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It seems there are no live albums to speak of from Dio before 1998's Inferno: The Last in Live, save some VHS tapes. This illustrious package provides two sets from two pivotal moments in the great man's career, both at Donington in England, home of the Download festival and previously the Monsters of Rock festivals.
The first disc comprises a selection of four songs from Holy Diver, seeing as it was the only album out by the band Dio at the time, peppered with a number of Sabs and Rainbow cuts. This was recorded in August 1983, about a year after Live Evil was recorded in the USA, just to put things in perspective. Dio sounds just as ferocious as he did on that mottled classic, belting out 'Stand Up and Shout' and the title of 'Straight Through the Heart' with plenty of teeth-gnashing, punctuating the latter with his signature "hmm-mmm!" It's a treat to hear him speaking to the crowd and sounding so young - yet he's saying exactly the things he would decades later, showing only massive respect and love to his adoring fans.
The 1983 disc features the original post-Sabbath lineup of Dio, with Vivian Campbell making 'Children of the Sea' truly his own with great, groaning riffs and a classy appropriation of Iommi's sumptuous guitar solo. Naturally he sounds best playing the romantic rock riff from 'Rainbow in the Dark' - and this must be the best live version of this I've heard, ever - and a fucking huge-sounding rendition of 'Holy Diver'. Considering the fantastic sound and wonderful band performance, I wouldn't have minded more material from Holy Diver, such as 'Shame on the Night' and 'Don't Talk to Strangers', but Dio had a unique sort of fame at the time. He was wanted for Holy Diver's two mega-hits, and his famous concert staples with Sabbath and Rainbow. Fuck, if I had been there this would have been exactly what I wanted to hear.
After an exceptionally satisfying first five tracks, there's some short tracks representing the band having a bit of fun onstage. Appice gets to bust out a sweet drum solo and then a couple of minutes of 'Stargazer' with the rest of the guys - shame they don't play the whole thing 'cause it sounds bitchin' - followed by a Vivaldi-inspired solo from Campbell that leads into 'Heaven and Hell'. This sounds incredible, better than the version on 'Live Evil' and only loses out to the version on Live Radio City Music Hall. Appice is having a lot of fun here, thrashing out huge-sounding fills that I don't think I've heard him do on more recent renditions. Campbell nails the riff and has an interesting, loose take on Iommi's solos including what sounds like an homage to Deep Purple's 'Fools'. The slightly sped up, bulky take on 'Man on the Silver Mountain', with more excellent soloing, visits 'Starstruck' briefly and aggressively before its explosive finale.
The second disc was recorded in 1987, just before lineup changes became a staple of Dio's career, and at a point where they had released enough material that my review of the album could largely centre around which songs I wish were on here. I want 'Night People'. I want 'Egypt'. I want 'We Rock'. And so on. But the mark of a truly accomplished band (in its own right by this time, rather than as an epilogue to Mob Rules) is I quickly forget about that. What I do get is a cracking selection of songs from Dio as well as Sabs and Rainbow.
The sound is similiarly excellent, Appice's drums standing out again with a rocking and thick sound, Jimmy Bain's bass throbbing reliably beneath it all, and new recruit Craig Goldy earning his stripes in the live arena. He plays the timeless chugging riffs and racing solo of 'Neon Knights' faultlessly and with bags of energy. My favourite selection from the album they were touring at the time, Dream Evil, has got to be 'Naked in the Rain'. The glorious compound of catchy riffs and elegant solos sounds so much better than the studio version, Craig Goldy putting in an astounding performance throughout. Although Campbell is behind most of my favourite Dio riffs, I have to give it to Goldy for being probably the most talented guitarist Dio worked with in this band.
Ronnie Dio was a genius for working songs from his various bands together and making them make sense. 'Rock 'n' Roll Children' explodes into a fucking glorious version of 'Long Live Rock 'n' Roll' from Rainbow, and then back into the last song - reflecting how Ronnie's creativity and passion shone through each and every recording he was a part of. He could probably have had something from Elf going into a cut from The Devil You Know and it would have sounded fantastic. 'The Last in Line' works 'The Temple of the King' briefly into its soft opening, before leading directly through snippets of 'Children of the Sea' and then 'Holy Diver' and THEN 'Heaven and Hell' for one big fabulous Dio medley. Dio mentioned in interviews that this was the band's way of playing as much material as they could in a limited time, and framing the aforementioned tracks as well as 'Man on the Silver Mountain' and 'All the Fools Sailed Away' with 'The Last in Line' and its reprise thematically ties everything together very cleverly. I bloody love it.
One reason for the concert selection was the Donington theme. Whether it influenced this decision, or whether it was an effort on the band's part to bring new material to their trusty British audience, there is a minimum of repetition between the two discs aside from another version of 'Man on the Silver Mountain' and the mandatory 'Rainbow in the Dark'. There is only a minute and a half each of 'Children of the Sea' and 'Holy Diver', and three minutes of 'Heaven and Hell' - with fantastic versions on the first disc it's not a problem.
I'm not ashamed to write that Ronnie's rapport with the crowd during their chanting of 'Heaven and Hell' on the 1983 disc wets my eyes a little, and his thanks to them are heartwarming. The respect I have for this man's unbelievable talent and modesty is massive, and this tops the Heaven & Hell performance with Jørn and Hughes as the finest tribute to his life and work this year. I'm not a dedicated live album listener, but any concert recording with Dio singing is always an absolute treat. As essential as any studio album with Dio, this will bring grins to the faces of veteran fans and is powerful enough to make lifelong fans of anyone to whom this might be their first Dio experience. Amazing.