Deep Purple at the O2

30th of November, 2011

Billed, not unjustifiably, as the rock event of the year, I simply could not resist shelling out for my fourth Deep Purple concert (over a fifteen year period), to hear the ‘Songs that Built Rock’ blasted out, accompanied by the 38 piece New Frankfurt Philharmonic Orchestra. The fact that another of my favourite bands – the wonderful Cheap Trick, who I’d never previously seen live – would be opening the show, was more than just a bonus: it was a promise of sheer musical nirvana.

The evening did not disappoint – hell no! I was still finding my seat while Cheap Trick were tearing through Ain’t that a Shame and, when they laid I Want You to Want Me on us a couple of songs later, was distinctly concerned that I might have missed most of their set. Not to worry, though – they had, as it turned out, elected to play their most famous song early in the proceedings, and there were plenty more riches still to be enjoyed from Rockford’s finest. Robin Zander, who has always been one of my favourite vocalists, was in superb voice throughout, and sounded magnificent on If You Want My Love. It was similarly spine-tingling to hear Rick Nielsen rattle off those famous licks and lead breaks on I Want You . . . , while Tom Petersson starred on a rousingly anarchic Sick Man of Europe from their current album, The Latest. Drummer Daxx Nielsen wowed the crowd (at least the sensible ones, who were paying attention) throughout – at once a powerhouse and a whirling dervish of manic energy – while classic songs like Surrender, California Man and Dream Police drove home the fact that those in attendance were in the presence of not one, but two, all-time great rock bands. Up there with I Want You . . . as, for me, the most special moment of their set was their stirring rendition of super-ballad The Flame, which sounded immensely powerful live. Cheap Trick have jokingly referred to themselves as ‘the world’s greatest opening act’, but the songs, musicianship and showmanship they have at their disposal entitles them to legendary status in their own right – a fact that I hope was impressed upon many of the fans in the impressively populated arena.

And then, the Purple. After the orchestra introduced themselves, the palpable anticipation from the audience reached fever pitch as Roger Glover and Ian Paice set the tension-filled intro to Highway Star in motion; since the early seventies, Deep Purple beginning a concert with that song has been acknowledged as one of the most exciting experiences that rock can offer, and it still has that power in spades. Most definitely. As has been their custom in recent years, Purple hit us with several songs in quick succession before Ian Gillan took the opportunity to say hello to the audience and, from the off, it was clear that Messrs. Morse and Airey were up for it and then some, tearing off some scorching solos on Hard Loving Man, Maybe I’m a Leo (gotta dig that funky electric piano!) and Strange Kind of Woman (along with the first song, on which Morse hit just the right crowd-pleasing notes in his take on the iconic solo that wrote Ritchie Blackmore’s name into legend).

I must confess that I got the wrong end of the stick when I first heard that Deep Purple would be touring with an orchestra, immediately calling to mind the ground-breaking symphonic associations of the band’s early history. Mr Gillan had explained in interviews during the tour’s progress that it was not a classical thing, but rather, “an enlarged version of whatever we fancy; think of it as the Count Basie Orchestra rather than something symphonic or a backing unit” (chat with Classic Rock magazine). And what a job they did of augmenting whatever Purple fancied; the brass and percussion often added a distinctly cinematic flavour to the muscular anthems like Smoke on the Water and Highway Star, while the swirling strings on Rapture of the Deep – to name but one song which clearly stood out as crying out for the orchestral treatment – were truly mesmerising. Indeed, the orchestral accompaniments never sounded out of place, and there were many moments of real sublimity to be savoured, such as their interplay with Airey on his wittily Lordly extended solo spot, and the frankly staggering violin solo and subsequent sparring with Morse that graced a rip-roaring Lazy. I was delighted, as always, to hear Woman from Tokyo, with its rollicking piano towards the end, and When a Blind Man Cries was as gorgeous as ever, featuring Gillan’s best vocal of the night, with the song’s melancholy grace powerfully enriched by the bluesy string arrangement. Glover and Paice were audacious enough to unleash their own solo showcases on the crowd very late in the proceedings – but Deep Purple fans are a discerning lot, and rewarded them with the attention and acclaim they deserved. Having briefly departed the stage after Smoke . . . , the band returned to dish out a side order of Green Onions, before sending everyone in the O2 home very happy indeed, with the strains of Hush and Black Night ringing in their ears. Thank you, and goodnight.

It’s quite amusing, in retrospect, to think of the musical culture clash represented by Deep Purple’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra on its first performance in 1969, and the contempt with which the musicians of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra regarded the hairy ‘erberts who had enlisted them for Jon Lord’s bold musical experiment. Watching Purple with an orchestra more than four decades later, I got the feeling that the superb musicians of the New Frankfurt Philharmonic genuinely had a blast playing with one of the greatest rock bands of all time. Deep Purple’s rich back catalogue is indeed worthy of such honorific augmentation, and having had the privilege of seeing and hearing it happen is something that I surely will never forget.

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