Okay, I give up . . . can someone tell me when Ronnie James Dio sold his soul to the Devil? That’s the only way he could sound as good in 2007 as he did in 1977. It defies every law of physics and nature: it’s the only way the wee metal gypsy have the same pipes that he did back in his Rainbow days. There’s black magic afoot. Over the past three decades, the guy has not only lapped every other aging vocalist in his peer group, he’s embarrassed them. Plant? Daltrey? Coverdale? Gillan? Diamond Dave? Shells of their former selves. Not even the still-pretty-damn-good Rob Halford can hold a tuning fork to Dio. Add in the inverse proportion of Ronnie James’ modest stature to his vocal might and you’ve got a genuine metallic conundrum. So the Devil has taken Dio’s pink slip, and he’s given him vocal chords of high-tensile steel in trade. No complaints from this metal head . . . none whatsoever. As a matter of fact, based upon Dio’s recent gig in New York City, I may even send Lucifer a “thank you” note. Everyone and their stud-jacketed granny is calling it The Black Sabbath Reunion Tour, which, in a six-degrees-of-separation way, is true. But the band has morphed so many times over the years, it’s tough to accurately call anything a Sabbath reunion, unless you send out some extra invites. And don’t forget a place setting for Bev Bevan, the guy from the Move. It’s the same incestuous-transient-band-member thing as Deep Purple, but that’s a story for another day. Revolving-door rosters be damned — we’re in another decade, another where Dio has not decayed, and he’s touring with the second most popular incarnation of Black Sabbath proper: Tony Iommi on guitar, Geezer Butler on bass, and Vinnie Appice on drums. The same post-Ozzy line-up that gave us the album Heaven and Hell in 1980, which suffered the unfortunate “right place, wrong time” fate, going up against AC/DC’s Back In Black. Good stuff, nonetheless, and proof that Dio was a worthy successor to the Wizard of Oz. (By the way, notice the album title? Exactly.) Anyway, years after their prime, these tired, aging blokes must be, well, tired and aging, right? Uh, no. As a matter of fact, Dio and his immortal voice box are given a hearty run by Iommi, Butler, and Appice, and I can’t think of another singer who could keep up. * * * After a handful of warm-up shows, Heaven and Hell descends upon Radio City without current tour opener Megadeth. A small loss, but no worries: the solo gig is being recorded for DVD posterity, thus no one thinks too long about Dave Mustaine’s absence. I grab a spot in the serpentine line crawling up the block. It moves at glacial speed thanks to Murphy’s Law of Concerts which dictates that whatever line you get in, it will be the slowest. And I’ve got Mr. Over-Zealous giving my group the thorough shakedown — guess he’s bucking for that promotion to the airport security job. Uh, no sir, that’s not a weapon of mass destruction in my jacket pocket … it’s a friggin’ Sharpie. To take notes. During the concert. Jesus Horatio Christ, it’s like trying to get into the Pentagon past closing time. After finally circumnavigating Checkpoint Charlie, I make my way up to my front-row balcony seats. A quick look around . . .what’s this place hold? Five, maybe six thousand? And nary a rock chick to be seen. It’s the oddest demographic I’ve ever experienced at a concert — virtually 99% alpha male. Such is the legacy of Sabbath Mark II.
The stage is fairly Spartan in its overall equipment/prop configuration, though the medieval-themed backdrop is a given. It occurs to me how well This Is Spinal Tap nailed the metal’s fixation on dungeon décor; I almost expect to see a miniature Stonehenge lowered from the catwalk. The pre-entry delay kills whatever wait time there would have been, so it’s not long before the band takes the stage to enthusiastic applause. Iommi and Butler anchor their respective sides, with Appice on the riser, behind his kit. Then Dio appears — a flowing-haired imp, methodically stalking the stage and shooting the horns with impunity. As the band shifts into first gear, I’m immediately hit in the chest by a massive reverberation. This is a theater after all, and the acoustics are top notch. Of course, at the moment, I don’t know if it’s a blessing or a curse. Butler’s bass is relentless, jack-hammering a hole through my sternum. The majority of tracks are from the classic Dio-Sabbath days, though we’re treated to some fresh material from the new album. It’s sounding as good as it did back before the ’80s screwed up the music industry beyond recognition. And it doesn’t take long before I’m struck by two thoughts: 1) Comparatively speaking, there’s a pervasive sullenness to everything that is played, but all of it lacks the underlying gloom of Ozzy-era Sabbath. The Dio material rocks in the purest heavy metal fashion without conjuring images of demons riding in on Armageddon clouds. 2) Ol’ Ronnie James is metal’s good-will ambassador. He is effusive in his praise of those in attendance, and continually expresses his appreciation for the countless thousands who keep the band’s music alive. He is so incredibly decent and good-natured, it’s easy to forget how powerful he is as a singer. Dio works the stage, to and fro, then back again, rarely missing a shake or slap to the outstretched hands of revelers. Conversely, Iommi and Butler epitomize economy of motion. They hold their ground, generating hellacious riffs in a musical symmetry only attainable by those who have spent a lifetime together. Forget all the fret-board gymnasts craving attention with their arpeggios and hammer-ons; Iommi shows what a professional is all about, mining the depths of subtle power-chording with every down stroke. And Butler? The guy is brutal. This old geezer attacks his instrument with the fury of a four-stringer half his age. If the music wasn’t so good, it would be painful to behold. Let’s not forget Appice, either. Sure, Bill Ward is the name we most closely associate with banging the pots for Sabbath, but Appice has an impressive time-keeping resume of his own. And he’s right at home with his Heaven and Hell brethren. The evening flies by, as if we’re all riding one huge sonic boom. The set ends to a thunderous ovation. Minutes pass, then the band retakes the stage. The encore brings the festivities to the two-hour mark, a generous helping of Dio and the boys. And how could it end any other way than with a blistering rendition of “Neon Knights?” The curtain goes down, and we’re left with palpitating hearts and throbbing ear drums. We’ve just seen history in the remaking, a veteran band reunited that actually has something to offer, and can still faithfully play the heavy stuff. If all goes well, it won’t be too long a wait for the DVD to be released, so that we can experience it all again, and again, and again. I think I’ve died and gone to Heaven . . . or Hell, as it were.