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DVD Review: Deep Purple – Live In California 74

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On April 6, 1974, Deep Purple co-headlined the massive California Jam Festival at the Ontario Speedway in California in front of a crowd of about 200,000. The festival also featured the eclectic lineup of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer (co-headliners), Black Sabbath, Seals & Crofts, Black Oak Arkansas, the Eagles, Rare Earth, and Earth Wind & Fire. Much of the event was broadcast live on ABC television, and the majority of this DVD transfer comes from those ancient tapes.

By 1974, Deep Purple had undergone a second significant lineup change. Losing frontman Ian Gillan and bassist Roger Glover, and gaining a then unknown David Coverdale on lead vocals, along with Trapeze veteran Glenn Hughes on bass and vocals. The first album from this new "MKIII" lineup would be called Burn, and the California Jam performance would literally throw these two rookies to the fire.

Coverdale seemed a little overwhelmed at first to be performing in front of 200,000 people, and appeared to have indulged in a few pre-show cocktails to calm his nerves – I would have too! He must have asked where the sunset was about five times during the show, which was a little bizarre. He did recover nicely though, and his impassioned performance showed why he is still going strong today. Only 23 years old at the time, he sang his Robert Plant-cloned ass off and gave Deep Purple fans hope for the future of the band.

Glenn Hughes was already a veteran of the British rock scene, having recorded three albums and toured extensively with the English hard rock band Trapeze. Hughes brought his funky bass playing, charismatic stage presence, and a second powerful set of pipes to the mix. Most of the songs from Burn have Coverdale and Hughes sharing the lead vocals, with Hughes called upon frequently for his patented falsetto screams. I thought that they worked great together, but unfortunately this pairing would only produce two more studio albums over the next two years, Stormbringer and Come Taste The Band.

As we all know, Coverdale went on to form Whitesnake in 1978 and by the mid 80's they were international superstars. I was surprised at how good the latest incarnation of the band was on this year's Live In The Still Of The Night concert DVD. Hughes went on to have a pretty respectable solo career, teaming up with such rock luminaries as Pat Thrall, Joe Lyn Turner, and Tony Iommi. Hughes has done some of the best work of his entire career over the last few years, highlighted by his excellent solo album Soul Mover, along with his second collaboration with Iommi, titled Fused. These are two of my favorite rock albums of the decade so far.

The Cal Jam setlist focused mostly on the new Burn material, covering five of that album's eight songs, and they also threw in a couple of mandatory Machine Head classics. Although the set was only seven songs deep, the performance lasted for nearly 90 minutes, thanks to some extended solos from each band member, and lots of improvised jamming. By 1974, Ritchie Blackmore was already carrying the same stature of a Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, or Eric Clapton, and most of this crowd would have probably turned out to see him play no matter who was fronting the band at the time. Blackmore was in his prime here, and he shows why he is one of the most acclaimed rock guitarists in history.

The video kicks off with the band touching down in their private Boeing 720 jet, apply named Starship I, and are then whisked off to the concert in limos. The pre-show footage is narrated monotonously by radio non-personality Don Imus (who did this guy have to blow?) up until the band takes the stage and kicks things off with a ferocious "Burn". The 70's flashbacks immediately start pouring in. Hughes is dressed in a garish (stylish at the time) white, satin, bell-bottomed suite with matching platform shoes. Blackmore is in similar attire, but all black, of course, and is also sporting a giant pair of mutton-chop sideburns that would make Elvis himself jealous.

From there, they stormed through three other Burn songs, "Might Just Take Your Life", "Lay Down, Stay Down", and "Mistreated". The slow-burning, power-blues of "Mistreated" was the early highlight of the show, and would later lay the foundation for Coverdale's Whitesnake sound.

As darkness finally settled in, Jon Lord comes out from behind the keyboards to introduce the two new members of the band, and wryly refers to Hughes as "the gentleman selling ice cream over there". Blackmore then opens "Smoke On The Water" with a short improvised interlude before tearing into the most famous guitar riff of all time. "You Fool No One" is another Burn track, which went on for nearly 20 minutes thanks to a killer Blackmore guitar solo, which would only be topped by an incredible Ian Paice drum solo. "Space Truckin'" trucked on even longer, because the last half of the performance was dominated by some of the most outlandish gear destruction you will ever see.

Blackmore, fueled by an earlier feud with concert promoters, first scrapes his guitar neck mercilessly along the edge of the stage, before it comes unplugged and falls into the pit as he dangles it by the chord. He then cracks another one of his Strats over an ABC television camera, whose operator had been pissing him off all night. Incredibly, Blackmore takes the guitar, broken, jagged neck and all, and hurls it out into the crowd, miraculously managing not to impale some innocent fan. Could you imagine doing that now!? Next, he signals his roadie to set off a pre-planned explosion in one of his speaker cabinets, and the ensuing fireball comes amazingly close to engulfing his ass. Blackmore finally drags the blown up cabinet and amp head and throws them off the front of the stage. Do you think Spinal Tap took some cues from this show?

Even though this DVD was produced from 32-year-old source material, the production quality was still a huge disappointment. The video transfer in particular was especially poor, with excessive blurriness, grain, distortions, and a general washed out appearance. I have not personally seen the VHS version of this video, but many people are claiming that even it looks much better than this transfer. Although some new DTS and Dolby Digital 5.0 surround audio mixes are provided, they are nothing to get too excited about. Everything sounds somewhat dull and compressed, but if played loud enough can be reasonably satisfying. There were also some audio/video synchronization problems, which were especially noticeable during Ian Paice's drum solo. This was supposedly not an issue with the VHS version either.

The camera direction was especially poor, unless you happen to favor seeing Blackmore playing from the rear most of the time. The camera moron actually focused on the REAR of Blackmore's guitar neck, during one of his extended solos. No wonder he tried to feed his guitar to the camera at the end of the show. Bonus features include a commentary track narrated by Jon Kirkman, alternate camera angle versions of "Burn" and "Might Just Take Your Life", archive preview footage of "Highway Star" from the Live In Concert 72/73 DVD, and some Super 8mm behind-the-scenes footage recorded by Deep Purple sound engineer Robert Simon (aka Captain California).

Even with all of its production shortcomings, this DVD is still highly recommended – especially if you can pick it up for $9.99 like myself. Live In California 74 documents one of the most explosive performances ever captured on film by the MKIII incarnation of this legendary band, and also provides some of the only footage available from this historic first California Jam Festival.

Set List
01. Burn
02. Might Just Take Your Life
03. Lay Down, Stay Down
04. Mistreated
05. Smoke On the Water
06. You Fool No One
07. Space Truckin’

Performance 8/10
Production 5/10

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