Deep Purple: One Night in Frankfurt
This review was previously published on The Highway Star on 7 July 2017. The Long Goodbye Tour is ongoing and a new Deep Purple album is to be released in 2020.
Having seen Deep Purple in concert in 2004, 2006 and 2007, as well as buying a ticket to their cancelled Reykjavík gig in 2013, I finally saw the band again in Frankfurt’s Festhalle on June 10th 2017. I must admit that I was nervous, strange as that may sound coming from a member of the audience.
While I had no illusions that I was about to witness a second Made in Japan, I wondered if the greying seventy-year-olds could still perform like they did when I last saw them — when they were sprightly, ebullient sixty-year-olds. I was particularly concerned with vocalist Ian Gillan, who was not at his best when I saw the band in 2007. In his defence it was the end of the leg (or the “leg-end”, as Roger might put it) of the tour and I think he had a cold. Whatever the reasons, I remember standing at the front during Into the Fire, a challenge for any singer half Big Ian’s age, willing him to hit the high notes. The 2007 gig was by no means bad but remains by far the least enjoyable of my live encounters with the band. I wanted them to be better this time.
More than that, I wanted them to prove beyond any doubt that they were still worthy of the monicker Deep Purple.
My friend and I were pleasantly surprised by the opening act, Monster Truck. We had been nonchalant as to whether we should get to Festhalle in time to catch their set but decided to check them out, joking that we would not want to miss it if they would be wearing Transformers outfits. We caught about half of their set and we were impressed, wishing we’d seen it in its entirety. They are a tight band with great vocals and a plenty of killer riffs and grooves. Perhaps not a lot of new sounds but perfect for a fix of good ol’ fashioned hard rock.
A Tour de Force …and Johnny’s Band
Enter Deep Purple. Lights went down and a wall of keyboards filled the arena. A spotlight appeared on a grey old man who incanted something to the effect that he is off to the madhouse. It came off as a robotic sneer but took on the Gregorian feel heard on the studio version towards the end. Time for Bedlam. A brave move and a bold statement, opening with a new number. It worked, the song is a strong opener and the band performed flawlessly.
Judging by their facial expressions, guitarist Steve Morse and keyboardist Don Airey had to give their all to play their harmonies and solos. It is wonderful that they are still composing material that challenges their astounding abilities. To my relief Gillan sounded great, his vocals were fierce and dramatic, he spat out the lyrics, giving the words an extra aggressive edge. A great opening.
Throughout the concert Gillan exceeded my expectations and did a tremendous job on the mic, especially considering that he is now in his early seventies. That is not to say that he sounded like his unparalleled early 1970s heyday, obviously, but he was very much like his post-reunion self. He has mostly retired his signature screaming falsetto and although it is missed I think it a wise move given the sound of his screams on recent live albums.
In short, my doubts and worries about the band’s capability were expelled during those first moments and I lost myself in the music and the experience.
With some seriously smooth transitions the band blazed on from Time for Bedlam through Fireball, Bloodsucker and Strange Kind of Woman without giving the audience or themselves much time to breathe. The drum intro to Fireball sounded as tight and massive as I have ever heard it, the bass drum filling the arena. It was an intense performance but was immediately matched and surpassed by the band’s fiery rendition of Bloodsucker. Gillan rattled off the lyrics with his eyes shut tight and standing still, only moving to the heavy groove, presumably making sure to put each percussive syllable in its correct rhythmic place. Whatever he was doing and how he did it, it worked — the performance was irreproachable, the song had never sounded better to my ears.
On to Strange Kind of Woman, the band effortlessly changed into the laid back groove of the song. The band seemed to be having a blast and gave a great, well rehearsed performance which was definitely one of the evening’s highlights as well as being the most enjoyable classic of the night. The song came to a hilarious extended ending with a playful Gillan comically recounting to Steve a rather fanciful encounter with a weird sort of lady before the two launched into a short guitar and vocal exchange and wrapped up the song. Superb.
The booming Fireball drum intro brought to mind drummer Ian Paice’s 2016 mini stroke and whether it might affect his playing. Happily, his drumming ranged from simply great to utterly astounding and there was no indication that his playing or his stamina has suffered. He played no solo but threw in several jaw dropping fills and kept the band tight as he has consistently done for the its entire career. Impressive but not showy, his playing was impeccable. It never fails to amaze me how tight he and bassist Roger Glover are, how they seem to always be in the pocket.
