Sat 12th May 2007
Support from Styx, Thin Lizzy
Wembley Arena is like an aircraft hanger. It's big, there's little atmosphere, and the acoustics aren't great. I think Ian Gillan realised this last night as he announced something along the lines of "we're not going to play this shitheap again" a few songs into Deep Purple's set. Still, while a string of dates at a classic venue like the Astoria or Hammersmith Odeon would have been preferable to one night in a barn in North London, such quibbles couldn't detract from the fact that last night was excellent rock and roll entertainment all round.
The sound quality was truly awful, though, when Thin Lizzy opened proceedings, but improved as the night went on. I say 'Thin Lizzy' but as everyone who knows and loves rock music should know, it's really just a tribute band featuring some ex-members of the legendary Irish hard rock unit, namely guitarists Scott Gorham and John Sykes. Despite dedicating their entire set to the much-missed Phil Lynott, I can't help thinking that they would be respecting the great man's memory a lot more were they not to go under the Lizzy name. However, their set is enjoyable. Consisting of about ten or so classics such as 'Jailbreak', 'Emerald', 'Don't Believe a Word' and of course 'The Boys Are Back In Town' the band acquit themselves well, notably the guitarists, whose twin lead work is exemplerary. I can't help thinking that if this is what the remnants of the band sound like, seeing the real thing back in the 1970s must have been incredible beyond words and it's a shame that I'll never witness that. Overall, a good set and plenty of great leadwork. But without Lynott, it's not Lizzy and never will be, no matter how much John Sykes sounds like him.
Next up, Styx. And what the fuck is up with their keyboard player?!?!? His stage antics remind me of a less extreme David Lee Roth, except he's dressed like Cliff Richard and has a revolving keyboard he seems to spend more time spinning round than actually playing. With the exception of the Beatles cover 'I Am The Walrus' that appears four songs into their set, I'm unfamiliar with Styx's music and while what I hear is OK it doesn't really make me want to check the albums out. It all sounds pretty heavy live, and there are some good catchy rock songs in there like 'Miss America' but there are a few rather cheesy epics in there, such as 'Come Sail Away' with its rather simplistic and un-subtle chorus line [and that's not in a very good way].
However, the band do know how to entertain. When the keyboard player isn't spinning his instrument like a roundabout, he's taking Polaroids of the band members and chucking them into the crowd, which I personally find quite funny. Then the original bass player joins the band on stage for a few numbers, which is a nice gesture. The set ends with a drawn out crescendo of, well, rock... during which the keyboardist stands on his head and the band throw Styx-emblazoned beachballs and frisbees into the crowd. Even though their music isn't that great, they do leave a reasonably positive impression on me.
However, if Styx entertain the crowd through their stageshow, Deep Purple enthrall and entertain with their music. I've been meaning to see them for a long time and they don't disappoint. While their setlist is perhaps a little too obvious in how many old classics are stuffed in, I'm willing to overlook that by the fact that Wembley is quite simply rocked to the ground tonight. The band have it absolutely nailed. Gillan (one of THE all time greatest vocalists in rock, in my book) does seem to sing in a higher, almost squeakier pitch than he used to 35 years ago, which is a bit odd, but as he's been doing this for nearly forty years I'll cut him some slack. And he can still scream, as a thumping rendition of 'Into the Fire' proves, with the chorus - "Into the FFFFFIIIIIIIIIIRRRRRRRRREEE!!!" hooking you right down in your soul. Steve Morse proves to be a perfectly good replacement for Blackmore, and while I'd love to see Jon Lord pounding the keyboards like a man possessed, Don Airey is about as good and aggressive a replacement as you'll find. Roger Glover is on top form all night and even his bass solo is entertaining, and Iain Paice does what he does best, pounding his drumkit.
The set is almost too short for my liking and most bizarrely there's no 'Perfect Strangers'. However the fact that five out of the seven songs from 'Machine Head' (one of my favourite albums ever) are played makes up for this, and we also get the overlooked B-side from that era, 'When A Blind Man Cries' (a personal highlight of the set). Another surprise is 'The Battle Rages On' from the last Mark 2 reunion era album of the same name. The two new songs that the band play from their recent period ('Rapture of the Deep' and what is apparently an unreleased track) are great as well, and proof that they can still write quality songs.
The highlights - well the whole set was a highlight, not a bad song in it. But it's an incredible version of Lazy, beginning with a long organ and guitar jam, which blows away the studio one (and most previous live renditions I've heard) that stands out as a particularly good memory for me. Also the versions of 'Space Truckin'', 'Highway Star' and 'Smoke on the Water' (with one of Styx's guitarists guesting on the latter) played tonight are probably the heaviest I've ever heard them. A great version of 'Hush' and a solid 'Black Night' round off a quality concert.
There are some older bands I've seen (such as what passes for Thin Lizzy tonight) who put on a good show but make me think "I wish I could have seen them in the seventies/eighties". Not so tonight. All I'm thinking is "I wish I could afford to go and follow the rest of the tour." But the memory of this gig will have to do for now. All I have to offer are two thoughts:
1) Ritchie who?
2) Play 5 nights at the Astoria please!