Sep 18, 2012

Sabbath vs Sabbath Live: The Flip

This is a necessary follow up to Sunday night's post about the musical alchemists who somehow took a tuned down bluesy approach to protest music, and through their own dark magic were able to invent "Metal".  I made my case, and am comfortable with my position, but I have to compare the two different line ups' live performances.  One line up was surprisingly great and the other, which I let myself get really excited about, was well... considerably less than great.  In fact, I could have put one of the performances on my list of "The Most Moving Shows I've Seen" though it would have been for the wrong reasons.  

I never saw Black Sabbath when they were still active rock gods.  When I saw them, they had descended from atop their mountain to remind us all of how our favorite kind of music had begun.  Ozzfest was not the kind of thing I would normally get excited about, but I knew it could be the only chance I'd ever have to see Black Sabbath.  Though It would not be the line up I really wanted to see, Monica and I felt like we should go.  We were both very glad that we did...

I don't remember how we got tickets, or how it was that we ended up down at the front of the crowd in that area where hardcore metallions, sweating pure alcohol and looking much older than I would have guessed found themselves ( to be fair, I look older and more homeless every time someone snaps a picture of me ) but there we were.  We normally went to club shows, and it was much easier to time your arrival to catch the headlining band only and forego all of the standing and waiting and aching and sweaty people bumping into you who never apologize.  A big show like Ozzfest was very different.  You were stuck.  Period.  This was Sabbath though, and if any band warranted dealing with people who were already hungover at 9:00, it was them.  They did not disappoint.

There was palpable excitement as the band members took their places on stage, and within seconds I was in that wonderful place you find yourself during live performances where you think "I can't believe I'm in the same place as THEM!"  Being so close to the stage really helped with that and at no more than twenty five feet, we could see everything perfectly. Ozzy Osbourne had supposedly figured out all of his prescriptions and he seemed energized and connected in a way his insidious television show could never have prepared me for.  He was not my great grandmother with tattoos after all!  Granted he had but one or two moves, but he did actually move.  No animatronics, no wires, no wireless receiver at the base of his neck... he moved of his own volition and was smiling almost the entire time. Geezer and Tony Iommi were stoic as usual, but they seemed to be having as good a time rocking fans a full third of a century after they broke out as we were having being rocked by lifelong icons.

They hit all of the songs you would expect from a Sabbath show, and they played everything flawlessly.  I have to admit that I was never a Bill Ward fan.  He always felt like the weak link in the band but I left that night with a newfound respect for him.  He played everything purposefully and he beat the crap out of his drums.  On the records I could never tell that there was any force behind his swing but he really laid into them live.  They were "on" and they were bigger than life, in part because as the purveyors of genuinely heavy music in the way our generation understands, they were pop culture gods.  They seemed to feed off of the crowd and we ate them up.  I was genuinely impressed, and there was one moment during Black Sabbath's set that night that I will cherish forever.

It is arguable that the song "Black Sabbath" is what started it all.  Metal.  What a way to introduce your band to the world!  First album, first song, first note struck... POW! Everything changed!  It is possible that they are responsible for bringing darkness into pop culture in such a forceful way that it effected other kinds of entertainment.  What would things be like had Black Sabbath been a passing fad?  Where would the dark spark have come from if they had not forged a new form of music?  It's not like millions of pimple covered pubescent kids all around the world would have bought a modern version of Heironymous Bosch's paintings and sat in their bad-ass muscle cars showing them off in high school parking lots!  I don't care how many paintings of Hell he made, kids would never have flocked to a Chevy Supersport to get high and stare at it after school.  We may owe more to Black Sabbath than we 'll ever know.  So anyway, they started one of the most dramatic heavy songs ever, their namesake "Black Sabbath".  It was so freaking heavy!  The sound was so good!  I wanted to see what the band saw.  I wanted to see what it looked like to them to play the song that started it all a generation and a half after they wrote it.  What I saw struck me as the most perfect live music moment I could have imagined.

It had rained earlier, either that day or most of the day before the show.  The sun had gone down by the time the band took the stage.  Raleigh's Walnut Creek Amphitheater was one of those places with a cover over several rows of seats that crawl up a hill, and then there were grass seats that extend another hundred or more feet to the crest of the hill, so we were at the bottom of a large bowl.  When I looked out over the audience I saw a sea of lighters and cell phone lights, thousands of them that spread out over the hill.  All of the rain had created a thick blanket of fog that swallowed the people at the top of the hill and slowly crawled down towards the cover.  With the song "Black Sabbath" blasting through the sky it looked as though thousands of villagers had come with torches and pitchforks to extricate Frankenstein from his castle!  For a split second I had travelled back in time and was at the scene of some kind of witch hunt.  It was amazing!  No wonder Black Sabbath were still around, who would want to give that up?  What a powerful song, a powerful visual, and what a wonderful thing to have been able to see!