After this grand opening, this tour de force, I felt almost dazed. After Strange Kind of Woman Gillan introduced Johnny’s Band and the band dove in. While the performance was solid I felt that making this particular song the follow-up to the preceding quartet of monster numbers was ill-advised.
Besides the obvious change in mood, the song is, in my admittedly humble opinion, by far the weakest cut on Infinite, except perhaps for the uncharacteristically boring cover of The Doors’ Roadhouse Blues, so I felt that the great build-up of the concert so far was somewhat halted and brought down at this point. I would go as far as saying that the song does not belong in the set at all. The rest of the audience did not seem overly enthusiastic either although it cannot be said that it did not go down well. As a transition piece from the full on hard rock ’n’ roll first segment to the more prog-leaning middle section, the song was a poor choice and in my opinion Lazy or a different number from Infinite — perhaps All I Got Is You or my current favourite, Get Me Outta Here — would have made for a much better and smoother shift in mood. Moving Hell to Pay to that slot might also have worked.
Here my memory is a bit fuzzy but I think Steve’s solo came as the first part of the build-up to Uncommon Man.
There was no Well Dressed Guitar or Contact Lost but a great solo, impressive volume-knob-work. Very good but not much new for those of us who have seen Deep Purple a few times or listened to the more recent live albums. No complaints but nothing to write home about. Although I generally enjoy Steve’s style of playing (not to mention his great songwriting with Purple) I must say that he seemed to resort too much to shredding during the solos, sacrificing feel, groove and emotion for sweeping guitar runs and impressive licks. He is quite capable of playing in a more stripped-down, bluesy way and I would have liked to hear some more of that. Also, his tone was not gritty enough for my taste and the overall sound would have benefitted from turning his guitar up a notch, especially when he was not soloing.
I have never been particularly keen on Uncommon Man, from the beginning it has been among my least favourite tracks from Now What?! (Vincent Price being the only track that I always skip) and I have never really understood why the band puts it on the setlist. Until I saw it performed in Frankfurt, that is. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed hearing it, notwithstanding Gillan’s slight but noticeable changes to the phrasing and melody in the verses that I did not like much. The intro’s build-up and keyboard melody really works when you are standing in the concert hall, taking in the performance. At the song’s conclusion Gillan made an allusion to our dear late Jon Lord saying that souls having touched were forever entwined, although adding jokingly that it wasn’t always so — I will not venture a guess as to who he was referring to.
The Surprising was also… well, surprising. Until hearing it at the concert the song had not really resonated with me but it was wonderful with it’s dreamy and mysterious atmosphere. Gillan’s sang perfectly, the song’s range seems to really suit his current voice. Steve had a bad entrance on the guitar licks in the middle, making a pained face as he did so and corrected himself. This is not a complaint, mistakes are part of the live concert experience and this was another illustration of the fact that the band is still challenging themselves with their writing.
Next up was Lazy, one of my all time favourite Purple tracks. I must say I was not overly impressed with the performance. I felt that it was lacking intensity and fire, it felt a bit by-the-numbers and Steve’s approach was a little too aggressive and flourished for my taste given the bluesy feel of the song. Too ‘metal’, if you will. I also felt that he and Don could have been more faithful to the original licks of the intro, to me those are trademarks of Deep Purple just as much as the riffs of Smoke on the Water and Black Night. An enjoyable performance nonetheless, with Roger and Paicey grooving perfectly and Gillan delivering the goods on the mic. I also very much appreciated Don teasing the audience with the opening bars of Perfect Strangers during the intro, good fun.
And then the came the moment I had been waiting for. Birds of Pray. My favourite song from Infinite and quite possibly the best Morse era song in my opinion. I was not disappointed in the least: Those two perfect riffs, that heavy groove, the slow and moody beat, those almost drawled cryptic, doom-ridden lyrics, that incredible guitar solo… Gillan sounding notably crisp and Steve staying true to the blueprint of the great original solo. I would have loved an extended solo passage at the end, with Steve and Don taking turns but you cannot have it all. The performance was moving, it raised the hair on the back of my neck and sent shivers down my spine. It was all too clear to me why Deep Purple remains my favourite band and why they have their venerated status in the history of rock music. It reminded me why I love their music and why I love music in general. If I were to pick out a single song as the highlight of the gig, it would without any doubt be Birds of Prey. It was pure exaltation.
