Houses on the way into the Comcast Center had signs on their lawns advertising $30 parking. I guess earning a buck or two on the side is probably a good way to offset some of the annoyance that must be inevitable when you live next door to an amphitheater. People were taking advantage, too. By the time I pulled into the parking lot, there were pedestrians walking up alongside the car, eyes forward in pilgrimage concentration. It was Black Sabbath. Getting there was as top as priorities come.
I always forget the scale of these kinds of shows. The parking lot looked like a camp of heavy metal refugees. Ozzy and old Metallica blasted out of outside-of-this-parking-lot-I-drive-this-because-I’m-a-dad tailgating SUVs, lawn chairs were set up; grills ablaze, beers chugged, footballs thrown. For many, it looked like the only show they’d see this summer; and I don’t say that to condescend. Their appreciation was clear to discern through the ritual, and though it’s never been my thing, I find that admirable at least in concept. It was hard from the start not to view the night as a kind of religious experience.
The sun was setting over the hill and the sky turning pinkish-purple, and at the reasonable hour of 8:30PM, my planet and the planet on which reside the gods of doom themselves would align as Black Sabbath rolled through supporting their first number-one album and first Ozzy Osbourne-fronted outing since 1978′s Never Say Die, the Rick Rubin-produced 13.
Invariably, 13 (review here) has been the subject of much debate since its release, with points ranging from “No Bill Ward, no Sabbath” to “What the hell did you expect?” finding ground and various levels of validity along the way. It’s an album I found underwhelming at best — overproduced as it was almost certain to be and doing little to capture the spirit it purported and attempted to of the band’s earliest works, with uninteresting drumming to back the otherwise stellar leads of Tony Iommi and always pivotal bass of Geezer Butler. It was never going to be a Sabbath landmark in any other than the commercial sense, and it wasn’t. Songs were catchy but largely undercut by a self-awareness that sapped them of the vitality they were shooting to hone, as heard on the single, “God is Dead?,” and the reinvention of one of their most essential works — the song “Black Sabbath” — that showed itself on album opener “End of the Beginning.”
Nonetheless, the record exists and it’s been talked about since the original lineup first reunited in 1997, so for that alone if not the actual songs, it’s an event. And if it gives me an excuse to go and watch Tony Iommi play guitar and Geezer Butler play bass for about two hours solid, I don’t care if it’s 45 minutes of Osbourne practicing making armpit farts, I’m going to see the band live. I went into it knowing what to expect and that it could be pretty rough depending on the night — they were still relatively lethal when I first saw them in 1998, but showed wear and tear over the years such that, when I last caught a show in 2005, I assumed it would be the final time — but honestly, I got what I came for by the time they were through “Into the Void,” which was the second song in the setlist. Everything else was gravy.
Perhaps less so opener Andrew W.K., who contrary to what I expected didn’t actually play a set so much as stand in a booth, toss out t-shirts and hit a couple quintessential rock tracks from AC/DC and Led Zeppelin, presumably off his iPod. The UK gets Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats and the major-market US tour gets… Andrew W.K. as a half-assed fluffer/DJ? Really? Sleep and YOB popped into my head immediately as the first two on a list of acts worthy of opening the show. I don’t know if Sabbath‘s management were worried about being upstaged or if perhaps Andrew W.K. is just the best guy in the universe to tour with and he couldn’t get a band together in time, but it was worthy of a raised eyebrow and it got one. Hell, even give me Down as an opener and I’d understand where you’re coming from. It was puzzling.
But also short-lived. Andrew W.K. was gone as soon as he’d arrived, taking his raised podium with a hologram of his face on it with him, and a curtain was lowered as the stage was set for Black Sabbath. The place was filling up quickly as the already-stumbling crowd made its way to their seats or to the general-admission lawn behind, and they came on more or less right on time. The curtain lifted and there they were: Geezer Butler, Tony Iommi, Ozzy Osbourne down at the front of the stage, with drummer Tommy Clufetos on a high riser behind, backed by a trio of screens that showed shots of the band playing and sundry clips throughout of varying relation to what the songs were actually talking about — a stripper in a bejeweled gas mask during “Fairies Wear Boots” providing the night’s largest disconnect about halfway through.
