"Welcome to the end." Ozzy Osbourne's introduction to the first of two concerts Black Sabbath will play in Chicago this year on their farewell tour, appropriately named "The End," came off a lot gloomier than how the group actually sounded last night. From the pulverizing opening tritone of "Black Sabbath" — during which Osbourne lifted his arms like Frankenstein's creature — to the galloping closing cut "Children of the Grave," the show was more a celebration of the pioneering heavy-metal band's legacy than an epitaph.
Throughout the two-hour set, the frontman wore a Cheshire smile as he and his bandmates — who all wore black — revisited songs they've been playing for nearly five decades. Osbourne mugged at guitarist Tony Iommi, who couldn't keep a straight face during his fleet-fingered solos, and he even managed to coerce the group's usually stoic bassist into a half-grin while introducing him to the audience as "Mr. Geezer fucking Butler, man!" Goofy faces, however, were where the silliness ended.
Since 1968, heaviness has been serious business for the band members. Its 1970 debut, Black Sabbath, midwifed both heavy metal proper and its dreary sibling doom metal with stark, footslogging riffs and melodramatic lyrics like, "Big black shape with eyes of fire/Telling people their desire," that were scary enough for the Boris Karloff movie that inspired the group's name. Other bands can claim a stake in metal — like Led Zeppelin, to whom the evening's opening act, the dynamic and impassioned Rival Sons, owe a debt — but none captured its girth quite like Sabbath.
It was a unique sound and Black Sabbath stuck to it, through foothills of cocaine and oceans of alcohol, for a decade until they fired Osbourne in 1979, opening a revolving door of singers who never sounded quite as perfectly anguished as he did. In that first decade, Black Sabbath were the lords of their world, the masters of surreality, the spiral architects of a genre that's evolved in unpredictable ways but none that sound so weird as to hide Sabbath's influence. They reunited with the singer in 1997 and toured off and on, never letting differences impede their weighty sound. They're aware of their influence — "It took us fucking 47 years to get our first American Number One," Osbourne told the Chicago crowd of the group's 2013 LP, 13, "Can you fucking believe that shit, man?" — so they're saying goodbye in style.
Black Sabbath's first Windy City date, staged at the 20,000-seat United Center, was only one gig removed from the tour's kickoff in Omaha on Wednesday, but they already sounded as though they'd settled into a groove. The show began with video of a winged demon hatching from an egg and breathing fire to display the band's name. The stage was relatively sparse, save a giant LED screen which showed the group and a pyro setup that shot fireballs, allowing the band to place more emphasis on their performance.
The set list drew mostly on the group's first four albums, including nearly all of Paranoid, with 13 cut "God Is Dead?" and the guitar showstopper "Dirty Women," off 1976's Technical Ecstasy, rounding it out. Butler told Rolling Stone earlier this month that the band had added three classic songs to its rehearsals that they hadn't played on recent tours — Paranoid's "Hand of Doom," Master of Reality's "After Forever" and, judging from Omaha's set, Vol. 4's "Tomorrow's Dream" — to keep them on their toes, and it was worth it.
Each of the musicians was in stellar form in Chicago. Iommi, whom the singer introduced at one point by saying "He is 'Iron Man,'" played a mix of deft, bluesy solos and crushing, car-compactor riffs. He even toyed around with some of his solos, such as in "War Pigs," improving on them with improvisation. And indefatigable showman Osbourne kept both the crowd's and his own energy up, as he ran in place, stretched out his arms like a heavy-metal savior and pantomimed lyrics (snorting cocaine in "Snowblind" and shooting up in "Hand of Doom"), but he never wavered in the conviction of his vocals.
Meanwhile, the rhythm section kept the momentum going. Butler worked his wah pedal for his signature "Bassically" solo, off Black Sabbath, and held together "Hand of Doom" — last performed in full in 1978, prior to this tour — with creepy, almost jazzy melodies. Drummer Tommy Clufetos — who plays in Osbourne's solo band and has been touring with the group since it was unable to reach a détente with original stickman Bill Ward, whose swinging style was the backbone of early Sabbath, over a contract dispute — proved why he was worthy of his position on the drum riser with note-for-note drum recitals on each song and a lengthy solo.
Although "Paranoid," "Iron Man" and Black Sabbath's other biggest hits got the crowd moving, the band members showed their mettle on the deeper cuts. Osbourne reveled in the dreamlike, psychedelic lyrics of the bluesy Black Sabbath track "Behind the Wall of Sleep." Iommi seemed to pull the grinding, downtrodden notes of Vol. 4's album-ending twofer "Under the Sun"/"Every Day Comes and Goes" from his guitar, itself a heavy, ragged warhorse with picks pasted to it. And they all plodded along together on Paranoid's "Fairies Wear Boots." If the band could have done anything different, it would have been to go even farther into its catalogue for rarely played gems.
In 1971, Rolling Stone described a Black Sabbath concert in Providence, Rhode Island, where "everyone marched in place, following Ozzy, shaking their fists in the air. … The arena shook with the stomping of feet and vibrations from the sound as Ozzy sang 'War Pigs.'" In the same article, an unnamed record exec described their music as "loud and painful" (a compliment?) and that the group appealed to kids aged 14–17. Forty-five years later, the scene at the United Center was not much different, with concertgoers waving their hands and bellowing every other verse of "War Pigs" — "It's great to hear you sing it," Osbourne told the crowd — though the main difference between then and now is the way the audience's age-range spanned generations.
It's a testament to those early records, the ones so heavy that Sabbath can bill this trek as "the final tour by the greatest metal band of all time" and mean it. Now may be the beginning of the end for Black Sabbath, but, as they proved in Chicago and over the years, their music will echo through the ages.
"Fairies Wear Boots"
"Into the Void"
"Behind the Wall of Sleep"
"Hand of Doom"
Tommy Clufetos drum solo
"God Is Dead?"
"Under the Sun"/"Every Day Comes and Goes"
"Children of the Grave"