"So the question I got for you right now: Do you want heavy? Indio, do you want heavy?"
Even as he asked the question, James Hetfield already knew the answer, not just as Metallica's frontman and co-founder, but as a true fan of all that had unfolded this past weekend at the Power Trip festival, set on the vast green fields of the Empire Polo Club in Indio, California, since 1999 the site of the Coachella Music and Arts Festival. Metallica was joined there by five other essential headliners of metal and hard rock: AC/DC, Guns N' Roses, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and TOOL.
As hard-rock and metal summits go, Power Trip was unique in that it was limited to six acts, serving as a heavy-music answer to 2016's Desert Trip festival, which gathered a dream lineup of Sixties rock acts, including the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and the Who at the same venue. TOOL, AC/DC and GN'R had all played Coachella in the past as sometimes lone representatives of heavy music on the festival bill, but gathered together, Power Trip was a show of force by some of the genre's biggest names over a three-day weekend, October 6th-8th.
There have been monumental metal summits before, one-off festivals and traveling roadshows over the decades remembered as much for hard partying and self-immolation as epic riffs. Back in 2004, Ozzfest had three pillars of metal with Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and Slayer all on the same stage in one eardrum-melting day. And in 2011, Metallica hosted the "Big 4" fest in Indio with fellow thrash originators Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax.
With fall temperatures reaching 100 degrees and above in the desert, each act pushed through the heat and delivered in top form. One clear highlight was AC/DC, marking their first live performance in seven years. In that company, no act could fall short without some kind of shame, and none did.
On Sunday, Metallica kicked off their set with some of their most immediate songs, starting with the jagged thrash attack of "Whiplash," from the band's 1983 debut, Kill 'Em All. Then came "Creeping Death" and the hypnotic pulse of "For Whom the Bell Tolls," including a startling guitar wind-out from lead guitarist Kirk Hammett.
Unsurprisingly, Metallica was fully in shape after a summer tour of North America and Europe in support of their newest album, 72 Seasons. They performed 16 songs stretching from their early Eighties infancy to the present moment, including "Too Far Gone," a grinding growling tune with a forlorn Hetfield vocal, ending with Ulrich tossing his sticks hard into the crowd. At times, band members wandered out on a wide circular catwalk, much like on this year's world tour, designed to bring the players closer to fans. But there was something especially moving when they kept close around Ulrich's drumkit, standing tightly together like journeymen thrashers in a space the size of a one-car garage.
After playing a delicate guitar intro, Hetfield roared the opening lyric to 1997's "Fuel" — "Gimme fuel, gimme fire, gimme that which I desire!" — to a tidal wave of flames that erupted across the stage. The quartet stretched out on the expansive instrumental "Orion" in tribute to their late bassist Cliff Burton, the primary writer of the song. During "Seek and Destroy," remnants of old flyers from their earliest days on the SoCal metal scene flashed on the screen. Ulrich took a rare solo, sending Robert Trujillo spinning in a circle with his bass.
"After 42 years of playing music, we don't take it for granted," Hetfield told the thousands gathered in front of him. "We love what we do. We get to do this. This is our purpose. There's been a bunch of bands here that we greatly respect because they have helped Metallica become Metallica. I got to see my heroes this weekend. We were down in the front headbanging."
During the inevitable closing "Master of Puppets," discovered by a new generation of listeners after appearing on Netflix's Stranger Things, one last mosh pit opened up near the stage. Then the set was over, and the big screen turned white, lighting up the faces of fans. In the festival's final moments, Ulrich grabbed the mic and declared the weekend a huge success, and a signal that "heavy music is alive and maybe doing better than ever before!"
As an esteemed veteran act on the bill, Iron Maiden started the festival off Friday with a 15-song, action-packed set built on decades of metal in the classic mode. Frontman Bruce Dickinson moved across the stage like a Shakespearean actor, gesturing dramatically to the band's three-layers of baroque guitars, and traded onstage canon fire with the band's ghoulish mascot Eddie, dressed in sci-fi battle gear. From an informal T-shirt count alone, Maiden was clearly the main event for many in the pit, and fans leaned forward to sing along to "Can I Play With Madness?" Later, there were delicate moments of guitar on "Fear of the Dark" before giving way to heavier riffs and Dickinson's hearty wail.