On with the show. A playful, almost theatrical Gillan and the happy “Hell!” backup vocals from Roger and Steve during the chorus made Hell to Pay work well. The crowd happily sang along. I usually skip this one when I play Now What!?, but it is a pretty good live song. Still, I think that, like Johnny’s Band, it might as well have been dropped from the set in favour of a different cut from either of the two most recent albums.
Don Airey played a fine solo, although I am not overly keen on the space keyboards shenanigans and Don’s playing snippets of this and that. I much preferred Jon Lord’s style of soloing, his intensity and his flair for improvisation and melding together different styles and influences. But we can’t all be Jon Lord and I prefer Don being Don, doing his own thing, rather than emulating his predecessor. And Don did not fail to impress, the crowd at Festhalle loved him and applauded generously.
During the concert I felt that the organ and keyboards were sometimes a little dominant in the mix vis-à-vis the guitar and the Hammond’s sound was generally a little too smooth for my taste, the Hammond-through-Marshall monster roar being the true Deep Purple organ sound.
The keyboard solo eventually morphed into the intro of Perfect Strangers. A great song in its own right but is always better in concert, it was a tight and well oiled performance with Roger and Paicey on the money as always. I particularly enjoy Steve’s added guitar sequences at the end of the choruses, Blackmorites surely disagree. As usual the lights were turned on the audience at the appropriate point, showing the thousand warriors Big Ian proclaims to have known. It was wonderful but I feel compelled to gripe that the intro was played in the original key while the song was brought down a full step. Why not play the intro in the same key as the rest of the song? Maybe I am being fussy, but surely the mighty Don Airey can easily transpose the intro down a step?
Another, perhaps minor, complaint regarding the middle section of the concert is the placement of Lazy and Hell to Pay in the set. These upbeat, rock ’n’ roll crowd-pleasers were wedged in with slow-paced, proggy juggernauts and the solo spots. While Steve and Don’s respective solo spots fit well with the atmosphere of the slower, more proggy opuses, mixing Lazy and Hell to Pay in there made for a stylistic start-and-stop which seemed to hamper the flow of the set and undercut the mood. I think that playing Uncommon Man, The Surprising, Birds of Pray and Perfect Strangers in sequence, peppering them with the guitar and keyboard solos, would have made for a better experience, maintaining the feel and giving the middle section a potent, stylistic uniformity. Following this section up with Space Truckin’ would then make for the perfect transition to a more classics oriented finale.
Speaking of which…
The Final Stretch
The penultimate song before the encore was Space Trucking’, one of band’s greats. A couple in front of me exploded in joy and, strangely perhaps, surprise when the organ and bass intro blasted the audience. They jumped up and down and fell into each other’s arms, overjoyed, whooping and hollering. It was a sweet little scene. Maybe I should stop studying the setlists before I go to concerts, I might get a happy surprise myself one day. Gillan has found graceful ways around the more inhuman high notes of the song and sounded good throughout, better than on many of the recent live recordings I have given a spin. In particular I liked how he evaded the high screeching yeah-yeah-yeahs over the E-rooted riff at the end by simply screeching the same note as he did over the A-rooted riff.
The band gave a good, solid performance but the song seemed to lack a little fire. Paicey had a fantastic little drum break, not really a solo, somewhere in the middle, eliciting impressed applause from the crowd. As is the case on From the Setting Sun… and …To the Rising Sun, the song’s tempo was taken down a notch and given a more groovy feel. I am not sure that this does the song much good, it seems that it needs to maintain the tempo to keep its edge. Regardless, a satisfying performance.
I may skip over it on Machine Head and Made in Japan and just about any other version of it but no Deep Purple concert is complete without Smoke on the Water. Although I was somewhat disappointed by the band’s apparent lack of enthusiasm for fellow Machine Head stalwarts Lazy and Space Truckin’, it seemed that Smoke was another matter altogether. The band plowed through it with vigour and gusto, happy smiles all around. The crowd singalong worked well as usual, Steve played a great solo that adhered to the general idea of the original. Nothing new really, no surprises, but a great performance that more than did the job. A great way to close the set.
