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The Highway Star

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Wolf Schneider
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Wolf Schneider's review

A brief roadtrip

There are many reasons fans avidly collect all available live recordings of Deep Purple, but the most common one is that each show is unique, since Deep Purple has always been a band that uses their powerful songs as the basis for improvisational soloing and dueting. Although the debate about whether Steve Morse is better or worse than Ritchie Blackmore is endless (and irrelevant), there is no question that both guitar players are masters of "guitar noodling", and Jon Lord is peerless in his keyboard coloratura as well.

This series allows the listener to follow the band as they travel from show to show, and fully appreciate the nuances between the different performances. Even better, you get to compare them in two radically different settings, the sweaty crucible of the rock amphitheatre versus the relative genteelness of the symphony hall, as some of the songs from the arena show setlist are duplicated on the programme of the concerto evenings.

Another of the reasons one tries to hear as wide a selection of DP concerts as possible is because many sublime moments are quite rare, such as Jon Lord's performance of "Soldier Of Fortune" on the piano during his Hong Kong keyboard solo spot (this has only happened at a very few concerts over the years), or Steve Morse's breathtaking guitar cadenza during the "Concerto" from the second night in Tokyo. Othertimes, it's the rare glimpse of a guest star (such as Jimmy Barnes in Newcastle and Wollongong) or a song not often played. A fairly recent source of interest has been the addition of a medley of classic songs performed in rapidfire succession before launching into "Smoke On The Water", the composition of which is always different each time. In this collection we are treated to some memorable Guitar Parades (or Riff Raff, as some prefer to call it).

The first four CDs represent the arena rock side of the band, with storming shows from near-successive dates in Australia (there was an intervening concert in Sydney the night following Melbourne) and the forementioned Hong Kong concert. Each has gems which make them worthwhile additions to the library of Deep Purple live recordings: Melbourne has "'69", soon dropped from the setlist; Wollongong has a stunning performance of "When A Blind Man Cries", possibly the best on record; Hong Kong, apart from the "Soldier Of Fortune" has a real highlight in "Speed King", with extended dueting between Steve Morse and both of his foils, Jon Lord and Ian Gillan; Newcastle has the appearances of Jimmy Barnes and Ian Moss (although it must be said that I only realized Ian Moss was there in the final few notes of "Highway Star", as the rest of the time he was indistinguishable).

The last two CDs in the collection come from the final (for the moment? ;^) performances of the concert built about the "Concerto For Group and Orchestra", that Deep Purple have been touring about Europe and South America for the past year and a half (on and off). As a comparative listen to the initial performance of the show at the Royal Albert Hall in 1999 will show, the experience gained by performing the set so many times has resulted in much stronger and confident performances, despite the accompanying orchestra being a newcomer to the material - the extra fills, the meshing of the band and Ronnie James Dio, the interplay between the band and the orchestra as guided by Paul Mann, all of these lend themselves to creating a very satisfactory coda to this particular arc of the DP musical legacy.

The sound is recorded from two different sources, but both of exemplary sound and really only differentiable using headphones, since one is noticeably more echoier than the other. It's a little surprising in the instance where the mix jumps between them (it's during one of the encores, between songs, and there is obviously a story behind this - what happened to the soundboard recording at that time that they felt they had to interpolate the second recording? ;^), but for the most part it isn't an issue.

In sharp contrast to the excellence of the music is the paltriness of the packaging and presentation (albeit somewhat understandable, given the need to keep the costs of this set to a reasonable amount). Several cases were cracked upon arrival (a condition shared by those of other recent recipients), the CD holders are of the "bendable plastic" variety rather than hinged, and the endpapers are minimalistic with a few snapshots, mostly of off-stage moments, and occasionally inaccurate liner notes.

Nonetheless, these are minor things compared to the value of the music captured for us to enjoy, and Thames Thompson are to be congratulated for putting out such a vital and important collection. If you make only one music purchase this year, make sure it's this.

Wolf Schneider

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