Across the gulf of 46 years since its eponymous debut album was released on February 13, 1970, it might be difficult to imagine how Black Sabbath's music could have seemed evil and dark. But last night, when it was actually happening — those familiar bells, sounds of rain and Tony Iommi's expertly executed guitar flutter and percussive downstroke, accenting Ozzy Osbourne's chilling vocal delivery — you were reminded instantly of the sheer evocative power of the band in all its live glory. Bill Ward wasn't on hand, but drummer Tommy Clufetos and keyboardist Adam Wakeman more than ably filled their roles in crafting one of the strongest live rock shows in recent memory.
At this point, in the midst of a tour called The End that is supposedly its last, the band whose first six records created the blueprint for all heavy metal worthy of the genre association, Black Sabbath could have phoned in the performance. But the band went the opposite direction, remaining hard and present. The version of Osbourne that many people know as the lovable, mumbling father figure from his old reality TV show was not there. What we got from the frontman was a commanding presence who could convey meaning and menace with the nuances of his facial expressions and emotionally charged vocals. There was nothing tentative about how any bandmember performed, and there was no complaining about the altitude even though people the age of Osbourne, Iommi and bassist Geezer Butler would have every right to make comments to that effect.
Sabbath didn't dip too far into obscure tracks, instead sticking with material released no later than Technical Ecstasy's “Dirty Women.” What was striking about that was how Sabbath performed the music with such power and conviction that songs many of us have heard ad nauseam seemed fresh and new. Who hasn't heard “Iron Man,” “War Pigs,” “Children of the Grave” and “Paranoid” hundreds if not thousands of times intentionally or otherwise, performed by Sabbath or any other band? Hearing all of those songs live, as well as the others less overplayed on radio, done by the band that wrote the music was a true reminder that Sabbath's music has aged exceptionally well and that it connects with a wide swath of fans across generations.
The fluid rhythms, the interlocking, crushing dynamics between the rhythm section, and Iommi and Osbourne's uncanny ability to switch in and out of the role of avatar of doom and avuncular hype man, rousing the crowd, made for a show that was much more than merely a great performance. It felt inclusive. When the crowd sang the alternate verses for “War Pigs,” Osbourne remarked that the collective was even in tune together. Maybe he says that every show, and maybe it is true at every concert, but it didn't come off as an insincere compliment, because, honestly, what does Ozzy have to lose?
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Iommi's crisp, precise, devastating guitar work was perhaps the highlight of the musical side of the performance. But just as impressive was Geezer Butler. On the recordings, you can hear that Butler is creative and masterful, but live, the guy proved his reputation as one of the best-ever bass players in rock and roll. His sounds were never relegated to the background on record, and Butler's talents are showcased so well on the studio version of “N.I.B.” — but in person it was revelatory.
In typical fashion, Osbourne told us he loved us and that we were the best. Which, despite some of the dark, even occult, subject matter, has been Sabbath's deal all along. “Hand of Doom” doesn't celebrate heroin usage so much as show compassion for the addict; “Snowblind” is simply very real about cocaine; and “War Pigs” is a condemnation of mass waste of human life. The "evil" subject matter is just a metaphor for how life can be terrifying and perilously uncertain even as it can be exciting and beautiful and something we all share at a base level, no matter what we choose to help us get through.
Opening act Rival Sons proved to be cut from similar cloth. The band didn't come on like an opener thrown on the tour by the label or management. Not only did Rival Sons own every moment of its time on stage, it wasn't difficult to see what the members of the headlining band saw in the Long Beach-based outfit. Its songwriting wasn't the full-on rock overcompensation aesthetic that pervades too much modern music.
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Rival Sons possessed gifts for nuance similar to Sabbath in building a song up or down in volume, or inhabiting a quieter zone, allowing Jay Buchanan's abilities as a soulful vocalist to find a place alongside his raw ability to belt out a throaty cry worthy of any rock hero. Whether that comparison is to Robert Plant or Paul Rodgers, Buchanan has that emotionally eruptive yet controlled quality that makes for a truly great rock singer. Guitarist Scott Holiday, bassist Dave Beste, drummer Mike Miley and keyboard player Todd Ögren-Brooks seemed equally at ease with heavy rockers and the quieter, more introspective numbers. Seeing that transition happen across a short set so smoothly is a clear indication that this band isn't a one-trick hard-rock pony.
Black Sabbath Set List
1. Black Sabbath
2. Fairies Wear Boots
3. After Forever
4. Into the Void
6. War Pigs
7. Behind the Wall of Sleep
9. Hand of Doom
10. Iron Man
11. Dirty Women
12. Children of the Grave