When Ritchie Blackmore closed the door on his heavy rock career in 1997 to go and play renaissance folk music with his wife Candice Night in Blackmore’s Night nobody would have predicted that the door would be firmly shut for almost twenty years.
Mark Taylor: Photos by Anthony May, Jens Johansson photo by Alayne Taylor with very special thanks.
In fact the door had been bolted for so long that eventually no-one would predict that the Man In Black would plug in his Stratocaster one more time and play heavy rock at ear splitting volume ever again.
Rumours eventually started to fly around, promoters were waving cheques, former Rainbow vocalist Joe Lynn Turner was publicly boasting on stage that he had been in talks with the maverick guitarist but there was no word from the secretive Blackmore camp. That door was finally busted open late last year when it was announced that Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow would “re-unite” for just three shows, two in Germany and one solitary date for the UK in Birmingham.
Tickets sold out faster than a fireball, despite the fact that nobody knew who would be joining Blackmore for these historic gigs. Many fans were hoping for a nostalgic treat with either Graham Bonnet, Joe Lynn Turner or even Doogie White on the vocals along with possibly Bob Daisley or Bobby Rondinelli amongst many other former members being asked to catch the Rainbow one last time.
The truth of the matter was that the phone never rang for any of them.
When news broke announcing the new line-up, along with an unflattering promo shot of the band, many fans were left flummoxed and bemused. A brand new line-up of relatively unknowns left many afficionados feeling that Blackmore had well and truly lost the plot.
But Blackmore is no fool; it wasn’t the first time in his long illustrious career that he had brought along a complete unknown and put the kid in the spotlight.
Chilean born Ronnie Romero, frontman of Spanish Metal band Lords Of Black, was the man given the daunting task of not only singing the songs of Rainbow, but also Deep Purple.
Joining him is Jens Johansson on the keys who has proved his worth with Dio, Yngwie Malmsteen and Stratovarius while The remainder of the line-up is from the comfort of Blackmore’s Night with drummer David Keith, a returning Bob Nouveau on bass with Christina Lynn Skelros and Ritchie’s wife Candice Night on backing vocals.
The choice of the Genting Arena in Birmingham was a surprising one given that the last time Ritchie last performed here was with Deep Purple in 1993 when the venue was known as the NEC. That concert is immortalised on the ‘Come Hell Or High Water’ DVD when Blackmore infamously come on stage late halfway through ‘Highway Star’ and promptly threw a cup of water over a cameraman/Ian Gillan, depending on which story you wish to believe.
Having said that, it was no surprise that a London venue wasn’t chosen for this one-off UK date as Ritchie hasn’t set foot in the capital since a rather awkward Blackmore’s Night gig at the Cambridge Theatre way back at the start of the Millennium.
Concerns were being raised about these three shows during the build up. At 71-years-of-age could Ritchie still cut it? More fears were heightened when in February Blackmore underwent a finger operation to remove an excess of uric acid build up in his finger joint and it would be at least a month before it healed and he could strum the strings again.
Reports from the two German shows were mixed with many connoisseur fans saying that Blackmore was performing at a rigid slower pace but there was high praise for Ronnie Romero with the second show being the much better of the two.
As clearly stated on the poster it was to be a show of both Rainbow and Deep Purple numbers, just as it had been on the previous Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow tour two decades previously.
Tensions before the show were high; personally I could hardly speak and I couldn’t believe it until I saw it with my very own eyes that Ritchie Blackmore would be back on stage doing what he does best and what any self respecting rock fan loves him for.
And then it finally happens – the music of Sir Edward Elgar’s ‘Pomp And Circumstance’ with the chorus of ‘Land Of Hope And Glory’ booms over the PA and then there he is, casually walking on stage dressed fully in black with a creamy white Stratocaster and he slips into the dreamy riff of ‘Over The Rainbow’.
Ronnie Romero is the last to appear; he walks out front and teases repeatedly: “Nobody gonna take my car…”, but something is amiss as Deep Purple’s driving anthem ‘Highway Star’ explodes into life. It’s driven along in third gear and struggles past the chequered flag.
A short pit stop and ‘Spotlight Kid’ follows, the only Joe Lynn Turner vocal era track performed and Blackmore loosens up but the first jaw dropping moment comes with the epic ten minute ballad ‘Mistreated’. Ronnie Romero’s voice really comes to the fore on this number and he handles the big vocals of Ronnie James Dio with ease.
Ritchie performs the first real intricate solo of the night and it’s full of emotion and passion. He looked happy afterwards, bending down on one knee to give a lucky fan down the front a pint of beer.
A simple shoe shine version of the commercial hit ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’ is quickly knocked out to please the masses, the only Rainbow hit single included in the set much to the dismay of Blackmore newcomers.
A crunching ‘Man On The Silver Mountain’ and once again Romero proved he’s got the pipes to match his predecessor on this belting number while Ritchie picks up the acoustic for a flamenco intro that led to the beautiful ‘Soldier Of Fortune’ with the crowd joining Romero on the vocals; delightful.
The instrumental ‘Difficult To Cure’ gave the band a chance to prove their worth with bass, drum and keyboard solos and for many the first chance to nip to the bar for a refreshing beer, myself included.
The dreamy ‘Catch The Rainbow’ was completely spine tingling with Romero holding court as Blackmore drifts into a sublime delicate solo and although there was not to be a crescendo ending it was still marvellous.
‘Perfect Strangers’ lacked bite and power, as did ‘Long Live Rock ‘N Roll’ where Ritchie performed the intro in a more swinging blues style and this is what is evident throughout his whole performance; at 71-years-of-age, the demonic ferociousness of before is replaced with a more relaxed approach, the question being, is Ritchie playing to his full abilities or purposely adopting a calmed self restraint in his twilight years?
A song that Deep Purple haven’t performed in many years is ‘Child In Time’ and Ritchie might be having a little dig at Ian Gillan here by including it in the set for the first time under the Rainbow banner, but what a magnificent version it was with once again the crowd being encouraged to join in on the words; magical.
A majestic ‘Stargazer’ was stunning with Blackmore really finding his depth on this epic number while ‘Black Night’ ended the main set and was basically a free for all jam with Blackmore playfully playing on and off letting the band and crowd do the work.
The first encore, a rip roaring version of ‘Burn’, set the Genting Arena alight with ecstasy as Blackmore duels with Jens Johansson who was on good Lordy form all evening.
Romero gave out the band introductions and then surprisingly Ritchie took the microphone to praise his impressive frontman before the grand finale of ‘Smoke On The Water’ with stripped spoken intro before that immortal riff.
There was to be no smashing up of the guitar or exploding amps to signal the end – Blackmore carefully laid his Stratocaster on the floor and took a bow with the band before leaving Candice Night and Christina Lynn Skelros to merrily jig with other band members on the stage in celebration.
This was a different Ritchie Blackmore and all eyes were transfixed on the enigma throughout the entire gig, watching his every move.
It was a surreal and euphoric experience watching an icon who although he divides opinion with everything he does, is still one who fans marvel at and stay deep in conversation about hours after the gig.
After the show there is no talk of the special effects or how great the pyrotechnics were, just passionate opinions of the set list, the performance, the band, the Man In Black… it was just like the good ole days…
There’s no doubt about it – Ritchie is God.
Since You’ve Been Gone
Man On A Silver Mountain
Soldier Of Fortune
Difficult To Cure
Catch The Rainbow
Long Live Rock ‘N Roll
Child In Time
Smoke On The Water