An element of surprise was perhaps part of the attraction. Right up to the last moment, as expectant fans packed a hot and stuffy Wembley Arena on Sunday night, there were rumours of a guest spot by Jimmy Page and heavy friends. The compere, Alan Freeman at his most avuncular, managed to fool the audience several times with wild speculation. In the event, it was a berserk young heavy metal specialist, Zakk Wylde, a sideman for Ozzy Osbourne, who played the most exciting solos of the night and threatened to steal the show from his illustrious elders.
On this 'Night of 100 Guitars' - part of a year of Gibson centenary events worldwide - the emphasis was on the range of stylists who have depended on the invention of Orville Gibson, from Kalamazoo, Michigan. In 1894, he introduced a new style guitar that went on to become a design classic. His guitars and mandolins had a violin-style arched top that helped project their sound and improve their tone. Gibson grew to be the guitar player's axe of choice - from B B King to Eric Clapton, to Page, Pete Townshend, Angus Young and onwards.
Guitar sales boomed during the post-war years, but the Gibson company faced the threat of closure when, under pressure from Japanese competitors, it ran into serious financial trouble in 1986. The original company had long since been taken over by Norlin, an Ecuador-based company with interests in beer and concrete. During its regime the range of guitars was cut and manufacturing quality dropped.
Then Gibson was rescued by its present owners, Henry Juszkiewicz and David Berryman. High fliers and guitar buffs, they brought back classic models and drove up Gibson's profits. Now they can afford to party.
At Wembley Arena, giant Gibson guitar necks decorated the stage, as a succession of bands, including upcoming Brits Skin and Terrorvision, stomped through short, snappy sets. The audience stood up and cheered Thunder and sat down rather abruptly for a brief but intense 'tribute to Frank Zappa' by Warren Cuccurullo. Veteran country picker Albert Lee delivered his perennial 'Country Boy', and Zakk Wylde blasted through 'Shine On' with shameless energy. Then he brought on Slash, clad in black leather pants, top hat askew, fag pasted on to his lower lip. Brian May, looking slightly agitated and nervous, joined the rest of the cast for 'Crossroads'. Orville Gibson might have been rolling in his mandolin case, but with 'a substantial sum' raised for the Prince's Trust, the massed rockers could be proud of their efforts to acknowledge his legacy.
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