“You’re all special, man, I love you all!”
“I’ll give you a round of applause!”
“Good to see you f***ers, it really is!”
Two of those three statements sound like they could have come from Mister Rogers addressing his adoring audience. The third: not so much! But, in fact, all three are from the mouth of Ozzy Osbourne and were directed at the thousands of metal faithful who came to see Black Sabbath during their New Jersey stop this past Sunday (Aug. 4).
Sabbath may never be a PBS-approved band (even if Ozzy has appeared on Sesame Street), but Ozzy’s stage banter touches on part of the reason that 60-somethings playing music that is mostly four decades old can sell out a huge venue like New Jersey’s PNC Bank Arts Center.
Heavy metal – the music invented by Sabbath 43 years ago on their 1970 self-titled debut – may be a bit more mainstream than it used to be. But it still is music for outsiders and rebels. And when they come together for a show like this, it’s like a gathering of misfits. And quite a gathering it was: the venue was packed to capacity, with legions of ticketless fans outside trying to find someone selling a spare.
A few questions beg to be asked, though, regarding a Black Sabbath concert in 2013. For starters, how does Tony Iommi look? And how is his playing?
Well, he looked great. The Dark Lord of the Riff even allowed himself a couple of grins and a few outright smiles. And his playing was stellar. He attacked every riff, and every solo, as if it might be the last time he played it. And there’s a good reason for that: Having survived lymphoma (he still returns to England for chemo treatments), he literally stared down death and walked away. Of course, this is a guy who didn’t stop playing guitar, even after two of his fingertips were chopped off in a factory accident.
But Bill Ward wasn’t there, and his drums are such an essential part of the early Sabbath sound. Does it feel like Black Sabbath without him?
To be sure, it’s a disappointment that Sabbath’s founding drummer hasn’t been involved with the 13 album or tour. Rumors have circulated that, when this reunion was in its early phases, his drumming wasn’t up to par. He denies this. But whatever the case may be, Tommy Clufetos, from Ozzy’s solo band, does an incredible job. The hard truth is, while Bill’s drumming may have a bit more nuance, he probably couldn’t have matched Clufetos’ powerful performance.
If you had to make a comparison, try this one. When you see The Who in concert, they’re great in part because they have a great drummer in Zak Starkey. Is he Keith Moon? No. But he is an incredible drummer who powers the engine that lets Townshend and Daltrey to shine on stage. Same deal with Clufetos.
OK, so how were the new songs from 13?
The Sabbath bandmates have always known that fans show up year after year because of the group’s legacy. That said, the album’s No. 1 debut probably made them feel a bit more bold about adding newer songs to the setlist. And it turned out quite well. They didn’t go overboard, and the fans were singing along with new tracks “God Is Dead?” and “End Of The Beginning” (slightly less so to “Age Of Reason” and “Methademic,” the later of which is a bonus track on an expanded version of the album). That added up to about a half hour of new music, which gave their performance the feel of an ongoing story, rather than a remembrance of times gone by.
Finally, and it needs to be asked: How did Ozzy sound?
Great, actually. While his voice hasn’t always held up at his concerts, in New Jersey he was in outstanding form all night, with only a few cracks coming towards the very end of the set. Key to this was the fact that seemed to be conserving his vocal chords. Often at Sabbath concerts he yells at the audience (“Louder!” or “I can’t hear you!” or “I want to see your cigarette lighters!”) during the instrumental parts of the show. This time he kept that to a minimum (for him, anyway), and his singing voice benefitted from it. Maybe the band is pacing the tour well, with plenty of rest time, or maybe Ozzy’s clean lifestyle is agreeing with him, but whatever it is, it’s working for him.
(Note that we didn’t include Geezer Butler in any of these concert questions. That’s because he is and remains one of the finest and most consistent bass players to pick up the instrument in the past four decades.)
The audience, too, was right there with the band the entire night, starting with the very moment the band kicked off (with “War Pigs) from behind a curtain emblazoned with their bat-winged devil logo and lasting all the way through the encore (“Paranoid”). And unlike the average audience for most bands whose members are in their 60s, the crowd did not sit down all night. The general admission lawn was packed with fans bellowing along with not only the more well-known songs (“Iron Man,” “Paranoid,”) but also the slightly lesser known ones (anything new, “Snowblind”).
Before “Paranoid,” Ozzy asked the audience if they wanted the band to come back and do it again. This after a show that had lasted nearly two hours, and yet the audience still had the energy to lose their minds.
Based on what we witnessed Sunday night, if Sabbath were to add another leg to the tour, it’s clear the fans would be there, again and again. But if this does turn out to be their last hurrah, it’s a great final page in a book that has spanned 43 years.
- Brian Ives, Radio.com