For us rock fans of a certain age – perhaps from early forties to sixty-ish – Ritchie Blackmore sits in the pantheon of rock royalty. As guitarist and songwriter in both Deep Purple and his own band Rainbow, he pushed the boundaries of heavy rock with his original, classically-inspired musicianship and some of the best known riffs in rock, and inspired countless other imitators.
However for the past 20 years his talents have been lost to our world as he chose to pursue his love of medieval renaissance folk inspired music with Blackmore’s Night. So the news last autumn that he was going to strap one the ivory-coloured Stratocaster one more time and return to his rock roots meant that this, one of only three dates, was 2016’s hottest ticket in town.
How information travels in society has changed hugely in those 20 years, so this anticipation was tempered by the fact that footage from the two preceding German shows had been put on YouTube and an army of laptop generals already had an opinion prior to this show.
I tried to ignore the discussion and published setlist, in the manner of the Likely Lads famously trying to avoid the score before watching the England football highlights, so I could be surprised and judge for myself, even if it is never ideal to witness a gig in a venue like this, an anonymous shed in which the subtleties of the sound are drowned in a sonic mush, and where those of us nearer the back did not even have the luxury of video screens.
After the trademark intros of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, and with a rainbow-style arch of lights forming the stage backdrop, history was made as the new-look Rainbow opened with ‘Highway Star’. It was a slightly tentative version and the atmosphere off stage was a touch subdued, as if rather than enjoying the moment we were forming a judgement on whether the Man in Black could still cut it.
Some of the old magic returned on the opening riff to ‘Spotlight Kid’, where a couple of woman backing singers including his wife Candace Night made their first appearance, then new singer Ronnie Romero introduced a surprisingly ‘Mistreated’ and Ritchie was on fine form, though restraining himself from improvising with the song kept to a ‘mere’ nine minutes.
This was a good point to reflect on one of the talking points of this Rainbow reunion, which is that Deep Purple rather than Rainbow material actually comprised the majority of the set. I could see both sides of the coin – on the one hand, the band name and the use of the iconic ‘Rainbow Rising’ artwork implied he would focus on Rainbow songs which – at least since Ronnie Dio’s sad passing – are rarely played live, whereas Deep Purple very much remain a touring band in his absence.
On the other hand, as one of my fellow hacks pointed out, the billing had promised a night of Rainbow and Deep Purple anthems, and a gig should be seen as a celebration of his whole career’s work, and therefore the Purple songs had as much right to be there.
‘Since You’ve Been Gone’ – a reminder of another Blackmore legacy as Rainbow were the first hard rock band to regularly have top 10 singles with more commercial numbers – got the first audience participation with arms swaying though it was a rather perfunctory version with Ritchie skipping the guitar solo entirely and instead segueing into ‘Man On The Silver Mountain’. Then Ronnie introduced a new song: my jaw initially dropped, but then I realised he meant one that had not made the German setlists in a quite beautiful and tasteful ‘Soldier Of Fortune’.
Ritchie then went into the song that above all proved his mastery of adapting classical melodies to heavy rock in the instrumental ‘Difficult To Cure’- broken up by rather dull band solo slots – and I mused on the irony that I was hearing a song inspired by Beethoven’s ninth, which was also adopted as the EU’s official anthem, on this momentous weekend of the referendum vote to leave Europe.
I found his newly assembled band a touch plodding, although it must have been great for keyboardist Jens Johansson to play with the real McCoy after so many years with Blackmore clone Yngwie Malmsteen. However, having gambled on relative unknowns Ritchie seemed to be taking particular care to ensure the band were on his wavelength with several subtle nods to his right where they were stationed.
The other big talking point would be whether rookie singer Ronnie Romero could cut the mustard. Though the rasp in his voice (which reminded me of Scorpions’ Klaus Meine) grated initially, he emerged as an undisputed star for two reasons.
With the man everyone had come to see a static and reticent presence, he carried off the difficult task of owning the stage and, in his heavily accented English, carrying the audience with a confidence that reminded me, allied to a physical likeness, of the way Adam Lambert has risen to the task of fronting Queen.
Moreover he also responded to the challenge of covering songs originally sung by no less than six different people. He did a respectable job on all, but was most comfortable on the Ronnie Dio material, epitomised by a beautiful ‘Catch The Rainbow’.
‘Perfect Strangers’ was a nod to the post-reformation Deep Purple although I felt it lacked something compared to the current DP line up’s live version, followed by an old Rainbow favourite in ‘Long Live Rock n Roll’. However the way it was slowed down to an almost bluesy swing was an illustration of how some of the material was rearranged to suit a 71 year old’s somewhat less nimble fingers these days.
In those circumstances though, ‘Stargazer’ was a revelation with Ronnie giving his all and the old Blackmore magic returning, reminding us of why this epic was a mainstay in the top 3 alongside ‘Stairway To Heaven’ and ‘Whole Lotta Rosie’ when early Kerrang! Readers polled the all-time greatest tracks.
To add to the sense of being transported back to those halcyon days, it was followed by another all-time classic in ‘Child In Time’, wisely not attempted by DP since Ian Gillan’s range began to falter. Ronnie’s audience participation had people attempting ball crushing falsettos and there was a vintage Ritchie solo mid-song, before a looser ‘Black Night’ with a snatch of ‘Woman From Tokyo’.
Tantalisingly the band left the stage mid-song leaving the crowd to chant the unmistakable riff. There was always the risk on past performances that Ritchie would walk off at any moment, which it seemed to me Ronnie sensed by regularly turning to him for reassurance between songs in the latter stages of the set.
However this time there was to be no strop, but instead a great surprise, not least for those who had followed the German setlists, as he cranked out the memorable riff to ‘Burn’. It’s been played countless times, not least by his old bandmates Glenn Hughes and David Coverdale, but he took a noticeably lower key role compared to the histrionics their bands give the song and even to my ears seemed to be deferring to Jens during the instrumental passage. It was then fitting that a near two hour set should end with ‘Smoke on the Water’, the most famous riff in rock being played one more time by its progenitor.
Objectively speaking, the now 71 year old did not play the gig with the fire and speed of old, but in fairness had he been touring for the last 20 years like many of his contemporaries, this change would have emerged gradually and thus been less of a surprise.
Hopefully the love that Ritchie felt from an adoring crowd of long-time admirers may make him want to do this repeatedly rather than as a glorious one off. In the meantime for all present it was a memorable evening to be reminded of his musical genius and hear him once again play the songs that built rock.
Review and Photos by Andy Nathan
The latest Facebook Live session from Canadian singer-songwriter Josh Taerk was streamed on Sunday 20 December., imbued with a festive flavour to raise the spirits
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UK Blues Broadcaster of the Year (2020) Pete Feenstra presents his weekly Rock & Blues Show on Tuesday at 19:00 ( BST, GMT+1) as part of a five hour blues rock marathon “Tuesday is Bluesday at GRTR!”. The show is repeated on Wednesdays at 22:00, Fridays at 20:00). This show was first broadcast 20 December 2020 and includes Pete’s best of the year selections
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