Along with a trio of new songs spread throughout — “Age of Reason,” “End of the Beginning” and “God is Dead?” — the setlist was entirely comprised of material from the holy quadrilogy of Sabbath‘s first four albums, 1970′s Black Sabbath and Paranoid, 1971′s Master of Reality and 1972′s Vol. 4, save for a late inclusion of “Dirty Women” from 1976′s lackluster seventh album, Technical Ecstasy, which I found inexplicable until I realized as they started playing it that it was just an excuse to put vintage boobage on the screens behind, maybe in an effort to lull the largely-male audience into a trance and then snap them out of it with “Children of the Grave,” which closed the set proper, or maybe just to say, “thanks for showing up, enjoy some Bettie Page.” Whatever.
Osbourne and Iommi seemed at various points to have some issues with their monitors, but it didn’t have an effect on the sound in the front of the house, which was as huge and loud as I’m sure the neighbors could’ve possibly asked for, and by the time “Under the Sun” rolled into “Snowblind” and the ending section of “Age of Reason” reminded of one of 13‘s merits, the band was long since up to full speed. My seats were toward the left side of the stage, which put me in front of Butler, who held down that entire side of the stage with his usual subdued grace and sonic mastery. At the end of the show? Tony Iommi was smiling but tired in front of his Laney stacks, Clufetos looked like he had just run a marathon in jean shorts, Osbourne visibly reflected every second of the formidable calisthenic effort he put into the gig, and Geezer Butler came off like he could’ve played another two hours. And it’s not like he wasn’t going for it. He’s just that fucking good.
Of course I’m biased, but I don’t know how you could ever watch him play the “Bassically” intro to “N.I.B.” and not be. His foot on the wah, he set the tone for one of Sabbath‘s most quintessential riffs, and while Ozzy would later find his moment in “Iron Man” and Iommi seemed to relish and smile through every quiet measure of “Black Sabbath,” “N.I.B.” clearly belonged to the bassist and came off “Behind the Wall of Sleep” as naturally as one could hope. As regards Osbourne‘s performance, he rightly stuck to his comfort zone throughout the night and the set seemed to be constructed around that as well — nothing from the more vocally adventurous Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973) or Sabotage (1975), though the intro to “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” was tacked on as a precursor to the encore “Paranoid.” Neither he nor the years have been kind to his voice, but he did well to stay away from the highs in the “I don’t want to see you” lines toward the finish of “End of the Beginning” — opting not to sing those lines at all — and in cuts like “Black Sabbath” and the opener “War Pigs,” he delivered the notes with a charisma usually reserved for kings and the odd pope. Whatever else has come between them over the years, during “Into the Void” the frontman had his guitarist cracking up and he and Iommi walked off stage with their arms around each other at the finish of the set, the second half of which had taken a strange turn.
I guess it’s fair to expect Clufetos would have a drum solo. Gives the band time to rest and take a break, and as much as he’s not Bill Ward and by virtue of being a subsequent generation of heavy metal drummer can never bring to these songs the kind of swing that the man who wrote those parts could, Clufetos showed off a bit of groove and some considerable chops. But wow, it went on a long time. If you want to break the show into two 50-minute sets, fine, but to leave the guy out there for 10-plus minutes to carry an amphitheater crowd on the virtue of tom runs seemed like asking an awful lot. As with the rest of the show, he did his job well, but I was glad when he started the kick-drum thuds that announced “Iron Man” that he was soon rejoined by Butler, Osbourne and Iommi.
And whatever else one might say about the songs from 13, they are catchy — more infectious than good, particularly when paired with classics like “Fairies Wear Boots” and “Snowblind.” “God is Dead?” was followed by “Dirty Women,” and that was a bit of a lull, especially since I’d only just recovered from that drum solo, but “Children of the Grave” has the heaviest riff ever written and “Paranoid” was a necessary encore but also a welcome one, so Black Sabbath finished strong one way or another.
Maybe that’s what this tour is all about. It’s hard to imagine that since it took more than a decade for 13 to surface, the sexagenarian metal forefathers will be in a hurry to get another one out — at least not before the requisite live album and DVD from this round of touring have surfaced — and once this album cycle is over, who knows? I would expect they’d make a return next summer or fall still in support of 13, but maybe this will have been my last time seeing Sabbath, and if that’s the case, again, I got what I went for by the second song, which makes it hard to complain about the rest.
Thanks for reading.
Black Sabbath, “Iron Man” Live at Comcast Center, Mansfield, MA, Aug. 12, 2013
Note: If you’re wondering at the lack of photos, I was asked by the band’s PR to restrict myself to one for the blog and did so out of respect to that request.