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

The HOB 12/15

[House of Blues Flyer]

I arrived at the hotel around 4:50pm, not in the best of moods. My fiancee, Carol, was already there but probably up in whatever room they'd given us. I was grateful for her forethought in getting us into a hotel for this event, as otherwise we'd have to endure an hour-long train ride home after the concert, but as I stood there waiting for the slow-motion clerk to notice me it wasn't easy to keep a good thought.

Carol had left a couple of worried messages on my phone at work, since I was supposed to be the one to arrive at the hotel first. But I'd gotten stuck on a conference call with a technician who really could've handled his situation without me, but as so often happens with field reps, they want someone from Support on the phone just in case the machine starts leaking toxic memory errors or something. So I'd sat there quietly steaming, trying to bluff my way through the small talk while the reload procedure that you really don't want to know about inched along.

But at last there were no unexpected pitfalls and we closed the call without an air strike. I hustled across the street to the hotel, explained everything a couple of times to Carol (who had even left a message for me at home, thinking I may have blithely gone home like a normal day). But she was too upset with me and I was too upset with work -- how did I manage to catch the first unplanned overtime in years on this day? -- so I just grumped through my insulin shot, we ate at the hotel restaurant, and tried to catch a few minutes of sleep before the show. (Actually, I tried to grab some sleep; Carol watched Melrose Place.)

Outside, Chicago waved its windy wand and blessed us all with the coldest day of the winter season so far. Figures. But our hotel was right on the Chicago River, skyscrapers with all their lights ablaze shooting up like symmetrical weeds on either side, and, right next to the House of Blues, the Marina Towers corncobs with plenty of the apartments all twinkly with Christmas lights.

We walked the two blocks to House of Blues, getting there right at showtime (9:00). This meant we didn't have to stand in any lines, but that didn't exactly balance the fact that there was pretty much nowhere for us to stand -- at least not any place where Carol, all barely-five-feet of her, could see anything. While the opening act (who I later found out were called the New Meanies) crashed through their set, we tried several locations in the balcony. In each place people would notice her and make slight movements to ensure she could entertain no evil thoughts about grabbing an unobstructed glance at the stage.

The Meanies appeared to be a competent blues-rock unit, if a little lacking in quieter moments -- relentlessly loud and uptempo, their repertoire was basically a boom-boom crash-crash one-note performance. They got a few appreciative howls but I got the impression that most of the crowd were, as I was, impatient for Purple.

After the Meanies got off the stage we saw a possible spot for us. The Chicago HOB has two bars, one on the main floor off to one side and another at the rear of the two-tiered balcony facing the stage. The slight opening we saw was behind a spotlight on stage-left of the lower balcony, and the spotlight hadn't been used for the Meanies. From there Carol was able to get a fairly complete view of the stage, and I could if I moved around a bit behind her.

I don't remember how long it was until Purple took the stage -- maybe 15 minutes, but in any case I don't think it was too long after the opening act. To our dismay, though, someone showed up to work the spotlight, and the crowd around us certainly wasn't shy about closing ranks. Carol was still able to see if she ducked down a bit below the spotlight but it was all I could do to catch glimpses of Ian Paice on his drum riser.

So, typically, as I glared in resignation at our oblivious fellow Purplites on the balcony with the word australopithecines wandering cynically through my head, right then a lone gentleman next to us tapped me on the shoulder, motioned me into the spot he'd been occupying, said something in my ear about how well he thought Steve Morse was doing in the Blackmore position, and left. This was during Hush, the opening tune. Astonished and grateful are words not quite strong enough to describe me at that moment.

In any case, Hush blasted out at us, bringing the audience alive and handily putting to rest any worries anyone might have had about DP being a bit too old for their material. Ian Gillan immediately established that his voice was in top form, better than it sounded on Live At The Olympia (LATO), a 2-disc CD released earlier in the year containing a complete 1996 gig in Paris. There he sounded strained many times, although as always his ever-present sense of humor saved him.

Oddly, Jon Lord still didn't sound mixed quite high enough to cut through the din as prominently as one could hope, but beginning with Hush it seemed to me that he was much more active than on LATO. He got a lot of solo breaks throughout the evening -- nothing on the order of the old consciousness-leveling Hammond attacks of the 70s, of course, but I'd been sufficiently disturbed by the lack of 'presence' on LATO to worry that we wouldn't hear much of him all night. This apprehension was roundly obliterated, I'm very happy to report, and as an amateur keyboardist myself I was thoroughly grateful.

