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Headbanger’s Ball

 By John Brodeur

Heaven and Hell, Megadeth

Times Union Center, May 14

Here’s a good one: I actually heard a security guard call after a concertgoer at Monday’s sorta-kinda Black Sabbath show with the phrase, “Hey you, in the black T-shirt!” Ha! That could have been anyone!

Indeed, the black T-shirt was in full effect as the headbanging faithful flocked to the old Knickerbocker for a VH1 Classic-sponsored performance by the second incarnation of the mighty Black Sabbath. Not the Ozzy-led group that reunites every few years to rake in the bucks, but the version that brought their sludgy arena metal into the 1980s—and the 1990s, actually—with drummer Vinny Appice replacing Bill Ward, and the only man on Planet Earth who could possibly replace Ozzy Osbourne on vocals: Ronnie James Mother Fucking Dio.

The show had a few factors working against it: First, the band was contractually disabled from calling themselves Black Sabbath, hence the far-less-recognizable moniker (borrowed from the title of their first studio album together). Nor were they allowed to perform Ozzy-era songs. (A shame: Who would be more qualified than Dio to sing “My name is Lucifer, please take my hand!”) And, the show was on a Monday. And, tickets cost in excess of $50 (after surcharges). But the metal-devoted in attendance, roughly 5,000 of them, got more than their metal’s worth.

The 60-something-year-old Dio—accounts of his actual age vary, but it’s safe to say he’s pretty darn old—is one of rock’s most enduring icons, one of the best and most-aped/-parodied singers heavy metal has ever had to offer. But could he possibly still have that voice as he nears Social Security age? The answer, as he proved for almost two hours on Monday night, is “yes.” Or, better put, yeeeaa-aa-aa-ahhhh! The elfin howler (even wearing two-inch heels, he looks to be about 4 feet tall) looked and sounded absolutely great. Dio quickly put to shame headbangers 20-or-more-years his junior. It is not, as Tenacious D sang, time for Dio to “pass the torch,” something Ozzy, who “sings” about as clearly as he speaks these days, might want to consider.

Beyond the high notes, the lyrics about crystal balls and demons, the devil-horns hand signal (he invented it, you know), Dio was also the consummate showman. He introduced songs with the timbre and ease of a Vegas pro (“This next song was the first song we wrote together, and we would like to do it for you now,” he said introducing an epic “Children of the Sea”) and a speaking voice that sounded surprisingly upstate New York. (He grew up near Syracuse.) He seems like he’d be fun at parties.

None of this slighted the contributions of the other players. Appice was terrifically entertaining behind his gigantic kit; Geezer Butler, ever-so-stoic, furiously clawed at his bass (his hands were a total blur on show-closer “Neon Knights”); and Tony Iommi, architect of a number of rock’s most memorable riffs, went above and beyond with his soloing. Iommi’s blistering leads on “Sign of the Southern Cross,” Dehumanizer track “I,” and the decent new song “The Devil Cried” showed him to be a much better player than he lets on in “regular” Sabbath.

Speaking of blistering leads, Megadeth played the show’s middle slot (after a short, difficult set by Canada’s Machine Head). Promoters must surely have chuckled at the idea of calling this the Heaven and Hell tour: Imagine, Dio, who may actually be the devil, on tour with Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine, a born-again Christian. Thankfully the Holy Spirit hasn’t affected Mustaine’s shredding, as both he and guitarist Glenn Drover re-created the inspired note flurries of songs like “Hangar 18,” “Peace Sells,” and the riff-a-minute “Holy Wars . . . The Punishment Due” for a very appreciative house. And, again, the new songs held up. Who woulda thunk it?

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