ATLANTIC CITY, NJ - JUNE 23:  James Hetfield of Metallica performs during the 2012 Orion Music + More Festival at Bader Field
Theo Wargo

"Oh my god!" singer-guitarist James Hetfield exclaimed a few songs into Metallica's Saturday night kickoff of their inaugural Orion Fest at Atlantic City's Bader Field. He scanned the crowd with a big ol' grin: "This is a dream come true!!!" 

It was for the 25,000 fans, too. And after a day full of sets from Metallica's favorite bands, including Modest Mouse, Arctic Monkeys, the Gaslight Anthem, Cage the Elephant and many, many more, the crowd--most sporting Metallica shirts, old and new--finally got what they came for: the first-ever full performance of Metallica's classic 1984 album Ride the Lightning

The stage went black and a video montage showed vintage clips of the band during their early-'80s era. Bald drummer (and former tennis pro) Lars Ulrich, it should be known, once had one very impressive mane. One segment celebrated the band's original bassist Cliff Burton, who died in a bus crash while on tour in Sweden in 1986. Just then a Metallica t-shirt-sporting fan accosted me, screamed "Cliff Burton rocks!!!" into my face, then ripped it up on air bass. Devil horns to the sky, bro.

"I know what you're here for," Hetfield roared, "the heavy!" And the quartet brought just that, and some. 

They plowed through the album in reverse order, starting with the epic instrumental "The Call of Ktulu." On "Fade to Black" and "For Whom the Bell Tolls," the album's two most popular (and just best) tracks, he stepped back from the mic, or held it into the crowd (see above) for chants and sing-alongs. The pumping fists put shame to fans at an NHL playoff game. "Let's all get together and make some noise," Hetfield instructed. "Give it some Orion love!!!" 

After wrapping up Lightning, Metallica kept the party going. "Orion, we're alive!" Then he shouted, "It's summmmmmmmeeeeerrrrrrr!!!" and drove the band into "Nothing Else Matters." He stomped out on the stage's long wings to solo right in the faces of his fans, pausing mid-riff for high fives.  

Then came the fireworks. They started with an explosion of red just before "Enter Sandman," then multiplied during the final encore. I walked backstage when the band launched into their final track, "Seek & Destroy," and was so close to the pyrotechnic flames that shot from six massive cranes (think the automatic thingies used to fix street lights) that my eyebrows nearly burned. 

Hetfield got the crowd into one final chant: "Metallica! Orion! Metallica family! Right here! Together!!! And off to neverneverland!!!!"

It was one big group hug, Metallica style.