Dio back on the road – as a hologram

It used to be said death was a great career move for musicians; at least for those who still stood to gain from the music they left behind that was certainly the case, as albums would be repackaged over and over again with ‘unreleased’, ‘demo’ or ‘rare’ material often added. Until now it was never considered that the deceased artist could actually be sent back out on tour, but that’s all changed now with the news that a holographic recreation of Ronnie James Dio is to go on the road, backed by a live band featuring musicians part of the last Dio line-up to tour while he was still alive.

Perhaps presumptuously, this tour is called ‘Dio Returns’ and several dates across Europe have already been announced for November/December this year. The holographic recreation of Dio made its ‘live’ debut last year at Wacken Open Air festival in Germany, at the end of a performance by Dio Disciples (formed from the surviving members of the last Dio line-up), with a rendition of ‘We Rock’ using vocal taken from a DVD issued in 2002. The hologram is the work of Eyellusion who collaborated with Wendy Dio (Ronnie’s widow/former manager), and it made a further appearance at this year’s Pollstar Awards with the band performing live alongside the hologram.

At the time of writing there haven’t been any further dates confirmed, although the camp have promised a ‘world tour’ taking in many countries including the UK. I consider myself one of Dio’s long-time fans, having first seen him with the original incarnation of his own band at the 1983 Donington, going on to see many performances afterwards including three occasions with Black Sabbath/Heaven and Hell. The blurb promises a set taking in his spells with Rainbow and Sabbath, as well as his own band, and they have created a stage set reminiscent of the tours in support of the ‘Sacred Heart’ and ‘Dream Evil’ albums. This, then is surely a must-see for a fan such as myself?

Well, no, not for me thanks. I was fortunate to see Dio on what I estimate to be 17 times, over a period spanning almost 30 years and nothing these technowizards can do will come remotely close to what I got from seeing that guy perform live. He wasn’t just a great singer (he was arguably the best), he could deliver the goods every single night and even in his latter years, with the songs taken down a step, he still astonished, and had the energy of a man at least twenty years younger. That’s why it was such a sad day when he was unable to play that last tour in 2009 having been diagnosed suddenly, and worse when that illness finally took him in 2010. He was irreplaceable, a total one-off, and until now the Disciples have paid tribute by using current singers inspired by his music such as ‘Ripper’ Owens. They don’t try to BE Ronnie James Dio, they interpret his songs their way, but most importantly of all, they are performing LIVE. Behind the technological magic that has made this possible, what we’re still dealing with here is a recording of Dio played over a band on stage. Despite Wendy’s repeated assurances that Ronnie ‘would be giving this his blessing’, I’m unconvinced. Surely he’d want his fans to see live bands giving all they have to an audience, the frontman and the band feeding off the crowd energy in the same way he did? You can’t replicate that with a 3D image.

Another thing which has raised red flags with me is this: what if this tour actually is successful? Will audiences accept this more willingly as time goes on, and will that mean Eyellusion or another company will produce holograms of say, Lemmy, or Bowie? This technology is in its infancy and will only improve, so I fear this is the thin end of the wedge. Even as I type I can imagine Sharon getting Ozzy to stand in a studio somewhere and re-enact his stage moves so that they can be recreated for a similar project once he’s no longer here. The same with other classic bands nearing the end of their careers; surely KISS will have taken note and Gene is already looking into how to apply this technology to his own band/brand. Then there’s the ultimate long-standing rock band: this idea would allow the Rolling Stones to keep going long after all the members have left us, so you can bet somebody somewhere is working on this idea for every big-ticket rock star still capable of pulling an audience.

With that in mind, where will that leave REAL live bands, those coming up and hoping to reach the same status as those that came before? In a pickle, that’s where. If the future of ‘live concerts’ is holographic recreations of major names, then there’s only so much disposable income to spend on shows and it is those smaller bands, the ones your friends tell you ‘I’ve never heard of them’ as though that renders them non-existent, who will take the brunt of this hit. I would like to think the likes of Iron Maiden (a band who have historically tried to do right by their fans) would have no truck with this idea, but I can think of many veteran bands who may well be tempted to go down this route for when they are no longer here, yet still want to generate income for their estates.

