By Dr. Abner Mality
You know, humanoids, your old pal Dr. Mality often feels like he is caught between two worlds. The world of the incredibly creative and extreme metal mayhem of today and the world of the comforting classic rock of my long-ago childhood. Unlike many others in my age bracket, my musical development did not stop sometime in 1983 but has continued to evolve up to this day. That's what allows me to thrash like a lunatic when The Red Chord and Bleeding Through play Rockford while still being able to enjoy shows such as this one, where the venerable Deep Purple and Mountain hit the grassy confines of Davis Park. Though I am very proud of my extreme metal credentials, I must admit that it is often the more experienced bands that put on the superior show. And you just can't get much more experienced than Deep Purple and Mountain.
What an absolutely gorgeous night for a concert this was. After weeks of scorching above 90 degree heat, we had finally gotten a break in the last two days. July the 2nd saw a clear evening of gentle breezes where the temps topped out at about 70 degrees or so. Combined with Davis Park's riverside location and the mellow vibe coming from the crowd, it was a great night to chill out and enjoy the rock.
The crowd featured many of the expected gnarled old biker dudes and mullet-headed classic rockers, along with some pretty blowsy rock chicks with drooping breasts and voluminous buttocks. Many of these same folks were probably with me 25 years ago when Black Sabbath and Blue Oyster Cult played Rockford Speedway on the "Black and Blue" tour. And who the hell am I to criticize? Tonight, I was a pot-bellied grizzled old timer myself. I will say I was very pleasantly surprised to see a lot of young kids at the show. Though some were probably tagging along with Mom and Dad, others were clearly interested and curious about the roots of their own rock and roll.
Mountain are certainly deep in the roots of that rock and roll. They have been grinding it out for 35 years now, mostly on the strength of their anthem "Mississippi Queen". But I found out there's a lot more to them to that. There's genuine heaviness and power to the thick and syrupy guitar licks of Leslie West that you can hear echoes of in newer bands like High On Fire, Black Label Society and Queens of the Stone Age. The sort of classic heavy rock I heard from Mountain tonight is what many younger bands have vainly been trying to grab a hold of.
Mr. Leslie West is Mountain, in most regards. The once titanic singer/guitarist has lost considerable poundage in the last few years and has trimmed his lengthy locks to a more manageable length but, man, can he still crank it out. He had good back up from longtime veteran Richie Scarlet on bass and vocals and a talented drummer whose name I didn't catch but who threw probably close to 50 drumsticks into the audience during Mountain's set. West hit the ground running with some fat, sludgy guitar grooves that got a good response from the audience. He's also quite entertaining with his stage raps. "We love this town," he told us with a gravelly, East Coast voice." We've probably been here before but were too high to remember much about it." He also got a chuckle when he related how his Mom put him in a talent show "when she was under the influence of narcotics" and he lost out to a tap dance act. "Better practice some more, I guess. Well, I did and that's how I'm here tonight!"
Mountain played "Theme From an Imaginary Western", written by recently departed producer and band member Felix Pappillardi along with Cream's Jack Bruce, with more melody and delicacy than their other tracks and then segued neatly into a high powered version of Cream's "Crossroads" that got hands clapping. The sound during Mountain's set was kind of variable and West's guitar sometimes lost power during key points, but it was a pleasure listening to this guy jam. "Nantucket Sleighride" remains a gem of heavy progressive rock merging old Sabbath at its heaviest with a more melodic, psychedelic feel. This is one of the great proto-metal tracks of the early 70's.
Mountain wrapped it up with the extremely unsurprising "Mississippi Queen", which seemed to be delivered a bit slower than on record. I can't say it was an impeccable version of the classic, but it WAS a classic, delivered by the original creators and it had the crowd on their feet and into it. West told us that Purple would soon arrive to blow our socks off and bid us farewell. Mountain was an EXCELLENT choice to open this show.
