Yes, Judge Bill Gibron has tried his hand at the four-chord crunch of Deep Purple's seminal hit, but the result was more "joke" than "Smoke on the Water."
A Fire in the Sky
It's actually hard to say if there ever really was a definitive Deep Purple line-up. Consistent reconfigurations of players have always been part of the classic U.K. metal group's heritage. Yet to point to one particular parameter and say "that's Purple, pal!" would be rather hard to do. After all, the group started off as Roundabout, ditched the name and several members to form the first version of the band, then made even more changes before hitting popularity pay dirt. The version that created the vast majority of passionate Purple fans consisted of Ian Gillian (vocals), Roger Glover (bass), Jon Lord (keyboards), Ian Paice (drums), and Ritchie Blackmore (guitar). Referred to as "Mach II," it's the unit that recorded Brit-rock classics Deep Purple in Rock, Fireball, Machine Head, and Who Do We Think We Are. In 1974, Gillan and Glover left, and the replacements (including future Whitesnake frontman David Coverdale) began the process of regular musician shuffling. Only Paice and Lord have managed to stay within every single variation of the band.
Though often called Mach VII, the 1996 collective standing on the Montreaux Jazz Festival stage is about as close to Mach II as you will currently get. Everyone from the 1970-75 seminal line-up is here sans Blackmore, and if you can accept ex-Dixie Dregs/Kansas guitarist Steve Morse as a replacement, you'll have no real issue. Indeed, fans of Purple in all their incarnations will probably thrill at this hard-driving, solo-filled performance. It is loaded with expert playing and sonic improvisation. If you are only in it for the hits or only recognize the group from its '70s/'80s persona, you may find this a very genial, if generic, concert experience. Since Montreaux is so very important to the band—the classic track "Smoke on the Water" was directly inspired and references a casino fire they witnessed at the locale—there is an element of homecoming to this concert. Aside from age issues, with most of the band pushing past 50, the Purple performers are spry and spunky. The song selection mixes tracks from 1996's Purpendicular with a few golden oldies. Specifically, we hear:
• "Fireball"—from the 1971 album
If you are looking for the MTV hit "Perfect Strangers" (from the Mach II comeback album of the same name) or the classic "Highway Star," you will need to wander over to the bonus features. There they offer these two instantly recognizable songs, as well as "Sixty-Nine" (from the 1998 album Abandon), another version of "When a Blind Man Cries," and another Machine Head tune, "Lazy."
Let's begin with the band news—Ritchie Blackmore is, at least from this critic's perspective, definitely missed. Granted, Steve Morse's mesmerizing musicianship is something to behold. He can run his fingers across the frets with grace and groove, while all manner of magical sounds pour out of his amp. Still, he really is no substitute for one of Britain's premiere rock guitarists. Blackmore had a heavier, more manic feel to his solos and Morse never captures that sheer sonic slash. Throughout this concert performance, Jon Lord's grinding organ/keyboard work dominates more than Morse's nimble nuances. Indeed, there is a good overall band vibe to the mix, with no one member totally upfront or lost in the combination of sounds. Gillan, too, has seen better vocal days. He starts off shaky and finds a good groove about halfway through, then can't hold on to deliver "Smoke on the Water" come encore time. Indeed, he is off stage quite a bit, reduced to playing inaudible tambourine during extended solos. Though they make it look very improvisational and jam-oriented, you just know these are requisite rest periods so that Gillan can save his pipes.
On the upside, Glover and Paice are in fine form, laying down a rhythmic foundation that saves many a song. Equally impressive is Lord's keyboard work, which houses the occasional nod to classical and jazz in its big blasts of orgiastic organ. Indeed, when the band gets cooking, they are exceptional, musically. In fact, it's rare to hear such free and flowing metal in today's punch and pummel marketplace. While Gillan's banter is basic and the song selection perfunctory, the material really holds up. Even the big, broad ballad "When a Blind Man Cries" comes off as a stirring sonic statement. Yet one can't help but feel that there is more nostalgia than newness here. While the Purpendicular material comes off well ("Ted the Mechanic" really rocks), it just doesn't have the same impact as the older tracks. From a cinematic standpoint, the direction is decent if occasionally uninspired. We get plenty of close-ups on Morse's fingers and Gillan's jowls, but there are few full-on shots. Indeed, almost every image comes from the side of the stage. Anyone who has loved the band for decades will definitely enjoy this excellent aural onslaught. Others may simply ask why a bunch of old farts are still taking the stage to sell their old school sonics. Montreaux means a lot to this band. This 1996 mockup of the group may or may not fulfill your Deep Purple dreams. It's all a matter of personal taste.
From a purely technical perspective, the presentation here is exceptional. The 1.33:1 full-screen image is detailed and colorful, giving us a nice feeling for the mood and atmosphere of the show. There are, as stated before, too many close-ups on Morse's hands and the crowd can be called on to offer up the occasional hysterical reaction shot, but from a transfer standpoint, this is an excellent DVD. Sonically, the situation is even better. There are three mixes to choose from: PCM Stereo (good), Dolby Digital Surround 5.1 (fantastic), and DTS Digital Surround (amazing!). For the full concert feel, complete with spatial ambiance and directional elements, stick with the DTS configuration. As for bonuses, the aforementioned tracks from a 2000 concert appearance are all the disc has to offer. With an interesting essay following the band's many "Machs" as part of the insert booklet, we get a decent, if not very dense, selection of supplements.
With every rookie guitarist banging out the four chord progression from "Smoke on the Water" as a kind of instrumental rite of passage, Deep Purple will always hold a special place in the heart of heavy metal. Live in Montreaux argues for their continued in concert relevancy, even if the music they made three decades before gets more acknowledgement than their current compositions. As is the case with most classic rock acts, familiarity is what the fans want. With Deep Purple, however, that's almost impossible. After all, you never know which version of the band you'll get come show time.
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