Billed as a "return to rock", and under the name RAINBOW, legendary guitarist Ritchie Blackmore tantalized his fans with three highly anticipated sold-out shows last summer. Admittedly financially motivated, Blackmore assembled a live band that featured current and past members of his folk/medieval outfit BLACKMORE'S NIGHT. The first two German performances were filmed with the highlights released on DVD as "Memories In Rock", and the audio of this third and final U.K. date, widely considered the strongest of the three shows, now being released as a double CD.
Since the last RAINBOW reincarnation, '95-'97, featuring the versatile Doogie White in the vocal position, there had been many rumors of a reunion with co-founder Ronnie Jame Dio. Sadly, that never materialized. Dio's death in 2010 would seem to exhaust all possibilities of seeing any version of RAINBOW, Blackmore being content pursuing the Renaissance-flavored direction of BLACKMORE'S NIGHT with his wife Candice Night. But the urge returned, and a vocalist was needed. The unpredictable Blackmore passed over both White and former RAINBOW/DEEP PURPLE pal Joe Lynn Turner for a wild-card choice: Chilean-born YouTube discovery Ronnie Romero.
Blackmore's unpredictability is well known. A sadistic practical joker to his bandmates, a nerve-racking terror to music journalists worldwide, a pilgrim-hatted madman and a walking contradiction who can't seem to decide if he has the biggest ego on earth or no ego at all, Blackmore is at risk to storm off the stage whenever he is performing, among other stunts.
And so here we are at the NEC in 2016. The last time Blackmore was here with PURPLE in '93—just weeks before ripping his visa up in front of the band and quitting for good—he baptized an annoying cameraman with a pitcher of water on stage, then soaked him with beer behind the amps for good measure. That was then and this is now.
Things started off in familiar fashion with the sound of Judy Garland's voice coming through the P.A.: "We must be over the rainbow, rainbow, rainbow," before the first non-RAINBOW twist comes with PURPLE's Mark II opener "Highway Star". It's an odd choice to be sure, but Romero's voice stands out immediately. Throughout the set, he comfortably handles the unenviable task of recreating the voices, and registers, of Ian Gillan, Dio, David Coverdale, Glenn Hughes, Joe Lynn Turner and Graham Bonnet: nailing it. His sharp South American accent intact on almost every syllable. If nerves were an issue in front of a crowd this size, it didn't show.
The band, still in the development stage, performed mostly modestly. Drummer David Keith and bassist Bob Nouveau struggled to gel at times, possibly due to a non-rigorous rehearsal schedule, and song arrangements occasionally were tentative and endings awkward or abrupt. But these offenses were minor to the festive attendees who drank it all up and sang along impulsively.
Then there's Blackmore. If you show up for this sort of thing expecting him to kick a security guard or throw his guitar, well, you just have to wait, don't you? Inspiration can come from unexpected sources, and Blackmore has historically been content to lay back and listen for that opportunity. When it happens, it's the reason that everyone is there. Never a "safe" guitarist, Blackmore always searches for that new source of inspiration—even in a song that he's played hundreds of times before. This particular evening was no exception. Four months after finger surgery on his fretting hand, the fully recovered Blackmore displayed a deliberate and melodic phrasing to his guitar solos.
"Mistreated", originally a PURPLE song, perhaps got more mileage from the version from RAINBOW's 1977 double live album "On Stage". In fact, most of the Dio-era RAINBOW material presented here seems to use "On Stage" versions as a template. But "Mistreated" has a deliberate 1974 "Burn"-era feel, with Blackmore finding that sweet zone, and Romero rendering a Coverdale "California Jam" flashback, with crowd assist.
"Difficult to Cure", the instrumental title track from RAINBOW's 1981 album also worked well with this lineup. It supplied the intended old-school nostalgia, including a shredding keyboard solo from Jens Johansson, the only other non-BLACKMORE'S NIGHT alumni besides Romero. The drum/bass solo then progressed into a sort of bass and keyboard smash-up while Blackmore took a break.
"Catch the Rainbow", from the first album, kept the best part of the evening's momentum going. A tribute to the "On Stage" version. Elsewhere, fan favorite "Stargazer" starts off a little slow but gains steam showcasing background singers Candice Night and Lady Lynn, correctly introduced as Christina Skleros by Romero. A stout version of "Man on a Silver Mountain" along with PURPLE classics "Child in Time" and "Burn" kept the celebration going.
The verdict? It's a rough one. Longtime RAINBOW fans will surely have a lot to bitch about here: a setlist with too many DEEP PURPLE songs, a drummer who doesn't play like Cozy Powell or even Blackmore not using Marshall stacks—he hasn't since '93. Maybe the question is, what does Blackmore think about this? He has expressed surprise at the turnout for these shows. On this night, he encountered a packed Genting Arena with a collective gathering who appeared to know all the words to PURPLE's "Soldier of Fortune" from "Stormbringer"! That's a very hard-core fanbase. With another handful of RAINBOW shows this summer, including a return to Genting Arena, better performances could render this set obsolete. So, do you need this? Maybe not now, but someday you just might.