CD Review: Rainbow "Live in Germany 1976"

CD  Review: Rainbow "Live in Germany 1976"
Eagle Records
All Access Review: A-

Never one to be careful with his words – it’s been said, after all, that he infamously referred to the elements of funk and soul that Glenn Hughes and David Coverdale injected into the Mark IV version of Deep Purple as “shoeshine music,” not exactly the most politically correct of descriptions – guitar sorcerer Ritchie Blackmore had “creative differences” with just about everybody who was ever in Rainbow. Notorious for being difficult to work with, Blackmore burned bridges over and over with a series of firings that led to massive personnel overhauls in Rainbow – this after already having swum away from what he surely perceived as a sinking ship of dysfunction in the last incarnation of Deep Purple, born out by the cold public shoulder given to Purple’s last hurrah, at least before later reunions, Come Taste the Band.

Go all the way back to the messy birth of Rainbow, those sessions in Tampa Bay, Florida that yielded what was originally going to be Blackmore’s first solo salvo across Purple’s bow, a single with a version of the Steve Hammond-penned “Black Sheep of the Family” and “Sixteenth Century Greensleeves” on the B-side. Though still technically in Deep Purple at the time, Blackmore, his aspirations leaning toward a more classical interpretation of hard rock and heavy metal, had holed up with Dio in a hot, muggy place where retirees go to die with ace musicians like keyboardist Matthew Fischer of Procol Harum, ELO cellist Hugh McDowell, and Dio’s band mate in Elf, drummer Gary Driscoll . The results pleased Blackmore so much that he decided to make a solo album – just with a whole new cast of characters. Keeping Driscoll, Blackmore and Dio gathered up the remnants of Elf, aside from guitarist David Feinstein, and with bassist Craig Gruber and keyboardist Mickey Lee Soule, they crafted Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, a medieval fantasy world of an album marred by bad sound and occasional lapses in musical judgment and taste.

Which brings us to 1976’s Rainbow Rising, a metal classic by any standard of measurement. Every bit the killing machine that Deep Purple was in its finest hour, the lineup that recorded Rising – none of whom were around for Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, except, of course, Dio – barely harnessed its considerable horsepower on that great record. There was Tony Carey on keyboards, Jimmy Bain on bass and the all-powerful Cozy Powell on drums, and the combination was magical. But the thing about Blackmore, aside from his ability to mold and sculpt some of the most unforgettable riffs in rock history and reel off solos that fly closer to the sun than Icarus ever dreamed possible, is that he simply cannot compromise his artistic vision. It isn’t in his nature. And so, again, Blackmore issued pink slips to everybody, Dio being the only survivor in this purge. This time, however, Blackmore went a bit too far. Rainbow never again was this good.

But before the inglorious end of this version of Rainbow, a 1977 live album, Rainbow on Stage, was issued, and it was a lead balloon. It culled a patchwork of muted concert performances of the Rising crew, mostly from shows in Japan, with a couple tracks from shows in Germany. Lacking the fire and brimstone normally generated by the Rising gang when confronting an audience, it’s a lukewarm representation at best and it was missing one of the band’s greatest achievements, “Stargazer.” Thirty-four years later, the ghosts of Bain, Powell, Carey, Dio and Blackmore are avenged by Rainbow: Live in Germany 1976, a two-disc collection of long-lost performances of that revered lineup from their scorched-earth tour of German hamlets like Cologne, Munich, Dusseldorf and Mannheim.

Gathered from reels of tape found in vaults in London, as the brief liner notes here indicate, the eight songs – all except two eclipsing the 13:00 mark – that comprise this release all burn with intensity. Free to explore his every whim on the guitar, Blackmore gives a performance for the ages. Opening Disc 1 with a relatively compact 5:25 “Kill the King,” the band, propulsive and feeling its oats, comes out with guns blazing as Blackmore fires a hail of notes as arrows into the crowd and drives the band’s unstoppable momentum with motoring riffs. The bluesy, Zeppelin-esque stomper “Mistreated,” which Blackmore wrote with Coverdale, follows and is drenched in exotica. It’s a vision quest for Blackmore, where he emits quiet, meditative guitar codes for ancient astronauts before painting the sky with echoing, hallucinatory chords and epic runs across the expanse of the universe. Even more disarming is how Blackmore’s insistent, pulverizing riffs pound away in “Sixteenth Century Greensleeves,” while still managing to shoulder the melody like a muscle-bound steelworker carrying an I-beam as Carey, Powell and Bain construct the song’s sturdy framework with workmanlike attention to detail.

Dio sings the transcendent Disc One closer “Catch a Rainbow” beautifully, letting Blackmore reveal intimate little eddies of sonic mystery and wonderment before the epic build-up comes on a like a sudden storm and whips up gale force winds of sound, with his aerial guitar acrobatics diving and rising like some sort of flying dragon. It’s magnificent to behold, as are the furious, demonic grooves Blackmore and company push and prod in an absolutely gripping “Man on a Silver Mountain” tour de force. Carey channels his inner Keith Emerson in the dancing keyboards that introduce “Stargazer,” another massive, powerful undertaking that clocks in at 17:10 and takes all kinds of strange, but utterly beguiling, twists and turns, while never losing the plot. All of which sets the stage for the rhythmically dynamic, thundering canon of “Still I’m Sad” and “Do You Close Your Eyes,” played at top speed and full of balled-up energy that simply explodes at Blackmore’s command. His soloing has never been as wild or as carefree, while still retaining the precision, care and blinding speed that has made him a legend.

An exhausting listen that leaves one breathless and satisfied, like the best concerts do, Rainbow Live in Germany 1976 provides an ironclad argument for Blackmore to not mess with a good thing. The chemistry between these musicians is obvious, and Dio wails as if he’s chained and held aloft above a hot bonfire of guitars, bass, keyboards and drums that never turn to ash. Simply put, this the live album Rainbow should have put out in 1977, but … well, better late than never I suppose.

-          Peter Lindblad

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