The band returned to Birmingham for a triumphant homecoming on Saturday night
It's been 13 years since Sabbath last played in Birmingham. It's been more than half a decade since they last played together at all. In the meantime there's been all sorts of internal strife (Ozzy sued Tony), some serious health problems (Tony's current fight with lymphoma) and finally the "soap opera" (as Geezer Butler called it) which has seen Bill Ward turn his back on the reunion for contractual reasons. Fundamentally this gig could have been a car crash in the making.
So the fact that this was easily the best Ozzy fronted Sabbath performance since the late 70s is, by no stretch of the imagination, a miracle.
The extraordinary atmosphere inside the 3500 capacity O2 Academy in Birmingham, a little less than three miles from the band's birthplace in Aston, suggested a slightly tense but overwhelmingly excited crowd, which was comprised of all fans of all ages.
Following an intro tape which recalled snippets of the band's greatest moments rapidly cut together over 120 seconds, the band hit the stage and immediately the bundled nervous energy of the audience exploded just as hard as Iommi's massive intro to the brilliant 'Into The Void.'
What followed was a full two hour assault of Sabbath classic after Sabbath classic, throwing in almost all of the tracks you would expect to hear (more on that in a moment) and a couple of songs which no one in their right mind could have predicted, including 'Wheels Of Confusion', which, according to Ozzy, had never been performed live before.
Perhaps the oddest thing about the set, which did include tracks like 'Dirty Women', 'Behind The Wall Of Sleep' and 'Under The Sun', was the fact that they DIDN'T play 'Symptom Of The Universe' OR 'Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.' Both tracks were hinted at in brief instrumental interludes, but not given a full airing on the night. Perhaps it was a timing thing...
But, that tiny gripe apart, it was tight, it was loud, it was celebratory and the band seemed to be having the time of their lives and the audience responded in kind with a massive roar as each song concluded. A clearly touched Tony was greeted with regular spontaneous chants, and only a cold, cold human would not have been moved as Ozzy payed tribute to his oldest friend with a call of 'He Is IRON MAN' as that famous intro rang out.
Ozzy's voice, a source of some criticism in recent years, sounded absolutely pristine. He has clearly been looking after himself in recent times and he looked as fit as he has done for decades. His energy levels certainly outlasted that of the audience as the sweltering heat (and beer) took its toll, forcing the Sabbath frontman to work harder and harder as the show went on. It was a masterclass by one of the greatest frontmen of all time.
(A quick word on Ozzy's touring drummer Tommy Clufetos, who filled in for the absent Bill Ward on the night. This near thankless task was met with an exemplary performance, which was understated and simple, mimicking Ward's original performances but adding just enough of himself to make it his own. His role was fundamentally to back the three members of Black Sabbath and, save for a drum solo while the band took a breather, Clufetos should be applauded and thanked for doing such a brilliant job in the face of some pretty unfair criticism).
By the time the band culminated in a riotously brilliant encore of 'Paranoid', which sent us out onto the streets in our euphoric, emotional and exhausted throngs, it was clear that this was a reunion that meant something. This wasn't a gig for the money (proceeds went to Help For Heroes), this wasn't a gig to sell a new record. You could see that this meant a huge amount to Geezer, Tony and Ozzy - they came home on Saturday night and this (relatively) tiny concert was simply three men who changed the world of music playing together once more in the town that is ingrained in so much of their early work.
It was a privilege to have witnessed this extraordinary event. It's likely that no one that saw it will ever experience the like of it again, and those of you that are heading to the hallowed fields of Donington for Download this year should now be very, very excited indeed because you are about to see something very, very special.
Here's the setlist:
01. Into The Void
02. Under The Sun
04. War Pigs
05. Wheels Of Confusion
06. Electric Funeral
07. Black Sabbath
08. The Wizard
09. Behind The Wall Of Sleep
11. Fairies Wear Boots
12. Tomorrow's Dream
13. Sweet Leaf
14. Symptom Of The Universe (intro only)
15. Drum Solo
16. Iron Man
17. Dirty Women
18. Children Of The Grave
19. Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (intro only)