So, was this just a Happy Shopper version of Rainbow, or something more substantial? Well there’s only one man who knows the answer, and he was keeping very quiet on Saturday night, saying just two words* to the 10,000+ sold out NEC crowd, and that was merely to announce the name of his singer. Which was fitting really, as without him this version of Rainbow would certainly have been an awful lot less entertaining.
And from what I could see the audience took to him fairly quickly and were really up for it from the reworked version of Highway Star onwards; how much of this fervour was a determination to enjoy it or simply relief to have the man back playing rock again is hard to say, but there was something very comforting being in a crowd who knew all the words to all the songs (Spotlight Kid aside possibly!). You forget how much shared experience there is in following a guy like this, and it’s nice to be reminded of it sometimes.
I deliberately steered clear of online video and audio clips so not to pre-judge the show (or lower my expectations any further!), and from what people were saying, the vibe was far from positive so I’m glad I did. An inside gig is a very different beast to outdoor festival slots, and I’m glad we opted for this – and that Rainbow decided to do it instead of a UK festival (look what was happening down the road at Glastonbury).
We had quite a relaxing drive down, neither of us wanted to discuss the show much I guess. We took the A roads as the rain was so heavy up our end, gave our lunch money to the nice people at Cromford Mill’s café and were getting lost in the poorly signed NEC road maze before we knew it. A couple of hours passed quietly at the hotel where our friend Dave Browne was booked in so he could nervously watch his home team in the Euros (sorry David) and this kept us occupied until it was time to saunter over to the Arena, having a quick word on the way with Jerry Bloom who was worryingly walking away from the venue, perhaps having been turned back for wearing a Tommy Bolin t-shirt (!), before meeting up with more old-timers in the foyer to natter until show time.
Rereading these thoughts now before posting on Monday morning, the whole event seems almost like something from a dream. Even as the lights dimmed, and into the concert itself, at times it just did not seem real at all. Twenty years wiped out as if they’d never happened, Rainbow back for another tour (feelings were running especially high at the time of Stranger In Us All, so I gave that one a miss. I’d followed him live every tour since 1971 up to that point…)
As the reality broke through, it was time to try and take stock. Certainly this was a Ritchie Blackmore in his seventies rather than in The Seventies. There is no getting away from the fact that some of the fluidity and speed isn’t there, and the occasional mis-fire could be heard, but he was still very much recognisable as our Ritchie Blackmore, one out on his own. He didn’t disgrace his legacy and worked with the restrictions time and age have imposed upon him rather than attempting anything too tricksy. And it was just so good to see and hear him with a Strat again.
If I did wonder during the odd moment why he’s been noodling away on a flipping hurdy gurdy for twenty years, then he must have his reasons. Whatever they were it was good to have the rock Ritchie Blackmore back, if only for a couple of hours.
There too is little hiding the fact that this was primarily a pension fund operation. By excluding any big names, the outlay could be minimised and the revenue maximised. With tickets and merchandise, he should have done well out of it and good luck to him on that level. It is a perfectly valid exercise; he has something a lot of fans wanted to see again and as it sold out in minutes then clearly there were more than enough of us ready to shell out our £55 squids plus expenses (£16.75 for a beefburger at the hotel if you were wondering. An extra quid if we’d wanted it in a bun!). But in turning up with scratch band and putting it on at the NEC you are in effect saying ‘this is a big deal’, and as such the audience deserved to be treated with some respect. And whatever the long and protracted backstory to these shows, I didn’t feel patronised from the stage at any point.
Given the apparent eventual lack of ambition for the return of Rainbow, I’d fought against getting caught up in it all right until two weeks ago, but I suppose curiosity got the better of me. That and perhaps the idea that by going I could close the circle on following Rainbow – sometimes avidly (I did around half the UK shows on the first couple of tours) – across 40 often turbulent years. I did try one Blackmore’s Night show a decade or so ago to see if I was missing something, but if anything it was even worse than the records, so I hadn’t ever planned or expected to see Blackmore live on stage again, content to live with the memories of those often glorious early concerts.
