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Rowdy Ozzfest Does Justice to Metal's Icon

The crowd of 43,000 fans shows noisy appreciation for the younger bands as well as to Ozzy Osbourne and his well-known family.


The Ozzfest is a county fair with a county jail attitude. It's a loud, gritty, exhausting, decadent affair that inspires fans of both genders to strip their shirts, bob their heads at vertebrae-threatening velocity and bark at the moon. Or, since it starts at 9 a.m., the sun.

The show, of course, takes its name from Ozzy Osbourne, the British metal hero who was born during the Truman administration and has become the most unlikely pop culture sensation of the 21st century. Like the Cher of the occult rock scene, Osbourne has gone from afterthought to beloved iconic elder because of the unscripted and gloriously odd MTV reality series "The Osbournes."

The question at the Glen Helen Blockbuster Pavilion in Devore on Saturday was whether the 43,000 fans would find Osbourne's rock show equally as entertaining, especially after thunderous sets by System of a Down, P.O.D. and even the cartoonish Rob Zombie.

The answer, as is so often the case in these settings, was in the lighters. The dense crowd that jammed the front seats and the vast lawns of this desert venue produced enough candle-power with their Bics during Osbourne's set to skew any local global warming surveys that might have been underway.

Even Ozzy (think how many lighters he has seen held aloft) looked impressed, although he never stopped exhorting the crowd to cheer louder. "I can't heeeaaaar you," he screeched again and again, often adding his favorite f-word to the phrase for emphasis. If you closed your eyes, he sounded like a salty-mouthed grandmother making a long distance call.

It is both easy and risky to mock Osbourne these days. He has always been a blue-collar metal hero, known for his unpretentious personal manner and devotion to the genre's requisite standards of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. His legendary excesses, however, have left the 53-year-old in a fragile state, with shaking hands and stage maneuvers that resemble nothing so much as light-impact aerobics in a physical therapy ward.

Osbourne came armed Saturday with two hand-held water cannons that he used frequently to douse the fans in the pit. With the elaborate water guns, his black costume and feeble menace, he looked like nothing so much as one of the harmless villains from the 1960s "Batman" television show. Adding to that illusion were his brawny bandmates, the lead henchman being guitar master Zakk Wylde, whose stage prowl and intense solos helped Osbourne fill out the stage for the rear of the sold-out crowd.

No matter that Osbourne is not as robust as in his Black Sabbath days, his Halloween songbook of "Paranoid," "Iron Man," "Mr. Crowley" and the rest clicked strongly with the crowd, which skewed young and made clear--through interviews, their cheering decibels and T-shirt logos--that they were in the house to see System of a Down, P.O.D, Adema and the younger bands.

The graybeard Ozzy fans in the mix brought a sense of amused bewilderment about their idol's transformation via TV into a new type of rock star. Todd Winters shuttled his two wide-eyed sons, ages 12 and 9, in from Dana Point for the show. "We drove by Ozzy's house last week in Beverly Hills just to see it too," Winters said. "I've always loved Ozzy. I saw him 25 years ago in concert. It is kind of weird to see what's happened with the show."

The audience of the MTV show is by no means colossal (the show, with its 7.8 million viewers, is dwarfed by even middling hits on the network), but its valued demographic, critical acclaim and just plain weirdness have made it a pop culture touchstone of the moment. It's also made celebrities out of the rocker's brood: son Jack, daughter Kelly and wife Sharon.

Sharon Osbourne is the metal matron not only of the TV show but also of her husband's career and Ozzfest, which was launched seven years ago. The formula for the festival was ingenious: Young metal bands still adored Osbourne and the Black Sabbath legacy, so Ozzfest would unite them under his banner. It also meant Ozzy would be performing for larger crowds, giving him an infusion of relevance and, with those young fans, perhaps a new market for his catalog.

"You have to respect Ozzy and Sharon as business people," said Marky Chavez, lead singer of Adema, the young Bakersfield band that made it as a main stage performer this tour. "There's always going to be baby bands that want exposure and that people want to come see. And there's people who want to see Ozzy because of what he's done in all entertainment fields. I hope I can look back on my career and say I've done what he's done."

A major theme of the day was the health of Sharon Osbourne, who would typically have been a major presence at this key Southern California date. She is recuperating from surgery related to her recently diagnosed colon cancer, and her health was the topic of wildly divergent rumors and heartfelt expression of support both in the audience and backstage.

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