As the now-fifty-year-old singer Ozzy Osbourne leapt about the stage in his trademark frog-like fashion shouting "we love you all," the throng who had gathered to bear witness to this portentous reunion seethed with appreciation that wouldn't abate for the duration of the evening's ninety-minute set.
As anyone in attendance knew, this was the genre-defining, infamous lineup that had imploded way back in 1979, before many of today's musical superstars were even born. And although it was rumored that Vinnie Appice, who played with the Ronnie James Dio-fronted version of Black Sabbath, would tag along for this tour in case original drummer Bill Ward -- who has already suffered one heart attack -- falls ill again, all four members appeared in fine form, churning out the hits with genuine enthusiasm and precision. Sabbath's benignly evil, compelling brand of behemoth rock, much of it lyrically oriented toward drugs and war, has not become irrelevant with age, and neither have the band members. When Osbourne sang "my name is Lucifer, please take my hand" it still felt subversive and cool.
From "Snowblind" to "War Pigs" to a great rendition of "N.I.B.," Sabbath played a predictable set, but with unexpected joy. The Ozz-man may once have lived like a raging lunatic, but he's retained a comical enthusiasm, and he appeared far more animated and genuinely excited than he has over the years with his solo band. The vocalist's pants-down full moon would have made any proctologist proud, and though it's a sight his band members must have suffered through far too many times, their amusement was apparent.
While Osbourne's vocals weren't flawless, and Ward was his usual steady but nondescript self, it mattered little when Sabbath turned in stellar versions of the drug-culture paeans "Fairies Wear Boots" and "Sweet Leaf." Though Ozzy led no New Year's countdown, merely steering the band into "Black Sabbath" at the turn of the hour, few seemed to care, entranced by a slew of hits off the classic albums Master of Reality, Paranoid and Volume 4. Iommi's wah-pedal guitar stylings shone on "Electric Funeral," and if one of their fan favorites, "Iron Man," dragged a tad, the electrifying "Symptom of the Universe" more than made up for it.
Though it was a nearly eight-hour event (opening were the creme de la creme of metal -- Soulfly, Megadeth, Slayer and Pantera, most of whom have covered Sabbath songs and owe much to the Birmingham lads), fans were still shouting for more as the fearsome foursome left the stage for the final time. As the historic first show of the tour drew to a close, the arena's ceiling opened, and fireworks exploded below the full moon, showering smoke and debris on the thrilled, upturned faces of the crowd. As the album title says, Black Sabbath may have "sold their souls to rock & roll," but, as tonight's performance showed, it was a hell of a good deal that's still paying off in spades.
(January 7, 1999)