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Deep Purple

Live in Rockford, IL, 2005

Review by Mike Korn

Deep Purple don't play all that many dates in the U.S. anymore, preferring to concentrate on the more lucrative foreign markets, so it was quite a surprise to see they got a gig here in Rockford. This is a band that got its start the same year that Led Zeppelin did and they have been prolific since that long ago year of 1968. Legendary guitarist Ritchie Blackmore has been long gone, preferring to wander through the Renaissance Faire with his fetching wife Candace Night, while keyboard maestro Jon Lord has departed more recently. The core of the band is still intact with Ian Gillan headlining, Roger Glover handling bass and Ian Paice on drums. To replace Blackmore is an almost impossible task, but Purple has done very well with their selection of Kansas/Dixie Dregs man Steve Morse, the only American in the band. Lord has been replaced by well-travelled Don Airey, whose contributions to the hard rock scene have been numerous, including stints with Ozzy and Whitesnake. So this wasn't some kind of Foghat travesty composed of a guy who was in the band for a couple of months and some hired hands. This was truly Deep Purple, one of the progenitors of heavy metal as we know it. Their arrival on stage was very awkward. No lead-in, no introduction of any kind, they just suddenly appeared and started playing "Silver Tongue". The sound was excellent as they continued with the funkiness of "Strange Kind of Woman" and "I Got Your Number", the latter being from their latest album "Bananas". I know Ritchie Blackmore has an almost unassailable position as a guitar icon, but man, I don't think Steve Morse should take a back seat to anybody in the guitar maestro department. His performance was stirring all night long and the younger kids in the audience probably had their first look at an almost extinct species, the genuine guitar god.

The wheels kind of came off when the band played "My Woman From Tokyo", one of their classic anthems. To put in bluntly, Ian Gillan really butchered this one with a very sub-par vocal performance. He was slightly off the mark on many tracks this evening, but this was the only one he really ruined. He simply cannot handle the trademark high-pitched screams he once could. Not only that, but his timing was out of whack as well. The result was a favorite tune rendered impotent.

Thankfully, that was the nadir of Purple's performance tonight. Gillan recovered nicely with the very catchy "Demon's Eye", one of my personal favorites. Then he took his leave as the band played the instrumental "Contact Lost", which they dedicated to the astronauts of the ill-fated Columbia space shuttle. Morse was really incredible on this one, coaxing sounds ranging from the neo-classical to almost thrash to cool spacey noises that reminded me of Alex Lifeson's live version of "By-Tor and the Snow Dog" from Rush's "All the World's A Stage". After Morse had his turn in the spotlight, the focus turned to Don Airey, who also dazzled with a display of keyboard wizardry that included snippets of both Bach and "The Simpson's" theme! Technically, Airey is as good as anybody in the rock keyboard business, but there was something massive about Jon Lord's organ sound that makes it irreplaceable.

The crowd response was very warm and appreciative and the band seemed to be energized by it as they played an excellent version of "Perfect Strangers" that bled right into "Highway Star". Gillan's vocals were again a little off on this classic, but not to the same extent that marred "My Woman From Tokyo" so badly. He nailed some worthy screams but anybody who heard Ian back in the day knows the inhuman high notes he could hit back then. He is better off with the smokier, bluesier tracks like "Space Truckin'", which I felt was the best song of the night. This is such a groovy, crunchy piece of hard rock goodness, it's hard not to grin when you hear this one.

We had another very odd and awkward transition into the all-time signature tune "Smoke on the Water". It just seemed odd the way they suddenly started playing it. This is a track that transcends the band itself...it is part of the rock and roll lexicon, something ingrained on the souls of anybody who ever listened to FM rock radio. The riff has got to be one of the best ever written. To help Deep Purple with nailing it down, the members of Mountain came out and jammed with them. It was the last night of the North American tour for these bands, who have obviously grown close on the road, and it was quite a treat to see Steve Morse trading licks with Leslie West. We may have been the only stop to see it.

That was the last song of the proper set, but the band soon returned with the ancient "Speed King" and a track that was so old, "it was written before stone tablets were invented", as Gillan quipped. This was "Hush", the band's very first hit all those years ago. The audience sang along with all the "na na na's" and after the track, Gillan seemed quite sincere as he said "this has been one of the most superb audiences we have played for".

It was a fun and entertaining show, if not a flawless one. You could not have been blessed with a better evening for an outdoor rock concert. I think some of the bumps in Purple's set could be explained by the fact that on the very same day of the Rockford show, they were in Ontario, Canada, playing some tracks for the immense "Live 8" gig to raise money for African charities. The band honored their "Live 8" committment, flew to Rockford and simply played a complete set for their fans here. So some slack should definitely be cut for them in that regard, as not many bands would have done the same.
This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2005 Year Book Volume 4 at lulu.com/strangesound.
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