But then I had also vowed never to bother paying to attend a stadium rock show again, so come Saturday evening I was already eating my words before we even got inside!
I’ll leave set lists to others, it certainly didn’t deviate much from those in Germany, but Rainbow did more than enough to please just about everyone. Sure the band are not top flight, and are hardly a proper band, but the singer coped with most of the material, arguably best on the Ronnie Dio era tracks. He isn’t Ronnie, nobody could be, but there was a lot of power there and he didn’t hold back. His was always going to be an interpretation, Ronnie helped bring those tracks to life so they were personal, but this new guy delivered and I doubt he had any voice left to order breakfast on Sunday morning.
The vocals were also high in the mix to cut through a sometimes turgid NEC and stage sound, and were balanced against the guitar, which also got pushed up so we could all hear of what was going on. Blackmore then certainly wasn’t hiding or holding back, and while the playing wasn’t as spine tingling as it could be twenty years ago, it was mostly interesting and enjoyable. Overall his performance was very much a greatest hits sort of approach, little of the voyages off piste we used to enjoy so much perhaps, but more laying down a marker as if to decide whether this was something worth taking further in future or not.
He has said he wouldn’t want to do an album, but then he he has changed his mind in the past, and to give this much longevity it would need more commitment. I’m sure there are other markets to take the Rainbow experience to should he feel the need, enough to keep this version of the band rolling as a comfortable retirement project for a few years at least, if his arthritis doesn’t prevent it. Rarely has the line “I feel I’m getting older…” seemed more poignant than it did here, Ritchie doing the track perched on a barstool with an acoustic.
And then, two thirds of the way through a show I’d been enjoying for what it was, out of nowhere came a sledgehammer version of Stargazer which showed what could be achieved. It slammed into the crowd with an intensity and drive which I really hadn’t seen coming and was as blissful a few minutes at a rock show as I’ve had for ages. It reminded me of full-on Killing Joke or Ministry at their peak, and all at once you think, if they wanted to come back another time and do the full Rising album for us like this then you might just tap us for another couple of tickets. For me this alone was worth the price of admission and made me glad I’d bothered. If not, and he decides this is it, then it closed the Rainbow story for me on a good note. A few questions remain.
Will I bother to buy the inevitable CD / DVD (I didn’t see any cameras at the NEC show but the German gigs were apparently filmed as well as taped – though I doubt they were better)? Probably not. Like that dull Gillan’s Inn CD from a few years back, why would I not want to put on the best versions to listen to?
Would I go again if they do more greatest hits shows next year (as has been mooted)? I honestly doubt that with this band and the level of ability on show they would get much better, so I’ll be happy to leave it there.
Will the person operating the electric rainbow be able to get it right? It was funny to see even 40 years on that technology can still go wrong, with the timing and sequencing leaving gaps in the effects (which were pretty good) from time to time. Unless it was a subtle tribute to all those thousands of 1970s lightbulbs!
Joking aside, Stargazer and other moments during the evening (a very hard edged and riffy Burn springs to mind as I write) reminded me why we all put up with his antics over those years, and for all the sublime guitar work he has delivered across his career, a heartfelt thanks. In the hard rock arena no one has ever really come close. My life wouldn’t have been the same without it, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that…
We would like to thank Rob and Martin for giving us first refusal on spare tickets. It was also great to meet up with them and a number of the old crew. Mike, Dave, Andy, Russ and others helped relieve the inevitable pre-concert tension many of us felt as we tried try to work out just why we were there!
*Apparently Ritchie did sing along in Long Live Rock & Roll according to bassist Bob Curiano who posted a photo to prove it! As the band were too mean to pay for screens most of us missed it…
I have added a separate page for all the reviews and everything Rainbow show related. This has early comments on the first show, etc. There is a set spoiler too BUT I have buried this at the end of the page, so you will not stumble on it by accident!