Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow

Bietigheim-Bissingen, Germany   June 18, 2016

On June the 18th I made the 6 hour drive from my home in the Netherlands to just outside Stuttgart in Germany to attend the long and eagerly awaited return of Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow. It has been 19 years since Ritchie played with a rock band, preferring to concentrate on the very successful Blackmore’s Night, as is his right. The usual social media frenzy ensued when he announced this tour and until the band line up was revealed, many observers reckoned on a familiar list of protagonists. They were proved wrong, but more of that later!

Of course before the main event, and because this was a festival, we had the rest of the bill to enjoy. First up was Thin Lizzy. Purists still argue that Lizzy have no relevance without Phil Lynott. However surely no one can argue the quality of the songs they have in their back catalogue; they must be heard by the latest generation of rock fan. Does this latest incarnation of the band do the music justice? Well in the main, yes they do. For their ‘Anniversary Shows’ (40 years since the release of ‘Jailbreak’ and 30 years since Phil departed) they have recruited a new rhythm section. From Aerosmith we got Tom Hamilton on bass and Judas Priest’s Scott Travis on drums. I have to say that although Scott does not ‘swing’ like Brian Downey, it was the best engine room the band have had since the original line up. Helped by a great sounding PA, the guys sounded big! The rest of the line up (for those who are not sure) is Scott Gorham (gtr), Damon Johnson (gtr), Darren Wharton (keys) and Ricky Warwick (vox and gtr). The set list was largely (and happily!) predictable except for a few gems such as ‘Killer on the Loose’ and the keyboard heavy ‘Angel of Death’ which were great to hear.

The band bask in the late afternoon sunshine and hammer through many numbers from the classic ‘Live and Dangerous’ album and score well with the enthusiastic, expectant and thankfully, dry German audience which numbers around 12,000. I would happily see Thin Lizzy on every tour; the music is timeless, classic and as stated earlier, deserves a quality group of individuals to do it justice. The credibility of any Lizzy line up will be ever debated but this legacy must live on. Of course it is natural to compare front men and Ricky is an admirable understudy to the much missed Phil Lynott. I just wish he would be more measured in his in between song audience address. He does tend to shout rather a lot (am I getting old?). A small negative in what was a great show.

After a short change over (during which time we had a man dressed as a woman singing oom-pah songs!?) we got Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. To most, this may seem like a strange choice for a support act on this bill. However, first consider that this band is massive in Germany and regularly sell out large venues as headliners and secondly, they are utterly sublime.

From the opener ‘Captain Bobby Stout’ thru classics such as ‘Martha’s Madman’, ‘Father of Day, Father of Night’, ‘For You’ and the obligatory ‘Blinded by the Light’ and ‘Davy’s on the Road Again’ this band showed that class is permanent; each a true master of their instrument and non-more so than vocalist Robert Hart who was on fire. The crowd went from a ‘metal sign’ slinging mob (for Thin Lizzy) to an attentive, appreciative and regularly dancing sea of smiles. The only criticism is that the set was too short, but I guess that is just a minor complaint; a thoroughly enjoyable set from a great band.

Just before 9pm and after a relatively short changeover a short classical interlude (Land of Hope & Glory) heralds the entrance from stage left of Mr Ritchie Blackmore. With trademark black attire and hat in place, the expectant crowd welcome an old friend. With the full seven piece band on stage we hear the immortal words “Toto, I have a feeling we are not in Kansas anymore”. Those two seconds of audio track was enough to send the crowd crazy; Rainbow are back! Joining RB on stage are vocalist Ronnie Romero, keyboardist Jens Johansson, drummer David Keith and bassist Bob Nouveau. In addition we have 2 female backing singers, one of which was Mrs Blackmore.

‘Highway Star’ is preceded by a short singalong, and then the band kick into the first verse; it is like a train has just left the station with 12,000 people on board. We are off. The sound is tremendous and the band immediately sounds tight and rehearsed (this contradicts reports from the previous (first) night). We soon find ourselves at the guitar solo in ‘Highway Star’ and Ritchie is in great form. His playing is a return to the 70’s, his guitar sound is powerful without being overly distorted and hence sounds clear and defined. I could swear I heard a collective sigh from the crowd as if to say “yeah, he’s still got it”….like anyone should have ever doubted it.

