How did Austin Black Sabbath cover band Brown Sabbath‘s show Friday night at Brooklyn Bowl compare with the real thing on their first and supposedly only reunion tour at the end of the past century? Spectacularly well, which is the highest possible praise, considering how undiminished the world’s greatest metal band were when they reached Jones Beach, Long Island in the late summer of 1999. While there were moments at Friday’s show where it was as if Iommi, Butler, Ward and Osbourne had been teleported onstage, there were many more where Brown Sabbath’s reinterpretations were just as much relentlessly assaultive, creepy fun as the originals. Cover bands are known for being cheesy, and if there’s one band in the world whose catalog you can’t be cheesy with, it’s Sabbath’s. That would be perverted, like biting the head off a bat – who would want to do something like that?
Brown Sabbath are really Brownout with a change of clothes and a different lead singer who outdoes Ozzy in the power department. The band’s smartest move was not to start out with the Sabbath covers but with their own material. Their roughly 45-minute set of heavy latin stoner funk included a couple of straight-up deep psychedelic salsa vamps, a couple of long psych-funk tangents fueled by machinegun bursts from the three-piece horn section and tightly choreographed Santana-esque twin guitars that foreshadowed what the two players – Adrian Quesada and Beto Martinez – would do with the Sabbath. Each guy has vicious chops, Quesada favoring wild flurries of chord-chopping over grotesquely bent blue notes, an attack he kept up through the Sabbath set. It’s hard to imagine a guitarist getting as much of a workout as these guys did through almost three hours of music. Their take on an obscure cover, ostensibly introduced to the band by drummer John Speice, made ominous cinematics out of a biting minor-key blues-funk riff. It was too bad that most of the crowd didn’t get to the venue until their first set was over.
And Brown Sabbath didn’t disappoint. Their secret is in the rhythm. Making a slinky groove out of Black Sabbath is a lot more natural than it might seem: Bill Ward and Geezer Butler are one of the most fluid rhythm sections in rock, the secret ingredient in Sabbath’s haphazardly pollinated sonic bud. Five-string bassist Greg Gonzalez stuck mostly to Butler’s original basslines: all the slides, chords, hypnotic riffage and tunefulness that made him a second lead guitarist, essentially. Since Tony Iommi relied so heavily on multitracks, having Martinez as a second lead player added a layer of savagery missing even from the original band’s live show. Singer Alex Marrero belted with a sneering, defiant power, disappearing from the stage during instrumental breaks to change costume, finally reentering toward the end in a wrestler’s outfit for the high point of the set, a searing tyrannosaurus take of Electric Funeral.
The one song they completely reinvented was Iron Man, making a undulatingly unrecognizable, wry lowrider instrumental groove out of it and giving some actual dignity to that cartoonish riff. The Wizard and Black Sabbath were pretty close to the originals, right down to the stormy-night samples and Quesada’s fang-baring hammer-ons. They did the druggiest songs, Sweet Leaf and Snowblind a little faster and if anything, heavier than the originals: “Do you like cocaine in Brooklyn?” Marrero snidely asked the crowd. Through the twisted twists and turns of N.I.B. and Fairies Wear Boots, the guitars burned in tandem with Gonzalez’ growling, biting bass, Speice teaming with the two-man percussion section for a lunar-landscape beat, an undertow that drew the crowd inescapably into the sonic murk. And their take of Planet Caravan was a potent reminder of how Sabbath could be equally psychedelic in a rare delicate moment. Marrero seemed to remember that Brown Sabbath made their debut on this very same stage; let’s hope they come back. But next time, where they really ought to be is Madison Square Garden.