I’m not a fan of this idea at all, despite being as amazed as anybody else at the work that must have gone into making this possible. Consequently I shall be sitting out the ‘Dio Returns’ tour when it does come to this country, and will look instead for gigs by real, live musicians standing on that stage playing and singing in front of me, not a fancy projected image going through all the motions while an archived vocal recording plays.

Perhaps in an ironic twist, it is the other Dio offshoot band (Last In Line, featuring original members, guitarist Vivian Campbell and drummer Vinny Appice; bassist Jimmy Bain was also involved until his death last year) who appear to be the preferable option for Dio fans who still want to see that music performed live. Campbell was of course infamously canned from Dio’s band in 1986, causing a rift between him and the singer which never healed, and he spent years distancing himself from his time with Dio after he reappeared, first with Whitesnake and then Def Leppard. However, since Dio’s death he has come to terms once again with the material he had a hand in writing, and has performed with Last In Line whenever possible between Def Leppard tours, and of course around his own treatment (Campbell was himself diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2013). These shows, despite some criticism, cannot be lucrative for the Leppard man so his motivation must be to reclaim his right to that music.

Speaking as a Dio fan since the 1980s however, I’d have to disagree with Disciples guitarist Craig Goldy; this new show cannot be the same as experiencing Dio ‘live’; those ‘poor quality youtube videos’ are all we have left.

To close this post here is one of those videos – there are several officially-released shows from the 1980s which have appeared on youtube and this one from 1986 shows Dio in top form, complete with stage show – including Denzil the Dragon! (A show I was lucky enough to catch twice when they came to this country in May 1986) 🙂

The ‘new’ recordings from ‘Rainbow’

After Ritchie Blackmore surprised fans last year with a short series of shows under the name ‘Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow’ (featuring a new line-up, natch!), rather less surprising is that he has decided to do some more, after initially insisting that he would only do this as a one-off. Another short run of dates is to take place next month (one of those is at Manchester Arena, which must be in doubt now since the venue is still out of bounds following the dreadful attack last week), and to coincide with these shows, he has issued the first official recordings under the Rainbow name since 1995’s ‘Stranger In Us All’ album.

First up is a reworking of ‘I Surrender’, the band’s highest-charting UK hit which reached No. 3 in the charts way back in 1981. That track introduced singer Joe Lynn Turner to the group’s fans, he is not involved in this remake however; it is current vocalist Ronnie Romero who is heard on this version. Positives first: Blackmore still displays a deft touch on the guitar with some quite tasteful lead playing. Unfortunately, he does himself no favours with the backing – the drums sound flat, mechanical, as though it was a machine playing them. It turns out that it WAS – a comment on YouTube from a fan was met with a response from none other than Blackmore’s Night drummer David Keith, a.k.a. Troubadour of Aberdeen, who revealed that the recording only features Blackmore and Romero with everything else programmed. The result sounds lacklustre, the ‘drums’ could have come from a phone app. Romero impressed live, but this song is not suited to his voice. His harsher voice lacks the smoothness of Turner’s original delivery and all but destroys the radio-friendly sound of the original.

The other track is an instrumental rendition of ‘Land Of Hope And Glory’; the piece has traditionally been used as a prelude to Rainbow shows, of course. It starts off with strings playing the melody before Blackmore comes in with his unmistakable guitar tone. This is also somewhat lacklustre, if only he’d actually brought his musicians into the studio with him it would have been so much better. Hearing one of the greatest guitar players of the rock era deliver what is frankly a half-arsed job over a drum beat that could have been purchased off the shelf is totally disappointing, especially after a two-decade wait for anything under this name. It actually sounds like a Blackmore’s Night demo, but you bet your boots had he done this under the BN name, he’d have put more effort into it. That’s what is so disappointing, he knows he has fans still who have waited a long time to hear him play rock once more, yet when he deigns to do so, he is so lackadaisical about it that you wish he had not bothered.