If you've seen my page on the In Rock 25h Anniversary cd you already know I'm a heavy partisan for that album, so getting two songs from IR that have not been present for many previous DP tours -- Bloodsucker and Into The Fire -- was like having Christmas come ten days early. The entire set list follows:

Hush / Fireball / Into The Fire / Ted The Mechanic / Pictures Of Home / (Steve Morse solo) / Black Night / Bloodsucker / Sometimes I Feel Like Screaming / Woman From Tokyo (with the "soft spot" intact!) / Seventh Heaven (new tune) / No One Came / Smoke On The Water / (Jon Lord solo segueing into) When A Blind Man Cries / Speed King. Encores: Perfect Strangers and Highway Star.

As a Blackmore fan it's difficult for me to properly objectify (as far as that could be possible anyway) Steve Morse's contribution to Deep Purple's live sound. On the Purpendicular album I found absolutely nothing the matter, but there were certain times during the show (and on LATO) -- especially Smoke On The Water -- that I missed the quirky edge that Ritchie always brought to a live set whether on a "good night" or otherwise. Beyond that, though, I feel it necessary to mention that Steve has one of the cleanest picking styles I've ever heard from any guitarist -- no matter how fast that guy goes, one is guaranteed to hear every last note. I also can't report much from a visual standpoint, as he was the only Purple consistently out of my field of view.

Ian Gillan, as I started to say before, utterly amazed me. I could not have expected him to achieve those upper-register screams, much less as often as he did that night. This, of course, is not to shrug off the bits where he sings "normally" -- because in fact I found his whole performance immensely more satisfying than on LATO. Every once in a while he would use an instrumental passage as an excuse to steal back for a nip on a beer, but as far as I could tell there was no deletirious effect at all. (Of course, from stories I've heard it's apparent Ian has a higher than normal tolerance for alcohol.)

Roger Glover chugged along like a champion. In the past he has more or less stuck to the bassic (yep, pun intended) job of providing a solid floor for the guitar & organ to walk on, but at this show he also 'strutted' a bit, as it were. Clearly having a wonderful time (as they all were, actually), he got his body into the act during the short bass solo in Pictures Of Home, and added a great many breaks from the normal bass routine all evening.

Ian Paice, one of the best rock drummers I've ever heard of, reminded me of one of the reasons why I became a DP fanatic in the first place. Learning drums as a teenager in the 70s, he'd always impressed me with a style that was consistently more inventive than the straight-ahead (read: boring) flailing one comes to expect from nearly everyone else. His solo spot was too short for me, but it was certainly bracing and got a good response from the audience.

As alluded to above, we were not very impressed with the batch of audience that happened to be near us. One Morse enthusiast, obviously besotted, kept trying to get Steve's attention all night, waving his arms and giving a thumbs-up every single time that Morse apparently glanced toward the balcony. Next to him, and closest to us, a couple of fans kept interfering with the spotlight, although the guy working it seemed a bit blasé about the whole thing and just lived with it. Does it seem like we're too down on drinkers? Well, keep in mind any approbation is really only for those who use it as an excuse to impinge on the right of others to try and enjoy the show. Because otherwise it was nice to know that Deep Purple is still popular enough to pack the house for three nights, since there are times when it's frustrating to deal with the dismissive attitude one often finds concerning DP.

Carol and I, not being spring chickens by any stretch of the imagination and quite unused to staying up much past 10pm (not to mention standing still for three hours), left during the Perfect Strangers encore. I'd hoped to have the stamina to hang around and try to meet the band afterward, not to mention more than a few fellow denizens of the Deep Purple newsgroup who flew in (one from Scotland! -- hi Doug!) for the show, but I was not in good shape. We walked as quickly as our strained resources allowed through the biting cold back to the hotel, took out our earplugs (really, folks, it was loud -- one of my plugs came out during the concert and it not only almost overwhelmed me, but I noticed it was harder to pick out individual instruments; maybe that's just me?), and once again marveled at the gorgeous view from our room. There was a full moon, at that moment directly above the river, which combined with the wondrous and incongruous sight of a nearly deserted downtown Chicago, made for an indescribably serene and therefore fitting end to a long, frustrating day at work and a boisterous, physically challenging but musically satisfying evening with Deep Purple.

What a memorable experience for the first rock concert I'd seen in more than a decade!

John Hopkins

[ reviews | the highway star ]