Next up we get ‘Spotlight Kid’ and it is apparent that, while this band may not have the power of previous Rainbow incarnations, the musicality remains and the songs sound fresh and more interesting. Bob Nouveau instantly adds an extra dimension and is far less straight up than a Glover or a Daisley. His approach to the music is quite fantastic.

Next we are straight into ‘Mistreated’ which was, for me, one of the highlights. Played impeccably and vocalist Ronnie Romero delivers a brilliant performance and already has the crowd in the palm of his hand. He has been called ‘Adam Lambert in sneakers’ but this guy is a great singer and frontman. He will spend the evening more than ably singing the Deep Purple tracks (of which we get six) and absolutely nailing the Rainbow tunes. The comparison with Ronnie James Dio is unavoidable and one that any singer would appreciate. Honestly, this guy is great.

‘16th Century Greensleeves’ starts with a funky guitar/vocal intro before the rest of the band come in. It is a great version with some lovely extended soloing from Ritchie and if it was possible to put all of the collective audience smiles together at this point, they would have reached Luxembourg.

A truncated version of ‘Since You Been Gone’ was both a surprising and welcome inclusion. It was slightly down tempo which (in my view) worked as it gave a little more breathing space for the band make it their own. From there we were into ‘Man on the Silver Mountain’ and that opening riff in the key of ‘G’ from Ritchie had the immediate familiarity of an old pair of shoes; fantastic. Again the soloing was Ritchie at his best and I am beginning to run out of superlatives.

‘Difficult to Cure’ encompassed drum and keyboard solos which I guess are obligatory and welcome especially at festivals where toilets are scarce! In all seriousness this is the ‘marmite’ part of the show. I enjoy it and would have enjoyed it more had the people around me not insisted on spending the whole of the keyboard solo talking! Anyway…..

‘Perfect Strangers’ was the weak song of the set and the only negative from the evening. The vocals were not up the high standard that Romero had already set for himself and it somehow it didn’t work.

‘Catch the Rainbow’, ‘Stargazer’ and ‘Long Live Rock and Roll’ were all delivered with intensity with some great playing from the whole band reinforcing (if it were needed) just how good the Rainbow back catalogue really is.

‘Child in Time’ must be every vocalist’s nightmare when it appears on a set list. To his credit Ronnie Romero did a great job and the up tempo middle part of the song was a joy to witness; again this is testament to a great band of musicians that had been assembled.

I guess we all could have guessed that ‘Black Night’ and ‘Smoke on the Water’ would make up the show’s finale (the latter being accompanied by fireworks) and whilst long-time fans of Mr Blackmore may have ‘Smoke overload’ it is fair to say that there really is only one way to bring the proceedings to an end.

So did it live up to the hype? Well I have to declare an interest here; I am a Blackmore fan and have been since I was a kid. In fact his influence on me goes further than my own guitar playing as my late mother swears I could frown before I could walk. That said, I did approach this gig without rose tinted glasses. I did, sadly, expect nothing but a lightweight nostalgia trip orchestrated by an old eccentric with only a passing historical interest in this genre music. I believed the doubters who could not see past the need for Ritchie to call up ex-members. I read too many opinions on social media. I even thought maybe, he was past it.

In reality I got to see the best gig of my life; yes, really I just wrote that. It wasn’t nostalgic at all. I didn’t watch this gig and spend my time making direct comparisons to all band line ups that came before. I took it at face value. Ritchie was inspirational; the band was brilliant; the song choice was (95%) spot on and the sound was perfect.

The other epiphany I had? Well the Rainbow material was far stronger than the Deep Purple songs…without question.

Here’s to next year’s Rainbow tour. Well one lives in hope!

© Ian Dunbar, Sound Clash
© Photo: Clemens Mitscher