As a Rainbow fan of many years’ standing, I am completely underwhelmed with this effort – listen to it on YouTube if you must, then dig out the old vinyl LPs to hear this man play with meaning, with menace – with passion. Not recommended.

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2 – Disappointing

Caught Live: Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, Genting Arena Birmingham 25 June 2016

The last time I saw Ritchie Blackmore play at this venue was in 1993, and things have changed a lot since then. He was with Deep Purple then, and in a now-infamous incident he refused to come on stage with the rest of the band, then when he did show up for his solo on opening number ‘Highway Star’, he broke off from playing in order to launch a plastic water bottle at a nearby cameraman. (The show was being filmed, which he had objected to).

Soon after that he quit Purple for the second and final time, had a brief revival of the Rainbow name with a new set of musicians, releasing one album (‘Stranger In Us All’, 1995) before forming Blackmore’s Night with his wife, American singer Candice Night. That project saw him turn away almost totally from the hard rock with which he made his name, preferring to play music inspired by the Renaissance era. He has stuck steadfastly to that path, releasing a string of albums and gaining a whole new following, but had consistently said he did not wish to return to playing rock music. Until now, that is.

Blackmore has been hinting for some time that he was ready to pick up the Strat again; more recent Blackmore’s Night albums have been featuring a little more electric guitar than before, he has included reworkings of several Rainbow songs in albums and – perhaps most telling – the passing of his old Purple colleague Jon Lord directly inspired Blackmore to feature a guitar-led instrumental (‘Carry On, Jon’) on the 2013 Blackmore’s Night album ‘Dancer And The Moon’. More recently than that, he even re-established contact with David Coverdale, with whom he had been estranged ever since his first departure from Deep Purple in 1975. Although informal discussions about working together amounted to nothing (but did inspire Coverdale to record ‘The Purple Album’ with Whitesnake,  featuring reworkings of songs he first recorded 40 years ago) fans began to entertain the possibility that one of the truly inspirational guitarists of the classic rock era would do it again, maybe just one more time.

Finally in Autumn of 2015 Blackmore announced that he would play just three shows. billed as ‘Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow’ but featuring a new line-up of musicians, and the posters advertising the gigs declared that the set would feature songs from both Rainbow and Deep Purple. Two of those shows were to take place in Germany, while the only show in the UK would be at Birmingham’s NEC Arena (now known as Genting Arena). Needless to say interest in these shows was massive, and the British date sold out almost instantly. He has resisted the call to add further shows, declaring that the reason for only three was ‘to see if I can still do it’. He has not ruled out playing more dates in the future, but has made clear his first priority remains Blackmore’s Night. Remarkably, the date sold out even before he revealed who would be accompanying him in this new line-up, which should surely tell him how much his fans wanted this to happen again.

When the announcement came to reveal who was in this new line-up, some eyebrows were raised when Blackmore announced unknown singer Ronnie Romero would front the act. Described by Blackmore as (vocally) a cross between Ronnie James Dio and Freddie Mercury, he certainly had no pressure there (!). Also featured were Stratovarius keyboardist Jens Johansson (who having previously worked with both Ronnie James Dio and Yngwie Malmsteen, should be ideally suited to play with the man who pioneered what’s now called Power Metal); drummer David Keith (from Blackmore’s Night, aka ‘Troubadour of Aberdeen’), and bassist Bob Nouveau (also once of Blackmore’s Night).

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The NEC floor was seated, and I found myself around 30 rows back in the left hand block. I’d have preferred standing personally, but many of these people at the show are the same ones who had followed the original incarnation of Rainbow, and to put it bluntly none of us are 20 any more! There were some younger fans present, some of whom were wearing T-shirts of Power Metal bands whose music was directly influenced by the Man in Black.

