Longtime rockers Deep Purple said goodbye to retiring founding keyboardist Jon Lord in 2002. A farewell concert at the NEC in Birmingham, England featured both Lord and his replacement Don Airey. (Lord died in 2012). Newly released in standalone DVD and digital formats, Live at the NEC includes classic hits – “Woman from Tokyo,” “Highway Star,” “Hush,” “Space Truckin’,” “Smoke on the Water” of course, and more, along with a few less-than-brilliant numbers (“Mary Lord,” “Ted the Mechanic”).
Airey reveals his prowess in the heavy, frantic blues-rock stomp of “Lazy,” one of several numbers where the band pays explicit tribute to the blues roots of even the flashiest rock-and-roll. “The Well Dressed Guitar” shows off Steve Morse’s easy six-string wizardry as well as the band’s almost unearthly tightness.
The ballad “When a Blind Man Cries” acts as the concert’s slow movement. Then, after a rocking “Space Truckin’,” Airey wields his classical-music skills at the piano, throws in a little Star Wars and a little Gustav Holst, then makes way for Lord, who must surely have felt, amid complex emotions, that he was leaving his band in good hands.
Lord leads a cosmic version of “Perfect Strangers,” then trades eights, fours, twos, and so on with Morse in “Speed King.” Bassist Roger Glover and founding drummer Ian Paice show off their soloing chops here too, accompanied by seizure-inducing lighting effects. Worked into the song is a medley of oldies that lighten the mood and expand the concert’s horizons. Deep Purple always fused hard rock with traditional sources, and did it with a playful spirit. It’s one of the things I always liked best about them.
An inspired extended solo from Morse quoting Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Who, The Beatles, and Led Zeppelin leads into Purple’s signature hit and closing number, “Smoke on the Water,” with both keyboardists on board. When the band comes back out for an encore, Lord delivers a funky solo on “Hush.” The extra mini-set also includes “Black Night” with its famous riff, and closes with the classic “Highway Star” – frenetic, symphonic, quintessential Deep Purple in all its colorful, over-the-top rock-and-roll glory.
More than three decades into a peripatetic career, the band still sounded vital at this 2002 concert. Ian Gillan’s steely vocal strength and magical range were intact (as was his tendency to go sharp), and the band looked and sounded charged with energy – no plodding dinosaurs they.
Previously available only as part of the Around the World Live box set, the DVD of Live at the NEC isn’t much to look at, the video dark and not terribly crisp. But the sound and performances are good, and that’s what matters. (It’s in Dolby Digital Stereo, Dolby Digital Surround 5.1, and DTS Digital Surround.) A bit of backstage followup with Lord and a fairly in-depth interview with Glover and Gillan add some historical perspective: the genesis of “Smoke on the Water” (everything in the lyrics is true); lineup changes, especially the inspiring addition of Morse to replace Richie Blackmore; periodically taking what Gillan calls a “humility pill”; embracing the influences of many musical traditions; reflections on what the band and its contemporaries, like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, spawned.
Heavy metal, says Glover, “to me seems to be they’ve taken a small part of what we were part of – that means the loud and the screaming part – and they’ve just taken those two bits and that’s all it is. Heavy metal to me is a very shallow music because it’s bereft of all the influences in fact that we grew up with.”
Whether you agree with the bassist or not, watch this concert and you’ll be hard put to deny the truth of Gillan’s statement that “the joy of playing music has never been purer than it is now.” Wisely, the singer adds: “We’re not on the rock-and-roll highway anymore. We’re taking the scenic route now.” And they still are.