Sunday, 19 November 2017

Deep Purple - Birmingham Review

I have been going to gigs regularly for over 10 years now, but this year has been a particularly special one as I have managed to cross many of my 'must see' bands off the bucket list. In May I saw both Iron Maiden and Kiss live in the space of a week, both of whom I had wanted to see for quite some time, and two days ago I finally caught Deep Purple! Deep Purple are of course one of the founders of the hard rock and heavy metal genres, and have been pioneering all things heavy since forming in 1968. While the band have released many excellent and influential albums throughout the years, it is the three studio albums released between 1970 and 1972 - 1970's In Rock, 1971's Fireball, and 1972's Machine Head - that probably did the most to forward the development of the rock genre. Throw in the seminal live album Made in Japan too, which was also released in 1972, you have a collection of albums that few are able to rival! It is fair to say however that the Deep Purple of today are different from the band they were then. Age certainly has a mellowing effect, but with three of the people who were responsible for those genre-defining works still in the band today - frontman Ian Gillan, Roger Glover (bass guitar), and Ian Paice (drums) - Deep Purple still mean business. After an eight year hiatus from recording any new material, the band released their nineteenth studio album Now What?! in 2013, an event which really seemed to give Deep Purple a new lease of life. The album was very well received, and many of it's songs were featured in the band's live sets over the next few years. Now What?! was followed up earlier this year by Infinite, another strong release, and the band announced a tour to support it. This tour included a fairly substantial UK leg, so I snapped tickets up as soon as they went on sale. I opted for the show in Birmingham, at the newly-re-branded Arena Birmingham (formerly the Barclaycard Arena), as it is always good to return to the Midlands city. The fact that Europe would be accompanying Deep Purple on this UK trek as special guests made the prospect even more exciting, as the Swedish rockers always put on an excellent show. As expected with a bill as strong as this, the large venue was full throughout, although not completely sold out. Despite the large crowd, and excellent performances from all the bands that performed, I felt that the atmosphere throughout was pretty flat. This could be down to the fact that the venue was all-seated for this show, but it was a shame to see some of the best rock bands still out there treading the boards have to work so hard to elicit a reaction.

Melodic rockers Cats in Space were faced with the task of opening the show however, and made their half an hour on stage count with a collection of memorable rock songs. The band clearly take inspiration from the 'golden age' of British pomp rock, and there was certainly a lot of ELO and Supertramp in their music. While certainly not original, they were a lot of fun and helped to entertain the growing crowd as people were still filling into the venue. Frontman Paul Manzi, who also fronts the prog act Arena, displayed some excellent melodic vocals throughout, but it was keyboardist Andy Stewart that really impressed with lots of excellent retro synth and piano playing in every song. Despite their short set, I enjoyed what Cats in Space had to offer and will make an effort to check out their studio recordings in the future.

Europe were up next, and they had around an hour on stage to make their mark. The band's recent material definitely has a tougher sound, influenced by the likes of Deep Purple, which is different from the 1980s pop metal sound that made the band famous in the first place, so it was fitting that their set was dominated by their more recent work. Two songs from their brand new album Walk the Earth, the title track and The Siege, got things underway in fine fashion. The former definitely impressed, with Mic Michaeli's (keyboards/vocals) Hammond organ driving the band forward as frontman Joey Tempest posed for the cameras. Tempest is, in my opinion, one the best frontmen in the business currently and he led the band through their set passionately with a strong vocal performance. The classic Rock the Night was wheeled out early in an attempt to get the crowd going, but it seemed that few were in the mood to party with the Swedes. Despite this the band soldiered on with the symphonic Last Look at Eden and the anthemic stadium rock of Superstitious both standing out in particular. Not only do Europe have one of the best frontman in the business, they are also blessed with one of the best guitarists in John Norum. His heavy bluesy style really suits the band's modern sound, and his driving riff and perfectly-phrased solo really defines the song War of Kings. The last two numbers definitely saw the energy levels raised a little however, which was good to see. The fast and heavy Scream of Anger certainly gave the dormant crowd the kick up the ass that they needed, before the band's signature anthem The Final Countdown actually managed to bring some of the crowd to their feet! Overall, this was a typically excellent set from Europe on my fifth time seeing them live which was sadly hampered by a crowd who seemed largely uninterested in the band's efforts. The setlist was:

