Thursday, 29 June 2017

Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow - Birmingham Review

It was not that long ago that I was heading up to Birmingham in anticipation of finally getting to see one of my musical heroes live, playing the music that made him such a legend of rock. In the worlds of rock and metal, Ritchie Blackmore is a household name. Throughout the 1970s, initially as a founding member of Deep Purple and later forming his own band Rainbow, Blackmore reinvented guitar playing and helped to define the role of a 'lead guitarist'. From simple, yet powerful, riffs to meandering solos that crossed over into the progressive rock world, Blackmore invented and popularised many of the tricks that generations of rock and metal guitarists are still using to this day. He was one of the first musicians to incorporate his love of classical and Renaissance music into a hard rock context, and this would define his sound. Since 1997, after a short-lived Rainbow reunion that produced the excellent Stranger in us All album, Blackmore has mostly been pursuing his love of Renaissance and acoustic music with his wife in Blackmore's Night. Blackmore's Night are an enjoyable act, but pale in comparison when held up against Deep Purple or Rainbow. In fairness, Blackmore's Night are a while different beast and have a unique discography of their own that does for Renaissance revival music what Deep Purple and Rainbow did for hard rock and metal in the 1970s. 2015 finally saw the news that many had been waiting for - Blackmore was returning to rock, albeit in a limited capacity. A whole new version of Rainbow was created by Blackmore and three shows, two in Germany and one in the UK, were scheduled. I was at the UK show, at Birmingham's Genting Arena, and what I witnessed was an excellent evening of nostalgia and energetic hard rock from one of the genre's real fathers. While Blackmore's playing is less explosive than it was in his 1970s peak, old age and arthritis certainly have not helped on that front, he showed that he can still rock. The success of these three shows led to the announcement of a short UK tour. Going again was never a question that needed pondering and tickets, again for the Genting Arena, were purchased as soon as they went on sale. The venue was not sold out this time however, probably due to the greater availability of tickets across the UK and the fact that reviews of the new Rainbow were always rather mixed. The abundance of online negativity had made me wonder whether my memories of the gig last year were accurate, and whether I had well and truly donned my rose-tinted specs! A quick watch of the Memories in Rock DVD that was a compilation of the two German shows last year reminded me that my memories of the show were mostly correct, and I looked forward to this second opportunity to see Blackmore rock again even more!

Before Rainbow took to the stage, the still-large crowd were treated to a fun set from 1970s glam rockers Sweet who ran through a crowd-pleasing set of some of their best-known hits. While only Andy Scott (guitar/vocals) remains from the band's classic line-up, he was always the main songwriter of their original material. Sweet, like so many of those 1970s glam rockers, had a large chunk of their most well-known songs written by the prolific songwriting duo of Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman, and this set was a good mix of the bubblegum pop songs written by Chinn and Chapman and the harder rock that characterised the band's original pieces. From the opening guitar riff of Action, it was clear that this set was going to be a lot of fun. Peter Lincoln (vocals/bass guitar) handles the vast majority of the lead vocals in the band's current incarnation, and his rockier voice is less sugary than that of the late Brian Connolly's and he helps to give the band a rockier edge. The signature high vocal harmonies are contributed by Scott and Tony O'Hora (vocals/guitar/keyboards), and at times the sound almost took you back to the early 1970s! The line-up is rounded out by drummer Bruce Bisland who, like O'Hora, was once a part of the NWOBHM act Praying Mantis. Hell Raiser was unsurprisingly an early highlight, with an arena-filling chorus that had many of the crowd on their feet and singing along. The reaction to Sweet, a band that rarely tours in the UK now, was extremely positive and at times you would be forgiven for thinking they were headlining. Many of the band's songs are such a part of the musical DNA of the early 1970s than even the most casual fan of the genre would have known a fair chunk of what was played. Teenage Rampage was another highlight, before the light-hearted duo of Wig-Wam Bam and Little Willy took the crowd right back to the very early days of the band. The best moments of their set came towards the end however. A muscular version of Fox on the Run went down a storm, before arguably their two most famous singles, Block Buster! and Ballroom Blitz had everyone dancing in the aisles. I had not really expected much from Sweet, but I was pleasantly surprised and really enjoyed their 50 minutes or so on stage. It is easy to forget just how many of their songs you know, and they certainly did an excellent job of warming up the crowd for Rainbow! The setlist was:

Hell Raiser
The Six Teens
Set Me Free
Teenage Rampage
Wig-Wam Bam
Little Willy
Love is Like Oxygen
Fox on the Run
Block Buster!
Ballroom Blitz

