When it comes to rock ‘legends’, we tend to berate those who rely largely on their old hits. It’s easy to declare them less worthy for not having written many killer tunes since their glory days. But if we’re really, really honest with ourselves, it’s those prime-era triumphs we most want to hear.
Deep Purple are not without their latter day highlights. 2013’s Uncommon Man, for example, is beautiful tonight. But from the opening, anticipatory swell of Holst’s Mars, The Bringer Of War, there are certain things you just know will come. Things like Strange Kind Of Woman, Black Night and that very famous one…
Still, before that we have Rival Sons stylishly flying the flag for the next generation. Vocalist Jay Buchanan is sporting a blacker, more leathery look and has grown a beard, and guitarist Scott Holiday looks effortlessly cool, swaggering through Torture and Open My Eyes. And however much of a poser Buchanan is, boy can he sing. By the time Keep On Swinging thumps out across the arena, one punter has shouted “I love you!”
Like any group of their vintage, Deep Purple face the effects of age. For athletic vocalists it’s particularly wearing. So as Glover, Paice, Morse and Airey stoke the opening fires of Highway Star, tonight’s success hangs on one question: can Ian Gillan still sing??
Yes… pretty much. He’s not quite as brilliant as before, but you can’t expect that. But after a weaker start with Highway Star and Bloodsucker, something seems to click. The fiery, shrill power comes flooding back. Oh yes, he can still sing.
No, the biggest difference is physical. It’s not that he’s aged badly – far from it – but the visual difference between the long-haired, Jesus Christ Superstar heartthrob of old and the present-day Gillan is disarming. That black T-shirt and trousers, that sensible haircut, those frontman poses he can’t quite hold anymore… Curiously his surreal stage banter (somewhere between Eddie Izzard and The Mighty Boosh) is something of a saving grace.
In any case, Deep Purple is a team effort. Ian Paice plays an eye-popping drum solo. Keyboardist Don Airey looks like the happiest man alive, leading a killer face-off with violinist Steve Bentley-Cline, before blasting into Lazy. And Roger Glover – perennially headscarved bassist and arguably overlooked DP lynchpin – gives it some serious welly. Apart from the fact that they all qualify for Freedom Passes, it’s like nothing’s changed.
All bar one, that is. Tonight it seems more ludicrous than ever that Steve Morse is still referred to by many as ‘Ritchie Blackmore replacement’. Morse has been Deep Purple’s guitarist for 21 years. And the happy dynamic between him and the rest of the band realistically wouldn’t happen with Blackmore. But with a collective age of 335 could they really pull off the whole dark, sexy schtick anyway? Probably not.
And so it plays out. Vincent Price, Space Truckin’ and then… ‘Dahn dahn dahhhhn!’ Of course it’s great. After 43 years and almost as many reprises as Happy Birthday, Smoke On The Water doesn’t stop being great. Scott Holiday even joins them on guitar, like a boy having his Christmas and birthday at once.
With a last hurrah of Black Night they’re off. Who knows how many more times they’ll return? Whatever happens, you hope they end like this.