“What is this that stands before me?” Ozzy Osbourne sang at the top of Black Sabbath’s Friday night closing set at Lollapalooza. Many festival-goers could be forgiven if they were thinking the very same thing.
Lollapalooza’s first day featured an incredibly eclectic assortment of acts, but perhaps none seemed quite as left-of-center as, oddly, Black Sabbath (and this was amongst a group that also included South African rap-ravers Die Antwoord). Though the majority of the day’s performers tended to ply some strain of either nimble indie rock or electronics-laced dance music, the British metal vets’ hour-and-a-half set was a staunch affirmation of the power of the almighty guitar riff.
Sabbath’s performance, their first with Osbourne in the U.S. since 2005, was among the most anticipated of the festival. For the time being it also looks to be their only on these shores. Soon after announcing the reunion of the original lineup—Osbourne, guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Bill Ward—last year, Iommi was diagnosed with lymphoma and began chemotherapy treatments. A full tour had been in the works, but save for two dates in the U.K. and this one in America, all plans have been shelved indefinitely. Additionally, Ward has been sitting out these shows after battling publicly with his band mates over contract negotiations. He has been replaced by Tommy Clufetos, who also plays in Osbourne’s solo band.
But despite the behind-the-scenes turmoil, Sabbath delivered a tight and ferocious set on Friday. Following a brief introductory video, the band took the stage and hammered out the opening chords to their namesake song, “Black Sabbath,” the first cut on their first album, and a track so gloriously slow and leaden that it sounds almost as if it’s moving backwards. From there they lightened the mood with the jammy “The Wizard,” with Osbourne taking a credible and almost whimsical turn on the harmonica.
In fact, Osbourne proved to be the show’s MVP. The 63-year-old singer may move a bit slower these days, and he may not hit every one of those high notes anymore (to his credit it was, as he commented to the crowd, “f***ing hot out”), but his enthusiasm and animated demeanor more than make up for these imperfections. Whether mugging for the video-screen cameras, grabbing Iommi to coax a rare smile from the stoic guitarist or, as he did during “Iron Man,” planting a kiss on the woman providing sign-language translation for the hearing impaired, Osbourne was in constant motion, and seemed to energize not only the crowd but also his band mates.
As would be expected, the band’s set list was culled largely from material from their first two albums, 1970’s self-titled debut and the same year’s Paranoid. But they also worked in some welcome deeper cuts, including “Dirty Women,” from 1976’s Technical Ecstasy and “Under the Sun,” from 1972’s Vol. 4. They finished out their 15-song main set with a galloping “Children of the Grave” before returning for the inevitable encore of the heavy metal anthem “Paranoid.”
The chugging Iommi riff that powers that last song has over the years become one of the most iconic and well known in rock and roll. Against the backdrop of the other music performed at Lollapalooza on Friday, it sounded thrillingly exotic.
– Richard Bienstock, CBS Local