It was not long after Sweet's set finished that the lights dimmed and the pompous strains of Land of Hope and Glory were heard over the PA. The band trouped on stage while the band's traditional Over the Rainbow intro tape played, and immediately fired into Spotlight Kid from 1981's Difficult to Cure. This was probably the weakest song of last year's show, but this time it had more fire and frontman Ronnie Romero really grabbed a-hold of it and delivered a fine performance. It is fair to say that the show got off to a shaky start however. Spotlight Kid was fine, nothing more, but the version of I Surrender that followed was quite poor and I was starting to worry that maybe the online detractors had been right all along. Blackmore kept missing many of the simplest notes and the song sort of petered out without any real power. Thankfully, everything seemed to come together on a third number, a barn-storming version of Deep Purple's Mistreated which really rocked the house. Romero's gritty voice was made for songs of this nature, and his voice really filled the arena as he crooned out the lyric. Blackmore's lengthy solo in the middle of the song was excellent too, and this definitely set the mood for the rest of the night. There were a couple of other major Blackmore errors later in the show, the intro riff for Stargazer certainly went wrong and even Smoke on the Water was not immune to a fumble, but for the most part from Mistreated-onwards Blackmore was on fine form. A couple of punchier rockers followed. Since You Been Gone definitely got the crowd singing, before Man on the Silver Mountain was one of the real headbanging moments of the evening. I particularly liked the band's tribute to the late Ronnie James Dio during the song, before diverting off into a short snippet of Deep Purple's Woman from Tokyo. A couple more Deep Purple numbers followed. A gorgeous rendition of Solider of Fortune was definitely an early highlight with both Blackmore and bassist Bob Nouveau on acoustic guitars and Jens Johansson's swirling keyboards filling the arena and creating a dark atmosphere. Johnansson also shined on the keyboard-heavy Perfect Strangers, with his neo-classical playing proving to be the perfect foil for Blackmore's guitar style. There is nothing quite like hearing a real Hammond organ growl, and Johansson played the instrumental with ease all night. The instrumental Difficult to Cure (Beethoven's Ninth) was an opportunity for plenty of extended soloing. As with last year's show, I felt that this portion of the night was a little overlong. Blackmore's bands have always indulged a little too much, and Johansson's keyboard solo in particular did go on for too long in my opinion. Romero bounded back onto the stage for a fun run-through of the hit single All Night Long, but the best was yet to come and the second half of the show was truly something special.

By this point it was clear that the band did not really have a setlist and were just making things up as they went along. Two epics followed in the form of Child in Time and Stargazer. In all honesty I could have done without the former really, but Stargazer was one the set's real stand-out moments. From David Keith's impressive drum intro, to the hard-rocking ending, the song was a masterful display of perfect hard rock, with plenty of soloing from Blackmore. Keith is easily the most improved member of the band on this tour, and he played with a real fire in his belly all night behind his now-larger drum kit. Long Live Rock 'n' Roll provided another change for Romero to encourage the crowd to sing, which they of course, before a surprising came in the form of Deep Purple's Lazy which had the old Blues intro that Blackmore has used in various contexts throughout his career. Lazy allowed for a little free-form experimentation from the band at times, before Blackmore heralded the start of a truly spine-tingling version of Catch the Rainbow which was definitely one of the show's overall highlights. Romero handles the Dio-era material the best, and this song turned out to be a real showcase for his excellent voice. He has vastly improved as a frontman this time around too, and he really led the band through their paces at times. Catch the Rainbow was as good as it was due to his vocal prowess, and Blackmore has really unearthed a true star in the Chilean. Black Night is another song that in all honesty I could do without now, but it certainly gets the crowd going and contains one of Blackmore's most famous guitar riffs. It also included a lengthy drum solo which Keith performed with ease, and even included Romero at one point playing the basic beat while Keith danced around the kit to add plenty of percussive flourish. Another real surprise came afterwards with Blackmore running through a version of Carry On... Jon, his tribute to the late Jon Lord which originally appeared on the Blackmore's Night album Dancer and the Moon. This was a lovely moment, and the piece of music itself is full of all of Blackmore's Renaissance inspirations. Plenty of pictures of Lord flashed up on the big screen behind the band and it was a moment of calm in an otherwise hard rocking evening. This piece was shattered with a heavy version of Deep Purple's Burn which was much rawer and harder-hitting than it usually is - bringing to mind the versions that Whitesnake have been playing periodically over the past decade or so. Of course there was time for one more, even though you could see the venue crew trying to hurry the band up as the curfew had been reached by this point, and Smoke on the Water was that song. It has never been a favourite of mine, but it is one of Blackmore's most famous guitar riffs and it brought the song to a hard-rocking end with plenty of enthusiastic singing from the large crowd. The setlist was:

Spotlight Kid
I Surrender
Mistreated [Deep Purple cover]
Since You Been Gone [Russ Ballard cover]
Man on the Silver Mountain/Woman from Tokyo [Deep Purple cover]
Solider of Fortune [Deep Purple cover]
Perfect Strangers [Deep Purple cover]
Difficult to Cure (Beethoven's Ninth)
All Night Long
Child in Time [Deep Purple cover]
Long Live Rock 'n' Roll
Lazy [Deep Purple cover]
Catch the Rainbow
Black Night [Deep Purple cover]
Carry On... Jon [Blackmore's Night cover]
Burn [Deep Purple cover]
Smoke on the Water [Deep Purple cover]

At well over two hours in length, with no encore break, this show was a real workhorses effort from Rainbow and one that will stay with me for a long time. For energy and surprises, I feel this show surpasses the one from last year. Despite a few wobbles, the band were tighter and better this time around and Blackmore really seemed up for the occasion. Whether we shall see any more of Rainbow remains to be see, but I sure hope Blackmore has the urge to rock out at least once more!

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