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Why the last Black Sabbath concert was unforgettable

 

When you’ve been gigging as a band for almost 50 years it’s hard to imagine how you could go out on a high note. Especially when you’ve had to tune your guitars down to accommodate the vocal ability of a 68-year-old frontman. But Black Sabbath put on the show of a lifetime at the Genting Arena, starting back at the very beginning in order to conclude the mother of all road trips in epic fashion.

Forget Woodstock. This was Metalstock... complete with real fires, steel girders and not just one Iron Man but three.

As their 81-date farewell reached the end of The End, they were, to coin a phrase, Sabsolutely Sabulous, darling. Remember Frank Sinatra’s prophetic words: ‘And now, The End is near, and so I face the final curtain’? Sabbath didn’t just face their own final curtain – the heavy metal pioneers stood behind in the darkness and then blew it away.

Just as they have always done, ever since first manager Jim Simpson gave them a gig at one of his Henry’s Blues House nights at The Crown pub on Station Street in 1968. Within two years they had completely revAMPed their style, changing the world of rock and roll for ever. Thanks to some of the best special effects most of us have ever seen, Sabbath’s logo was ablaze on the curtain before it fell to the stage and was then whisked up to the rafters like two ghostly-white plumes. The End was about to begin. The chimed intro to Black Sabbath, the title track to their debut eponymous album released on February 13, 1970, then filled the arena with a sound so foreboding it seemed to make the floor shake.

Thereafter, the crystal-clear giant screen behind the band was frequently set ablaze, too. And often at the point when guitarist Tony Iommi was playing another mind blowing solo. A metaphor, perhaps, for how Black Sabbath invented heavy metal in a land of foundries, crucibles, lathes, grinders, toolsetters and, of course, guitar machine heads. Meanwhile, real flames were pumped out of the stage at regular intervals, too. Some even burned right behind the amazing drummer Tommy Clufetos who must have felt he was in danger of being roasted alive for daring to replace the absent fourth original member, Bill Ward. 

Singer Ozzy Osbourne kept cool by splashing his face from a bucket of water in front of the drum riser, while bass player Geezer Butler to the left of the stage from the audience’s point of view, somehow kept his coat on to match Iommi. Butler introduced his new AVFC liveried Lakland bass guitar for the show’s climax, while Tony Iommi kept the faith with his trademark cross shining over the top of a black T-shirt sporting the words: ‘Birmingham est 1968’.

For almost two hours, Sabbath burned brightly like a comet in the night sky.

You knew the time would pass by in a flash. But what a flash!

The clever use of spotlights all the way around the arena gave the night an immense 3D feel. That was especially true during the intro for War Pigs and when giant black and purple balloons were released from the roof during the epic Children of the Grave and skulls appeared on the screen. After pausing for the shortest of breaks, Tony Iommi launched into the intro to the title track of their first No 1 album back in 1970, Paranoid. One shirtless fan crowd surfed backwards towards the middle of the arena, falling head first into the arms of security officials. Six minutes later Sabbath's legends were gone, but never to be forgotten.

Not after such a gloriously industrial, epic night in Birmingham, the city of a 1,000 riffs. Currently ranked 27th in the list of ‘Top 100 Arenas Worldwide’ by Pollstar, the Genting Arena first opened in 1980 as the NEC Arena. Boasting a flexible arena bowl, the venue’s capacity can change from 5,684 people attending ‘intimate academy events’ or hold a total capacity of 15,685. Guy Dunstan, general manager of the NEC Group Arenas, said:

"Black Sabbath's The End was a monumental evening that will go down in history. I am very thankful that the Genting Arena has had the opportunity to be a part of it. For Black Sabbath to perform their final show back in the city where it all began, is a very apt end to what has been an outstanding career for the band.”

Because the floor area was converted for standing, the sold-out capacity for each concert at The End was 14,500, meaning the last two shows on February 2 and 4 were watched by 29,000 people.

 


Graham Young for Birmingham Mail, 8 February 2017

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