September 19, 2016
Last night at the Hollywood Bowl, Black Sabbath played their last show ever … in Hollywood, anyway. The End tour hits Ozzfest in San Bernardino this Saturday, and according to Sabbath’s website, the final North American show will be in Texas in November. The final final show is listed for Feb. 4 in the U.K.
Understandably, concertgoers have come to be skeptical about bands who say they’re done for good. These “farewell” tours are huge moneymakers, as fans will generally pay more for one last opportunity to see their idols. Then more dates get added, and sometimes the tour even comes back around to the same city, especially a big market like L.A. (Sabbath brought this same tour to the Forum back in February).
Nevertheless, a Black Sabbath show at the historic Hollywood Bowl was not to be missed by fans who could afford it, and no one left disappointed. It was exactly the show it needed to be: classics-driven, majestically played, and climactic.
After catching Jeff Lynne’s epic ELO shows at the Bowl just last week, I wasn’t sure even Sabbath could wow on the same level. And though their production and lighting was less immersive than the Electric Light Orchestra's, they brought their own spectacle and magical atmosphere, with mesmerizing and menacing visuals on massive monitors, vociferous yet crystal clear sound, and most importantly, the band members themselves playing like it was, indeed, their very last show. Ozzy Osbourne, Geezer Butler, Tony Iommi and Tommy Clufetos (who has the tough task of filling original Sabbath drummer Bill Ward’s kickers) all held nothing back and seemingly basked in the bigness of being Black Sabbath, the most influential heavy metal band of all time.
Though Sabbath have earned their place as rock icons, their trajectory has not been without some challenges and tainting moments. There’s the recent drama with Ward, who has called his bandmates dishonest and disloyal after he was not asked to join the final tour. There’s Iommi’s health issues (he’s been fighting lymphoma since early 2012), which he recently admitted are a big part of why the band is calling it quits.
And then there’s “The Prince of Darkness,” who continues to be a perplexing, even polarizing figure both for his personal life choices (namely his infidelity against wife and manager Sharon Osbourne) and for his performances. Both as a solo artist and with Sabbath, especially at Ozzfest shows, Ozzy started resorting to clownish antics on stage (water hosing the crowds for example), perhaps to mask his increasingly less-than-virile vocals. It was fun to watch, but anything but commanding. Osbourne became famous for his incoherent mumbling via TV, and his singing at the time wasn’t much better (for several years, he has obviously had some help, either via backing tracks or offstage singers).
More recently, Osbourne admitted to battling prescription drug problems, and his performances in recent years have greatly improved as he seemingly cleaned up. Last night, he had a shaky, noticeably off-key start on the band’s namesake opening number, but thankfully it did not take long for his wickedly whiney wail to reach full potency. Ozzy turned in a strikingly strong vocal performance that matched the intensity and power put out by his comrades.
Black Sabbath’s signature sound, often emulated but never duplicated, is dense, dark and languid; the grooves seep into your gut and travel to your head (which is probably why so many like to enhance the feeling by getting high, hence the “stoner rock” tag). Iommi’s caustic chord work deserves the most credit here, but Butler’s bass adds the perfect rhythmic heft, whether the band is going for a more psychedelic trip or a full metallic assault.
Clufetos, for his part, did a fine job on the skins, even holding his own with a brutal drum solo as the elder statesmen took a break backstage. He also got a lot of screen time on the monitors, and he’s nice to look at, which made me wonder if perhaps Ward’s claims about not being asked because of his age could be true. Past rifts have clearly been about contract disputes, but this time the band claimed that Ward’s health couldn’t handle the vigorousness of the gig. Whatever the reason for Ward's absence, the youthful appeal of some fresh blood hasn’t hurt the band.
Even without the full original lineup, the show had the kind of momentous mojo you never forget. The notably male-heavy crowd head-banged and devil-horned and iPhoned, making it feel less like a night at the Bowl and more like a stadium gig, and sing-alongs were frequent, hitting maximum volume during the biggest hits, “War Pigs,” “Iron Man” and “Paranoid.” It all ended with the Bowl’s grand fireworks display, a fitting take on the arena-rock pyro of yore and fiery finale for the band’s hellish-themed goodbye in Hollywood. (Leaving the Bowl was hell too, but as always, it was worth it.)
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