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Still the best there is

It’s the first time I’ve seen Deep Purple outside since Knebworth (23 years ago!) and it’s a perfect, warm evening, a nice big stage, beautiful lights stage lights gathering prominence as the daylight fades, and a perfectly balanced sound.

The arena is just a square of tarmac surrounded by some temporary-looking grandstand seating. The crowd must be several thousand — and surprisingly young, with people my age and older a minority. I arrived 15 minutes before doors opened, expecting to make it right to the front of the stage, only to find a mile-long queue already there. But the stage was so ridiculously high that being at the front was probably a disadvantage. So I picked a spot no more than 30 feet back where I had a perfect view and full benefit of the perfect sound. There were big screens at either side of the stage, showing close-ups of the band, but to be honest the cameras weren’t very good at showing the right bits so it was better to watch the stage.

There was no support band and Deep Purple came on at a couple of minutes past nine and played just under one hour forty minutes — not as long as I expected, but Gillan kept the chat to an absolute minimum so they packed in plenty of music. The set was pretty “safe”, but with enough rarities to keep me happy. But anyway, it’s not the songs but what they play between (and within) the songs that matters at a Deep Purple concert, and there was enough of that to raise this concert way above the greatest-hits arena package tours they have been stuck on for the last few years.

Ok, what they played…

The bass-drum roll of FIREBALL opened the show, so powerful that you feel it deep in your chest, the most perfect sound you will ever feel. Ian Paice is obviously the star of the song but the whole band is on top form and everybody gets his turn in the spotlight. The song segues seamlessly to INTO THE FIRE — the full version, not just the token riff they have been playing recently.

Ian Gillan is rationing the screams and there’s a noticeable drop in power on the highest notes but his tone and his delivery is beautiful .I know his detractors are going to be analysing the bootlegs to prove he’s off key, or missing the high notes, or whatever they claim, but you know what? I don’t give a damn. Even if all that is true, and even when he forgets the words, or laughs instead of reaching for a note, or pauses for a breath, he’s still the best live performer I’ve ever heard and there isn’t anybody in the whole world I would rather see on stage right now.

Into the Fire moves straight into STRANGE KIND OF WOMAN, a predictable crowd pleaser, and the whole band looks as happy as we are as they decide it’s time for the first bit of extra-curricular activity — the return of the good old vocal/guitar call and response. But this time it’s Gillan leading it, spouting long lines of nonsense lyrics which Steve “happiest man in the universe” Morse echoes perfectly on the guitar.

The title track of the last album, RAPTURE OF THE DEEP, is next, the Arabic-sounding introduction getting a big crowd response, disproving the theory that the fans are just there for the nostalgia.

MARY LONG (I’m getting the order wrong now, I think) has the whole audience singing along — most of them so young that they can’t possibly have been alive during Mary Whitehouse’s reign of terror!

After a short run through the beautiful instrumental CONTACT LOST, four of the band exit the stage to leave Steve “best guitarist in the known universe” Morse alone for a five-minute solo of great beauty and so inventive it stuns the crowd into open-mouthed silence. Silence broken by a huge roar as he picks out the opening notes of SOMETIMES I FEEL LIKE SCREAMING, the rest of the band re-joining him for this, probably the best song in their entire catalogue.

Roger and Steve join in the chorus, leaning in to sing into Ian’s microphone. When, in the middle of the song, Ian apparently discovers a problem with one of the on-stage monitors and wanders off to have a listen to it, they gamely sing the next chorus into empty air until he remembers and runs back to stand between them again.

Another instrumental, a powerful version of THE WELL-DRESSED GUITAR, with Steve “too good to actually really exist” Morse playing the fugue with extra added harmonics, for which purpose I think he probably grew an extra finger especially.

THE BATTLE RAGES ON… when did I last hear this? 1993? It sounds phenomenal, monstrously heavy.

And a huge surprise: WRINGTHAT NECK! When did I EVER hear this live? Never! (Uh… Albert Hall, 1999, Ian Paice’s impromptu jazz orchestra, but that was something different.) It’s a comparatively short version compared with the infamous 25-minute live versions from the 70s, but it’s still a great showpiece instrumental and another really welcome surprise.

