CHICAGO—Black Sabbath threw itself a going-away party Friday at Chicago’s United Center, and more than 20,000 of its closest friends packed the place.
The attire was black. Tattoos were optional, though abundantly evident. The band—except for Tommy Clufetos, the shirtless newcomer on drums—was outfitted like high priests at a black Mass. Geezer Butler, Tony Iommi and Ozzy Osbourne have pretty much been playing this same role since the late ‘60s, when rock ‘n’ roll threw them a lifeline out of the factory town of Birmingham, England.
They invented a sound and an attitude: the blues delivered with a sledgehammer, plus a bit of jazz, psychedelia and progressive rock. This was heavy metal before anyone thought to call it that, and the quartet’s first four albums—which provided the bulk of the set list Friday—remain timeless examples of the genre at its finest. The dense, dark sonics were coupled with a lyrical sensibility that had little patience for the peace-and-love bromides of the ‘60s, and instead focused on the dead-end options faced by young men in a city full of smokestacks and gangs.
The band’s nihilistic haiku still carried weight. As Osbourne sang on “Hand of Doom”: “Vietnam napalm / Disillusioning / You push the needle in.” There also were references to H.P. Lovecraft’s horror fiction, Beelzebub and the joys of getting stoned so completely that you see “a fairy with boots dancing with a dwarf”. Sure, could happen to anybody. It was all done in good fun, the suddenly philosophical Osbourne told the audience, a pushback against “all the bull— they were giving us”. And back in the day, “they” was pretty much everybody.
And now it’s over, or so they say. Sabbath is calling this tour “The End”, a career capstone necessitated by Iommi’s recent bout with cancer and his understandable desire to back off from the band’s endless life on the road. He’s still a lean powerhouse, a nine-fingered riff machine. He and Butler remain formidable musicians and the backbone of a band that leaves behind a trove of metal landmarks.
The set hit most of the high points, which should renew the debate among Sabbath aficionados: What’s the best Iommi riff? Is it the elementally brutal one that courses through “N.I.B.”? The doomy intro that speeds up on “Into the Void”? The gallop he injects into “Children of the Grave”? The stomp of “Iron Man”, so vivid you can practically see the lumbering beast come alive? Butler was equally ferocious on bass, his fingers spider-walking with dexterity as he bridged melody and rhythm with the wah-wah-inflected intro to “N.I.B.” and brought jazzlike dexterity to “Hand of Doom”.
Clufetos played with enthusiasm, but he’s got a busy style that didn’t quite match the cinder block power and swing of the band’s original drummer, Bill Ward, who quit a few years ago. Ward remains as indispensable to Sabbath’s sound as John Bonham was to Led Zeppelin or Keith Moon to the Who, in part because he was so adept at orchestrating drama through restraint and silence.
Osbourne, the band’s affable cheerleader of a frontman, is also indispensable, and during the stern meet-the-devil doominess of “Black Sabbath”, he broke character to puff out his chest, stretch out his arms and smile like he’d just hoodwinked life. But he’s had better nights.
Like a boxer knocked woozy by one too many punches, the singer slouched physically and audibly in midconcert, his voice wandering far off key amid the medieval roar of “War Pigs”. But he regained his bearings as the show wound down, warning his minions to stop annihilating their own planet lest they become “Children of the Grave”.
Nothing beats a bedtime story from Uncle Ozzy.
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01 Black Sabbath
02 Fairies Wear Boots
03 After Forever
04 Into the Void
06 War Pigs
07 Behind the Wall of Sleep
09 Hand of Doom
10 Rat Salad
11 Iron Man
12 God is Dead?
13 Under the Sun
14 Dirty Women
16 Children of the Grave