Black Sabbath at Lollapalooza
Lollapalooza: Chicago - Friday August 3rd, 2012
As the final notes of "Paranoid" wrung throughout Grant Park in Chicago at day one of the 2012 edition of Lollapalooza, the four members of Black Sabbath placed their instruments down and made their way towards the front of the stage in what should have been an eye welling moment of triumph. The blistering Chicago heat's intensity was only matched by Sabbath's performance on the Bed Light stage where the most magnificent skyline in the world looked down on them. Except there was one superseding quandary with the final wave and bow; drummer Bill Ward was absent. Despite being part of the original press conferences in 2011 when the Black Sabbath tour was announced, Ward posted a series of open letters to the fans explaining that he felt the contract negotiations were unfair to him and until they were resolved, he would sit out the reunion. Then the news that Tony Iommi was diagnosed with cancer and the entire tour was put on hold with the exception of two shows, the Download Festival in England and Lollapalooza. It's impossible to review the show with a clear-cut approach because these are two huge factors that play into the emotional weight of the band's performance and the crowd's response.
At eight o'clock sharp, a video presentation began for before the curtain dropped and the three members of Black Sabbath took to the stage with drummer Tommy Clufetos filling in for Bill Ward opening with the doom laden "Black Sabbath". The three quarters of Black Sabbath were all in black and to their credit the core unit of Sabbath (guitarist Tony Iommi, vocalist Ozzy Osbourne and bassist Geezer Butler) were in magnificent musical shape and you would have a hard time believing this was only their third and final performance of 2012. Despite Tony Iommi's recent cancer scare he appeared to be in fine form and made through a sweltering and concentrated 100-minute set. Before the show, many were wondering if Iommi would be the presence he usually is in concert. The answer was a resounding "yes". He may appear to be thinner, but showed no signs of frailness. Instead he diligently performed the wailing power chords that every generation has stolen in some form. Iommi roamed the stage like a governing presence that could have been the boogeyman of our nightmares. Dressed in a long overcoat and black tinted glasses, he looked the pert as well. His solo at the end of "Dirty Woman" was a reminder that many have tried but no one can ever imitate the master and the way he drove that final solo home was nothing short of awe-inspiring. During the encore, the band jammed on the intro to Sabbath Bloody Sabbath before Iommi dexterously slide up and down the neck of his guitar like he was sensually caressing it before he launched into one of the most iconic guitar introductions ever composed. The plastic tips of his fingers are a sight to behold as he strokes the strings with effortlessness. Song after song he shifted between slippery solos and the mean-and-lean power chords that is the very heartbeat of Black Sabbath.
Despite playing the essential classics ("Paranoid", 'Children of the Grave", "Snowblind", Sweet Leaf") I found the highlights to be the deeper more ominous cuts in their arsenal. "The Wizard" played like scorching blues jam. Osbourne wailed on the harmonica while the other three backing musicians were in perfect harmony with one another. This wasn't so much musicianship as it was pure instincts. These three men go back more than forty years and despite having considerable gaps in being together when they share a stage they instantaneously enter rare air. "The Wizard" is a perfect example of the band meeting at the corner or metal and the blues and finding a perfect balance between the two. There's free form jamming but it's done with a road map in front of them and it never meanders. Watching Sabbath you're reminded how often the band is mimicked but rarely matched. "Behind the Wall of Sleep" was most welcome addition to the set list as it was right at home with a complexity that matched Sabbath's other compositions. Butler and Iommi performed like twins who have a secret language only the two of them could grasp. Butler's delivers more heady power chords than most guitarists could dream of. Butler's bass was broad and vigorous dancing toe to toe with Iommi's burning guitar as the two of them went deep into the heart of darkness. When Butler's bass amalgamated with Iommi's grim reaper riffs it was euphoric frenzy.
