FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — Only in 2020 would you see Metallica play at an abandoned amusement park.
On Saturday night, the raging heavy-metal icons broadcast a show to hundreds of drive-in and outdoor theaters across the U.S. and Canada, as part of the Encore Drive-In Nights series, which has also aired performances by country stars Blake Shelton and Garth Brooks this summer.
We watched the concert special at Adventureland, a fairground-style Long Island staple that's temporarily closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Two small screens were erected in the park's expansive parking lot, where a shuttered roller coaster and Ferris wheel loomed overhead. Pint-sized train cars that normally circle the park now sat dormant, as dozens of people in Metallica T-shirts lined the train tracks waiting for restrooms. Occasionally, you'd walk by pictures of cartoon animals and superheroes peering through the darkness, giving the whole event a somewhat apocalyptic feel.
The show itself was similarly surreal. Parking was staggered out so there was one parking space between you and your neighbor, and you could listen to the show through your FM radio or over the drive-in's faint, faraway speakers. Most people tailgated outside their vehicles, many with fold-up chairs and red Solo cups, while others opted to stand in empty parking spaces and nod along to the music.
The majority of concertgoers didn't wear masks as they hovered by their cars, although everyone we saw maintained a safe social distance. The vibe was easygoing and almost shockingly subdued, save for a woman head-banging through her sunroof and people throwing "rock on" hand signs outside their car windows.
Metallica, too, genially embraced the unusual nature of the show. The band recorded its 1½-hour set two weeks ago on an empty stage with a picturesque mountain backdrop and flashing green lights. Throughout the concert, which was opened by hard-rock band Three Days Grace, Metallica frontman James Hetfield urged fans to honk their horns and put their phones up, which many people did eagerly and frequently.
"It feels good to play again," Hetfield said, turning to his bandmates midway through the show. "We're not sure what everyone out there has been doing, but I know they've been listening to music and they've been praying and praying for something live they could grasp onto. Because music helps us through all things, including this."
The 16-song set included popular Metallica hits including "Seek & Destroy," "Nothing Else Matters," "Fade to Black," "Master of Puppets" and "Enter Sandman," which closed out the night. Highlights included the pulse-pounding "Moth Into Flame" and extended jam sesh "One," which gave guitarist Kirk Hammett, bassist Robert Trujillo and drummer Lars Ulrich all moments to shine. Coming off the band's highly successful "SM2," where they once again teamed with the San Francisco Symphony to rework classic songs, this Encore show was a return to basics meant to excite and uplift fans.
Metallica brought fierce musicianship and high energy to the virtual show, which for obvious reasons couldn't match the thrilling, visceral highs of seeing live music. But like most other things during a global pandemic, you've got to make do with what you have.