Somewhere over the Rainbow ...
History has not been particularly kind to Ritchie Blackmore. Arguably rock’s first guitar virtuoso, Blackmore planted the seeds that were to sprout everyone from Yngwie to Satriani, and was the creative force behind the tremendous commercial success of Deep Purple. Despite such an impressive resume, Blackmore is rarely mentioned in conversations dominated by the likes of Jimmy Page, Randy Rhoads, Eddie Van Halen, and Tony Iommi. Such an oversight borders on criminal, as Blackmore was a veritable tour de force during the ‘70s and into the ‘80s, and a prime influence for the generation of metal gunslingers that followed. And while Purple’s legacy is firmly cemented on rock’s regular playlist, it is Blackmore’s Rainbow that remains a rare gem, seemingly forgotten to time.
What started as the foundation for a solo excursion away from Deep Purple, Rainbow became a massively popular touring and recording entity for nearly a decade. Though plagued by Purple-esque lineup changes through its duration, Blackmore’s post-Purple project afforded the guitarist ample artistic freedom, and gave him complete control. By the time the Live in Munich concert was recorded in October 1977, Blackmore had guided the band through a pair of strong albums (1975’s Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow and 1976’s Rising) and a lengthy world tour. Rising‘s critical acclaim came largely from Blackmore being complemented by vocalist Ronnie James Dio and drummer Cozy Powell, and the three rock veterans formed the nucleus of a band that was heavier and tighter than just about anything else at the time. Though Dio was to depart a year after Live in Munich, Rainbow is most closely identified with his relatively brief tenure.
Musically, Live in Munich 1977 is as fine a concert album as there is. It catches Rainbow at its peak over two discs, and contains all the necessary elements for a superb recording: crisp production, ear-piercing vocals, and of course, Blackmore’s monster guitar work. Most interesting is the ease with which Rainbow shifts gears and morphs itself into various incarnations, seamlessly blending everything from speed metal to classical orchestration. The soaring Purple-esque opener, “Kill the King”, stands in stark contrast to the brooding extended jam of “Mistreated”, yet the two fit together flawlessly to commence Disc 1. Similarly, the aptly titled “Sixteenth Century Greensleeves” offers up some standard metal fare, replete with medieval imagery and Blackmore’s dabbling in centuries-old classical snippets. The 17+ minute “Catch the Rainbow” continues to showcase Rainbow’s dexterity; the band stretches out in a lengthy, and sometimes directionless, exploration (with the obligatory gargantuan guitar solo) closely following the live Zeppelin-Floyd template. The disc closes with “Long Live Rock’n'Roll”; juxtaposed against the preceding four songs, the rollicking, up-tempo track rolls along with ease, and features a spirited Dio-led sing-along.
As much as Disc 1 represents textbook ‘70s heavy rock, Disc 2 epitomizes overwhelming bombast and artistic self-indulgence. “Man on the Silver Mountain” is a quarter-of-an-hour hodgepodge, much of which features a clash between Blackmore’s Stratocaster and Dio’s magnificent vocals, with David Stone’s keyboards acting as referee. At the song’s midpoint (following Blackmore’s soloing) a blues jam materializes out of nowhere, and ambles confidently along for three minutes; it is so startlingly Hendrix-like, one would be hard pressed to think Blackmore had not decided to move over, Rover, and let Jimi take over.
And then Armageddon arrives …
“Still I’m Sad” begins ominously, with Lon Chaney and his pipe organ (from the 1925 film, Phantom of the Opera) being channeled on stage. Four minutes pass, then Blackmore unleashes his most compelling work on the album, with Dio surfing wave after wave of furious riffing. Blackmore downshifts slightly, then segues into a completely divergent groove, picking and strumming his way through a Christmas carol/hymnal hybrid, leading his cohorts into several minutes of genuine head trip fodder. Stone’s keyboard takes over once again, and paves the way for Powell’s drum solo. Up until this point in the set, Powell had pounded away in relative anonymity, but augmented by a cacophony of cathedral bells and invisible symphony chiming in, his featured moment behind the kit is jaw-dropping in its intensity and production, and exhausting to simply listen to. Twenty minutes into the song, the end could have been expected, but Dio retakes the helm for the remaining five-minute push, eventually bringing the epic performance to a close. Yet despite the magnitude of “Man on the Silver Mountain” paired with “Still I’m Sad” on the live audience, Rainbow still had a final 9:37 rendition of “Do You Close Your Eyes” left in its arsenal. It is a full-blown assault, with Dio’s voice as strong as it was an hour earlier, and Blackmore’s six-string precision guiding the band with calculated abandon.
Overall, Live in Munich 1977 is an exquisite twin-disc set documenting one of Rainbow’s best, and most storied, concerts. It bears sufficient residual Purpleness to appease hardcore DP aficionados, but is far enough removed for Rainbow loyalists. It also serves as a fascinating blueprint of Blackmore’s past and present (as of 1977), while also showing glimpses of the guitarist’s future commitment to medieval stringed music. Nearly 30 years after its original recording, Live in Munich 1977 still resonates as an impressive hard rock performance. And at the core of the live set is Ritchie Blackmore, one of music’s often overlooked guitar wizards, plying his trade and making it all look so easy.
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