A few years later Monica and I heard that the line up from "The Mob Rules" would be touring. I thought there was a good chance that would be the best show I would ever see.  If they were half as good as the Ozzfest show I would fill my pants with hot, muddy excitement! We coughed up the 1/11th of a thousand dollars apiece to see them in Baltimore, Maryland and got a couple of old friends to come with us.  We were so excited!  I never saw Dio live and was just happy to have the chance to see him performing what I believed to be hands down, the best music he ever recorded.  We were all jacked.

We stayed in the car long enough to avoid almost all of Megadeth's set.  None of us ever gave a damn about them.  It was a long drive but we were content to watch the people in the parking lot instead of standing in one spot and enduring The Mustaine.  We somehow stayed awake through their last three songs and were pretty well rested for Sabbath's set.  The set itself was pretty cool looking, and some of the phantasms they projected onto the castle setting were a perfect backdrop for my favorite Black Sabbath album.  The band came out, and sounded pretty good.  Dio was not able to nail everything the way he had almost thirty years earlier, but I didn't expect him to be that strong at his age.  He did what you would hope a singer like that would do, which was to go for a note just a little lower and nail that one instead.  He handled his responsibilities very well and did all that he could to get the crowd into things.  Geezer and Iommi were much like they had been a few years earlier, but none of them could make up for Vinnie Appice.

Obviously, I am a drummer.  I don't have to be blown away and in fact, I don't ever expect to be blown away by drummers.  It isn't fair to put such high expectations on an individual.  It was out of character for me to allow myself to get so excited about this show, but it really could have been the best ever.  Unfortunately, Vinnie Appice clearly did not give a damn whether anyone there got the most for their nearly one hundred dollar ticket.  The drums on "The Mob Rules" had so much to do with the album's power.  He wasn't phenomenal, but he was perfect for that album.  His rolls really added to the album's dynamic, and he made it bigger than most drummers would have.  Part of that was his drum sound, but his finesse played a bigger role.  Every bit of that finesse was absent from his performance that night as he just cashed it in.  He never even tried to kick any ass, and within minutes the show had become the biggest disappointment ever for me.  If anyone there felt this searing heat from the left side of the venue, it was me trying not to explode!  I wanted to run up there and push his ass off of his seat and give the fans what they deserved!  Almost any drummer who knew the album there in attendance could have honored the album's legacy more than he did.  I was disgusted, and I will die feeling that he owes me ninety dollars.  

Vinnie Appice wasn't the only problem that night.  For whatever reason, the Dio line up felt the need to improvise live.  I don't know anyone who wants to hear a band turn a show into a freaking pep rally, but some bands seem to think their historic albums aren't good enough on their own, and that they should "spice things up".  Sabbath ruined every song they "broke down" so that Dio could tell us how special we were.  It was made even sadder by the fact that all of their ad libs were straight off of their 1982 release, "Live Evil".  I want to see a band do what they record on their records.  I have never once come away from a show thinking "Man, I thought the band was pretty good, but when the singer said we were rowdier than any other on their tour it really touched me inside!"  It's such a hollow, meaningless attempt to reach out.  It is nothing more than pandering.  I don't understand why so many bands do it.  I prefer to be treated as an adult.  Boy bands, sure... it makes sense, but I'm not dropping my panties for any of the bands I would pay to see live.  

I still love "The Mob Rules" and no matter how hard Vinnie Appice tried to ruin it for all of us that night, I will always love it.  My hat's off to Bill Ward for bringing it to Ozzfest.  He really made them rock more than I thought they would.  The lesson; always try your best.  When you don't, people can tell.  One performance can make a big difference in how people perceive you as an individual artist, and can even change how someone thinks of material that is several years old.  If there is no sense of motivation in what you do, people will see that you are just going through the motions.  You don't have to head bang more viciously than anyone else, or even put on a show.  You just have to let people see that your performance matters to you.  I don't worry about little mistakes, I make them all the time.  I just try to do what I do well.  If I ever do simply stop caring I promise to quit before anyone who may have waited years to see one of my bands live can say that I ruined the experience for them.  I wish Vinnie Appice had that much respect for their fans.


  1. I would fully agree with your assessment of V. Appice's drum butchery during his Heaven and Hell performance in Baltimore. Sadness was abound. It's such ashame. The Dio era Sabbath records are my favorite and in particular "Mob rules" largely due to Appice's drum work and production. The man had soulful snare rolls!
    Love the blog!!!!!

  2. Well said. If it's not from the heart. Keep it off the stage.