Black Sabbath: Never Say Die

Doom pioneers bid dramatic farewell to North America

Consider Black Sabbath’s final North American show at San Antonio’s AT&T Center on Saturday night the ultimate act of contrition. A few miles up the road, on Feb. 19, 1982, frontman Ozzy Osbourne relieved himself on the Alamo Cenotaph, which stands adjacent to the mission in the Alamo Plaza.

The singer was arrested, banned from the city, and ultimately pardoned 10 years later, but the debauched legend still looms. Thirty-four years later, what better penance than an earth-shattering, bone-crushing heavy metal show, the likes of which this continent will never see again? That’s exactly what Black Sabbath delivered Saturday.

And in the... (Photo by Bryan Rolli)

The epic, 95-minute performance bore little onstage interaction, relatively modest stage production, and no songs recorded after 1976. With a few noteworthy exceptions, it was strictly an exhilarating highlight reel from the four men who pioneered a genre 47 years ago in Birmingham, England. Correction: three blokes.

Like so many reunions, Black Sabbath’s remained marred by the absence of original drummer Bill Ward, whose jazzy swing lent a distinct lightness to the band’s heavy metal thunder. Veteran touring drummer Tommy Clufetos handily filled the void, nailing every monster beat and rapid-fire fill with Olympian authority. If Rick Rubin skipped on Clufetos in favor of ex-Rage Against the Machine skinsman Brad Wilk to play on the band’s last album, 13, that’s flat-out baffling.

Clufetos played in lockstep with bassist Geezer Butler, who attacked his strings with such aggression he appeared to be punishing his instrument. His wah-drenched shredding in “Bassically” proved inspiration for Cliff Burton’s “Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth)” 13 years later, and his rhythmic acrobatics threatened to usurp Tony Iommi’s mind-numbing guitar solo in “War Pigs.”

Yet the latter riff monger reigned supreme, his thimble-topped fingers racing across his fretboard despite two tips being sliced off in an industrial accident as a teen. “Into the Void” lumbered with power chord primacy, and a down-tuned “Iron Man” burned with the same flame that’s inspired millions of aspiring axe-slingers over the decades. His impossibly smooth leads propelled the second half of “Dirty Women” to anthemic heights – even if those seven minutes would have been better filled by “Symptom of the Universe” or “Supernaut.”

That left the band’s mouthpiece and wild card: Osbourne. His voice has long since lost its rich bass notes and otherworldly highs of yesteryear, but diehards don’t care. They just hope he can sing somewhat on key.

The Prince of Darkness clutched the microphone stand for dear life, nodding his head and furiously stomping his feet as he wrung the notes from his body. As always, his vocals were a mixed bag. He rushed his delivery on “Black Sabbath” and struggled to find the melody on the less road-worn “After Forever.”

Still, the 67-year-old reality TV star demonstrated remarkable control on “Children of the Grave,” and unleashed a bone-chilling “Aaalllriiight!” on “Fairies Wear Boots” that shook the AT&T Center to its core.

“My eyes are blind but I can see,” he croaked during “Snowblind” with the weariness of a man who’s been to hell and back, depositing a sliver of his soul never to be retrieved.

Ultimately, no amount of vocal wear and tear could detract from Osbourne’s commanding presence. The consummate showman exacted maximum wattage from the packed arena by repeating his time-honored phrases: “Let’s go crazy!” “God bless you all!” “Let me see those fucking hands!” and of course, “I can’t fucking hear you!”

As Osbourne led the hall in a heroic sing-along to the ending riff of “War Pigs,” he could hear them.

Predictably, the three sexagenarians onstage hardly left their perches. Only once, during the penultimate “Children of the Grave,” did Iommi cross the stage and plant himself between Osbourne and Butler, smiling as he completed the unholy trinity. Then he was gone, back to his side and plucking another riff, business as usual.

AT&T Center set-list, San Antonio, 11.12.16

“Black Sabbath”
“Fairies Wear Boots”
“After Forever”
“Into the Void”
“War Pigs”
“Behind the Wall of Sleep”
“N.I.B.” (with “Bassically” intro)
“Rat Salad”/drum solo
“Iron Man”
“Dirty Women”
“Children of the Grave”

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Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne, Geezer Butler, Tony Iommi, Bill Ward, Tommy Clufetos, Brad Wilk, Rage Against the Machine, Rick Rubin, Cliff Burton, Metallica

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