I have a strong memory from years gone by of an episode of The Muppet Show in which Rudolf Nureyev was the featured guest star. Naturally, YouTube has the episode's famous pas de deux. But what I specifically remember is beleaguered company aesthete Sam the Eagle announcing the dancer's presence in reverent tones, anticipating artistic salvation from the show's tawdry norm:
It's surely a sign of my inner geekdom that this crossed my mind following a telephone interview I recently conducted. Afterward, I wandered around the office in a state of blissed-out delirium provoked by the subject at the other end of the line: the man who, intentionally or not, basically invented heavy metal. Solemnly, I intoned his name to those within earshot:
The occasion that prompted my interview with Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi, for a "Backstage with..." featurette in Time Out New York, was the then-impending concert by Heaven and Hell, which took place at Radio City Music Hall tonight (March 30).
In all but name, this would be a show by Black Sabbath, specifically the lineup that recorded Mob Rules in 1981: guitarist Tony Iommi and bassist Geezer Butler, both founding members, plus singer Ronnie James Dio (who'd joined the group for the previous year's Heaven and Hell) and drummer Vinny Appice. Those two discs restored luster to a band that had coasted at best through its last two albums with original singer Ozzy Osbourne. This version of Black Sabbath broke up in 1983, reunited in 1992 for the album Dehumanizer and an attendant tour, and hasn't been seen since.
One reason for the name change was an exclusive focus on material created with Dio: the three albums mentioned, plus new tracks recorded for The Dio Years, a single-disc anthology due out next Tuesday. No "Iron Man," no "Paranoid," no "War Pigs." Another reason, Iommi explained, was out of respect for Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne. The notion of a new Black Sabbath studio album with Ozzy continues to be floated out there as if it's likely to happen, even though the Heaven and Hell lineup cut three new songs for their anthology, whereas the reconvened original quartet with Osbourne and drummer Bill Ward only managed to wax a pair to tack onto Reunion, a 1998 live set.
The current strategy prompted me to ask Iommi, in an unpublished exchange, whether there might now exist the potential for a future tour fronted by Ian Gillan, the Deep Purple vocalist who briefly fronted a post-Dio Black Sabbath, under the name "Born Again." No, he replied, no such notions were being pondered -- although I wasn't the first to ask. In my opinion, it's not a bad idea at all. I'd also be open to a tour with Glenn Hughes, another former Deep Purple and (ersatz) Black Sabbath frontman, under the name "Seventh Star." This could also include material from Iommi's rock-solid solo and joint projects recorded with Hughes during various Sabbath interstices...
Anyway, I'm meandering. Tonight,
Black Sabbath Heaven and Hell arrived at Radio City Music Hall for a show that sold out in less than an hour. The set list, played in during a preliminary Canadian tour, varied little from what the band played in its opening date in Vancouver on March 11; one new song, "Ear in the Wall," was dropped, and one older song, "Lonely Is the Word," was added to the encore.
What was clear from the very beginning was that this particular band's appeal has as much to do with the personal charisma of Dio, arguably America's foremost metal frontman, as with the Black Sabbath legacy -- which is precisely why it succeeded sans Ozzy-era warhorses. The singer worked the front rows relentlessly, shaking hands and touching extended fingertip devil horns tip-to-tip. "I wish I could touch you all," he exclaimed after "The Sign of the Southern Cross," eliciting a theater-shaking chant of "Dio! Dio! Dio!"
Dio is truly a marvel: his voice inviolate despite decades of filling arenas, his spirit generosity personified. He's also perhaps the only man in the world who could pull off a line like "One fine day in hell..." (at the beginning of "The Devil Cried") without embalming it in winking irony.
Butler provided his customarily fleet-fingered bass lines; the hulking Appice laid down appropriately huge beats, occasionally pummelling enormous tom-toms at either end of his kit mounted on stands that wobbled precariously by design. Iommi, the picture of stoic elegance, alternated between crunching riffs and languid, bluesy solos. Continuing the Sabbath tradition of relegating the necessary keyboardist offstage, Scott Warren, a member of Dio's current band, provided his vital contributions unseen.
When "Heaven and Hell" finally arrived at the end of the set, the audience sang the signature theme without prompting -- which only urged Dio to stoke the temperature still hotter. Small wonder: tonight's show was being filmed for future release on DVD.
The "Heaven and Hell" chant continued through the lobby and out onto the street, ringing out toward Times Square. I overheard one fellow traveller waxing enthusiastic to a couple of others about the Dehumanizer tracks that had been included in the set -- only he couldn't remember the name of the first one. I chimed in with the answer. It turned out this guy had flown up from Florida to see the show, even though he faces serious surgery next week.
I dug into my bag and handed him my copy of The Dio Years. "You deserve this more than I do," I told him. In return, I received a grateful hug from a complete stranger. It was that kind of night.
Setlist: E5150 / After All (The Dead) / The Mob Rules / Children of the Sea / Lady Evil / I / Sign of the Southern Cross / Voodoo / The Devil Cried / Vinny Appice drum solo / Computer God / Falling Off the Edge of the World / Shadow of the Wind / Die Young / Heaven and Hell // Encore: Lonely Is the Word / Neon Knights
brakesbrakesbrakes - The Beatific Visions (Rough Trade/World's Fair, due May 8)
Blood Tsunami - Thrash Metal (Candlelight)
Black Sabbath - The Dio Years (Warner Bros./Rhino, due April 3); Los Angeles 1994 (Live Storm bootleg); and Reunion (Epic)