Genting Arena, Birmingham

28 June 2017

Back at the NEC. I always say I'm not coming back. It's not an easy place to get to, and I don't like concerts in big sheds, then somebody unmissable plays here and I come back. And you know what, it's not actually as bad as I remember; it's still a pain to get to, but it's quite a decent venue, well organised, helpful staff, and a better sound than I remember. And most importantly, it's the place I've just seen the best concert I've ever seen.

I need to talk about Sweet, who are probably the best support band I've ever seen. Honestly, every big gig should have Sweet as the support. It doesn't matter if you're not a fan, you'll know and like every song in their set, and they're (unexpectedly, for me) a really tight and hard-rocking unit on stage. They do exactly what you want a support band to do: play up-beat, catchy, happy songs, have a great rapport with the crowd, put you in a good mood, and raise your excitement for the rest of the gig. They deservedly got a great crowd reaction—how many support bands get a standing ovation?—and they finish their set of hits with the entire crowd (literally, I looked around and it was every person in the full arena) on their feet and singing along to Blockbuster and Ballroom Blitz. Phenomenal.

Then a shortish wait for Rainbow to come on. Same intro tape as at Glasgow: Ritchie's version of Land of Hope and Glory (but honestly, it should have been an orchestral version) then the band casually saunters on in time for Judy Garland to tell us we're Over the Rainbow, and......

Ok, I went to Glasgow with realistic expectations of what a man in his 70s who hasn't played proper rock for 20 years would be capable of. And he met those expectations, playing well but maybe a bit slower and with less fire, maybe a bit hesitant and "under-rehearsed", but still playing with the Blackmore sound and playing all the classics I wanted to hear. I loved Glasgow and went home very happy. And so I came to Birmingham with the same level of expectation.

And for two hours and twenty minutes, Ritchie Blackmore proceeded to blow every expectation out of the water with a set so good, it was......no, it wasn't perfect, there were dodgy bits, but it felt perfect. It felt as good as any Blackmore concert I have ever seen.

Listen, stop reading people on the Internet who weren't there and will try to tell you his band isn't any good. This is a great band who deliver exactly what they need to. David Keith was the stand-out performer. He's a monstrous drummer with a huge, powerful sound, easily driving songs like Stargazer, and played one of the most entertaining solos I have ever witnessed. As in Glasgow, it was musically well constructed, not just an exercise in how fast he could rattle around his kit. And then in mid-solo, singer Ronnie Romero came out with a pair of drumsticks and joined in on a spare drum, eventually taking Keith's seat and keeping up the beat while Keith stood up, walked round to the front of the kit to play a solo on the cymbals, before completing his tour round the kit and swapping seats again. I've never seen anything like it, but more than just the theatrical element, the solo/duet was still musically perfectly constructed, a whole instrumental tune in itself.

Ronnie Romero, as well as surprising us all by being a competent drummer, deserves massive credit for taking on the impossible role of being five singers: Ian Gillan, David Coverdale (and technically Glenn Hughes on Burn I suppose), Ronnie James Dio, Graham Bonnet, and Joe Lynn Turner. It is an impossible job, and he occasionally falls short—his Dio is better than his Gillan, for example—but he's got a monstrously powerful voice and gives 100% effort even on songs that are clearly out of his range (*ahem*Child in Time*ahem*). His rapport with the audience is limited, and that might be because English isn't his first language, but his rapport with Ritchie—and that's probably more important—seems to be excellent. Ritchie is in a great mood, heckling the singer, shouting at the audience, and generally appearing happy to be playing the songs even if not terribly mobile on stage.

Ritchie Blackmore. He's really the only person the review needs to talk about, because he's why we are all there, and his playing ability and interest in playing rock music again was the big question mark over the evening. And his ability is still there. He has slowed down a little. He occasionally loses his way in a solo. He slips too easily into rhythm or slide playing when we want a proper solo—I think maybe he has to, in order to rest his fingers. In the first song (Spotlight Kid) he does appear to be holding back—the keyboard takes a more prominent solo than the guitar—but then in I Surrender he does tear into a solo, short but perfect, the Blackmore-flurry of notes tumbling out, and it's obvious that he can still do it, and he *wants* to do it. By Mistreated, the classic riff is majestically powerful, and then the solo is......Ritchie Blackmore can still make me cry with just a few guitar notes. He's playing beautifully, tone perfect, the solo short but flowing fluidly and sounding like everything you could want.