The band sounded as thick as a river of lava that would incinerate you head-to-toe on first contact featured fiercely on "N.I.B." and "Into the Void". "Under the Sun" from Black Sabbath Vol. 4 found Ozzy is excellent form as he interplayed with the audience as he led a impressive arm waving Watching the band perform, specifically the unspeakable chemistry between Iommi and Butler, you fully appreciate how the meticulous nature of the composition of the songs. There's a slithery rhythm followed by mid-song breaks and jams before redirecting the energy to bring it back where it started. It's definitely not paint by numbers rock. Maybe it was the ten hours of music I had witnessed all day and maybe it was because they're just that damn good, but watching them not so much perform but play their instruments is something everyone should see at least once in their lifetime. Much the same way the Black Keys (who were headlining at the same time as Black Sabbath at the opposite end of the festival) would seek out still living blues musicians. You see where decades of music we love have come from. "War Pigs" and "Iron Man", two of the most essential songs in the Sabbath catalog, were over performed and desperately needed drummer Bill Ward to rein the band in. It shouldn't show shades of speed metal, it should stir up profound horrors of war. Tommy Clufetos threw himself into the performance like a giddy kid and he did great, but his style didn't serve the song. It felt like a solo Ozzy Osbourne performance and not Black Sabbath. The band recovered on "Electric Funeral" featured an overactive midsection and induced the sound of the world being torn apart (the song is about nuclear war and the repercussion from it). The song and album (Paranoid) is more than four decades old and sadly, its themes are as relevant today as they were forty years ago.
What can one say about fill-in drummer Tommy Clufetos? He'll never replace Bill Ward but given the impractical mission set before him, he delivered the set with a passionate punch. His performance didn't so much anchor the band as it made them take flight. My main quibble with the drumming is that it sounds more like a solo Ozzy Osbourne live performance rather than Sabbath. Aside from the two aforementioned performances, he did his job and did it astoundingly well considering the circumstances. Bill Ward is one of the most undervalued drummers in the history of rock n' roll, he may lack the pizzazz many of his peers would showcase in concert and on record, but that isn't his style. His upbringing in Birmingham is hinted at in his drumming. He shows up and supplies what the song requires without flexing his mad talent. His drumming has been in the shadows rarely coming out into the light for fear of overshadowing his band mates and above all else, the material. He was missed on the Lollapalooza stage. As for Tommy Clufetos, his only sin is simply that he isn't Bill Ward. He did the best he could in an impossible circumstance.
What made the Lollapalooza performance so heartbreaking is that with all they have had to endure Black Sabbath played like champions but was missing one integral piece of the puzzle. The core of Sabbath delivered a powerful set showing every other act at the festival the difference between simply being in a band and being legends. The harmonies that rise from Tony Iommi's six-string are matchless. No one can sing the Sabbath catalog with a varying degree or horror and humor like Ozzy Osbourne. Geezer Butler's leaping four-string dexterity is captures ferociousness that no words can do justice. Lastly, no one can replace Bill Ward. He was missed on the Lollapalooza stage. Assuming Tony Iommi recovers from his cancer scare, Black Sabbath will have a chance to make a wrong a right. As it stands, the Lollapalooza performance will either be a footnote in their history or a devastating final chapter. With the loss the members of Sabbath have experienced over their lives (Ronnie James Dio, Randy Rhoads, Randy Castillo) one would think they were imparted wisdom and life lessons from them. Life is too short to throw forty years of friendship to the wind over an imprudent money quarrel. As long as the four original members of Black Sabbath are alive, there is no excuse for using anyone else to be on a concert stage when it is billed as Black Sabbath. For their sake, I hope they look back upon as a bump in the road because the alternate path is too distressing, too daunting and far too permanent. If this is one of the last performances the band ever gives, all I can say is that they should have ended it the way they began…with Tony Iommi on guitar, Geezer Butler on bass, Ozzy Osbourne on vocals and Bill Ward on drums.
Black Sabbath at Lollapalooza