Goodbyes were said, thanks were spoken, the band members waved and trotted off the stage. Not keeping up pretences that this was really it, the band returned after what felt like only a minute or so of applause.
A great jam on Peter Gunn kicked off the encore, with Don’s keyboards doubling for the brass to great effect. In my opinion this was far better than the Green Onions jam that opens the encore on From the Setting Sun… and …To the Rising Sun, I really hope they stick to it. Or, better yet, try out more different tunes. A thoroughly enjoyable Hush came next and sounded far better than most of the recent live versions I’ve heard. Steve’s guitar did not seem to be chugging along with the bass during the verses, making for a lighter groove, and Gillan seemed more comfortable singing it than on the aforementioned twin live albums.
This was followed by a nice drum and bass jam by Roger and Paicey. No, not that kind of drum’n’bass. Roger’s live bass guitar sound remains one of my favourite ever but it seemed that it was not as crisp as it was the three previous Purple gig I have attended. This is in line with the Bob Ezrin era studio sound of the bass guitar: It comes from an old Fender Precision with ancient strings, making for a rather dull, one dimensional sound; very different from Roger’s metallic but warm live sound — one of my few complaints about the band’s two last studio albums.
Still, he sounded great, his trusty Vigier booming some very neat licks and grooves. It was good fun and great overture to Black Night but Roger is by no means a virtuoso soloist on the bass, such as, say, Billy Sheenan. I mean no disrespect but he is more of a rhythm section player. And an excellent one at that, I would go as far as saying Roger and Paicey’s rhythm section is second to none in the rock genre. Then again, it might be fair to say that it was not really a solo but, as said before, a jam with drums and bass guitar. Whatever it was or what you want to call it, it was splendid.
A minor grievance related to Roger, although obviously by no fault of his, is that he very rarely appeared on the big screens — even during his solo spot (if we want to call it that) he was not up there, but some clouds and stars. This is a shame as he is often lively on stage, more so at times than Gillan which as the frontman gets a lot of the camera attention. Finally, I must say that the bass guitar (the actual bass guitar, not the low end in general) could have been turned up a bit throughout the gig. Then again, some might say that I say that about every concert I go to and pretty much every album I listen to.
Black Night is the logical closer for a Deep Purple show, somehow it just makes sense. I have been impressed with some of the more recent live performances of the song, especially the one found on The Now What?! Live Tapes, the band seems energetic and enthusiastic and Steve does some fine guitar work. That night in Frankfurt was no exception, the band was firing on all cylinders and it seemed that they really wanted to give the audience a proper farewell and an appropriate, punchy high-note ending. It was a wonderful, flawless performance enjoyed by audience and band alike. I think everyone walked out of Festhalle whistling, humming, singing or shouting that riff which Ritchie Blackmore sort of nicked from Ricky Nelson all those years ago.
Alive and Well
So that was that. Clocking in at around an hour and three quarters I felt the concert was of an appropriate length, although I would not have minded hearing a song or two more. In particular, Highway Star would have been a welcome addition to the set. The band dropping it after the first few dates of the tour was a surprise and I wonder what the reason is. However, even though it is one of Deep Purple’s signature songs I feel that leaving it out is by no means a faux pas. In my opinion Smoke is the only truly indispensable song for the band’s live set.
Playing four numbers from Infinite and two from Now What?! is a testament to the great confidence the band has in themselves and their new material. This abundance of recent material did not at all detract from the potency of the setlist which felt balanced, notwithstanding my gripes about the songs’ sequence. Although I have no illusions that there is much chance of it, I would love to see some obscure or rarely played songs thrown into the mix once in a while. Something, anything really, from The House of Blue Light, The Battle Rages On or a track from any of the first four Morse era albums (except for maybe Sometimes I Feel Like Screaming) would be an absolute treat. And resurrecting Gypsy’s Kiss or Fools would make me an ecstatic little fanboy. But, as mentioned before, you famously cannot have everything.
On the whole I was entirely satisfied and very happy with the concert, the band more than exceeded my expectation and I hope that my pedantic nitpicking above does not give a different impression. The band is alive and well and to me there is no doubt that they live up to their reputation and are more than worthy of the Deep Purple monicker. I am grateful for seeing them during their self-proclaimed long goodbye and I hope it will indeed be a very, very long one.