Dio: Live in London—Hammersmith Apollo 1993 has given me new-found appreciation for Ronnie James Dio’s elemental lyrics.
RJD’s songs were often fantastical, embracing the sword-and-sorcery imagery often found in heavy metal music, but rarely strayed from the visceral, primal, and concrete. Cue up any of Ronnie’s old records with Rainbow, Black Sabbath, or Dio and count the number of references to wind, fire, oceans (seas), earth (dirt), or creature-beasts and you’ll take my meaning. The Elvin one had a knack for pitting good and evil against one other in powerful songs with stark, picturesque verses. And when he embraced the “grey” areas of human emotion and spirituality, why, that made for some of his best power ballads.
Some aspiring author or indie filmmaker should write up a quirky character whose dialog consists of nothing but Dio lyrics. It’s not hard to imagine:
“When there’s lightning, you know it always gets me down.”
Sadly, we lost Ronnie a couple years ago. But the metal icon’s legacy survives in homage bands like Dio Disciples and in the all-for-one camaraderie of tribute projects like the recent This Is Your Life covers album from Rhino. More importantly, rare recordings and videos of the man himself are being released from the vaults, issued bit by precious bit in the shadow of his passing.
Eagle Rock delighted fans with last year’s DVD, Dio: Sacred Heart—Live in Philadelphia 1986. Their latest Dio title, Hammersmith Apollo 1993, is something of a sister to that concert film, a video captured some seven years (and several albums on), featuring a slightly altered band configuration and fresh music from the then-new album Strange Highways.
Shot with several cameras (including one manned by a dude squatting in a trapdoor onstage) and masterfully edited for a well-rounded, multi-angle viewing experience, Hammersmith 1993 showcases a well-rehearsed Dio on the last night of the band’s European tour. Staggered among new songs like “Evilution,” “Pain,” and “Hollywood Black” are requisite classics from throughout Ronnie’s prolific career—from Rainbow to Sabbath.
Drummer Vinny Appice—who started with Dio in Sabbath in the early ‘80s and remained on board with Ronnie through the late ‘90s—pounds out the beats from an elevated rostrum, torturing his green kit on “Stand Up and Shout” and “Strange Highways,” apparently oblivious to the technician looming over him with a steadicam (which later provides some choice footage for the film).
Bassist Jeff Pilson (Dokken, Foreigner) eschews finesse in favor of the consistent pulse and sinewy grooves called for by the Dio canon. Down-picking urgently with legs wide—feet planted miles apart—Pilson conjures diabolic rhythms on “Don’t Talk to Strangers,” “Pain,” and Sabbath throwback “Mob Rules” while whipping his long locks in time. Typical rock star posturing? Perhaps—but it’s a great visual. Pilson does his job well, anchoring the tunes with Appice, keeping Ronnie and his English audience engaged for 90 minutes. He also provides all the background vocals.
Band newcomer Tracy G (Great White) churns out chunky guitar rhythms and searing leads on guitar, never missing a chance to throw in an extra string bend or pinch harmonic. Like his Sabbath counterpart Ozzy Osbourne, Dio always had a knack for spotting terrific up-and-coming shredders, and Tracy G acquitted himself marvelously in the band (at least through ’99). Here, the head-banded heathen coaxes grunge-era tones from his axe on “Hollywood Black” and “Evilution” while faithfully recreating the riffs previously committed to record by Tony Iommi, Vivian Campbell, and Craig Goldy. However, one also detects early signs of the guitar god egotism that’d find Tracy ejected some six years on; he delivers quite a few “look at me” moments throughout the set, a la Yngwie Malmsteen (who, unlike Tracy G, was always the undisputed, de facto “star” in all his bands).
Ronnie was around 50 at the time but looks all of 35 on film. The singer certainly doesn’t sound his age, belting with considerable lungpower, inflecting and projecting with an operatic tenor’s practiced ease on oldies “Man on the Silver Mountain,” “Last in Line,” and “Heaven and Hell,” and new cuts such as “Jesus, Mary & The Holy Ghost” and “Here’s to You.” The video testifies to the rapport Dio enjoyed with concertgoers, furnishing shot after shot of the celebrated vocalist high-fiving fans, thrusting faux accusatory fingers at select spectators, or offering his approving blessings with the “devil horn” hand gestures he popularized.
One is reminded just how humble and articulate the guy was. Dio was a menacing vocalist with wide range and few rivals—but always soft-spoken and thoughtful in conversation. Here, he so convincingly adapts British colloquialisms for his mid-song patter that the uninitiated would surely mistake him for English (but for the accent). “We should like to play you…” this-or-that, he announces politely, rather than perpetuating your typical American “Here’s one from our new album, USA Cliché!” banter. Dio’s quiet intelligence and humility are even more apparent in the DVD’s backstage bonus material.
Appice takes a drum solo near the end of “Man on the Silver Mountain,” briefly playing off a staccato riff laid out by his band mates. Tracy G’s guitar solo combines fluidity and flash with Tom Morello-esque noise architecture. Pilson gets a few minutes in the spotlight late in the set; by the finale he’s ripping the strings from his bass and stabbing speaker cones with its headstock.
The DVD notes credit Scott Warren with keyboards, but he’s nowhere to be seen (we catch up with him backstage). One can hear his lush chords and syncopated keyboard riffs (“Rainbow in the Dark”), but in the keyboard-unfriendly age of Nirvana there just wasn’t room for synths on rock’s newly Spartan stages (accordingly, there aren’t any dragons, pyrotechnics, or other theatrical props on this Dio outing, either). Just tons of Marshall stacks and Ampeg bass cabs.
The film looks great considering it was shot two decades ago, and the sound—presented in Dolby Digital Surround 5.1 / Stereo and DTS Surround—is killer (we listened with headphones).
A 25-minute documentary brings viewers backstage to hang with the band before (and after) the gig. Here, in the dungeons of London’s Hammersmith Apollo, we’re privy to Ronnie’s thoughts on the band’s new lineup and the evening’s itinerary, listening in while a makeup woman gives him the once-over.
“This is probably the best band we’ve ever had,” he surmises. “We never argue. I look forward to playing with this band every night.”
Appice concurs. “Everyone gets along so well,” says the drummer. “Even offstage, it’s just fun with these guys.”
Pilson, who was apparently this lineup’s practical joker, ponders the sugar content in a bottle of Gatorade and demolishes a hairdryer with a mag-flashlight in a bizarre end-of-tour ritual. Meanwhile, Appice comes upon an action figure that bears an uncanny likeness to his brother, Carmine Appice, and Tracy G details the origins of his unusual tree-knot guitar and “raunchy” effects pedal board.