For decades, some of the greatest pleasures that have made me feel like me have involved attending and writing about concerts and music festivals. So something in my dead soul ignited when I heard that Metallica was going to film and screen a concert at drive-in movie theaters and parking lots around the country on August 29. Even though I’ve spent the last six months almost entirely under a blanket, hiding from just about everything with a pulse, I couldn’t wait to have some semblance of a live music experience this year.
My secret source inside the Metallica universe suggested that I attend the smallest, least advertised screening, a 100-car event planned at Gundlach-Bundschu Winery in Sonoma. They offered no reason why, and it seemed a longer, darker drive. But San Francisco is almost equidistant from the other two Bay Area screenings, a 400-car event in Concord at West Wind Solano Drive-In and a viewing with a 200-car capacity in Pleasanton at the Alameda County Fairgrounds.
So we opted for the latter—too many hours of my life have been spent sitting in traffic after concerts at Concord Pavilion, and that didn’t sound like the best option either. Besides, the band spent many hours in the ’80s practicing at their “MetalliMansion” right there in Alameda County (El Cerrito, to be precise), so it felt like a rootsy choice with some meaning.
Once at the Fairgrounds, we followed signs for concert parking, passing signs for daytime COVID-19 testing along the way. A filmed performance by Canada’s Three Days Grace was playing while we were directed to our parking space, which was several car lengths away from any other vehicles. Three Days Grace’s show aired before the advertised start time of 8:45 and continued until just before 9.
The screening cost $115 per car, with up to six people allowed in a vehicle if everyone has a seatbelt. The price of admission included four download codes for Metallica’s new S&M2 album, performed live with the San Francisco Symphony and released the day before the movie. The original S&M album, also with our beloved orchestra, was released back in 1999.
A few days before the event, a link to some fun merchandise (Pandemica, masked demon, and old timey movie shirts!) was sent along with the album codes. But a bootleg merch fiend lives within, so I had already gotten a headstart by purchasing some Metallica face masks on Etsy—one with the logo and the other with the corroded skull design from their Damaged Justice concert tour (1988-89).
Metallica’s set began with an exterior shot of the outside of Gundlach-Bundschu Winery and then it became clear why the secret inside source said to go to the screening there. Oops!
(“Because of COVID, they all hadn’t seen each other in months, and they were so happy to be together, so authentic, doing what they do best,” Bundschu Company CEO Jeff Bundschu told Sonoma News in a behind the scenes story detailing how quiet and coronavirus-careful pulling off this performance at Gundlach-Bundschu really was.)
Our screening also felt very safe and quiet, so I felt no inhibitions about taking my top off and standing through the sunroof during “Master of Puppets.” Just kidding, baby steps. A man with assless chaps pulled up for a boogie late in the set, and I caught some sweet slow dancing during “Enter Sandman,” when I sauntered over to the middle of the field to take some last pictures, but it was otherwise pretty quiet in the crowd.
The last time I saw Metallica play live in San Francisco, five giant projection screens placed side by side at Oracle Park rained down rivers of blood before the band even walked onstage to fill our ears with pure rocket bursts of adrenaline. The time before that, James Hetfield sang, “Give me fuel, give me fire, give me that which I desire,” and giant flames shot into the sky above Golden Gate Park, the biggest holy shit pyro moment I’ve ever personally witnessed, which will never be topped.
That sheer joy that James, Kirk, Robert, and Lars had just being together and playing 16 of their favorite songs was the overwhelming feeling that I came away with in their performance. We were parked far from the solo speaker stack and alternated between listening through FM radio and just out the window, and the decreased volume felt a little incongruent with such a loud act. Yet there was a real sweetness to the relatively quiet cheering and occasional horn beeps that followed each song.
But that uplifting emotion that they exuded now stands alongside those other larger than life Metallica concert highlights in my mind, which has been reignited with some hope for the future of live music — even if I have to bring my own bass and can’t break out my earplugs and mosh pit claustrophobia just yet. Until then, I’m embracing the escapism of drive-in concert movies (for Encore Drive-In Nights is a series of special one night only events) and hoping that California will be able to follow suit of states that have started greenlighting parking lot concerts.