Live Rock: Deep Purple at the Greek Theatre

By Mike Finkelstein

On Friday night Deep Purple played to a huge, revved up crowd at the Greek Theater. Perhaps an indication that this was going to be a high-energy night of music was the larger than usual number of muscle cars in the parking lot. Not only were all the seats at the Greek occupied, but so was much of the stage as Deep Purple was joined by a 25 piece orchestra.

Deep Purple’s place in rock history is significant.  Having begun in 1968, the band was one of the first to use their impressive instrumental chops to blend the best elements of classical, swinging jazz, blues and crunching rock into each song.   Making the music into an ambitious amalgamation became the calling card of bands who play what is now referred to as progressive rock.   Crunching riffs, of course, are the calling card of hard rock, which eventually developed into what many now just call heavy metal for image based reasons.  Deep Purple blazed the earliest progressive and hard rock trails, merged the two for their sound, and distinguished themselves in this field with a great pop sensibility.   They could make hit records and FM favorites, when FM radio was still underground.  As excessive as they could be live and on record, they also evolved to reign themselves in and begin writing catchy radio-friendly songs like “Smoke on the Water,” “Space Truckin’,” and “Woman From Tokyo.”

All of these were received ecstatically on this Friday night in 2011.

Deep Purple hit the stage shortly after dusk to eager anticipation from the crowd, opening with “Highway Star,” and the show lurched into overdrive.  This song is one of the most representative of the band’s merging of — for lack of better terms — progressive rock with…let’s just call it hard rock.   The song chugs along, always gaining momentum but changing speeds and textures, musically evoking a really good high speed drive through some dramatic scenery.    The middle section features classically structured, fugue-inspired breaks from both keyboards and guitar.  To be sure, inserting this type of a break into a rock song about driving really was taking a chance in its day.  Today it still sounds clever and tasteful, as it allows the song to breathe and allows the band a chance to put the pedal to the metal for the close of the number.

The approach was streamlined, the extended jams were gone and it was fun to see what the band would decide to play next.   We were treated to several rather obscure tracks, including “No One Came,” “When a Blind Man Cries,” and “Hard Lovin’ Man” from In Rock  and “Maybe I’m a Leo” and “Lazy” from Machine Head.    This is not to say that there weren’t a lot of solos in the show — there were.   They were just concise.   And of course, they were not played by Ritchie Blackmore or Jon Lord, but by Steve Morse on guitar and Don Airey on keys.

A Deep Purple show wouldn’t be complete without “Smoke on the Water,”  about watching their on site recording studio go up in flames next to Lake Geneva in 1971.  On Friday, the intro to this classic riff included other classic riffs from AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, and Guns ‘n Roses.   SOTW is, was, and will always be as ubiquitous a guitar riff as any of these, and Deep Purple really doesn’t need to play a note from the other bands to make a point about their song.

Deep Purple grew to immense popularity between 1970 and 1973 when the band featured founding members keyboardist Jon Lord , guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, and drummer Ian Paice with Ian Gillan on lead vocals and Roger Glover on bass.   This Mach 2 lineup wrote and recorded four hugely successful albums together that much of the material for Saturday’s show was culled from.  In the early 70’s Deep Purple were into stretching certain songs into explorative jams for upwards of half an hour.  The players took chances to explore their musical ideas, and entire sides of vinyl records could became one long song.  For this reason the set lists were often short and not so imaginative — which meant that many of the fans’ favorite album tracks didn’t stand a chance of being played live.

Currently the Deep Purple lineup starts with longtime members drummer Ian Paice, singer Ian Gillan and bassist Roger Glover, along with newer keyboardist Don Airey and guitarist Steve Morse.  What originally put Deep Purple onto the radio to stay was their great songs, and the voice of most of their hits belonged to Gillan.   Possessed of one of the prototypical power voices in rock, his legendary recorded screams and howls were often woven together with soulful, restrained straight singing.   On Friday, at age 65, he looked a bit like a British pensioner, but he could still hit the high notes. Of course, he did not try to sustain them as he would have in 1972.    Sometimes the beginnings of his phrasing got a little delayed but he always compensated to get the rest of the phrase synched with the drums.