Man on the Silver Mountain, a solid version but doesn't leave any lasting impressions on me... played with a picture of Ronnie Dio on the backdrop (the back projections were sometimes poignant, like this, but often unnecessary and I would actually prefer a simple rainbow with no fancy projections; the lights were dramatically beautiful though, I should mention that before I forget). MOTSM interpolates a short (just one verse) Woman from Tokyo, a surprise change from Glasgow.

Ritchie takes up an acoustic, sits down to play, tells Romero (close enough to the mic that we all hear) that this is where he will lose the crowd. He's wrong of course (as if he didn't know), as from the first notes of Soldier Of Fortune we're singing every word (and shutting up when it comes to the most beautiful solo ever).

Perfect Strangers was probably the weakest song of the night, something about it doesn't sound right, Romero can't really handle Gillan's range but it's not just that. I honestly prefer the recent versions by that other band who I won't name here.

Difficult to Cure is played mostly with the slide, but in this context that sounds right (did I mention I love how Ritchie plays slide guitar? beautiful sound, completely unlike anyone else), and then when it comes to the double fugue (no, I don't mean the double fugue, I mean the bit right before that—you know what I mean) he drops the slide and picks a blindingly fast solo to show he can if he wants. He leaves the stage for the band to play alone briefly, then there's a keyboard solo which I actually thought was not particularly well constructed.

I think I missed Since You Been Gone somewhere up there, but like the next song, All Night Long, it's an unadventurous version but a crowd-pleasing riff and it gives a chance for a singalong. But because we're completely stupid, we also sing along to the next song: Child in Time. There's a huge roar of recognition as the first three notes are picked, then the crowd sings every word. Romero holds the mic out for the screams, and we do those too (to be fair, we do them just as well as he does, he really can't do Gillan, but he roars along with great enthusiasm just as we do, and that's good enough for the occasion; the (female) backing singers probably make the best job of actually screaming in tune). The solo is short, and it's noisily messy with the band thundering along behind it, but noisily messy in a good way. Ritchie Blackmore does random noise better than anyone.

Child in Time is almost impossible to follow—I think Romero tells us he's going to give up now—but there's the classic drum break (faithfully reproduced) that introduces Stargazer, and Romero sounds much more comfortable back on Dio material again, and of course Stargazer is the Rainbow song everyone wants to hear. The drums are suitably thunderous, the riff cuts through powerfully, and the solo very satisfying, if short again.

Long Live Rock'n'Roll, and yes ok it's another good singalong but unspectacular.

Then a surprise, and a deviation from the Glasgow gig as Ritchie plays some blues. I mean, Blues (you know what I mean), which segue into Lazy, a short version but it's brilliant, played at a sensible tempo (far better than the too-fast versions he was playing in the 80s) so it sounds like a proper blues tune, and with some great Hammond work from Jens Johansson.

Another deviation from Glasgow, and for me the song I really, really wanted to hear: Catch the Rainbow. I don't have words for this. I'm looking at the screen and I'm just... no, I can't tell you what it was like. I'm just going to cry instead.

Black Night, and yes ok it's sort of inevitable but if I never heard this live again I wouldn't complain. And at least the rest of crowd is happy to sing it again.

Ritchie takes up an acoustic again, and those of us who were at Glasgow are expecting Temple of the King, but no, Romero leaves the stage and Ritchie plays something it took me a minute to recognise, and only really got when they projected Jon Lord's face on the screen—the tune he wrote after hearing of Jon's death, called simply "Carry on Jon". It was released on a Blackmore's Night album, and I suspect not many in the audience are big Blackmore's Night fans so it must have been new to a lot of people, but absolutely everybody shut up and listened to the whole thing in rapt attention. 10,000 people have just been screaming and partying through Black Night and are now just quietly listening to an acoustic instrumental. It's really quite remarkable. Ritchie Blackmore's command of an audience is absolute, even now. It's the highlight of the night.

Switching gears, it's back to the Strat and time to wake the crowd up again, we're well over the two-hour mark now and he's still got the energy to power through the riff to Burn, and still pulling out short but stunning solos, sometimes more noisy than melodic but noise is good, it's the switch from melody to noise, from structure to chaos, that makes Ritchie Blackmore what he is.

The band seem to have forgotten to go off and come back on for an encore, they just go straight into their last song and finish, but that's fine, I'd rather have a full set played all the way through than a pretend-to-finish-so-they'll-cheer-a-bit-more-before-our-last-song. So one more song and they're done, two hours and twenty minutes of highlight-after-highlight.

Oh, the last song? Smoke, obviously. And Ritchie gets the riff wrong. But you know what? He's been getting the riff wrong since 1972. It's his riff, he's allowed to.

Conclusion? Best concert I've ever seen. Duh.