Behind the band was a kind of dystopian cityscape of the Blade Runner variety, with signs in Asian script and another announcing a "Mars Shuttle." As ever, special effects were at centerstage: A supersized Eddie appeared dressed as a samurai knight, doing battle with a bloody sword against the three guitarists, while "Hell on Earth" had fire shooting across the stage. By the time Maiden closed with a loud yet wistful "Wasted Years," they had fully demonstrated the firepower that had inspired generations of metal players.
Closing the festival's opening night was Guns N' Roses, delivering a marathon 29-song set that took the night to one minute past curfew and a blast of fireworks at 1:01 a.m. Opening with the signature rocker "It's So Easy," released as the band's debut single in 1987, the night was less about playing the hits than showcasing the band's history and range. Slash unfurled some sleazy, slippery bottleneck guitar on the Aerosmith-ish "Bad Obsession," while the big screen zoomed in on his fingers and skull rings in action.
Guns N' Roses last played on these grounds for Coachella in 2016 with the newly (and miraculously) reunited Axl Rose, Slash and Duff McKagan at the band's core. Axl had a busted foot that night, and performed on a throne borrowed from Dave Grohl, but the reunion has held together in the years since. While no new album project has emerged after reuniting, onstage this expanded lineup of players was a tight unity, delivering the old songs and surprises.
Axl screamed the opening lines to "Welcome to the Jungle" — the threatening "You know where you are!?" and "I want to hear you scream!" — more screechy and insane than ever, as lasers shot over the crowd. The song began with a music history lesson as Slash played a bit of Link Wray's "Rumble," a direct influence on later generations of heavy players. The guitarist also closed "Civil War" with a taste of Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Child."
These and other moments showed Slash is still growing as a guitarist, bringing new shadings even to the older songs. During the big solos, he would lean back in his Alice Cooper T-shirt, face skyward, mirror shades catching the light. He brought some exotic jazzman subtlety during his solo on "Double Talkin' Jive," from Use Your Illusion I. Axl noted that the song's grisly opening line about finding a severed head and arm in a trash can behind the studio (during the recording of Use Your Illusion) was a true story: "Whose they were, I don't know."
Duff stepped up to the mic for a snarling take on the Stooges' "TV Eye," sung with mad proto-punk force. There were other surprising covers, like Axl singing the 1968 Glen Campbell hit "Wichita Lineman," following a haunting echoing intro by guitarist Richard Fortus, and the more expected but always explosive "Live and Let Die," by Paul McCartney and Wings. Not every fan was able to make it the full three hours, and there were some empty seats by the very end of the night, but the run time was an impressive display of endurance for a band back in shape.
Night two began with Judas Priest, who announced their upcoming, 19th album, Invincible Shield, right before their set. The veteran "metal gods" stepped onstage only after Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" blasted the crowd, paying tribute to some sidelined friends and comrades: Sabbath was originally invited to play the festival but declined, and then Ozzy Osbourne had to cancel his set for health reasons, before Priest stepped into his slot.
Singer Rob Halford entered like the Gandalf of classic metal with a full white beard, silvery long coat and a cane, as the band erupted in rapid fire on two songs from 1982's Screaming for Vengeance: "Electric Eye" and "Riding on the Wind." With footage of motorcycles roaring across a desert landscape on the big screen, Halford unleashed his piercing operatic wail and walked up to the front of the stage and fans already chanting "Priest! Priest! Priest!"
The cane was gone, and Halford was in black motorcycle leather to sing along to the whiplash riffs of 1981's "Heading Out to the Highway." Later, "Turbo Lover" began with guitarist Ritchie Faulkner clapping a beat to get the crowd going. Guitarist-producer Andy Sneap stepped forward for a spaced-out solo, and the crowd shouted the chorus without being coached as Halford walked in front of them, waving his finger like a conductor. "Firepower," from the band's last album in 2018, inspired one of the first mosh pits of the weekend.
During the encore, after Halford arrived in classic biker attire on a roaring chopper for "Hell Bent for Leather," came their set's emotional high point: a rare appearance by longtime guitarist Glenn Tipton, who no longer tours with the band because of Parkinson's disease. Together, they closed out with a hit parade of "Metal Gods," "Breaking the Law" and their catchiest anthem, "Living After Midnight." Halford leaned in close during one of Tipton's solos, cheering him onward. By now Halford was in a floor-length denim battle vest covered in patches, the ultimate cheerleader for his metal genre.
