We see our first Metallica t-shirt before we've even left the Dubai city limits - a chap walking in the Dubai Marina precinct, sporting a tee in St Anger colours. He heads off in another direction before I have a chance to corner him for an earnest discussion on the dynamics of Lars Ulrich's snare sound on that record, but I just know it would've been emotional. St Anger fans are as blindly loyal as Metallica acolytes come.
My wingperson for the day (or perhaps more accurately, I'm winging her) is Raych, on review duties for local daily the Gulf News. Last night we danced only-kinda-ironically to the new will.i.am and Britney Spears joint at local club Malecon, but today "It's Britney, bitch" is barely an elephant in the room. If anything, the incident was character building for us both.
Dubai is a transient city and I'm currently one of the nomads, stopping in on this Legoland for adult millionaires specifically to see my childhood heroes before moving on to Ethiopia and beyond. You may remember me from such self-indulgent travel blogs as In Post-Soviet Goa, No One Can Here You Psy, the story of an ill-fated Indian clubbing pilgrimage in three parts
This time 'round I actually do some research in advance, know when the gig is on, and even have a ticket in my hot little hand before I discover Raych through the great unifying power of the Internet. She's just interviewed Kirk Hammett, her favourite member of her all-time favourite band, gotten the scoop on the band's 2014 recording plans in her story, and is understandably feeling pretty pleased with herself.
And me? Well, after Goa I'm just stoked to be in a city at the same time as a decent gig is on. (As it turns out, DJ Yoda and Dave Seaman are also playing Dubai tonight - they've packed up their kit bags by the time we return to the big smoke.)
We set a course south-west from Dubai for Abu Dhabi, a journey similar in scope to the annual Brisbane to Gold Coast Big Day Out pilgrimage but with 95% less traffic congestion and 100% less dickbags in oversized singlets. The scenery is even more nondescript, white landscape in pretty much every direction except for the occasional roadside service centres and majestic mosques, which are lit up in green once the sun sets to the west.
It's dark by the time we arrive at du Arena, on Yas Island just north of Abu Dhabi. It's also home to the UAE's Formula 1 Track and Ferrari World, home to the world's fastest rollercoaster which roars past us at 240 km/hr. The clock reads 7.30pm, yet the temperature gauge is still hovering over 30 degrees and shows no sign of dipping.
We join the black-clad, predominately male hordes streaming from the dirt carpark to the venue. Two gents have secured themselves the best free seats in the house, setting up two camping chairs at the venue's back fence from which they have a head-on view of the stage 100 metres away.
They're intently hunched over a deck of cards as local support act Empty Yard Experiment unfurl their catalogue in the distance, their passable Tool-esque sound encompassing psychedelic freak-outs aplenty and growling vocals that have you pining for even more psychedelic freak-outs.
Unexpected Life Win #1 for the night comes when my wing's request for a photo pit pass for me comes through. I experience moderate camera envy when I compare my palm-sized Canon Powershot G15 with rigs sporting lenses that look like they could pull the Mars Rover into sharp focus. Fortunately, I remember that it's not the size of the wand but the magician using it that matters, and I somehow convince myself that I'm the photographic equivalent of Neville Longbottom from the Harry Potter series.
The photo pack gets herded into the front of stage rat run 15 minutes before showtime, and I split my time between praying my camera will get some decent shots and pressing the flesh with the front row faithful. Flags repping as far afield as Poland and Sweden hang over the rail, while Iran seems to account for the lion's share of those boasting Metallica flags, tatts, and custom tees at the front.
A chap sporting a James Hetfield tatt and singlet declaring "I'm an Iranian fan of Metallica" is racking up his seventh show with the band tonight; for many, it's either their first or second gig, the band having only performed in Abu Dhabi for the first time in October 2011.
Every time a camera looks in the crowd's direction, the horns go up. When Acca Dacca's It's A Long Way To The Top plays over the front of house, they sing every word. If it weren't for the predominantly Arabian facial features and distinct lack of drunkenness (though beer is being consumed in abundance, if the punter getting carried out 45 minutes before the headliners hit the stage is any indication), I could be in the photo pit at Soundwave.
The house lights go down, the Ecstasy Of Gold intro video goes on, every hand/camera in the place goes up. Hit The Lights roars straight into Master Of Puppets, and I'm torn between being a photojournalist and fanboy - screaming the Puppets pre-chorus back at my new front row friends between shots seems the best middle ground.
The duelling guitar lead in the middle of Puppets sounds as exhilarating as it did at my first Metallica gig in '93.
The Shortest Straw is immense.
James is fit and firing.
Kirk looks tired, but delivers his solos with typical flair.
Lars is a little off the pace, especially compared to his powerhouse performance at Sydney's Olympic Stadium two months back, but maintains his cocky strut throughout.
And Rob Trujillo, it must be said, is just a badass motherfucker.
We get herded back out, gushing like teenagers, then run back in just as The Unforgiven drops. Setlist-wise it's much the same as what they delivered in Sydders, though with the aforementioned subbed in for Holier Than Thou, Shortest Straw for Blackened, and The Four Horsemen for Ride The Lightning. They play Orion, again, and it rules, again.
All the hits are there, all the same stage cues are accounted for - though Kirk muffing the intro to Nothing Else Matters ("my hands are sweaty!") probably wasn't part of the plan - right down to James holding his logo-inscribed guitar pick up to the camera before delivering the opening riff of Enter Sandman.
By this time we're watching the show from side of stage, Raych having secured the connect through her interview. Somebody pinch me - James is right there playing Fade To Black, Lars is giving us the nod and point from behind his kit, and I'm giving devil horns to Rob after he screams up at us from below.
The show ends on Seek And Destroy, and punters fighting over inflatable Metallica beach balls as the band say their farewells. Kirk and Rob run off stage; James and Lars follow slowly minutes later, wrapped head-to-toe in black robes and looking like everything they had went into this show. We walk out through the wreckage of the crowd, reflecting on a night that young metalheads' dreams are made of.
Several nights later, I dream that I'm back at the gig, on stage next to the kit, and Lars hands me a pair of drumsticks. It's the only thing that could've topped off a surreal night in a surreal part of the world.