O2 Academy Birmingham, 19 May 2012
So what, you may well be asking, am I doing reviewing a Black Sabbath gig on a grunge blog? Black Sabbath aren’t, of course, a grunge band, but it takes only the most cursory of listens to the likes of Soundgarden and The Melvins to appreciate the substantial influence that Birmingham’s finest had on the grunge movement. Indeed, on entering the venue I was greeted by a Soundgarden song blasting out of the PA. (I can’t now for the life of me remember which song it was. Journalists these days, pah.)
The gig, a warm-up for this summer’s Download festival (Donnington in old, true-metal currency \m/), was the first by the band since 2005, the first also since guitarist Tony Iommi was sadly diagnosed with lymphoma. It wasn’t quite the classic line up: Iommi, singer Ozzy Osbourne and bassist Geezer Butler were all present and correct, but controversially drummer Bill Ward was absent, replaced by Tommy Clueftos from Ozzy’s band. The crisply efficient Clueftos is a mighty fine drummer, but he lacks Ward’s untutored, expressive spark.
If I had a time machine, I’d put it to optimal use by whizzing back in time to catch some of the most famed rock gigs: musicians at their peak or at critical moments in their genesis. Metallica at the Marquee in 84. Guns’n’Roses at the Marquee in 87. (RIP London’s finest rock venue, now a wretched Wetherspoons.) Hendrix’s ‘farewell England’ shows in June 67. Springsteen at Hammersmith on the Born to Run tour. Nirvana at Reading 92 (aarrrrggghh). Mookie Blaylock supporting Alice in Chains in Seattle in 90. And Sabbath in Birmingham on the Vol.4 tour.
Not being Doctor Who, Saturday’s gig provided me with the closest approximation to this last one, and it was a belter. My grunge antennae twitched as Sabbath opened with ‘Into the Void’, a song covered by Soundgarden – with the lyrics replaced by words of protest by Chief Sealth, the Native American chief after whom Seattle was named – possibly the heaviest song Soundgarden have recorded (and there’s some stiff competition for that accolade).
This was swiftly followed up by a couple of tracks from the peerless Vol.4, ‘Under the Sun’ and ‘Snowblind’. The band laid down some monstrous riffs, Geezer Butler’s robust bass line powering ‘War Pigs’ forward. Up on the balcony generals gathered in their masses sat a group of OAPs – presumably hometown friends and family, not band portraits taken down from the Wildean attic – who looked ready for a night at the bingo, but the band belied their advancing years with the energy and precision they brought to their performance. Ozzy’s delight was palpable, rocking to and fro, his ‘water roadie’ – from a distance looking oddly like Jeff Hately from Wolfsbane – keeping him suitably drenched as the temperature in the packed venue rose and sweat ran down the walls. (I thought it actually was sweat, but have since found out it was condensation, so please take the phrase metaphorically – and as a bit of a cliché, albeit an apt one. Sorry. Back to writing school for me.)
The band focused heavily on their first four albums, the ones that most clearly defined the band. Hurrah! I’ve never quite worked out its origin, but there’s a trippy, other-worldly (nether-wordly?) quality to much of their early music. Four songs from Black Sabbath featured consecutively mid-set, including ‘Black Sabbath’ itself, a tolling bell presaging the ominous, medieval riff skilfully built round a flattened fifth, the ‘devil’s note’. In the whole 18-song set, only a couple were taken from later albums: ‘Symptom of the Universe’ from Sabotage, and ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’, from, err, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.
Iommi’s playing was a delight, blues influences clearly on show. Live, he lends a studious air to his playing. The guitar sound was a joy: overdriven but with clarity of expression; plenty of treble and some monumental reverb allowing the detuned strings to create a heavy sound that never became ponderous; even on the likes of ‘Sweet Leaf’, Butler’s bass lines had room to breathe. As a fellow leftie, I’ve always had a soft spot for Iommi’s fretwork, especially on those early albums: the solo to ‘Paranoid’ was the first I ever learned. The secret of Iommi’s playing, for me, lies in the quality and precision of his phrasing. Learning to bash out his riffs, and some of his leads, is easy peasy lemon squeasy. Learning to play his guitar lines to his impeccable standards is difficult difficult lemon difficult. His vibrato on string bends is bettered by Dave Gilmour, Richie Blackmore and few others. Sabbath closed the set with ‘Paranoid’ (what else?); as you poured out of the venue, all the songs you still wanted to hear sprung to mind: Supernaut, St Vitus Dance, After Forever, Killing Yourself to Live, Hole in the Sky…
I haven’t checked yet, but judging by the number of phones held aloft (and by a lot of very tall people, am I shrinking?) that there should be a good haul of videos of the gig on Youtube. I missed the chance ever to see Ronnie James Dio fronting Heaven and Hell, but am fortunate to have seen Sabbath in a near-classic line-up. Time to re-read H.G. Wells and get cracking with that time machine…
Photo: Adam Bielawski