SPACE TRUCKIN’, perfectly constructed to give the whole band solo spots and still have good sing-along choruses for the crowd. It looks like Ian Paice is finally going to break into his first full drum solo of the night, but he reins it in and contents himself with just hitting everything in sight for the duration of the song. Never content to play a simple beat, the whole gig is one huge drum solo for Ian anyway.

“New boy” Don Airey (ye gods, has it really been six years?) gets his solo spot. He eschews the organ, instead running through a sequence of half-familiar tunes on the piano, eventually leading the crowd into a sing-along of “Maybe it’s because I’m Londoner”. (He’s not, you know, he’s from just down the road from me in Sunderland.) He finished with a gloriously discordant run through the possibilities of a modern synthesiser, including bass notes so deep that my legs shake and the WHOOSH of air coming out of the speakers makes my hair stand up at 30 feet away.

By some strange alchemical process the solo turns into the opening organ chords of PERFECT STRANGERS and the band appears out of nowhere to join in the highlight of the night. On record, this is probably the most perfect thing the band has ever done. In this live arrangement it takes on a majesty beyond anything else I’ve ever heard, and has some kind of primal energy that has the entire crowd literally jumping up and down in time with the riff. I have no words to describe this experience. It’s awesome.

It looks like Steve is thinking about another guitar solo but he changes his mind after a couple of blues licks and instead launches into The Most Recognisable Riff In The World ™. There is no emotion that can match that of being at a Deep Purple concert and singing Smoke on the Water. It is better than… everything.

There isn’t really much that can follow that, and, as expected, Ian begins the drum pattern that announces HIGHWAY STAR. But instead of starting the bass riff, Roger decides to make up a completely new tune. Steve joins him in the centre of the stage, they face each other, and you can literally see Roger teaching him the tune as they jam together. Behind them, Ian automatically changes the drum pattern to meet Roger’s new tempo, and they’re away, just playing for the fun of it without worrying about the curfew or anything. Until Roger shifts slowly back to the Highway Star riff and the whole band is there with him, as if by telepathy. This is what makes Deep Purple the undisputed best band in the world, and it doesn’t matter who is in the band at the time, it’s something about this unit that makes it greater than the sum of… well… anything really.

And Highway Star is really rather good, Steve Morse soloing like a maniac and Ian Gillan — yes, 63-year-old Ian Gillan, whose voice is claimed by some to be burned out — can still sing all the guitar parts. It’s astonishing. By now I would confidently expect them to turn round and walk across the surface of the Thames just behind the stage.

They are only off for a very short time before they are back for an encore: HUSH. The crowd love it. It’s 40 years old and it still sounds as fresh as a daisy, and the little 8-year-old girl who has been standing next to me all night (on a box!) knows every word. It’s beautiful. Don’s Hammond playing really shines, as it has throughout the show — it’s clearly HIS Hammond sound but it’s equally clearly a Deep Purple sound. Exactly as it should be.

And there’s a drum solo.

Oh my God, at last there’s a DRUM solo. Including obligatory one-handed drum roll. Perfect.

Last song, and Roger plays the intro… it sounds like it might be BLACK NIGHT… yes, there’s the riff… but just as the crowd gets into the familiar chant he waves them off and side-tracks into a bass solo full of power and distortion and intricate runs. The rest of the band leave the stage to him. You can keep your Chris Squires and Geddy Lees and your whoevers, THIS is the best bass guitar player in rock and roll.

And he winds his way circuitously back to Black Night and the band is miraculously there to back him — how do they do it?

The song is a nice, familiar bit of fun to close the show, with Gillan leading the crowd in a sing-along and Steve leading us in a guitar call-and-response.

And…

It’s over. On a superb high note, and while I would love another two hours of the same I know I’m too drained to appreciate it and the band have timed it perfectly.

This is Deep Purple as they should be. Everybody should see this.

Best concert I’ve ever seen.

