But to add to the intrigue, Tony Iommi, Black Sabbath’s legendary guitarist, has been battling lymphoma for the better part of a year now. Iommi’s not a young man. For perhaps the first time, his assumed immortality appears in doubt. Long history of retirement fake-outs aside, this could very well be Sabbath’s final trek around the globe. Miss this tour, and you might not get another chance.
So despite the success of 13, there was no shortage of questions heading into Thursday night. Could Iommi still go? Would the foursome’s magical chemistry still be intact without original drummer Bill Ward behind the kit? And perhaps most pressing of all, could Ozzy Osbourne still sing? After all, he’s no spring chicken, and we all saw the state of him in The Osbournes. Let’s leave aside those first two questions for now, because it was the questions about Ozzy’s performing shape that jumped out immediately on Thursday. On the tour’s opening night, they may have been put to rest for good… and not in the way many of us had hoped.
As has been their custom for some time, Sabbath opened the show with the spine-tingling “War Pigs,” one of the most vicious and affecting anti-war rock songs ever written. The wailing sirens were in place, that throbbing bass line packed its usual punch and Iommi’s lead was as chilling as ever. So far so good.
Then Ozzy opened his mouth.
He didn’t sound terrible, but he didn’t sound good, either. He was struggling a bit to find the notes, particularly on the sharp, bluesy choruses. Hey, it was the first song of the first night of the tour — maybe he just needed to warm up a little.
But then came “Into the Void.” And then “Under the Sun.” And “Snowblind.” Classic Sabbath cuts all, and the Ozz-man struggled mightily to stay in key on all of them. Actually, that’s not quite accurate. He was struggling, but he was decidedly not in key.
For longtime fans, it was painful to witness. This man is the voice of heavy metal, not to mention its Id. That voice, sad to say, appears to have left us. Ozzy sounded ragged and tired up there. He sounded old, and even a little out of his depth. Hardly the triumphant return we’d all hoped for.