Sunday, January 24, 2016

Iron Men: Blistering Black Sabbath Blasts Me Into Submission, From Beginning to 'The End' -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Black Sabbath
w/ opening act Rival Sons
United Center, Chicago
January 22, 2016


Just wow. 

Certainly, I had good reason to hope, and even expect, Black Sabbath would be stellar in concert on Friday night in Chicago.

Not only are they among the most hallowed rock bands in history--and along with Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, the creators of heavy metal--but I've consistently read & heard strong reviews of their reunion shows, whether in 1999 or at Lollapalooza in 2012 (as well as before, between and since).

These raves, from both press and friends, are largely what prompted me to get tickets when Sabbath announced "The End," their supposedly final tour, the notion of which is made more credible by guitarist Tony Iommi suffering from lymphoma for several years now.

But not only didn't I know how much Iommi's illness might affect his playing, but with Ozzy Osbourne having become something of a caricature, I held some fears that Black Sabbath might come across as a bloated dinosaur act.

And leading up to the show, I came to realize that although "Iron Man," "Paranoid" and "War Pigs" were staples from my youth, I grew up much more knowing and loving Ozzy as a solo act.

Few other Black Sabbath songs were ever truly ingrained, and in Spotifamiliarizing myself based on recent setlists, I felt more appreciation for the influence of the band's heavy dirges than I embraced very many tunes as truly superlative.

Although I've seen Ozzy a couple times, as I headed into my first Black Sabbath show I can't deny a sense of pilgrimage to witness a legendary act before the window closes, rather than acute excitement for what I would hear.

That the show came just three nights after another fantastic, nearly 3-1/2 hour performance by Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band--my all-time favorite artist--further muted my expectations.

To which Ozzy, Tony, bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Tommy Clufetos--replacing Bill Ward from the band's original configuration--promptly proceeded to completely blast my head off and blow my mind.

With just the foursome onstage--no extra tour musicians or backup singers--even from the far end of third deck of the notoriously acoustics-challenged United Center, Black Sabbath sounded as thunderous as any band I can remember in an arena setting.

Iommi seemed no worse for wear as he blasted out sledgehammer riffs, Butler was clearly a pro's pro with his propulsive bass lines, Ozzy sounded just fine to my ears and Clufetos was incredible in a Tazmanian Devilish sort of way. He even delivered a drum solo far better than most I've heard.

After a solid if not incredibly distinctive set from Rival Sons, the headliners opened with their somewhat droning namesake song, "Black Sabbath."

Even this sounded much better to me live than recorded--my sense has long been that Black Sabbath's albums were under produced, at least in terms of their sonic brightness, which may have been intentional--but it was on subsequent, punchier material like "Fairies Wear Boots" and "Into the Void" that I really felt the incredible ferocity and density of the band's sound. 

I don't know if even now I will opt to listen to Black Sabbath's albums all that often--although their first 6 are supposed to all be outstanding (per beyond the joy of hearing "War Pigs," "Iron Man" and "Paranoid," songs like "Snowblind," "N.I.B," "Beyond the Wall of Sleep," the recent "God Is Dead" and show closer "Children of the Grave" came across with tectonic force. (See the full setlist on

Verbally, Ozzy was his lovable lunatic self, with exhortations of "We love you all!," "You're fucking beautiful!" and "Let me see your hands!" coming so often as to remind of a pull-string toy, let alone make one wonder if such stage patter is all that remains of Osbourne's lucidity.

But while my friend Paolo felt that Ozzy's voice was a bit flat at times, I didn't discern anything dismaying. The singer looks good for age 67--and the life he's led--and seemed to perform fully in service to the legacy and power of Black Sabbath, without bringing too much of his famed, goofy persona to the fore in any diminishing way.

Sabbath's set wound up about 10 minutes shy of 2 hours, but even had it been a bit shorter, it still would have been sensational.

I can't really explain why any better than to say it just sounded phenomenal (with some nice but not obtrusive visual and lighting accompaniments).

I haven't heard many guitarists come across any better in a live setting than Iommi, and Butler and Clufetos were--to borrow a great word from a rave Rolling Stone review of the same show--pulverizing.

If you weren't there, feel free to be dubious. I certainly was going in, and after lavishing such high praise on the Springsteen show, even I can't believe how effusively I'm extolling Black Sabbath in the same week.

But my incredulity was blasted to bits, and although a bit sheepish that I didn't bother catching Black Sabbath before, I'm really glad I did while I still had the chance--and don't feel like I saw them 2, 10, 15 or 40 years too late. 

This wasn't just another Hall of Fame band to check off my list, but rather one that was way better than I expected--or even wished--they would be.

A bit akin to how I felt about Santana--most recently in August 2014--and other legendary acts, Black Sabbath showed how incredible a veteran, venerated band can still be, especially when comprised of proud musicians who clearly put pride in what they do anytime they step on stage.

Contrary to the band's initials, this was a no BS show by an artist I now understand--more than I ever truly did--deserves to be considered holy in the pantheon of hard rock.

It would be a shame if this is indeed "The End," although another Chicago area show is already scheduled for September 4 (as an extension of the same tour).

But given that it's at the lousy Hollywood Casino Amphitheater in Tinley Park, I don't think I'll go.

All the more reason I'm glad I did.

Ordinarily I might close with a concert clip from YouTube to help convey the sense of what I saw. But having looked and listened to a few, I don't know that any will adequately convey what Black Sabbath sounded like there, in person. But you should be able to find a number of videos if you wish. 

No comments: