Frank Bello, James Hetfield, Dave Mustaine (photo: Wes Orshoski)

While Metal Insider didn’t attend Saturday’s Big 4 show in Indio, CA, Lemmy: 49% Motherf**ker, 51 % Son Of a Bitch co-director Wes Orshoski did and filed an exclusive report for us.

At 37, I’m just young enough to have fallen in love with thrash’s Big 4 just before they all cut their biggest albums, when the music still felt underground and subversive. In the late ‘80s, all of these bands were starting to fill big rooms, and, looking back, there’s no question that each had already either wedged a foot or at least a toe in the door to the mainstream (as much as they could have). Yet those gigs, those records, those videos all still somehow felt exclusive.

Be it in the fall of 1988, when I stood spellbound in the sold-out Richfield Coliseum as Metallica throttled its way through the then-new “…And Justice for All,” or three years later, when I returned to the suburban Cleveland arena for the Clash of the Titans gig and watched in awe as Slayer, doused in red light, sped through “Seasons in the Abyss” (coincidentally becoming the first band in the history of that now-demolished venue to demand that floor seats be removed in front of the stage, clearing a pit for would-be moshers), it still felt like we were a part of a somewhat secret society that was too cool, too controversial, too fast, too loud and just too mean for the outside world.

Thirty years later, the music may not seem quite as fast, loud and controversial, but at the first U.S. Big 4 show on Saturday (after a European tour last summer), its hip factor still felt wholly intact, even if the brotherhood seems to have grown exponentially. That said, I don’t care what anybody says, Slayer is still mean as fuck. If anything, between the lines on Tom Araya’s face and the chain dangling from Kerry King’s hip, they look ten times meaner. (And on Saturday, with Gary Holt from Exodus filling in for the ailing Jeff Hanneman, they proved that they still sound as tight and evil as ever).

Considering the seemingly insurmountable obstacles involved in keeping a band together for three decades (not many marriages or even friendships last that long), it’s nothing short of a miracle that Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax are still together, let alone doing their own festivals. And for anyone who loved those bands in the ‘80s, there’s no question that fete contributed to there being a genuine buzz, a spirit, a warmth in the air on Saturday, in the California desert city of Indio, on the site of the annual Coachella festival. Everyone was psyched, and you could feel it. And it wasn’t just the masses, plenty of the Big 4’s peers had made the trek to Indio as well, including Mastodon’s Brann Dailor, Testament’s Chuck Billy, Matt Sorum (Guns n Roses, The Cult, Velvet Revolver), and members/ex-members of Sum 41 and Exodus.

To be sure, it felt nothing short of profound that these bands are still together. But, as a longtime fan, it was both a prideful and awesome thing to stand in the wings and see them peer out on what has to be at least their seventh or eighth generation of teenagers, all mashed against one another, baking in the sun, eyes wide, singing “Indians,” “Peace Sells,” “South of Heaven” or “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” word for word, clamoring for flung guitar picks and vying for eye contact with their heroes, just as we had all done three decades ago.

If the entire event didn’t already have something of a triumphant feel to it, Slayer’s set was made that much more powerful with the surprise return of Jeff Hanneman. The guitarist, who has been suffering from a spider bite (the treatment for which has required surgeries, skin grafts and rehab), rejoined Slayer for the last two songs of their set: “South of Heaven” and “Angel of Death.”

All four set lists were packed with the songs that made them each deserving members of the Big 4, and it was surprising how quickly the sets came and went, Anthrax first, then Megadeth, Slayer, and, finally, Metallica, which, as they do on the Big 4 DVD (filmed last summer in Bulgaria), welcomed all members back onstage for Diamond Head’s “Am I Evil?” This version was made even mightier for the inclusion of Slayer’s King. And just like those sets, the song came and went fast, before the smiles had left the faces of the musicians or the fans. And talk about profound, there was of course the still-powerful moment of seeing a grinning Dave Mustaine reunite—and hug—his former Metallica bandmates James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich onstage (Hetfield before “Am I Evil,” Ulrich after), which, like these bands, these songs, and these shows, will never get old.

Lemmy: 49% Motherf**ker, 51% Son of a Bitch is in stores now. Pick it up, why don’t ya? Also, read an interview with him and co-director Greg Olliver here.