Walk the Earth
The Siege
Rock the Night
Last Look at Eden
Election Day
War of Kings
Scream of Anger
The Final Countdown

There was a half an hour or so's break between Europe and Deep Purple's sets, which gave the last few stragglers time to find their seats, and when the lights went down a cheer erupted from the crowd. While the crowd were certainly more awake for Deep Purple's set than they were for Europe's, the energy levels were certainly less than I would have expected which was a shame. The band opened with Time for Bedlam, the first song from Infinite, which saw Gillan standing alone on the stage reciting the spooky opening few lines of spoken word, before the band joined him for the driving rocker. While Deep Purple are certainly a lot older and more laid back now than they were in their glory days, there is still a smouldering power behind their performances. Following Time for Bedlam, the band dug deep into their back catalogue for a couple of rarely-played older numbers in the form of Fireball and Bloodsucker, both of which unsurprisingly went down well with the crowd. Fireball in particular was a person early highlight. It is one of the band's heaviest songs, and one that really showcases the drumming skills of Paice. Paice is, in my opinion, one of the greatest rock drummers of all time and it was him that I often found myself watching throughout the night. I feel he is better than his contemporaries John Bonham and Keith Moon, and it was great to finally see him live. After that, the next portion of the set was largely dedicated the band's newer material. The laid-back and jazzy All I Got is You went down well, but it was Uncommon Man from Now What?!, that was dedicated to the late Jon Lord, that really impressed me. The band's newest recruit Don Airey (keyboards), although he has already been in the band for over 15 years, really shone here with a fantastically varied keyboard performance featuring organ, piano, and synths. In truth, it was Airey that was the star of the whole show in my opinion. He is one of the best keyboardists in the business and dominated nearly every song with his enveloping playing and growling solos. This was highlighted particularly during Lazy, which saw him introduce the song with a drawn-out keyboard intro and then trade off riffs and licks throughout with Steve Morse (guitar) as Gillan played the harmonica. The last third of the set was made up of some of the band's real classic tracks, although it was here that Gillan's current limitations as a singer were made all the more obvious. It is no secret that his voice has deteriorated greatly over the years, but he still soldiers on and does the best that he can. Knocking at Your Back Door really seemed a bit too much for him now, but on Perfect Strangers that followed (after Airey's solo spot) he sounded like his old self. It is clear that some songs suit him more than others now, but he is still an engaging frontman and has certainly fared better than some other singers I could mention! Space Truckin' and Smoke on the Water, both from Machine Head, brought the set to a close with plenty of singing from the crowd. By this point nearly everyone was on their feet, and the energy levels had increased greatly. An encore section followed which started off with an extended version of Hush, which also saw plenty of singing from the crowd, and, after Glover's bass solo, a tough version of the all-time classic track Black Night. This was also drawn out, with Gillan sounding very strong vocally here, and Morse taking over at the end for a blistering and powerful guitar solo to bring the evening to a close. The setlist was:

Time for Bedlam
All I Got is You
Uncommon Man
The Surprising
Birds of Prey
Knocking at Your Back Door
Keyboard solo
Perfect Strangers
Space Truckin'
Smoke on the Water
Hush [Joe South cover]
Bass solo
Black Night

I had been waiting for years to see Deep Purple live, and I am pleased to say that they did not disappoint. While they certainly no longer posses the power they had in their early days, this was a performance from a band that have nothing left to prove and are out there for the love of it. The whole band performed with beaming smiles on their faces throughout the set, and this is always great to see. Deep Purple are legends for a reason, and it was great to see them in action after many years of trying.

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