Deep Purple don't play all that many dates in the U.S. anymore, preferring to concentrate on the more lucrative foreign markets, so it was quite a surprise to see they got a gig here in Rockford. This is a band that got its start the same year that Led Zeppelin did and they have been prolific since that long ago year of 1968. Legendary guitarist Ritchie Blackmore has been long gone, preferring to wander through the Renaissance Faire with his fetching wife Candace Night, while keyboard maestro Jon Lord has departed more recently. The core of the band is still intact with Ian Gillan headlining, Roger Glover handling bass and Ian Paice on drums. To replace Blackmore is an almost impossible task, but Purple has done very well with their selection of Kansas/Dixie Dregs man Steve Morse, the only American in the band. Lord has been replaced by well-travelled Don Airey, whose contributions to the hard rock scene have been numerous, including stints with Ozzy and Whitesnake. So this wasn't some kind of Foghat travesty composed of a guy who was in the band for a couple of months and some hired hands. This was truly Deep Purple, one of the progenitors of heavy metal as we know it.
Their arrival on stage was very awkward. No lead-in, no introduction of any kind, they just suddenly appeared and started playing "Silver Tongue". The sound was excellent as they continued with the funkiness of "Strange Kind of Woman" and "I Got Your Number", the latter being from their latest album "Bananas". I know Ritchie Blackmore has an almost unassailable position as a guitar icon, but man, I don't think Steve Morse should take a back seat to anybody in the guitar maestro department. His performance was stirring all night long and the younger kids in the audience probably had their first look at an almost extinct species, the genuine guitar god.
The wheels kind of came off when the band played "My Woman From Tokyo", one of their classic anthems. To put it bluntly, Ian Gillan really butchered this one with a very subpar vocal performance. He was slightly off the mark on many tracks this evening, but this was the only one he really ruined. He simply cannot handle the trademark high pitched screams he once could. Not only that, but his timing was out of whack as well. The result was a favorite tune rendered impotent.
Thankfully, that was the nadir of Purple's performance tonight. Gillan recovered nicely with the very catchy "Demon's Eye", one of my personal favorite tracks. Then he took his leave as the band played the instrumental "Contact Lost", which they dedicated to the astronauts of the ill-fated Columbia spaceshuttle. Morse was really incredible on this one, coaxing sounds ranging from the neo-classical to almost thrash to cool spacy noises that reminded me of Alex Lifeson's live version of "By-Tor and the Snow Dog" from Rush's first live album. After Morse had his turn in the spotlight, the focus turned to Don Airey, who also dazzled with a display of keyboard wizardy that included snippets of both Bach and "The Simpson's" theme! Technically, Airey is as good as anybody in the rock keyboard business, but there was something massive about Jon Lord's organ sound that makes it irreplaceable.
The crowd response was very warm and appreciative and the band seemed to be energized by it as they placed an excellent version of "Perfect Strangers" that bled right into "Highway Star". Gillan's vocals were against a little off on this classic, but not to the same extent that marred "My Woman From Tokayo" so badly. He nailed some worthy screams but anybody who heard Ian back in the day knows the inhuman high notes he could hit back then. He is better off with the smokier, bluesier tracks like "Space Truckin'", which I felt was the best song of the night. This is such a groovy, crunchy piece of hard rock goodness, it's hard not to grin when you hear this one.
We had another very odd and awkward transition into the all-time signature tune "Smoke on the Water". It just seemed odd the way they suddenly started playing it. This is a track that transcends the band itself...it is part of the rock and roll lexicon, something ingrained on the souls of anybody who ever listened to FM rock radio. The riff has got to be one of the best ever written. To help Deep Purple with nailing it down, the members of Mountain came out and jammed with them. It was the last night of the North American tour for these bands, who have obviously grown close on the road, and it was quite a treat to see Steve Morse trading licks with Leslie West. We may have been the only stop to see it.
That was the last song of the proper set, but the band soon returned with the ancient "Speed King" and a track that was so old, "it was written before stone tablets were invented", as Gillan quipped. This was "Hush", the band's very first hit all those years ago. The audience sang along with all the "na na na's" and after the track, Gillain seemed quite sincere as he said "this has been one of the most superb audiences we have played for".
It was a fun and entertaining show, if not a flawless one. You could not have been blessed with a better evening for an outdoor rock concert. I think some of the bumps in Purple's set could be explained by the fact that on the very same day of the Rockford show, they were in Ontario, Canada, playing some tracks for the immense "Live 8" gig to raise money for African charities. The band honored their "Live 8" committment, flew to Rockford and simply played a complete set for their fans here. So some slack should definitely be cut for them in that regard, as not many bands would have done the same.
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