at House of Blues, November 28

By Monica Kendrick

I’ve never liked the term “outsider artist.” It presumes the existence of an “inside,” and worse, it presumes that the person doing the labeling is in a position to determine which is which. As Stephen Hawking is fond of pointing out, there is no privileged vantage point in the universe.

The widely accepted definition crumbles as soon as you poke it: It’s someone outside the establishment (but in a music landscape as fragmented and decentralized as ours, what exactly does that mean?). It’s someone with a certain naivete (but many “outsider artists” are not so much uneducated as self-educated). It’s someone who has a distinctive personal cosmology that he does his best to communicate to the rest of the world (but you could say that about George W. Bush). Consider, for instance, Ronnie James Dio. To metalheads, he’s nothing like an outsider–he’s a star. But to those outside the metal world, his nearly 30 years of sword-and-sorcery bombast are as divorced from any meaningful cultural reality as Wesley Willis’s ditties about sucking rottweilers’ pooty holes.

With two Top 40 solo albums under his belt, Dio is no slouch as a songwriter, and having fronted both Blackmore’s Rainbow and Black Sabbath, he’s as often as not been in the right place at the right time. But like a few other short, not conventionally attractive men with a single-minded brand of genius–Phil Spector and Prince come to mind–he’s built himself a vast, fantastical world apart, peopled by neomedieval heroes and villains and witches and devils. The key to this realm is his voice, the gritty, piercing sound of utter conviction. As the cliche goes, he could sing the phone book–and make it sound like the voices of avenging angels hectoring John Dee and Edward Kelley through a distorting dark glass. And in my heart of hearts, it has always struck me as rather excellent that that voice is used not in the service of navel-gazing angst but rather of a broad reimagining of Dante’s Inferno and Camelot by way of Blue Cheer and Gary Gygax.

The last time Dio came through town on the never-ending tour for his latest album, Magica, the opening act was, of all things, the trailer-trash poser outfit the Unband. The contrast seemed to prove that setting one’s sights low doesn’t necessarily guarantee any more success than setting them absurdly high. This time around, at House of Blues a couple weeks ago, the bill made far more sense. Doro Pesch made an admirable attempt to capture the crowd’s heart in her role as burly Teutonic warrior maiden surrounded by adoring young soldiers, and Yngwie Malmsteen submitted his legendary oodly-oodly tendencies to the needs of actual songs, leading a crack band. Far from seeming wanky, with his elfin kicks and hops and his sweet chubby face, he actually came off as charming.

But though Malmsteen brought out a sizable cult, there was never any doubt whose stage it was–the backdrop was an immense reproduction of the cover of Dio’s first album with his eponymous band, 1983’s Holy Diver–and the skinny 51-year-old didn’t have to do much to claim it. Yet he did, immediately reaching out to the crowd, pressing flesh. When a fan had the audacity to pass Dio a CD and pen in the middle of a song, Dio set them down carefully on a speaker and continued to sing, pacing the stage. During a guitar solo, he returned to them, signed the CD, and passed it back. He aimed his eye contact everywhere–the front, the back, the balconies–and worked the inflections of every one of his lines like a cabaret singer at stupendous volume. It’s one thing to have a singer in some way connect with every audience member in a small club. It’s another thing to have the disconcerting feeling that in a huge room filled with thousands, he’s looking right at you as he wails “Lately when the demons drag the night across my eyes…”

Dio’s demons and angels are big, and they need a big room in which to play out their battles. Take side two of the second Rainbow album, which consists of two extremely long songs (the first a high epic in the style of “Kashmir,” the second a rocker) detailing the fall of a wizard who wished to build a tower to heaven, sung from the point of view of one of his slaves. Or Magica, which concerns the heroic efforts of a remnant of a once-noble population of magicians to fight off evil sorcerers and demons who want to use their souls for raw energy to fuel their hellish machinations. These are the kind of elaborate stories usually found between the covers of 300-page paperbacks. Tempting devils and innocent maidens, corrupt rulers and Faustian bargainers teem from even his shorter works, and frequently there’s a nagging ambiguity about whose side he’s on–lines like “We’ll know for the first time / If we’re evil or divine / We’re the last in line” are not exactly a confirmation that the storyteller or his fans are the ones astride the white chargers.

If Dio’s Miltonian wars seem ludicrous to the unmoved, that’s probably because they’ve never been in a big room with him. The sonic gimmick he’s perfected–beginning with a quiet, almost folksy croon, working up to a key line, pausing dramatically, and then WHAAAAAAAAAMMMMM!, used to its fullest effect in the Sabbath epic “The Sign of the Southern Cross,” really only works in this context, when the force of his full-throated bellow can either lift you off the floor or slam you down into it. Woe to the folks who don’t know the songs and so don’t know when it’s coming–not that there seemed to be many in the house here. While Doro got a mild, polite response to her heroic efforts to get the crowd to sing along a chorus, Dio bowed out entirely on the second verse of “Don’t Talk to Strangers,” from Holy Diver, holding the microphone up to the hundreds of people who knew all the words.

During the late 80s and 90s, when grand operatic themes and celestial-infernal bigness in general were distinctly out of fashion, Dio suffered in the cultural hierarchy. Oh, Black Sabbath were OK because Soundgarden liked them–but absolutely nothing after Ozzy! Well, listen carefully: the last few Ozzy-era albums were scattershot, decadent, and low-energy, and Dio breathed new life into the shambling zombie of a band, which in turn was probably the most simpatico backup he ever had, at least in terms of pure sound. Dio’s a roarer, growler, a proclaimer, an insinuator–not a shrieker–and the grandiosity of his style needs a solid and impressive base, like a pyramid. Your typical classic metal relies on treble to frazzle the nerves, but Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler made metal heavy with their bowel-shuddering low end. Top that off with Dio at his most oracular, on epic tragedies like “Children of the Sea” or “Falling off the Edge of the World,” and you’ve got a potent, moving encapsulation of eschatological anxiety.

At the House of Blues, Dio nodded to the Black Sabbath period only once, with a very, very big rendition of “Heaven and Hell,” from the platinum-selling post-Ozzy album of the same name. There was only one acknowledgment of the Ritchie Blackmore years, too–a medley of “Man on the Silver Mountain” (track one from album one, a song I’d been craving to hear live for so long I was on the verge of bribing a friend’s band to play it) and “Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll,” the title track from Dio’s last album with Rainbow. That one’s almost a run-of-the-mill fist pumper, except Dio wrote the words, so it evokes an almost biblical sense of duty and commitment: “And tell everyone here / That it is perfectly clear / They can sail above it all on what they’ve found / It cries for you / It’s the best that you can do.”

Which I can’t help but think is beautiful–call me a romantic, with all the horrible retrogradity that implies, but I think there’s a lot of room in rock ‘n’ roll for aspirations to a nobility and grandeur that barely exists in the real world. If rock ‘n’ roll is a theater of fantasy and a temple of the vicarious, God(s) bless the Don Quixotes who try to keep the ante high. Of course if Dio’s style were the dominant one in rock, it would quickly grow oppressive in its own right. But in a climate where boys with tattoos whine like junior high girls, spectacle almost always involves bodily fluids, and what passes for earnestness is a fascist-rally bore like Creed, the alternate universe that Ronnie James Dio has so doggedly devoted himself to crafting still seems like a mighty intriguing place.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.