Unlike the previous night, when fans left for food, drink or a bathroom break between the two bands, a large number of fans stayed put after Priest was done. No one wanted to give up their place for AC/DC, performing their first live gig since 2016. The day's army of anxious fans in new or vintage AC/DC T-shirts was apparent from the parking lot to the pit, as were the blinking red devil's horns available for purchase on-site that lit up the massive crowd to the horizon.
"How cool is this? Let's get rockin' and rollin'!" grunted singer Brian Johnson.
From the first song, "If You Want Blood (You've Got It)," to the closing "For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)," AC/DC were back at full earth-shaking power, commanding the stage as one of the great and distinctive hard rock bands, built on songs and riffs that define a genre, and that somehow remain as immediate as when the band began in the Seventies. With a wall of Marshall amp cabinets behind them, Angus Young fired off bolts of electricity on lead guitar in his schoolboy uniform and tie, hopping and skipping up the catwalk.
Even on the lesser-known songs, the riffs, hooks and Johnson's growling goodtime vocals always delivered, even with the absence of late rhythm guitarist and riff master Malcolm Young. The crackling "Demon Fire" from 2020's Power Up album, released at the height of COVID-19, kept the formula alive and largely unchanged for a new decade. The 24-song set was also filled with radio hits from across their career. "All Night Long" was big and soaring, while "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap" had a nastier edge, as Johnson approximated the original eccentric Bon Scott vocal. On "Shoot to Thrill," the singer acted out every syllable like the greatest balls-out raconteur in your favorite pub.
"Come on, sing it with me!" Johnson yelled with a grunt and a cackle from the catwalk, as a churning guitar began "Highway to Hell." Angus chanted the opening "Oi! Oi! Oi!" to begin "T.N.T." and Johnson growled ecstatically: "I'm dirty, mean and mighty unclean/I'm a wanted man/Public enemy No. 1/Understand?"
While there were fireballs and canon fire and fiery images on the big screen, the real power mostly resided in the songs, which had fans across the polo fields dancing and shouting along. AC/DC were done by midnight. Johnson thanked the crowd, looking overjoyed and pumping his arms excitedly before running off the stage.
The final night of Power Trip brought together two modern but very different versions of heavy music. Like Metallica, TOOL is fully capable of filling massive venues by themselves, with their own obsessive following. That only added to the rare nature of Power Trip as a gathering of metal tribes. Also notable was that TOOL was the youngest act in the lineup, starting merely three decades ago in 1990.
Their festival set began with two songs from the album 10,000 Days, slowly building things up from the shadows with the scraping of guitar strings and thundering beats of "Jambi," as singer Maynard James Keenan crouched on a shadowy perch, anxiously pacing in place, like a fighter ready to throw down. "The Pot" followed with crisp, growling guitar, as images of otherworldly architecture and life forms splashed across the screen.
"Good evening, Power Trip," said Keenan, barely lit but with his spiky mohawk wig visible in silhouette. "You all look great, and smell delicious."
Soon came the title song from the band's most recent album of epic-length tracks, Fear Inoculum, beginning the 10-minute piece with a mysteriously stretched ringing sound that drifted over the polo fields. In a voice soulful and meditative, Keenan sang cryptically from the near-dark: "Contagion, I exhale you/Naive I opened up to you/Venom in mania."
"Rosetta Stoned" was a rarely played deep cut recently reintroduced into the touring setlist, and at Power Trip it was built up in layers of relentless beats and deep rhythm from drummer Danny Carey and bassist Justin Chancellor, and guitar from Adam Jones that was as noisy and wild-eyed as an Ornette Coleman jazz solo. Keenan's voice soared, with a scream near the finish, pacing in a circle like a caged animal, as the big screen showed murky scenes of underwater horror and tortured life forms. While the band offered a sample of their shorter hits from the Nineties ("Ænema" and "Stinkfist"), even the later epics seemed to go by quickly in a 12-song set.
They played no encore (the only band not to). With their mind-expanding set of epic songs behind them, TOOL said their goodbyes at human scale. Jones brought out one of his kids onstage, and Carey had his long-haired son toss out a small drum-head. It would make for a prize memento from a show to remember.