[ d e e p P u r . p l e ) The Highway Star

Wembley Arena, October 14th - A Personal Review

Last night was something of a nostalgia trip for me. As I walked down from the tube station to the Arena, I realised that it had been some 5 years since I'd last been here. This had been the scene of some of my most memorable gig evenings when I was a teenager; more than that, though, this was where I'd seen Purple for the very first time, back on the HOBL tour in 1987. That had been an incredible night; I know many people feel that tour is the nadir of Mk II live performances, but to an excited 17 year old seeing his favourite band for the first time it was a wonderful evening. And now, as a late 20-something, I started to feel that old mixture of excitement and trepidation, the "I hope"s and "What if"s buzzing around my head.

And, truth be told, I was approaching this gig with mixed feelings. Expectations should have been high, as 1996's gigs had been fantastic, some of the best concerts I'd ever seen in my life. On the other hand, I've never really liked the latest album, "Abandon", and that had dampened my enthusiasm a little. Also, having seen the set lists for previous gigs, I was a little disappointed at the return to a "Greatest Hits" set. One of the things that made the last tour such a treat was the dusting off of rare gems from the past, as well as the thorough airing of songs from the then new "Purpendicular" album, which I still maintain is one of the greatest albums of the band's career.

So, all in all, I wasn't sure what to expect. It's safe to say, though, that I wasn't disappointed :-)

Unfortunately, due to having to travel from Abingdon after work, I arrived there a little late. We found our seats, then went to join the queue, or rather throng, at one of the bar stalls. While queuing, we heard the muffled sounds of drums from the Arena. "Ah," I though, "the roadies must be warming up the gear." But as the drums kept going, and kept going, we realised that this was no soundcheck - we were missing the start of the show. Time for a sharp, and sober, entrance.

Made it to the seats halfway through the opening song, "Ted The Mechanic", just in time for Steve's solo. The first thing that hit me was how great the sound was! Wembley's acoustics are horrible, and many of the bands I'd seen here before had suffered from bad sound - including Purple in 1987. By contrast, tonight was absolutely crystal clear - every word, every pick of the string, every key pressed was clearly audible. The only thing that wasn't quite so clear was Roger's bass, although that's not unexpected, as it's been my experience that the bass is rarely clear at gigs. The sound wasn't quite so good in every song, but it was still one of the best sound mixes I've ever heard at a gig, and the sound crew deserve congratulations for a great job!

But what about the band? Well, "Ted" was great, every bit as good as it always has been. The band were on great form, and, like last time, it was a real joy to watch them all looking so happy, so into it. Steve, Ian and Roger were moving around lots, big smiles on their faces, and despite being seated, Ian and Jon sounded just as energetic and happy to be there! It's impossible not to enjoy yourself when you see how much *they* are :-)

After "Ted", they launched into "Strange Kind Of Woman", which the audience obviously approved of, and already it was obvious that the band were on great form tonight. Like many songs tonight, this one featured some impressive jamming - I don't remember who played what in which songs, but suffice it to say that the verious band members got plenty of opportunities during the evening to show that there's so much more to the band than just reciting what's on the album :-)

The set list was the same one they've been playing throughout the tour, although "Black Night" replaced "Seventh Heaven" in the encores. So, SKOW gave way to "Bloodsucker", "a song that's been a new song twice. First, on our latest album 'Abandon', and later in 1969," according to Ian Gillan :-) The band, including Gillan, lays into it like it was still 1970!

Despite this, though, I start to remember why it was I grew to dislike these enormodome venues. They're so damn big, that it's hard to get any atmosphere. When the place is packed full of excited people, it's great - it really gives the feeling of an "event". However, when (like tonight) it's not full, and the crowd is fairly subdued, the atmosphere just evaporates. Actually, the crowd isn't terrible - they happily stand all the way through, and cheer loudly at the end of each song, but while the band are actually playing, they don't seem particularly excited. There's very little movement going on at all, particularly in the less well-known songs, and coupled with the enormous size of the venue, it all seems a bit dead compared to the smaller venues of the last tour.

"Pictures Of Home" is next, and gets a good reaction from the audience - quite right too, and it's a blinder, with particular credit going to Steve for some superb soloing. This one sounded much better than last time round, to me, and was easily as good as the Satriani version from 1994.

Then, we're treated to the "new songs" segment of the show - 4 new tracks with only one old favourite in the middle. And, sad to say, I think this was the most disappointing section of the gig. As I said, I don't think "Abandon" is that great an album. Various people had told me to expect the new songs to come alive when played on stage - sadly, I don't think this was the case. "Almost Human" was first, started off by Steve with the riff from Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" and slowly metamorphasizing into the song. It was OK, but the grinding, monotonic riff just seemed to drag things down a bit.

