Saturday, March 7, 2009

Vintage Bad Rock: Deep Purple in Shallow Water

By Steve Evans

Deep Purple: Live In California ’74
Eagle Rock Entertainment // 85 Minutes // Not Rated

Because Cteve cannot live by film alone, sometimes he gets an urge to tee off a concert DVD review. Good concert discs, with properly mixed Surround Sound, can be transcendental, especially when ridiculous amounts of amplification are employed to bring out the glory. Those discs are rare. Sad to say, but there are an awful lot of bad concert DVDs crowding the shelves at your local retailer. Below is a review of one of them.

British heavy metal band Deep Purple—always a (very) poor man's Led Zeppelin—goes through the motions on seven tracks recorded during their headliner appearance at the California Jam Festival at Ontario Speedway in 1974. This was not rock-n-roll's finest hour, but may have served as reference material a decade later when Rob Reiner decided to film This is Spinal Tap, a spot-on satire of hard rockers who flaunt their big hair, stupidity, and comically shaped ’lectric guitars. But with Deep Purple the comedy is unintentional. Break Like the Wind, indeed.

When Deep Purple toured the states in ’74, vocalist David Coverdale was the new replacement for original singer Ian Gillian. Bassist Glenn Hughes had taken over the four strings from Roger Glover. Hughes also added screeching, kicked-in-the-balls backing vocals that made Black Sabbath's helium-voiced Ozzie Osbourne sound positively harmonious.

As for the original members: Jon Lord grimaces and arches his back as he plays ham-fisted keyboards (the man looks like a constipated Hell’s Angel) and Ian Paice thumps the drums.

Guitarist Ritchie Blackmore was always the true instrumentalist and star of this group, coaxing heavy biker-bar chords from his Fender Strat. He was also a decent (if predictable) soloist. Toward the end of the Deep Purple reign, Blackmore’s solos could still blister the ears, but his note progressions were rote. Still, if it weren’t for his presence, Deep Purple would be a minor footnote in 1970s rock, as irrelevant and forgotten as Rare Earth, Mott the Hoople, Uriah Heep, or — Gawd save us from pretentiousness — the art rock of Emerson, Lake and Palmer. And that would render this DVD unnecessary in a market already saturated with bad music discs. As it happens, Blackmore was an electric guitar virtuoso, even if he couldn't quite curl his little finger on the frets to hit those lower fourth chords like Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, whose playing always seems one degree removed from black magic.

This is not to say the cats in Deep Purple couldn't rock when they wanted to. Dust off your old vinyl and check out the intricate time signatures on “Hush” — arguably the band's best song, if not their most popular (that would be “Smoke on the Water”). Problem is, Deep Purple’s fleeting moments of musical greatness are not evident on this disc. Anywhere. And neither is “Hush,” which was written and originally recorded by American country artist Joe South.

Technical problems plague the DVD. Picture quality is poor, though that may be a problem with the source material – possibly shot by some weed-addled Deep Purple associate. The indifferent audio mix briefly loses Blackmore’s solo during Smoke on the Water. Video and audio are out of sync for the first 2 minutes of the closing song, Space Truckin’ (goofy title, eh?). It’s rather like a disappointing circus with the monkeys just going through the motions.

So let’s have our fun wherever we can find it:

Ø Start with Lord’s cheapjack introductions of the new band members. The keyboardist seems to drone on forever as though he's getting paid by the word.
Ø Enjoy a good laff as lead singer Coverdale tries to strut like a rock star while swatting at insects tormenting him under the stage lights. He almost inhales a moth during “Smoke on the Water.”
Ø Stare in disbelief as Blackmore, reportedly peeved by backstage problems, cracks a beautiful Fender guitar over a camera held by some unfortunate crew member.
Ø Roll your eyes at the arena-rock cliché of smashed guitars and Marshall amplifiers exploding on cue for the fiery finale. Yawn.

According to the liner notes included with this disc, Blackmore and company were whisked away right after the show by limo and helicopter, narrowly escaping the clutches of the police who wanted to arrest them on charges of…well, nobody seems to know. Acting like pompous rock-star jackasses might have been the first charge. Fleeing the scene of a lousy rock concert could have been another.

Blackmore is no longer with the band, which continues to tour 35 years later with a mix of original members and new additions.

The shoddy video footage (transferred from prehistoric tape) and so-so sound (three indifferently-mixed audio options) are somewhat offset by an interesting selection of extras, including bonus tracks, alternate camera angles, a photo gallery, and snippets of Super 8mm home movies shot by a roadie, as well as a commentary track by an anonymous bloke who gabs incessantly about all sorts of semi-interesting trivia related to the band and this particular concert. Who is this guy? Neither the commentator’s name nor his credentials are listed anywhere.

Hard rock fans could hardly do worse; the merely curious can almost certainly find a better concert DVD to suit their tastes. I'll give the disc credit for a solid selection of added-value content, then resist the temptation to dis it altogether for Lord’s eventual formation of the band Whitesnake — minuscule cock rock — about as imposing as a cashew, if you’ll forgive the extended metaphor. Flaccid hard rock seems like an oxymoron, eh? Yet here it is, limp as a biscuit.

Turns out that “Smoke on the Water” back in '74 was mere flatulence over Southern California.

Set List
• “Burn”
• “Might Just Take Your Life”
• “Lay Down, Stay Down”
• “Mistreated”
• “Smoke On the Water”
• “You Fool No One”
• “Space Truckin’”

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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