The biggest question about Black Sabbath’s long-awaited reunion was answered first, as soon as Ozzy Osbourne ran onto the O2 Academy Birmingham stage last night with a cheery "Come on, you fuckers!" while looking as gleeful as a kid on Christmas morning. The tattooed figure behind the drums was not given a formal introduction by a band respectful of original member Bill Ward’s absence but, as Osbourne’s regular drummer, Tommy Clufetos was instantly recognizable to many in the crowd.
With that out of the way, Sabbath’s comeback became about who was present, rather than who wasn’t. Much of the audience’s focus was on guitarist Tony Iommi, still receiving treatment for lymphoma, with the first emotional chant of "Tony! Tony! Tony!" going up immediately after opening song, "Into the Void." Later, Osbourne introduced him as the "Iron Man" before the song of the same name, and a clearly-moved Iommi remained an immutable presence throughout: black-clad, smiling and infusing the most famous riffs in heavy metal history with a vitality to thrill both the veteran Sabbath fans in the 3,000-strong audience, and those born decades after they were first committed to vinyl.
Those riffs were forged just down the road here in Birmingham and Osbourne, in particular, was clearly delighted to be back on stage in his hometown. "People say I sound like a Yank now," he said before "War Pigs" caused the first of many mass sing-alongs, "but I’m from England and fucking proud of it."
And indeed, there was much else to be proud of in a set that served as a timely reminder of the band’s legacy ahead of a new album and other, much bigger shows at Download Festival and Lollapalooza. Despite Ward only confirming his absence three days before the gig, there were no signs of ring-rustiness, with Clufetos a reassuringly heavy-hitting presence from the start. And, while there was the odd surprise song – "Dirty Women," from 1976’s Technical Ecstasy, made an atypically ribald appearance towards the end, and even Osbourne seemed unsure if they’d played "Wheels of Confusion" live before – overall, the set drew heavily on the band’s first four, classic albums.
A clanging bell and a holler of "Round one!" from Osbourne introduced a brilliant, four-song salvo from their 1970 self-titled debut, as "Black Sabbath," "The Wizard" (with the singer on harmonica), "Behind the Wall of Sleep" and a colossal "N.I.B." raised temperatures to the extent that Osbourne regularly doused himself in water in an attempt to stay cool. By contrast, Iommi and bassist Geezer Butler – in understated, head-nodding, lost-in-the-music form stage right – remained stoic in their leather jackets throughout.
Warmth flowed from the audience as well. Butler’s extended display of bass prowess on "Behind the Wall of Sleep" and Iommi riffing up a storm on an instrumental version of "Symptom of the Universe" were both rapturously received, while Clufetos’ drum solo also drew appreciative, if slightly more hesitant, applause. Osbourne, meanwhile, played the role of cheerleader-in-chief, conducting the crowd’s chants of "Tony! Tony! Tony!" and ordering them to go "extra fucking crazy" on an immense, set-closing version of "Children of the Grave."
The crowd, already pretty rowdy, duly obliged and were rewarded with an encore: the opening riff of "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" followed by a final, frantic sprint through "Paranoid."
"Get home safely," cackled Osbourne, his eyes twinkling as all four band members linked arms and bowed in time-honored fashion, "before I come back and kick your butts again."
Bigger butts remain to be kicked, and there will no doubt be more testing challenges to overcome. But last night, Black Sabbath was a band with all the answers.
"Into the Void"
"Under the Sun"
"Wheels of Confusion"
"Behind the Wall of Sleep"
"Fairies Wear Boots"