This summer, the deities of rock-and-roll have come roaring through town, loud and reliable, like evening thunderstorms. The Stones. The Beatle. The Bard. On Friday night, it was Black Sabbath, partially reunited in the leafy Prince William County exurbs, stubbornly arguing for its place among the greatest rock bands of all time.
The British ur-metal band also came to Jiffy Lube Live on Friday to peddle “13,” the first Sabbath album to feature original singer Ozzy Osbourne, guitarist Tony Iommi and bassist Geezer Butler since 1978. (A blurry dispute excluded original drummer Bill Ward from the recording of “13,” and this summer’s reunion jaunt features Osbourne’s latest go-to drummer, Tommy Clufetos.)
Great rock riffs can cleave the summer air, but on Friday night, Sabbath’s made ugly dents. Iommi and Butler spent nearly two hours inverting the traditional guitar-and-bass dialogue, to pulverizing effect. A bespectacled Iommi — looking as professorial as a 65-year-old in a leather trench coat possibly can — laid out the songs’ blunt contours while Butler, 64, squirmed around the beat, his right hand flipping on the strings of his bass like a dying fish.
Osbourne served as the evening’s ringleader and cheerleader, racing across the stage in mincing steps, conducting jumping-jack clap-alongs, essentially having the time of his life. Unfortunately, his voice was all over the place, too, bending in and out of key like a siren running on low batteries. As his bandmates marched through the murk of “Iron Man,” the 64-year-old took a break from his hallucinogenic moaning to blast the audience with a ray of sunshine: “We love you all!”
Those jolts of joy felt right. There’s always been something giddy pulsing through Sabbath’s odes to dark, dystopian futures, then and now. A new song, “End of the Beginning,” was as sluggish and bruising as the vintage stuff, and it came sprinkled with ridiculous words of wisdom: “You don’t want to be a robot ghost,” Osbourne groaned. “Occupied inside a human host.” Noted!
It’s no overstatement to assert that Sabbath has influenced every dialect of heavy metal the world over, but onstage, the band’s touch seemed mysteriously inimitable. Countless metal troupes have discovered new ways to abuse our senses in the wake of these songs, but during the distorted churn of “N.I.B.,” “Children of the Grave” and “Paranoid,” the band’s heavy hand almost resembled a clumsy caress.
It didn’t feel like rock music so much as music that had grown beneath rocks. And after four and a half decades, it was still there, lurking and fermenting, gaining a weird potency, still very alive.