Houston Worships at Black Sabbath's Altar One Last Time

Black Sabbath, Rival Sons
Toyota Center
November 10, 2016

2016 is nearly done, and good riddance. This year’s been a real kick in the balls. Lemmy, Bowie and Prince all kicked the bucket. I seem to recall something about an election. And now, Black Sabbath is wrapping up their final U.S. tour dates and bidding North American fans adieu for good.

It sucks. Black Sabbath inspired an infinite universe of heavy metal by writing incredible riffs and singing songs about war, drugs and, uh, dirty women. Their first four albums are among the sturdiest pillars in rock history. Seeing them call it quits hurts, even if they’ve tried and failed to do the same before. But at least, unlike our fallen rock and roll idols and our understanding of the American political system, Sabbath is going out on their own terms. And they made sure on Thursday night that Houston heard “War Pigs” one last time.

Houston Worships at Black Sabbath's Altar One Last Time
Photo by Ross Halfin/Courtesy of MSO PR

There were some younger fans helping to fill Toyota Center to the rafters for the godfathers of metal, but the largest contingent of headbangers looked to be over 40. Entire rainbows’ worth of black T-shirts waited in line patiently for concessions and merch, each of them upbeat and energized with anticipation. A bluesy, hard-rockin’ group called Rival Sons did their best to entertain the folks who found their seats early, and fans were polite to them. But nobody was particularly in the mood for modern throwback rock. We were ready for the real deal.

Finally, right on schedule, the big curtain dropped, and there they were: Geezer, Ozzy and Tony, plus some hard-hitting hired gun behind the kit. The cheering was enthusiastic, to say the least. The band started at the very beginning, pulling the lid off “Black Sabbath” and unleashing the wickedest tritone in heavy metal. Immediately, the mood was set. Ozzy let out an evil cackle as he described gazing upon Satan’s smile, and the crowd roared. It was chilling in all the right ways.

Houston Worships at Black Sabbath's Altar One Last Time
Photos by Ross Halfin/Courtesy of MSO PR

I’d been concerned about Ozzy coming into the show. When Sabbath played The Woodlands in 2013, he wasn’t good, singing noticeably off-key all night. The Prince of Darkness was still a little shaky at times on Thursday, but he sounded much stronger and better and managed to avoid ruining the show. Even if he’d sucked, we probably would have forgiven him for it. Black Sabbath looked old up there onstage, because they are old. That they can still go at all is a minor miracle.

I’m sure there were plenty of Sabbath fanatics out in the crowd who hoped to hear something from Sabotage or another of the classic lineup’s later works. The band, however, didn’t play any games with the set list. They delivered a pretty comprehensive selection of their best. “Faeries Wear Boots,” the rollicking closing number from Paranoid, was a major highlight, dripping with purple, psychedelic video effects on the giant HD screens.

Some of the tunes, such as “Into the Void” and “Snowblind,” sounded a tick slow. Whether that was due to simple age or a conscious decision to emphasize their heaviness, it worked. Both were crushing, inspiring no shortage of fist-pumping and head-banging on the arena floor. Though he has slowed down considerably in his old age, Ozzy still proved a master at crowd participation, effortlessly commanding the packed house to clap and sing as one on “War Pigs” and “Behind the Wall of Sleep.”

Houston Worships at Black Sabbath's Altar One Last Time
Photo by Ross Halfin/Courtesy of MSO PR

Naturally, the band saved their most titanic tunes for last. “Iron Man” remains the heaviest guitar riff ever written, and “Children of the Grave” is going to be a tough live performance to lose forever. The capper, of course, was “Paranoid,” the tightest tune that the band ever wrote. The crowd rocked as hard as it could to that one, savoring the last moments of Sabbath’s final Houston visit. There were no drawn-out speeches, stories or good-byes, just one more “Thank you, goodnight, we love you all!” and a wave. Now the band are off to San Antonio (and, presumably, the Alamo) for their final U.S. show ever.

It was a satisfying exit for a group that could probably fill an arena in this town every summer if they felt like it. We’ll miss them all, just as we’ll miss the classic era of rock and roll that continues to fade before our very eyes. But Black Sabbath has already inspired generations of kids to pick up a guitar and start bashing out devil music at top volume. That seems likely to continue. After all, Ozzy, Geezer and Tony may retire, but “Iron Man” never will.

Personal Bias: Hard to pick a favorite.

The Crowd: Experienced concertgoers.

Overheard in the Crowd: “I’m not a dumb person; I’m smart!” ( If you have to tell people…)

Random Notebook Dump: “After Forever” and “Dirty Women” were about as deep as the cuts got. Both sounded great.

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