Back in March of this year, Zakk Wylde and BLACK LABEL SOCIETY put together a special treat at Club Nokia in Los Angeles, a scaled-back, relaxed retrospective set filled with ten BLS songs, three from the PRIDE & GLORY days and four selections from Zakk's 1996 solo album, "Book of Shadows". "Unblackened" is perhaps the most intimate look at Zakk Wylde onstage you'll hope to witness outside of actually sitting in the man's presence. There's a passionate and sensitive drive to "Unblackened" that transcends the mostly slow to medium pace of the concert.
You won't find BLACK LABEL SOCIETY staples such as "Bleed for Me", "Demise of Sanity" or "Suicide Messiah", but you will get "The Blessed Hellride" almost off the bat, an acoustic-driven fan favorite that translates naturally into this reformed set. Ditto for "House of Doom" with its peppy collision of smooth jive and static jumpiness. In many cases of the "Unblackened" set, new or modified arrangements were employed, making this an even more savory delicacy for Wylde's fans.
The PRIDE & GLORY songs performed here are "Losin' Your Mind", "Sweet Jesus" and "Machine Gun Man", while "Road Back Home", "Sold My Soul", "I Thank You Child" and "Throwin' it All Away" represent "Book of Shadows". While the BLACK LABEL SOCIETY numbers are reaped with a heavy lean on "Hangover Music Vol. VI" (i.e. "Queen of Sorrow", "Won't Find it Here", "Takillya (Estyabon)" and "House of Doom"), there are set standards such as "The Blessed Hellride", "In This River", "Speedball", "Spoke in the Wheel" and "Stillborn", plus an appearance of "Rust" from "Stronger Than Death".
Still holding court in the BLACK LABEL SOCIETY are guitarist Nick Catanese and bassist John DeServio along with recent drumming addition Chad Szeliga, backing vocalist Greg Locascio and keyboard troubadour Derek Sherinian. Catanese and DeServio's faculties speak for themselves, but the inclusion of Derek Sherinian is one of the best moves Zakk Wylde could've made. As Sherinian fields a number of song intros and loads of fills, his veteran prowess well-serves Zakk's purposes for the set. When Zakk takes the piano, it's enough he can leave the guitar solos in the trusted fingers of Nick Catanese, who shows off on "Road Back Home", "Spoke in the Wheel" and "In This River". With Derek Sherinian across from Zakk onstage, they work magical keys together on "Sweet Jesus" and "In This River", but the most breathtaking moment of unity between them comes on the flamenco-blitzed "Speedball". Watch for Zakk to grin like the devil after Sherinian matches his flurrying acoustic scales.
It's fair to assume playing for Zakk Wylde comes with a sense of gratification since his nods of appreciation and silent gestures of accolade come frequently. While the "Unblackened" set restrains the players to a seated position for the entire show, there's an evident brotherhood swarming over the stage at Club Nokia. John DeServio can hardly contain his excitement, much less his butt to his stool. Numerous times he lurches off as if ready to pounce to the front of the stage before zipping back in place. During the band introductions, though, DeServio hops off to embrace Zakk and that's unrehearsed sentiment you can't fake in public.
It's unnecessary to gush over Zakk's presentation, be it on the strings or the keys. He's a phenom and always has been. Even now it's still hard to cue to mind the young, beardless whiz kid kicking off his career on Ozzy Osbourne's "No Rest for the Wicked". Zakk Wylde today is brawny, scruffy, a real deal roughneck who doesn't need "Duck Dynasty" to endorse his chin wag. His instruments speak for him, proven by the marathon solos on "Throwin' it All Away" and "Stillborn" in this set.
The fact a dusty dude is capable of such an emotive set as contained in "Unblackened" defies convention. Yet one of the most poignant moments of the show comes with a family archive video clip showing Zakk and his daughter Hayley Rae in a cut-up daddy-daughter duet, which leads into his sweet fatherly ode "I Thank You Child". It's a precious moment of grace that leads into the show's finale, a slowed and reworked version of "Stillborn". Even without Ozzy's added vocals, this rendition serves as a dramatic, reflective finish to a largely beautiful set.
Among the bonus features on "Unblackened" are an interview segment with Zakk, the promo video for "Losin' Your Mind", and the real treasure, a one-man jam contained in "Zakk Visits HM Prison Stocken (UK)". Here Zakk crams at least twenty music theories into one hyperactive guitar solo and then fields Q&A with the prisoners. For the Zakk Wylde connoisseur, this alone is must-see material.
If you want a full frontal video exhibition of BLACK LABEL SOCIETY, drift back to 2006's "The European Invasion, Doom Troopin'". If you want to see a more expressive and disciplined set assembled for longtime Zakk Wylde fans, then "Unblackened" is where it's at.