Deep Purple

O2, London

3 December 2015

The O2 is really big. I mean, really, stupidly big. I've seen it on telly, but that doesn't prepare you for how it actually looks. Biggest venue I've ever been in. I knew I hadn't got a great seat, high up and off to the side. What I didn't know was that the O2 is so big I would be six miles from the stage and 8,000 feet above the floor of the arena on a near-vertical bank of vertiginous seats. Good grief.

Despite the size, it looked respectably full. Part of the back was curtained off, and the very top tiers were sparsely populated, but the ground and all the lower tiers I could see looked sold out. And a big chunk of the audience were in place for the support band, Rival Sons, who seemed to be pretty popular. It's the first time I've heard them, and they really are pretty good, great musicians playing blues rock with a very strong Led Zeppelin influence. Went down well with the crowd and did exactly what you want a support band to do.

Despite enjoying Rival Sons, by the time Deep Purple came on I was feeling a bit disgruntled. First because I was so far from the stage, the band looked like dots. Second, because the drum kit was completely hidden from me by a big video screen.

If you need a big video screen to show the performers, your venue is too big. If the screen blocks part of the band from the view of a fair chunk of the audience, that's just incompetent planning, not to mention thoughless and poor customer service.

And thirdly, and I never thought I would be saying this about a rock gig these days, it was TOO QUIET! I should feel Deep Purple's bass vibrating through my chest and be deaf for days afterwards. This is just all wrong.

So, ok, the band comes on (intro music is Mars, as on the last tour) and tear into the the first song and I'm just sitting (yes, sitting, I daren't stand, I'm too high, fourth black mark against the venue) and brooding on all these annoyances.

Then, about one verse in, or possibly somewhere around the first organ solo, my brain suddenly went OH MY GOD IT'S DEEP PURPLE PLAYING HIGHWAY STAR! And I didn't care how awful my seat was because that's the best thing EVER.

And they went through the first four songs without a pause, Highway Star, Bloodsucker, Hard Lovin' Man (and maybe Gillan shouldn't have attempted it, he doesn't sound powerful at all, but it's instrumentally perfect, Don's organ solo is ferocious and the rhythm section is relentless (but it's all too quiet...)) and Strange Kind of Woman. It's at the end of SKOW that the band starts to loosen up. Ian and Steve start the traditional call-and-response section, but instead of singing one line for Steve to mimic Ian goes into a long nonsense monologue and looks like he won't stop, while Steve just looks as if he's considering calling the men in white coats. When Ian pauses for breath, Steve gamely plays the whole monologue back on guitar. "Word perfect," says Ian.

There's finally a pause for applause, and Ian starts actually introducing the songs by way of a long story in several installments, involving a blood-smeared pool table, a mule chalking a pool cue, a plane made of balsa wood and sticky tape, and, oh I forget, it was all completely potty.

So after the run of 'oldies', some newer songs. Vincent Price gets a big cheer from the crowd and gets everybody around me dancing in their seats (who says people only go to the gigs for the old hits?). A short instrumental jam resolves itself into Uncommon Man. Hell To Pay is played fairly straight, it's a good song but I'm sure they could substitute something better. The Well Dressed Guitar is something that should never be substituted out, it just stuns me every time I hear it. Somewhere in there Steve gets a solo, showing off sounds you shouldn't be able to make with a guitar, but it's not just an excuse to show off his technique, it also sounds beautiful.

A guest violinist joins them on stage — Ian gave his name but I didn't catch it — and plays a short, improvised duet with Don, which is interesting. It slowly becomes evident that Don is improvising themes on Lazy, and sure enough the band joins in for Lazy. The violinist seems a bit superflouous here, Don and Steve go wild with the solos and there isn't really any room left for the violin.

We get one verse of The Mule before it turns into a drum solo, and as usual from Ian Paice, it's the best drum solo I've ever heard and, also as usual, it's not long enough.

Don gets a solo, beginning on mini Moog (and sounding perilously close to a Rainbow song) before switching to piano for a long ramble through multiple classical, jazz, and popular styles, then back to some avant-garde electronic doodling before turning back to the Hammond to play the majestic opening chords of Deep Purple's best ever song. His solo has a familiar pattern, even though it's always different, but even though you know he's going to crank out the Perfect Strangers opening at the end, it's still an intensely dramatic moment.

We know from experience that we're nearing the end now, and as expected Space Truckin' comes next (and Ian doesn't sound great on it again; he's been variable throughout the night, and I wish they would adjust the set to accomodate what his voice can do now). The guitar player from Rival Sons joins them for the last song, playing a short jam with Steve then doubling up on the riff to Smoke on the Water (it's a good job he knew it!). Steve lets him take the first half of the solo too, and he plays something that fits perfectly without just copying the "proper" solo. Yes, I'm very impressed with him.

And I know I say I wish they would drop some of the classics to make way for newer songs, but there is no more perfect part of a Deep Purple concert than singing Smoke with Ian telling me he can't hear me.

The way I want to die is at a Deep Purple concert, singing Smoke on the Water with Ian Gillan telling me he can't hear me.

When I'm 108.

Encores: a very short Green Onions, then into Hush. Steve and Don finally get a serious guitar-and-organ call-and-response going, Don leading. Steve actually breaks a string, and keeps playing, still managing to echo back every run Don plays no matter how fast or complex. Astonishing.

Roger finally gets a bass solo. He's been out of the spotlight all night, just quietly getting on with being the most important member of the band, but now he gets a few minutes to show how you can play bass guitar melodically, like a lead instrument.

And the bass solo winds its way into the Black Night riff, played fairly short and straight, and that's it.

Five minutes short of two hours. Roger stays on stage long after the house lights come up, sailing guitar picks out into the departing audience.

Best band in the world.

Best concert I've ever been to.

Absolute worst venue.