By Brian Ives
It’s reasonable to ask, “How do they still do it?”
After all, the idea of a trinity of 60-somethings playing heavy metal would have seemed unlikely in the ’70s, ’80s and even ’90s. Some might have laughed at the idea. Some might still.
Those people would be foolish, though, to laugh at Black Sabbath in this or any year that Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler are in the lineup together. Last night at New York’s Madison Square Garden, those three, accompanied by powerhouse drummer Tommy Cluefetos (in the place of original member Bill Ward) steamrolled through 14 Sabbath classics for the first of two sold out nights at the storied venue.
Forty-six years and twelve days after the release of the band’s self titled debut, Osbourne, Iommi and Butler opened their MSG show with “Black Sabbath,” which led off that earth shaking album. While Ozzy doesn’t sound as haunted as he did 46 years ago, the song has lost none of it’s power, or weirdness.
As Butler told Radio.com a few weeks ago, this tour’s setlist centers around the band’s second album, 1970’s Paranoid (minus “Planet Caravan”): all of those songs, including the radio classics “War Pigs,” “Iron Man” and “Paranoid” were met with roaring approval from the audience. The audience, by the way, varied in age from teens to sixty-somethings (I sat next to two kids – 13 and 17 – who became Sabbath die-hards because of their involvement in the School of Rock program). The young audience members were a reminder that heavy metal thrives despite, and often in spite of, cultural trends. Most of the songs in the set were released in 1970 and 1971, and all have aged incredibly well. “War Pigs,” sadly, is still relevant. “Hand of Doom,” about a smack-addicted Viet Nam vet is as well: just fill in a different war.
The most recent song that they played was “Dirty Women” from 1976’s Technical Ecstasy; it was a bit disappointing that they didn’t address their last album, 2013’s 13 during their performance. It was their first #1 album, and the songs from the record held up well against the classics during their last tour. One hopes that if the band change their setlist at all for the summer leg of their tour, they consider adding “Loner” to the set. At any rate, 13 provided a great last chapter in the book of Sabbath. This tour if this is indeed, as the tour is called, “The End,” makes a great epilogue.
But let’s address the above question, “How do they still do it?” Who knows how they still do it: but Black Sabbath still plays those songs with brutality and power. It’s true that Ozzy Osbourne’s voice doesn’t sound like it used to – whose voice does? But his appeal was never that he was a perfect vocalist anyway. Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler, however, still are at the top of their respective games.
But no band can be great without a great drummer, and Tommy Clufetos is better than great. As with the Who and drummer Zack Starkey, he’s a perfect fit, filling in for an irreplaceable drummer; he propels the band to incredible heights, even at this late date in their career.
Rival Sons opened the show and were an excellent choice: they sounded like all of Sabbath’s early ’70s peers, but not at all like Sabbath themselves. There were shades of Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin and especially Free (their singer Jay Buchanan sounds uncannily like Paul Rodgers at times).