Seriously, I’ve been to a lot of concerts in the last 12 months, more than ever before, in a lot of different styles, and heard some phenomenal things. I thought no gig would improve on Breathing Space in Hartlepool. I thought nothing could equal the incredible musicality of Ian Pace playing Messiaen in York. I thought nothing would top the emotional thrill of seeing Bryan Josh and Heather Findlay walking on to support Jethro Tull in Newcastle. But Deep Purple in London beats them all on every count. Deep Purple, freed of the arena package tours of the last few years and given room to breathe, are still the greatest rock band in the world, and this was, truthfully and seriously, the best concert I’ve ever seen.

My throat is hoarse from singing, my hands are bruised from clapping, my legs are barely able to move, and as I crunched my way out over the plastic bottles that littered the arena I could only think of seeing them again next year. This is the 31st time I’ve seen the band live and it feels as fresh as 1985 again.

They are still the best there is.

They may even be better.



9 Comments to “Still the best there is”:

  1. 1
    Nigel says:

    Great review. I was offered a ticket for this on the Monday, but I thought it was too much hassle to arrange, especially to see Purple do just the same old setlist. Now I’m gutted!! Hopefully this setlist will form the basis of the next UK tour

  2. 2
    Stormin says:

    Another great review Dave,You put into words what I struggle to!.It was a Great concert and is in my top 5 ever too and after this I think no support is the way to go,just get a audience of Purp people and let the band expand and enjoy themselves…

  3. 3
    Roberto says:

    I know Deep purple are still wonderful live,
    but to me it’s so sad that Gillan can’t reach no more the high notes…

  4. 4
    Markus says:

    Dear David,

    thank you so much for your great and very emotional review. I saw DP in cologne only a few days ago but I`m not able to get my impressions in (english) words – so I didn`t send a review.

    You have find the words and style of a review I would love that I could do – and it was really great to read it word by word.

    Once again – thanks a lot.

    Markus

  5. 5
    Nero says:

    You know what you are writing about. Great writing.
    And as it seems, DP is not just playing the same routine time and again this tour.

    What intrigues me is Gillan leaving the stage,… he also did that in sugar City (Belgium Tienen) several times. Did he also turn southern-bullfight-redneck during the show? Anyway,.. his voice is the best in Rock. It deserves all care.

    YOu wrote :”Deep Purple the undisputed best band in the world, and it doesn’t matter who is in the band at the time, it’s something about this unit that makes it greater than the sum of… well.”

    And that is the chemistry that happens once in a band, several times in the history of DP. It’s what makes Purple unique. And they still have and do it.

    Could Chris Curtis have imagened this when he started the Roundabout project?

  6. 6
    Andre sihotang says:

    Deep Purple?? With a long journey after almost 40 yrears and so many albums out and… a never ending tour even in their sixties, one should ask why missing a led zeppelin reunion as Deep Purple has proved they’re the most continuous and hardest touring and living rock band until now? In other words, why led zeppelin is more famous than Deep Purple? If someone could answer me now….

  7. 7
    Nero says:

    Led more famous than Purple?

    led is OK. Kinda like enjoying a burger.

    But when I need a full meal,… I like to have lotsa meat, vegetables and potatoes with a nice juicy sauce. And desert.

    Listen to 10 Led songs at random It’s one good fat taste.
    Listen to 10 DP songs,… it’s like 10 different culinary orgasms.

    Dont compare mashed potatoes with the real deal 😉

  8. 8
    Ted from France says:

    I have seen D.P 3 times
    CAEN, ROUEN and LE HAVRE.
    I’m a lucky man no? Thanks Dad
    And to say the truth.
    Every Stage was better that the old, Steve Morse make a Guitar Solo during 15 MINUTES…. !!!
    His Guitar and his Hand are Magic !! ‘he is Great)
    This band is huge, powerful, when i leave from the stage, I was so.. sad because it’s hard to become to the reality after have seen DEEP PURPLE !!
    !!! Rock N Roll !!

  9. 9
    steve stewart says:

    pretty gay review there dave
    oh the spledor in my heart when i heard smoke on the water
    for the 1000th time
    its time for ritchie to come back

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