When name bands replace name players the best they can usually hope for is that the new guys will sound like the recorded tracks to get the band over.   Since Deep Purple’s sound and writing depended mostly on two guys no longer with the band, Morse and Airey had their work cut out for them.   But Morse and Airey are two very accomplished players in their own rights.

In replacing Jon Lord, Don Airey was responsible for some very unique signature keyboard parts that define songs like “Lazy” and “Highway Star.” He is a rock veteran and has played with outfits ranging from Jethro Tull to Whitesnake, Rainbow, and Ozzy Osbourne. He was basically spot on for everything.   His Hammond organ work was outstanding and once, when it was time to stretch out he interestingly began to evoke Tarkus vintage Emerson Lake and Palmer.

Steve Morse is a guitar player’s guitar player, having founded the legendary instrumental band, Dixie Dregs in the 70’s.  The Dregs were so good at fusing styles and talent that people always wondered what would happen if they could work singing into the format.   For Morse, playing in Deep Purple since 1994 appears to be a very comfortable fit and a walk in the park with his talent.   He’s mostly playing Deep Purple covers…in Deep Purple, next to Ian Gillan!   On Friday he powered through the changes and when it was time to solo he gravitated toward a mellower Strat sound much like what Blackmore used for many of the Purple solos.  Keeping the hooks and signature licks of every song, Morse still put his own stamp on everything and even had his own showcase song, “Well Dressed Guitar.”    His runs are beautifully picked and move in chromatic flurries.  He also is very skilled with his delay unit and guitar volume knob, impressively affecting organ chords as he has with the Dregs.  On Friday, he skillfully stayed true to the lines we all know and love while weaving something new into the old songs.   Kudos to Steve Morse, the baby of the band at 56.

To watch DP play live is to recognize just how important the rhythm section is to vaulting a rock band onto the top shelf.  Ian Paice and Roger Glover remain, over the years, one of the most influential rhythm sections in rock music. All developing rock musicians learn how Deep Purple’s back line got it done.  On Friday, Paice and Glover thundered through the evening with remarkable ease and stamina.  They did not overplay anything.  Paice hit hard and he drums left handed, which is rare.  Glover, smiling delightedly and looking quite like a pirate under his bandana, danced smoothly and euphorically around the stage as he chorded and walked his bass. But they both stayed within the song’s structure. If it added to the effect of a set of changes, making them catchier melodically or harmonically, then the two players embellished as they went.   They have been playing together in Deep Purple dating back to at least 1970 and they seem to be joined at the hip rhythmically.  The key to powering the DP songs may well be in the way Paice plays his snare and high hat, at times just a little skewed towards the decay of the down beat and it comes across as quite funky.  Glover is right there with him and the melodic punch of his bass lends the song a certain extra bounce.   It’s beautiful in its simplicity.

Between a powerful band like Deep Purple and an entire orchestra, there was so much sound in the open air of the Greek Theater that at times it was too much to control.  In fact, the middle registers of the orchestra were washed out.  Still, during Morse’s and Airey’s solo spots, there was some tasty and audible exchange with the orchestra.

Ernie and the Automatics, from Massachusetts, opened the show.  A six piece, generically named band featuring 2 guitars, sax and a keyboard-playing singer they cruised through a respectable but ordinary set of blues based songs.   Then the drummer recalled to the audience that he had played LA in 1979 on a bill with Black Sabbath and Van Halen.    OK…They then proceeded to begin a medley of songs by the band Boston, which seemed odd.   During “Foreplay/Longtime” as the lead guitar player went into one of the tastier recorded bits of hard rock guitar playing one could imagine, we began to realize that the guy playing it was actually Barry Goudreau — who really was in Boston and really did record the original.  He had the same hair and moustache and the same red Gibson SG as he played in Boston.   We just hadn’t made the connection.  As the song climaxed the singer asked us to give it up for their drummer Sib Hashian, the original drummer of Boston.   These two guys were incognito in Ernie and the Automatics!  Weird, indeed, but in a good way.

To read more iRoM reviews by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.

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