It’s hard to think of a 19,000-person basketball arena as a small venue, but in the context of Metallica’s sold-out set Tuesday at Target Center it felt downright intimate.
The veteran thrash-metal gods last played in town to thrice as many headbanging fans two years ago for one of the opening-weekend concerts at U.S. Bank Stadium. After that venue, Target Center not only seemed more compact to Minnesota Metallicats, it was also an unlikely upgrade in acoustics (not often a selling point for the boxy arena).
Like the last time Metallica played there in 2009, the quartet performed “in-the-round” Tuesday, only the second stop on the second U.S. go-round of its WorldWired Tour. The configuration allowed for extra seats to be sold all the way around the venue, and it seemingly made room for extra mayhem, too.
With all those bodies pressed closely together — the general-admission floor looked especially perilous and thrilling — the 2½-hour concert boasted an especially high visceral value. Acoustics weren’t all that great once again, but it didn’t really matter; this was a show you felt as much as you listened to.
Walking out in their usual no-fuss black-T-shirt attire, the band members assumed their familiar we-will-rock-you positions to start; bassist Rob Trujillo’s crouching-tiger pose is especially now a visual staple 15 years into his tenure.
The band attacked the crowd first with two songs off the nearly two-year-old, above-average double-album “Hardwired ... to Self Destruct.” The second of those, “Atlas, Rise!” came off like a worthy classic. But it was no match in audience participation for the fist-pumping shout-along song that came next.
“Seek and Destroy,” the band’s earliest classic, was one of several oldies that then dotted the set list early on, also including “Harvester of Sorrow” and “Creeping Death.” While “Harvester” was something of a rarity for this tour, the big surprise of Tuesday’s set list was “No Leaf Clover,” a highlight of 2000’s ill-remembered “S&M” album.
“The last time we played that, Lars was a little girl,” singer/guitarist James Hetfield deadpanned in his unmistakable growl.
Hetfield was in strong voice and a relatively good mood Tuesday, and co-founding drummer Lars Ulrich remained rock-solid as usual. The member of Metallica who most came off like a youthful, masterful wonder — even as he and his bandmates move well into AARP age range — was Kirk Hammett.
The lead guitarist’s solo in “No Leaf Clover” was spot-on despite how rarely it’s been played. He also provided the fuel that turned the slow-building “Halo of Fire” into an inferno by song’s end. And fans already knew to hold on as he lit into the “One” and “Master of Puppets” solos just before the encore.
Hammett couldn’t prevent the fizzle that came mid-set, though. As they’ve done in every city of the tour, he and Trujillo played a goofy, stripped-down tribute to a local music act. No surprise who they picked here (Prince) and no surprise their version of his song (“When Doves Cry”) was outright dysfunctional. At least that bad bit underlined one of the best things about the performance: A year and a half into their tour and 37 years into their career, Metallica didn’t just play by-the-numbers as much as on some prior outings.
More set-list surprises came in the second half, including the 1988 reinvention of Budgie's “Breadfan” and 1997’s “The Memory Remains.” The stage production was rather clever and playful, too, with a couple dozen square video screens overhead that raised and lowered as the songs dictated.
A couple songs near show’s end, “Sad But True” and “Nothing Else Matters,” did feel a tad rote. Just because they came off Metallica’s biggest record (1991’s “Black Album”) doesn’t mean the band has to play those mid-tempo dullards every tour.
“Enter Sandman” still made for a strong finale, though, the band’s biggest hit predictably amounting to the night’s biggest audience singalong. Not that this downsized show ever offered any doubt how large Metallica still looms.