A cheer went up as the strains of ‘Land of Hope And Glory’ filled the arena, the traditional prelude to a Rainbow show, followed by the ‘Over The Rainbow’ excerpt from ‘The Wizard of Oz’. They chose to open with ‘Highway Star’ which brought back memories of 1993 for me (!), however this time Ritchie was on the stage from the start, and didn’t throw anything at anybody! The set then dovetailed fairly evenly between Rainbow and Deep Purple songs; that had been clearly stated on the posters advertising the gig but still raised a few complaints that it wasn’t slanted more towards Rainbow, especially as the show was billed as ‘Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow’, complete with artwork from the iconic ‘Rising’ album used in the poster adverts. Although all eyes were trained on Blackmore himself, he was content for the most part to just stand and play, letting Romero take the front of the stage and giving him plenty of space to express himself. Vocally, he was certainly up to the task. Possessing a powerful voice, he was able to handle Dio’s material with ease (he even borrowed a few hand gestures and stage moves from his more illustrious namesake) and dealt with Gillan-era Purple songs containing high notes with equal aplomb. Although he was compared to Mercury by his band leader, his stage appearance made me think more of Adam Lambert.  His accent betrayed his roots in places (he is Chilean) but his strong delivery of some challenging material more than made up for the occasional South American inflection.

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I did feel that this band hadn’t really had enough time to gel, with just three shows rather than a full tour behind them. Blackmore himself showed one or two signs of ring-rustiness; although his fingers were as fluid as ever on solos such as the one in ‘Spotlight Kid’ his playing was a little sloppy in places. Then again, the word ‘mercurial’ should be accompanied in a dictionary by a picture of Blackmore; it’s always been the case where you never quite know what you’ll get from him from night to night, or even from song to song! That unmistakable tone was present and correct, many have tried but nobody gets close to imitating Blackmore’s sound. He can really make that Strat sing like nobody else.

The songs, be they Purple or Rainbow numbers, were delivered in rather a straightforward fashion. The Blackmore of old would have taken a song into all kinds of places, stretching them out, adding bits, trading licks with the keyboard player and finally bringing it all back with a thundering riff. The player we saw tonight however, kept his arrangements fairly close to how the songs were recorded with just his solos wandering off the original path. The clearest example of this was with their rendition of ‘Catch The Rainbow’; it was nicely delivered but lacked the spine-tingling intensity that he used to bring to it live (have a listen to the same song from ‘On Stage’ or ‘Live in Germany 77’ to illustrate what I mean here). Indeed much of what was played was delivered in a more sedate manner, it was as though he’d arranged it not to stretch himself TOO much (he is now 71) whereas in the past, he’d choose players specifically to stretch himself, which added that crucial element of ‘danger’ live – you never knew where he was taking things in the old days. Consequently the set lacked a little excitement, I did initially put this down to the drummer but that may have been a touch unfair, his drumming certainly didn’t ‘drive the band’ the way Cozy or even Paice would have done, but I now believe he played to instruction.

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Some Coverdale-era Purple was also performed, with ‘Burn’ being played relatively late in the set but also an acoustic rendition of ‘Soldier of Fortune’. Coverdale has made his own of this song in recent years when performing with Whitesnake, being one of the few Purple covers he retained in his set until last year’s ‘Purple Tour’ but Romero’s rendition impressed many at the NEC. ‘Mistreated’ came early in the set, Romero’s vocal was reminiscent of Dio’s from the version heard on ‘On Stage’ but yet again, the rendition lacked the intensity of old. Perhaps I have the California Jam version stuck  in my mind as definitive, since this version just didn’t send the shivers down the spine in the same way.

Only when the band played ‘Child In Time’ did they recreate anything of the old intensity, with some sublime soloing from Blackmore waking this audience up, who had until then responded with applause that was polite at best. This was followed by ‘Stargazer’, a song Blackmore had often shied away from performing live in the old days (to the best of my knowledge, the last time he played it was at the 1980 Donington headline appearance, certainly that was the last time it was performed live in this country) since the recorded version is so iconic. This rendition was performed impressively by Romero, emulating his namesake to great effect and was another number which had the audience in raptures by its conclusion.

Although the revelation was Romero, the major surprise for me came during the band introductions. Romero namechecked everybody (including the backing vocalists, one of whom was Candice Night) but for his own shout out, it was Blackmore himself who took the microphone to introduce his singer to the audience. I have *never* seen him so much as go near a mic on all the occasions I’ve seen him play before, and that to me showed how highly he rates the guy he introduced to us on these dates.

