The announcement that Ritchie Blackmore was to perform a handful of shows with a new incarnation of Rainbow came as a complete surprise. With the exception of power-metal stalwart Jens Johansson on keys, the band was made up of relative unknowns, including Ronnie Romero on vocals. In recent year Blackmore has devoted his creative energies to the medieval folk-pop of Blackmore’s Night, and it’s been many, many years since he last played a hard rock gig on a major stage. So there was much anticipation and speculation as to what to expect. Would the shows be a triumph, or turn out to be a complete car crash? Enough people were willing to take a risk that the sixteen-thousand capacity Genting Arena in Birmingham sold out within 24 hours of going on general sale.
Opening the show, for one of the biggest gigs of their career, was Mostly Autumn. To be strictly accurate is was four-sevenths of Mostly Autumn; the restricted space available on the stage meant there was only room for a cut-down foursome comprising Bryan Josh, Olivia Sparnenn, Alex Cromarty and Iain Jennings, covering the bass on keys. Bryan told us how he’s been a fan of Blackmore since he was 10, and never expected to be the opening act for Rainbow in an arena.
A fusillade of drums and Bryan’s Blackmore-like spiralling guitar figure of “In for the bite” opened their six-song set, which included the standards “Evergreen” and “Heroes Never Die”, more recent hard rockers “Drops of the Sun” and “Deep in Borrowdale”, and a spine-tingling “Silhouettes of Stolen Ghosts”. Even though the arrangements lost the layers of the full band, the songs chosen still worked remarkably well in cut-down format, and there was plenty of Bryan Josh’s soaring lead guitar. Aside from an unfortunate pause when a string came loose mid-song, it came over well and the band deserve to have won over new fans with that one.
Rainbow began with that familiar opening from the classic 1977 live album; the intro tape of Judy Garland from the Wizard of Oz and Blackmore playing the main theme from “Over the Rainbow”. Then he launched into the intro of “Highway Star” with Ronnie Romero repeating the opening line over the intro before Blackmore hit the opening riff and launched into the song proper.
Over the next two hours it was greatest hits from across the Rainbow and Deep Purple songbook. “Spotlight Kid” and “Mistreated” early in the set didn’t quite catch fire, but from then on things got steadily better as the show went on and Blackmore loosened up. At 71 years of age he doesn’t have the speed of decades past, for example “Catch the Rainbow” had a slower more melodic solo rather than the blur of notes of his 1970s performances. But that distinctive classical phrasing is still there.
Ronnie Romero proved to have a fine voice, and came over best on Ronnie Dio and David Coverdale songs, though his dark take of “Perfect Strangers” impressed a lot, and he succeeded in projecting himself to the crowd as a frontman. Two backing singers including Blackmore’s other half Candace Night filled out the sound.
Once or twice things faltered; in particular the somewhat butchered version of “Since You’ve Been Gone” didn’t quite come off. In contrast, the acoustic version of “Soldier of Fortune” was a delight. The rocked-out version of Beethoven’s ninth, “Difficult to Cure” became a vehicle for solos, first a drum solo that was short enough not to outstay its welcome, then, horror of horrors, a bass solo, and finally an interminable keyboard solo. It actually started out well with jazz flavoured Hammond, but lost its way with an overlong classical style piano section and blasts of every differed keyboard effect from 70s parps to pipe organ. It’s Blackmore the audience paid to see, and this sort of thing should have been left in the 70s where it belonged.
The best came towards the end. After an impressive “Child in Time” with the two backing singers adding another dimension came a truly monstrous take on what has to be the definitive Rainbow song, “Stargazer”. Romero nailed the vocal and Blackmore himself was on fire for the solo. They finished the main set with the early Purple hit “Black Night” tailing off with the audience singing the riff over and over as the band left the stage.
Any worries that Blackmore would throw one his legendary strops and refuse to do an encore proved groundless; they were back with a rendition of “Burn” as monstrous as Stargazer before it. But still they weren’t quite done. Romero led the audience through an a capella first verse of “Smoke on the Water” before Blackmore came in for That Riff after the first chorus.
Despite a slightly shaky start this ended as a triumphal gig; the power and intensity of the last few songs in particular sent the audience away feeling they’d had their money’s worth. Here were songs few thought they’d ever hear played live by anything other than tribute bands a year ago, and for some, Stargazer alone was worth the price of the ticket. These shows were initially going to be one-offs, but Blackmore has since hinted that they may be further shows next year.