice has held up remarkably well over the past 20 years. The band previewed a lone track from their forthcoming album, but otherwise stuck with the oldies-but-goodies.

Megadeth was out next with a pretty standard Megadeth set. I'm not sure if it was the mix or if frontman Dave Mustaine was having voice issues, but the vocals were tough to make out on a handful of songs. He's still an amazing guitarist and songwriter, and certainly worthy of the Martin Cizmar "MVP of Metal" award. For better or worse, Mustaine and company didn't shy away from later-era material and probably had the most "modern" set of the evening.

Megadeth at Big 4.
Megadeth at Big 4.
Mike R. Meyer

Slayer hit the stage just as dusk began to settle over the Coachella Valley, and they sounded like a band on a mission. Bassist/vocalist Tom Araya was going all out on "The Antichrist," hitting some high-end screams that I hadn't heard in at least 10 years. Exodus guitarist Gary Holt stood in for Jeff Hanneman, who is still recovering from a case of necrotizing fasciitis caused by a spider bite. I wish Jeff a speedy recovery, but I think even he would have to agree that that's about the coolest-sounding disease a Slayer guitarist could possibly contract. Hanneman even made a surprise appearance for the band's final two songs, so he seems well on his way back. All in all, Slayer's nearly flawless set showed once again why they are one of the best heavy metal live acts of all time. There's aren't many surprises at a Slayer show, but they are always on point.

Metallica found themselves in the unenviable position of following Slayer. I admit, I doubted they could outdo Slayer, but I guess there's a reason why Metallica's the one band at last night's show that's already in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. I've spent the better part of the past 20 years trashing Metallica to just about anyone who'll listen, but after last night, I think I'm officially back on board. I expected their set to lean a little more old-school for this show, but I never expected them to break out fucking "Orion." The fact that they only played one song from the entire Load/ReLoad/St. Anger era made the show better still. They couldn't resist throwing in several songs from their self-titled album, but the set was thankfully very '80s-heavy.

Slayer at Big 4.
Slayer at Big 4.
Mike R. Meyer

​For the encore, Metallica was joined onstage by members of the three other bands for a rousing rendition of NWOBHM deity Diamond Head's "Am I Evil?" that mirrored the Sonisphere finale. Metallica closed out the night with a pair of tracks from their 1983 debut, Kill 'Em All, sending everyone home happy, albeit worn the hell out.

The Big Four are heading to Europe next for a series of shows, so U.S. fans hoping for a full-fledged tour might have to hold their breath a little longer. The 50,000-plus fans who witnessed history last night are still trying to catch theirs.

Anthrax setlist:
Caught in a Mosh
Got the Time
Among the Living
Fight 'Em 'Til You Can't
Metal Thrashing Mad
I Am the Law

Megadeth setlist:
In My Darkest Hour
Hangar 18
Wake Up Dead
Poison Was the Cure
Sweating Bullets
A Tout Le Monde
Symphony of Destruction
Peace Sells
Holy Wars... The Punishment Due

Slayer setlist:
World Painted Blood
Hate Worldwide
War Ensemble
Raining Blood
Black Magic
Dead Skin Mask
Silent Scream
The Antichrist
Seasons in the Abyss
South of Heaven
Angel of Death

Metallica setlist:
Creeping Death
For Whom the Bell Tolls
Ride the Lightning
Fade to Black
All Nightmare Long
Sad But True
Welcome Home (Sanitarium)
Master of Puppets
Nothing Else Matters
Enter Sandman

Am I Evil? (w/ everyone)
Hit the Lights
Seek and Destroy

Critics Notebook:

Last Night: The Big 4 Festival at Empire Polo Club

Personal Bias: I've been listening to all four bands for a quarter-century. I'm not a fan of everything they've done, but their classic '80s material was the soundtrack to my life in junior high and high school.

The Crowd: Pretty much what you'd expect, but with cuter chicks.

Overheard: "Man, my lower back is killin' me." -some guy on his way out after the show, to which I immediately replied, "Yo, why you illin', B?" (He didn't get the reference...)

Random Notebook Dump: This was my first foray into an actual photo pit, but I'm already fairly convinced that the size of a man's camera is inversely proportional to the size of his junk.

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