On one of last season’s episodes of Eddie Trunk’s That Metal Show, Trunk complained about Ritchie Blackmore’s long-time foray into Renaissance music. He turned to one of his guests, whose name I’ve forgotten, to see if he could approach Blackmore and ask him “to stop it.”
Now, I understand Trunk’s musical appreciation is boxed inside a rather limited scope, but this comment seemed a bit cold. For one matter, it’s up to an artist to chart their own musical direction(s), not us critics, no matter how devoted we are to a performer’s best known, most beloved style(s). In addition, Candice Night, Blackmore’s collaborator since 1991, has also been his wife since 2008 and the couple have two children. I can hear it now: “Honey, we gotta break up the band. The metal heads don’t like it.”
Well, Blackmore and Night have proven they need not worry about that audience. They’ve created their own. Seven of their previous albums have topped Billboard’s New Age charts. NPR has awarded their discs “Best Vocal Album” or “Album of the Year” on various charts. Blackmore’s Night has performed on PBS, CNN, the History Channel, and has songs on several international soundtracks including Yes Man (which starred Jim Carrey) and the Japanese TV show, Third Watch. Not bad for a group so hard to pigeon-hole that their publicity arm describes them as an “eclectic/jam/folk rock/new age/neo-Celtic/neo-Medieval/progressive rock/chamber pop/world beat” ensemble. Whew.
At first blush, Blackmore’s Night might seem, just looking at the credits, right out of one of those summer Renaissance Fairs: Blackmore plays acoustic and electric guitars, Night provides lead and harmony vocals as well as all Renaissance and Medieval woodwinds. The current band behind them consists of Nickelharpe on mandola, Hurdy Gurdy, and tambourine; Bard David of Larchmont does the keyboards and background vocals; Lady Kelly Dewinter adds harmony vocals and French horn; Earl Grey of Chimay is responsible for bass and rhythm guitar; The Scarlet Fiddler is the master of violin, and the Troubador of Aberdeen lays down the percussion. A merry batch of gentlemen and ladies indeed.
But Blackmore’s Night’s musical vista draws from a wider palate than ancient jigs and reels. The group’s eighth album, Dancer and the Moon, carries on with the various styles they’re known for as well as their love of lunar imagery. If I were to pick out one track for radio airplay, it would have to be the beautiful “Somewhere Over the Sea (The Moon Is Shining)” which pulls the best of the album’s themes together. On the other hand, other stations might prefer the electronic take on the same song, “The Moon Is Shining (Somewhere Over the Sea)” which is one of Blackmore’s various bones thrown out to prog rock fans. Another is the last track, “Carry On…Jon,” Blackmore’s haunting, wordless elegy for his long-time Deep Purple band mate, Jon Lord.
There are other, less obvious connections to Blackmore’s hard rock past. For example, you won’t think the sound of Uriah Heep when Blackmore’s Night does the Celtic story song, “Lady in Black,” but Heep’s Ken Hensley wrote that single for his band’s 1971 Salisbury album. Likewise, you won’t think Rainbow when you hear “The Temple of the King” unless you know Blackmore co-wrote that number with vocalist Ronnie James Dio for their group’s debut album in 1975. Again, the melody may remain the same, but the arrangement won’t please those locked into the old molds.
Mostly, if Blackmore’s Night reminds you of any ’70s line-ups, you’re more likely to think of Pentangle, Steeleye Span, and a dash of Annie Haslam with Renaissance. Clearly, the band is supporting the clear, controlled alto voice of Night, who might remind you a tad of singers like Judy Collins, Julie Andrews or even Karen Carpenter interpreting songs like Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” or the Russian-influenced “Troika.” For all the Pagan/Wican fans, naturally the band draws from considerable natural imagery in Celtic-flavored story-songs like “Dancer and the Moon,” “The Last Leaf,” and “The Ashgrove.”
To vary the menu, we also get several other Blackmore guitar instrumentals including the acoustic “Minstrels in the Hall” and the orchestral “Galliard.” “The Spinner’s Tale” is an opportunity for the husband-and-wife team to do a song by themselves, Blackmore on the acoustic guitar, Night singing and playing passages on her recorder.
Altogether, Dancer and the Moon is another low-key and very listenable collection from a company of accomplished players, although the program is often too much of a repeat performance of where this band has already been before. While Blackmore has the brand name and is the ostensible band leader, most groups with this line-up would place Candice Night front-and-center in their publicity campaign. No question, Blackmore, and the rest of the group, provide A-plus musical settings. But it’s Night’s voice that makes the material memorable and distinctive. While a few notches short of being magical or fresh, Dancer and the Moon is good enough rainy day listening, but you won’t need your dancing shoes. Mr. and Mrs. Blackmore don’t need “to stop it,” but some new energy and some new approaches might take them to the next level.