"Woman From Tokyo" didn't help much to pick things up for me, as it's always been one of my least favourite "classics", although most of the audience loved it. Then it was back to more new songs, "Watching The Sky", "Fingers To The Bone" and "Any Fule Kno That". Again, this section really dragged for me - if anything, the new songs sounded *less* impressive live than on the album. Percussive and grungy and not very melodic. The quiet-loud-quiet nature of WTS and FTTB didn't help either, particularly since Steve couldn't use an acoustic guitar for the quiter bits. Surprisingly, of all the new songs, AFKT suffered the least - as an in-your-face rocker, it was probably more suitable for this kind of gig than the others.

The new songs out of the way, it was time for one of the bits of the show I'd been most looking forward to - Steve's solo. I have to say, I don't think it was nearly as exquisite as the ones he was doing on the _|_ tour - the first few minutes were little more than flashy show-off fast runs, technically impressive but not very interesting to listen to. After a while, he settled down a bit, and we got some of the slower, quieter, more beautiful stuff that was such a wonderful surprise on the last tour. And again, we got the great build up from slow and quiet to faster exciting stuff, eventually leading into the "Cascades" solo in a way that was similar yet different to what he did on the last tour. Great stuff, if not as good as last time round.

And then...Turnaround Time Pt 1. Last tour, I'd been saying before the gigs that they should drop SOTW, and yet I really enjoyed it live. This time, I've been saying they should keep it, only to find that it's the low point of the evening. It's ragged, and carries neither the blunt power of the original nor the sophisticated instrumental work of other modern versions of the classic songs. It's almost as if the band don't quite know what do do with the song, and don't even care much, so they just bash through it knowing that it'll all be over quickly. The crowd, of course, go loopy for it - and, to be fair, I probably would too if this was the first time I'd heard it live. Still, I'd be happy not to hear the song again, when there are so many other great songs that could be played in it's place.

Onward and upward...Jon's solo was next, and started with a kind of slow interpretation of the SOTW riff on the piano, with lots of embellishment. The solo was OK - a little of the old "a snippet of this, a snippet of that" tendency that he used to do in the 80's, but no "Fur Elise", thank God! I've said it before, and I'll say it again - I'd much rather hear Jon's soloing during the songs and the jams, than the ones he does when he's all on his own. Still, this does lead nicely into...

..."Lazy". And what a cracker it is! One classic that I'm glad was brought back. I've always loved this song, and this time round it's great! Some of the soloing is a little too frenetic for its own good, becoming completely detached from the melody, but overall it's a great performace, and suddenly the gig picks up again! And while we're still recovering, it's time for...

..."Perfect Strangers". And it's Turnaround Time Pt 2. A few days ago I said this one should be dropped, but this song just blew me away tonight! Powerful and majestic, it's probably the first song to really "fill" the venue, big as it is. This feels like a connection back to the days when I first started getting into DP, first discovering how wonderful they were, and it's magic. And the rest if of the audience seems to agree with me - they're starting to show real signs of life!

And the hits keep on coming - after a lengthy and rather amusing introduction from Gillan, during which Steve plays some nice, relaxing harmonies on the guitar, we're into everyone's favourite ballad - yes, it's "Speed King", and it's perfect! The band hit it with a passion and a power, and it sounds better than ever! And, of course, we get solos. And duels. And what solos! And what duels! First up, is the traditional guitar/keyboard duel, and it's clear that these are two musicians who are as in-tune with each other and confortable with each other as Jon and Ritchie ever were, and then some! On the _|_ tour, I felt slightly that there was a bit too much over-fast noodling in this song, and that the tunefulness was lost. No such problems this time - it was spectacular, and fitted together like a hand and glove! And then - the surprise of the evening - we get a short but great solo from Roger! This is something that's long overdue, in my opinion - although he's been doing the scripted solos from "Fireball" and "Pictures..." in recent years, it's really nice to see him take the limelight properly here. Then the rest of the band leaves the stage, leaving the floor to Paicey. Now, I'm no fan of drum solos, but this is as it should be - short, sweet, and loud :-) Within a couple of minutes the entire band are back on stage, and this time it's Gillan and Morse who get to duel. And it's marvellous - Gillan's never sounded better, and here he shows not only the power that we see all the time, but a control that we don't get to see so often. It's hard to keep finding words to describe this stuff, but it's just superb.

At the end of the song, the band say goodnight, but nobody's fooled. After the obligatory few minutes of clapping, stamping and cheering, the boys are back, and bring the show to an end in classic style with "Black Night" and "Highway Star". I've run out of superlatives, and there's little to say about these songs that hasn't been said before, but suffice it to say they left everyone fully aware of how and why Deep Purple are still, after all these years, one of the best bands around on stage or off.

I was going to finish with some general observations, but this is far too long as it is, so maybe I'll save them till after tonight's Birmingham gig. But my thoughts can be summed up by saying that despite the venue and the new material combining to leave a bit of a dull patch in the middle, overall this was a fantastic gig! I'm very pleased that I decided to see a second gig, and a very much hope that both I and the band will be around to see many more gigs in the years to come.

Mike Collins

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