Deep Purple

NEC, Birmingham

22 June 2003

Midnight. 22nd June. It's raining.

Exactly 18 years ago — to the very minute — I stood in a sea of mud (muddiest field I've ever been to...) in front of an empty stage and promised I would keep coming back. Eighteen years and 24 Deep Purple concerts later, I'm still keeping my promise.

More recently, defending my assertion that every concert I see is the best concert EVER, I tried to explain that, though objective hindsight might tell me differently, in my emotional state as I walk (or float) out of a concert hall it really does feel like the best ever. If I ever lost that feeling, there wouldn't be much point in going...

Last night at Wembley... was NOT the greatest concert I've ever seen. Oh, it was good, but... something was missing. The emotional charge wasn't there. And I've spent today kind of flat, not sure what comes next. Trying to analyse (without jumping to the obvious conclusion) what was wrong...

Was it the venue? I didn't have a particularly good seat, and Wembley Arena isn't a particularly good venue. I've been spoiled by great seats in wonderfully intimate theatres for last year's tour.

Was it the unadventurous set list? No, I've never been one of the "why don't they change the set?" contingent. I love every classic they played — saying I'm bored with it would be like saying I'm bored with Machine Head and won't ever play it again — obviously the ravings of a madman.

Part of the blame I put on Lynyrd Skynyrd. I admit, I'm not a fan. Freebird is the only Skynyrd song I can actually sing. But they won me over last night (and again tonight). They played a superb set, really connecting with the crowd, and they impressed me more than I was expecting. They gave Purple a tough act to follow...

Part of the blame I put on the crowd — at least in my immediate vicinity. Die-hard Skynyrd fans, dancing and singing throughout their set, they were then relatively subdued for Purple's set and it definitely affected the atmosphere.

But what was missing? Why didn't it feel as great as it should have been? Am I just Purpled-out? Have I seen them too much recently? Let it become too ordinary? I don't know. I don't think it was the band — they played as well as ever. It was something within me... maybe I've seen enough...

I know, I know, for a review of the NEC concert, I'm talking an awful lot about Wembley. But I need to put tonight in context. So you'll understand how I felt before the concert, with a kind of nervous dread growing over me. And so you'll know I'm being honest when I tell you that tonight's was, truly, the best concert I have EVER seen.

I don't like the NEC as a venue. But my seat tonight was infinitely better than the one I had at Wembley (...thank you :-)). Row D seat 9 happens to be precisely in front of the left-hand speaker stack. And oh my lord it was loud. But good loud — not painful, not distorted, perfectly clear. The kind of loud that thuds in your chest, takes over your heart beat, and lets you know it's a Deep Purple concert. And I got a much better sound quality than I normally expect from a barn like the NEC. I could also see all of the stage perfectly. Being to the left meant I saw Don in action much more clearly than usual — from the front all you can see is his head above the organ. And within plectrum-throwing distance of the world's greatest bass player (but I missed them all, dammit) is a pretty fine place to be.

The set is 90 minutes long, cut shorter than a normal Purple set to allow Lynyrd Skynyrd a fair playing time — something I don't begrudge, as Skynyrd are stars in their own right and deliver a fantastic performance. Song-wise, Purple's set was identical to last night. In other words, not much different from last year's tour. But... here we go... here's why I come to see this band again and again... everything remains fresh. Never the same arrangement twice. Always a stable core but dressed in an ever-changing mantle. [Damned stupid mixed metaphor... sorry.]

Don Airey absolutely shines. Hammond loud and clear in the mix, switching to synthesiser when it suits the song, a long piano ramble through numerous classical tunes for his solo spot. Marvellous jazz intro to Lazy, dance-along shuffle for Hush, lightning-fast runs on Speed King — he's bloody good. (Was he trying especially hard because Jon was in the audience? Hmm...)

Steve Morse, not to be overshadowed, stretched out his intros and solos at every opportunity, with a particularly manic display of virtuosity to introduce Smoke. I can't work out how they fitted it all in to 90 minutes — it felt longer.

No bass solo — but have you ever watched Roger play, up close? He rarely sticks to going dunk-a-dunk-a-dunk along with the drums, he's always playing something more complex and interesting than a simple bass rhythm, something my position let me appreciate more than usual tonight.

No drum solo — but, again, Ian Paice never plays a simple rhythm; he's always filling songs with something interesting, soloing all the time. Just as a jazz drummer should...

And Ian Gillan — he's on fine form tonight, screaming freely through the songs. An outstanding power performance, demonstrating why he regularly gets asked to duet with Luciano Pavarotti... How many singers could sing the guitar solos from Highway Star or Speed King? And how many of those will be able to do it when they're 58? Astounding... Ian talks very little in this shortened set — presumably time is tight. Sometimes he has to be reminded, however: "There's a funny story behind that song..." [drum roll introduces the next song] "...but it doesn't look like I'm going to tell you it." But Ian's bad jokes aren't missed because there's plenty of humour in the bizarre random verses that emerge as he yet again forgets the words to songs he's been singing for 30 years (but that's why we love him...).

Why was tonight's show so much better than last night? I don't know... it just was.

Last night I came out singing Freebird. Tonight I came out singing "Haunted, haunted, is that what you wanted, la la la haunted..." (Thank god the rest of the crowd were probably deaf by then!)

Hey, I'm singing a song from the new album! It's a good sign...

Oh god, this has taken two hours to write and the coffee has run out. I think I might die now...

But I'll die happy.

Because Deep Purple is still The Greatest Rock Band In The World.

I'll keep going as long as they do. I promised.