BY ANDERS SMITH LINDALL For the Sun-Times
There may be no more surprising booking at Lollapalooza this year than the return of Black Sabbath. It was hardly predictable that festival promoters would book the metal forefathers when few acts in its increasingly safe and electronic-oriented lineup bear the band's obvious influence. Even more, few could have foreseen that Sabbath would pick this venue for its first stateside show in seven years and only scheduled concert in North America.
Yet as the sun set Friday night and the black curtain rose, there was Ozzy Osbourne at center stage, arms spread wide and cackling as piped-in thunder rumbled, enormous video flames rolled behind him and his black coat trailed to the floor.
He was flanked on either side by Geezer Butler on bass and Tony Iommi on guitar, just where they were in rehearsals of the band that would become Black Sabbath in Birmingham, England in 1968. It was close to the tableau that Lollapalooza first promised--a reunion of the band's original lineup--but founding drummer Bill Ward had dropped out in May following a contract dispute.
The looming question anytime Osbourne is involved is whether, nearing 64 years old and having packed several lifetimes of hard living into those years, he'll be coherent on stage. Reviewing one of his Ozzfest gigs for the Sun-Times, I called him "fragile" and "tottering"--and that was close to a decade ago.
Here, though, Ozzy and Sabbath rose to the occasion. He looked strong and steady throughout the show's relentlessly paced first hour, even blowing a mean harp in "The Wizard" in unspoken tribute to Chicago's blues roots.
The band sounded even stronger. Opening with the eponymous tune that introduced the band's 1970 debut album to the world, Iommi, Butler and drummer Tony Clufetos slowly gathered their powers. Then grim foreboding burst to snarling life and they drove the song home.
More than the echoes of history, though, it was the specter of mortality that loomed throughout. Iommi revealed in January that he has lymphoma, and singer Ronnie James Dio, who replaced Osbourne throughout the Eighties, died of cancer in 2010.
In dark glasses and a black leather coat, Iommi stalked the stage like a gunslinger marking off his paces. But before his solo in "Into the Void," Ozzy left off working the crowd and put his arm around Iommi. From a band that mocked death in its lyrics and courted it without consequence over decades of debauchery, the gesture was a meaningful admission that the shadows are real and closing in.
It was easy to hear added resonance in Ozzy's lyrics, especially here and in "Under the Sun," and to imagine Iommi's squealing leads as howls to hold off the abyss. Even "Electric Funeral," a nightmare of nuclear annihilation, and "War Pigs," the classic screed against the politics of mechanized destruction, seemed to pale in comparison.
in Grant Park for Lollapalooza 2012. (Aundre Larrow/Sun-Times Media)
There's an old game played among music geeks where you imagine eliminating one band of your choice from the face of the Earth, as if they never existed. You have to pick carefully, because there's a catch: Every act in any way associated with the one you erase will be figuratively wiped out as well. For example, you may despise the Grateful Dead, but while zapping them frees humanity from their endless imitators, it takes Bob Dylan and Doc Watson down, too.
That's a roundabout way of getting at just how bizarre it was to hear the synth-pop five-piece Passion Pit play immediately before Black Sabbath on the north end's biggest stage. If you chose to erase Sabbath from the annals of rock, you might wind up in a world where everything sounded as perky, twee and bloodless as Passion Pit. And that's a prospect scarier than any leering Lucifer Ozzy ever conjured.
Sabbath's counterprogramming up north was the rapper Wale. His latest album is called "Ambition," and he brought a live band (six pieces) and lyrics to match ("Like Socrates in a Prada tee ... my only fear is mediocrity"). Trouble was, you rarely heard them. The set started 20 minutes late after much futzing with gear; even then, his microphone was muffled and a nagging buzz in the monitors could never quite be nixed.
Wale wasn't pleased, turning first on the sound techs and then on Lollapalooza itself. "This isn't a high school prom," he barked. "I understand this isn't a hip-hop festival, but we're professionals [and] you're gonna respect hip-hop tonight."
The sound didn't seem to improve, but Wale soldiered on, wisely turning his troubles into fuel for his creative fire and rallying his fans behind him--not with the "turn the mike up" chants he led at first, but by leaping off the stage to dance and rhyme down in the crowd. "I ain't with the talking," he spat; "I'm just trying to focus."