Though he's still quite flummoxed by what, exactly, a holy diver is, Judge Bill Gibron couldn't get enough of this 2005 concert by the heavy metal hero who coined the term.
If you mess with this heavy metal god, you're bound to get "the horns"!
He is, perhaps, the greatest anomaly in all of heavy metal. In his mid-50s (or, as some argue, his early 60s!), he is still going strong, filling concert halls with fans eager to relive the past three decades of his Dungeons-and-Dragons-inspired epics. He's been called a gnome, an elf, a goblin, and all other manner of Middle Earth-inspired nicknames, as much for his stature (he is approximately 5-foot-1-inch tall) as his lyrical fascination with good, evil, magic, and mythology. With a resume that boasts both stints in supergroups and solo success, he is as much a fixture on the hard-rock scene as many more notorious acts. Yet ask most fans to describe Ronnie James Dio and you'll more than likely hear the mighty mantra of "Holy Diver" in return. This singular song from the similarly iconic LP of the same name has come to define the singer over the years, a testament to his talent as an artist and his durability as a rocker. Yet many are often surprised to learn that their headbanging half-pint was also a founding member of ex-Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow, as well as Ozzy Osbourne's initial replacement as the new lead singer for Black Sabbath. Over the course of his career, Dio seems to be the savior of sinking superstars while more than capable of carrying on alone.
In 2005, Dio wowed fans by announcing plans to play the entire Holy Diver album as part of an overall retrospective concert. It's a conceit used by many bands, the novelty of playing every song on an LP live, giving artist and audience something of a challenge. For the performer, it's the knowledge of learning melodies and charts that probably haven't been repeated since the initial tracks were laid down years before. For fans, the fact that an entire album will be recreated sets up expectations both high and halting. They expect perfection and wonder how unfamiliar (or outright hated) tunes will fare onstage. In the case of Dio and Holy Diver, no one needed to have worried. While this final show of the tour at London's Astoria Theater finds the singer in less than stellar voice (the high notes just aren't there, be it for reasons of age or overuse), his flawless showmanship and desire to entertain cannot be questioned. Along with musicians Simon Wright (drums), Doug Aldrich (guitar), Rudy Sarzo (bass), and Scott Warren (keyboards), this petite powerhouse tears the roof off the venue with the following showstopper set:
• "Tarot Woman"—from the 1976 Rainbow album
• "Gates of Babylon"—from the 1978 Rainbow album
Long Live Rock and Roll
Getting the perfunctory comments out of the way first, it bears repeating that Dio's chops are a little worn here. He still sings the spit out of every song in the show and puts other "maturing" vocalists to shame (are you listening, members of KISS???), but those hoping for a flawless recreation of the Diver material may miss a few of his sonic shrieks. That being said, Dio's band couldn't be better, with Sarzo and Wright holding down the bottom while Warren and Aldrich skitter along the top. In between is our star attraction, dressed like a member of a rebel-set Renaissance Fair and shouting out his literate, sometimes loopy, lyrics in a completely spellbinding manner. Say what you will about his age, his size, or his sensibilities, but no one can command a crowd like Dio. He has a presence that penetrates the aura of artificiality that accompanies most rock shows to actually connect with the people. It's not just a sonic synchronicity—Dio actually appreciates his fans and gives everything he has as his gift in return. That explains the yelps, the hand signs, the whirling dervish demeanor, and unabashed genuineness. You may not hear all of your favorite Dio tracks during a show, but you know the man is there to make you happy.
Fortunately, by committing to playing all of Holy Diver live, Dio made many of his aficionados ecstatic—and the recreation is commendable, indeed. Songs like "Stand Up and Shout," "Don't Talk to Strangers," and "Invisible" get exceptional readings, while well-worn hits like the title song and "Rainbow in the Dark" get by on familiarity and goodwill alone. It may be sacrilege to say it, but those two songs are actually the lowlights in what is an otherwise incredible two-hour show. Maybe it's the fact that both songs have been overplayed to death, as recently as May 2006 when VH-1 decided to dedicate an entire month to metal. In fact, it's those unknown album tracks which sound the best, since they appear the freshest and the most fun. As for the other material here, Dio doesn't disappoint. The Rainbow tunes are terrific, jolting the theater with power riff potency, while the selection of Sabbath tunes is small but significant. Dio is often cited as resurrecting that imploding powerhouse and the two songs here offer proof of his heavy-metal healing. Fans may be disappointed by the lack of other Dio solo material and the set list does seem stuck in the years 1975 to 1985, but the fact remains that Ronnie James Dio delivered some amazing aural delights during that era. This means Holy Diver Live is not just a celebration of a seminal album, but a tribute to a man whose made rock his professional passion. While there are probably better live shows out there, this demonstration of Dio's gifts is not to be missed.
Delivering consistently excellent DVD presentations of their musical catalog, Eagle Rock Entertainment does Holy Diver Live! very proud indeed. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is colorful, crisp, and loaded with little details. We can see the veins bulging along Ronnie's taut throat muscles and watch the sweat pool on Aldrich's exposed abdomen (definitely something for the ladies). The direction may be a tad MTV-ish in style—lots of quick cuts between shots - but, overall, this is an expertly filmed concert, captured professionally by Eagle Eye's technical treatment. On the sound side, things are even more impressive. There is a Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix which is just terrific, but the 5.1 Surround offerings (in regular and DTS) are amazing. You actually feel like you're part of the show as Dio whips the crowd into a frenzy. There is lots of spatial integrity between the instruments and the theatrical setting is rendered realistically in excellent acoustic ambience. In fact, the live versions of several Diver songs rival their vinyl origins in sheer sonic impact. Along with an 11-minute interview featurette (interesting if superficial) and a booklet which describes the show in intimate detail, this is a marvelous musical package, one that any Dio fan would die for.
More than just a musical gimmick or a way of getting wayward fans fired up over yet another tour, Holy Diver Live! is an auspicious testament to Ronnie James Dio's legacy as a true heavy-metal titan. Modern musicians would gladly sell their souls to Satan to sound as powerful and potent as this amazing vocalist does in 2006. Sure, there may be a few frayed edges, but this expert showman never fails to fascinate and inspire. While there is much more to his myth than a single stellar album, Holy Diver will always define Dio—as will the expert live performance of same.
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