Monday, Aug. 26, 2013
Better than: Most of the metal that came after.
Ozzy looks like a worn-out scarecrow, shuffling slowly across the stage, or, when he wants to get you psyched up, hopping up and down in rigid little bursts. He shouts a lot, and the only words you can always understand when he shouts are "fuck," "fuckers," or "fucking," which presumably do more to stimulate crowd reaction than the same phrase would without them. Tony Iommi looks like the protagonist in an Italian Viagra commercial, someone who should be wearing perforated leather gloves and driving an old Ferrari convertible to the opera. His spectacles quietly hint that Iommi is the composer of the group, that most of the memorable things you're hearing tonight have come from him, and this is maybe why he also exudes a constant, subtle dignity. Geezer Butler looks the least-worn of the originals. His bass sound is the spit-polished steel-toe boot of the electric bass world, so brassy and violent that you feel it could punch the contents of your stomach out through your nose at any moment.
There is a drummer, too, but we will get to him later, because this must be said: Black Sabbath is onstage at Shoreline tonight, at the Bay Area tour stop of its most complete and successful reunion effort in years, with all of the original members in tow except for drummer Bill Ward. And tonight, Black Sabbath sounds pretty fucking awesome.
By "pretty fucking awesome" we mean in that brash, bone-headed way that hard rock music could once be, before conditions like self-awareness, punk, the collapse of the major label system, all things twee, and the revolution wrought by Nirvana set in. Those all have their benefits, but so do drum kits with dual kicks and approximately 30 toms and a dozen cymbals and a giant gong hanging at the back. Self-awareness is great, but so are five-minute guitar solos. Hair bands needed to be put away, but one must never forget the sledgehammer might of the Big Scary Dumb Riff, which Black Sabbath arguably invented, and certainly perfected.
What we get tonight is a lot of Big Scary Dumb Riffs. Ozzy sings over them, sometimes intelligibly, sometimes not, but always with a certain slightly pathetic, slightly heroic investment. The man is 64 years old, still saying the F-word every time he gets a chance, still throwing buckets of water at the front-row fans. He may not be a fantastic walker, but he is a very good at eliciting cheers.
Now, does Black Sabbath need to play all seven-plus minutes of "Dirty Women," the final track on 1976's forgettable Technical Ecstasy? Er, no. The song seems an excuse to show videos of midcentury buxom broads flashing their wares. Does Sabbath also need to play the new song "God Is Dead?" Certainly not. The band's Rick Rubin-produced reunion album, 13, has some strong songs, but the lesser ones sound like a random assortment of previously recorded Tony Iommi riffs arranged in a new order. After nearly nine minutes of "God Is Dead?", Ozzy seems bored himself.
We don't know it at the time, but the best few moments of the the night have already come and gone. This sequence, the best part of the show, begins with -- and you are going to have to trust us here -- a drum solo. But one which could easily be some sort of hazing ritual for touring drummer Tommy Clufetos. Remember that scene in Wayne's World, where Garth is in the music shop and goes and sits down at the drums, beginning gingerly, speeding up gradually, banging various snares and toms and cymbals until it's all a whirlwind of percussion no human could possibly keep track of, before reality comes crashing back?
Yeah. Well tonight, Tommy Clufetos does like three of those in a row. Starts some complex pattern, speeds up, climaxes, slows down, then does it again. By the end you honestly feel sorry for the guy, because it's impossible to imagine reaching a physical condition where this kind of frantic pounding -- dual kicks blasting like twin gatling guns, snare rolling into one solid blur -- is not taxing to the point of being potentially terminal.
And then, after maybe 15 minutes of soloing, just as you wonder what Clufetos is going to do next, he quiets down and lays into the kicks: Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. The other three bandmembers reappear onstage. Ozzy's yelling F-words to get applause. And you know what's coming, but still, when it comes, it's dumbfounding: Here are the gnarled fingers and stinging strings of the Dark Lord himself, Mr. Iommi, and that slow bending note at the beginning sounds so sinister, just completely wrong, like humans shouldn't make noises like that, and then it, The Biggest Scariest Dumbest Riff Ever, slices through Shoreline Amphitheatre like a hot blade: Duh Duh Duh-Duh-Duh...
Everyone is immediately like Beavis and Butt Head in here, headbanging, air-guitarring, stupidly grinning. Black fucking Sabbath is onstage playing "Iron Man" -- which, reality check, doesn't happen all that often. And it doesn't matter how old they are or how sadly they jump, and you forget that Bill Ward isn't here because of some contractual point. "Iron Man," and Black Sabbath at its best moments, are a superhighway to a dark and important place inside the human heart: a way to confront Bad Things like death and gloom and destruction without risking genuine harm from them. By nodding along to this apocalyptic riff, we in some small way triumph over all of the terrible possibilities and realities of every moment. We confront our mortality, just a little bit, and come out elated to be alive. This, it seems, is what many dark metal bands try to do, but Black Sabbath did it first, and early Black Sabbath songs do it more elegantly and effectively than anyone else's. So the question of tonight is whether these three original members of Black Sabbath can still do what we want, maybe need, Black Sabbath to do, given their age, disagreements, egos, etc. And the answer, "Iron Man" makes clear, is absolutely yes.