Dio was the first concert I ever went to, and the only one my dad ever took me to.
In 1986, I saw Dio headline Madison Square Garden, with the German hard rock/metal act Accept opening up. I was a bigger fan of Accept at the time, but Dio was amazing. The Sacred Heart tour was his commercial peak. He toured the US and Canada from August 1985 to January 1986, took a couple of months off, toured Europe in April and May, and came back through the US again in June and July, before heading to Japan and Australia in August and September. On the first leg, he sold out the Meadowlands Arena (now MetLife Stadium), and on the second leg, he sold out Madison Square Garden.
Dio was big in ’85 and ’86. And it was a hell of a show. The stage looked like a castle. Lasers beamed everywhere throughout the arena. Guitarist Craig Goldy played a solo that climaxed with him swinging the guitar in circles around his body by its neck, finger-tapping madly the whole time. And at the climax of the set, a gigantic mechanical dragon with laser eyes rose up, and Dio himself, sword in hand, did battle with it. I was 14 years old, and it was awesome. (I don’t think my dad had nearly as much fun as I did.)
I saw Dio two more times after that. In 2003, he was the middle act at another sold-out MSG show: Motörhead opened, and Iron Maiden headlined. He didn’t have a robot dragon that time — it was a pretty bare-bones performance, the kind an opener gets, but his flair for the theatrical was present in every gesture as he strode back and forth across the stage, throwing the horns and glaring at the audience with a light in his eyes that even these relatively diminished circumstances couldn’t extinguish.
The last time I saw him, in 2007, he was fronting Black Sabbath, though they were calling themselves Heaven And Hell not only to keep Sharon Osbourne off their backs, but because they wanted people to know not to show up expecting to hear “War Pigs” or “Paranoid.” They also had a tremendous album, The Devil You Know, to celebrate, and if you’ve never heard it, seek it out; it’s one of the best latter-day Sabbath records, much better than 13 (and I like 13). I went to that show — an outdoor concert at the PNC Bank Arts Center — with my younger brother, and his son, who was seven or eight at the time. It was my nephew’s first concert, just as Dio had been mine two decades earlier, and he had a blast, but by the time headliners Judas Priest were onstage, he was asleep in his seat.
What I’m saying is, Dio’s music isn’t just awesome, it has real emotional resonance for me. And I was genuinely sad when he died in 2010. So in theory, I should have been the perfect mark for the Dio Returns tour, which features a hologram of RJD singing while a band of his former sidemen plays all the classics: “Holy Diver,” “We Rock,” “Rainbow In The Dark,” “The Last In Line,” “Don’t Talk To Strangers,” and songs from his tenures with Black Sabbath and Rainbow like “Heaven And Hell,” “Man On The Silver Mountain,” “Neon Knights,” “Children Of The Sea” and more.
The band includes Goldy on guitar, Scott Warren on keyboards, Bjorn Englen on bass, and Simon Wright on drums. All of these guys (except Englen, who’s replaced Rudy Sarzo) were members of Dio’s final touring band, and have been touring for several years as the Dio Disciples. Before the hologram tour was announced, they had two singers: Tim “Ripper” Owens, formerly of Judas Priest, Iced Earth, and Yngwie Malmsteen’s band, and Oni Logan of Lynch Mob. Both men made early appearances at the Paramount; after the hologram sang “King Of Rock And Roll,” Owens sang Black Sabbath’s “Mob Rules” and Logan sang “Children Of The Sea,” before “Dio” returned for “The Last In Line.” They returned later in the set, to perform pieces like “Egypt (The Chains Are On)” and Rainbow’s “Gates Of Babylon.” And during “We Rock,” they actually sang along with the hologram.
If you’re a big enough fan of Dio’s music (like the guy a few rows in front of me who had Dio’s logo painted on his forehead), a Dio Disciples show would probably be an entertaining evening. I wouldn’t have been there at all, though, were it not for the hologram. And that was ultimately where the Dio Returns tour fell down on the job. (Well, that and letting opening band Jizzy Pearl’s Love/Hate play 10 songs, when five would have been plenty.)
The hologram is just…weird. First of all, if you’re expecting a 3-D projection to materialize in the middle of the stage like Princess Leia, forget it. The majority of the stage is taken up by a gigantic video screen; the live musicians are crowded off to stage left and right to make room for it. It shows a continuous array of images that look like backdrops to a fantasy-themed video game: dark forests, dungeons, walls of flame, outer space, massive banks of dangling chains, etc., etc. And slightly recessed within that, there’s a smaller screen where “Dio” appears.
The animated Dio doesn’t look exactly like the real guy, more like it was created from a boardwalk caricature of him, and I can’t be 100% sure, but I think they might have made him just a little bit taller than he actually was. (Though he sometimes appears standing on a little booster platform, which I found kind of hilarious.) He materializes in and out in a whirl of sparkling dust, which only serves to make him seem even more like a character in a cut-scene from a video game; it’s like you’re visiting The Wizarding World Of Ronnie James Dio. He’s got a relatively small set of movements he cycles through — a shimmying little side-to-side dance step, throwing the horns, pointing his microphone at the audience to encourage singing along, and maybe one or two others. He wears one outfit, a white tunic with a cross on the front and black leather pants, for the whole show, and I’m not sure what age he’s supposed to be. The vocals were pulled from live recordings, so they sound good and looser than the studio versions of the songs; that part of the “live” illusion is solid, at least, and it is kind of a thrill to hear that voice again.
Ultimately, though, it’s the stiffness of the show that makes it so disappointing. Dio was a tremendous performer not just because of his operatic delivery, but because he was an engaging, reactive singer who fed off the crowd’s energy and interacted with them. This can’t ever be anything but a one-way thing; no matter how excited the crowd gets, hologram Dio is going to go through the motions exactly the same every night, and even the human singers have to stick to a script to avoid fucking up the timing of the show.
When I left, I didn’t feel like I’d been to a concert — I felt like I’d been to a screening of a concert video in a movie theater. (A theater that was only about 1/3 full, by the way; I don’t think this tour is going to be a raging success.) And far from getting the kind of satisfaction a truly transcendent live experience can give, I wound up listening to Dio’s 1990 album Lock Up The Wolves on the way home — one of his lesser albums, but possessed of much more of his spirit than this “concert.”