Conclusions then: it was marvellous to see the Man in Black back with the Strat playing the music that made him famous, but he showed only flashes of the old magic at this gig.  Even allowing for the fact he’s now in his seventies, I think a more energetic rhythm section would have given the show a bit more oomph, this was good but played a little too safe for me. If he does decide to do more, I would hope he doesn’t leave it so long again. Neither he nor we are able to wait around for another twenty years until next time!

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3 – Decent

The return of Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow

First post at my new home for music-related musings, and it comes in the week when legendary guitarist Ritchie Blackmore finally announced a -solitary- UK date for his first show under the Rainbow name in twenty years, at Birmingham’s Genting Arena (a venue I continue to refer to as the NEC Arena).

Blackmore is my all-time guitar hero, the albums he made with Deep Purple and Rainbow are still favourites in my record collection and although I have respect for anyone who knows their way around a fretboard (especially since I had a go at it myself, and found myself badly wanting!), he remains the player I still think of first when thinking of rock guitar.

Of course, he has been going in a totally different direction than rock since the mid-1990s, when he formed the folk-rock outfit Blackmore’s Night with his partner (now wife), singer Candice Night. She had contributed backing vocals and some lyrics on the last album Blackmore issued under the Rainbow name (‘Stranger In Us All’) and toured with the band, however on completion of those dates Blackmore walked away from his illustrious rock past and did what he had been threatening in interviews to do for some time, play Renaissance-inspired folk music complete with period costume for himself and all who performed alongside him.

He has since issued ten studio albums to date, and gained a following among fans not necessarily familiar with his previous work. He has also retained some of his old fans but lost many more, as those fans could not get to grips with seeing one of rock’s premier league axemen suddenly eschew the instrument in favour of a hurdy-gurdy or mandolin. I count myself among that latter group; I once saw Blackmore’s Night when they called at Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall some years back and found the experience frustrating. Only when he broke out the Stratocaster for a rendition of ’16th Century Greensleeves’, complete with a stunning lead solo with THAT unmistakable guitar tone filling the room, did all seem right with the world. I have not kept up with his work since then, save for the occasional remake of an old Rainbow song, until now when he confirmed that he would play a short series of rock shows one last time.

Tickets went on pre-sale on 4th November before a general sale on 6th November, and there has already been tremendous interest in this solitary British date. It is likely to sell out very quickly, so it remains to be seen whether any further dates will follow. I am not holding my breath, since the man will be 71 years old by the time this gig happens, and has already made clear it is a one-off return. However, for those (myself included, who saw Rainbow for the only time in September 1983) who have waited decades for this, it is an unmissable event – regardless of who actually lines up alongside The Man In Black.

The big question of who will be the vocalist has still to be revealed; all Blackmore will say is that he is “a cross between Freddie Mercury and Ronnie James Dio” –  a mouthwatering prospect for a still-unknown singer. He has confirmed that the set will include both Rainbow and Deep Purple favourites, so whoever this singer is, he has a big task on his hands.

UPDATE! The line-up for the upcoming shows has now been revealed; joining Blackmore are bassist Bob Nouveau, drummer David Keith (the only member of Blackmore’s Night to be involved; he is known as ‘Troubadour of Aberdeen’ in that band), Stratovarius keyboard player Jens Johansson (cue a few raised eyebrows as he has played previously with both Dio and Yngwie Malmsteen), and the vocalist is Ronnie Romero of the band Lords of Black. With the exception of Jens Johansson, these players are virtual unknowns to most fans, so there has no doubt been some YouTube ‘research’ going on since this announcement was made (!)

I’m very excited at the prospect of seeing my favourite rock guitarist once more, playing the very music that continues to shape my tastes to this day. Many bands I follow today are directly influenced by Ritchie Blackmore; indeed the entire European Power Metal scene can be traced directly back to the material found on ‘Rising’ and ‘Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll’.

Long Live Ritchie Blackmore, and Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll!

Rainbow – Kill The King (live)

Rainbow – A Light In The Black