- Artist: Rainbow
- Title: On Stage
- Released: 1977
- Format: Original Vinyl/CD/Digital Download
- Genre: Progressive Rock
- Beverage of Choice: Brandy and ginger beer
It’s difficult for me to describe the impact of this album on my musical formation other than to say it was immense. At thirteen most of listening was confined to straight-ahead rock and heavy metal (Kiss, Sabbath etc.) and I had no idea that improvisational forms of the music could sound like Rainbow live. I’ve worn out two copies of the vinyl format through the intervening years and it’s still my ‘go-to’ version with the CD emphasizing some of the limitations of 70’s recording technology and the vinyl enlivening the experience with natural ambiance.
From their traditional opening of a snippet from The Wizard of Oz , Rainbow rocks hard on “Kill the King” (which was a song that would only be released on their next studio album ‘Long Live Rock n Roll‘). This particular lineup of an ever-changing legion of top-notch musicians, in my opinion, is the one that will be remembered as the best. Ritchie Blackmore was notoriously difficult to work for/with (and it was always understood that it was Ritchie’s band) and drummers, singers and bassists would come and go with monotonous regularity during the band’s lifetime. This crew with Cozy Powell on drums, Tony Carey on keyboards, Jimmy Bain (RIP) on bass and the inimitable Ronnie James Dio (also departed) providing his unmistakable yowl n growl were so perfectly in sync and tight/loose that it must have been an otherworldly experience to catch them live during the period they were together (circa 1975-1978).
“Medley/Man on the Silver Mountain” highlights the band’s chops with an extended jam showcasing each instrument and Ronnie in fine vocal form; listening to the way they swing at the 8’30” mark brings to mind brings to mind some of Led Zeppelin’s best moments and sets the standard for the rest of the album.
“Catch the Rainbow“, the longest cut at over fifteen minutes, is the track that mesmerized the thirteen year old version of myself and opened my mind/ears to what was possible within the realms of ‘heavy’ rock. Melodic and almost pastoral keyboards and vocals lead off with Ritchie adding guitar flourishes and runs along the way. Listen to the way the rhythm section creates space and enhances the flow of the music while being restrained and tight. The dynamic range plays a large part in the effect of the music and creates a progressive dimension that isn’t typical of rock or metal with soft/loud and slow/fast combinations highlighting the prowess of the band members. Of course, Blackmore’s playing takes over the lead around halfway through and drives the momentum of the song to the end. One of my top five live tracks.
On the theme of ‘live’ recordings, it’s always been challenging for artists and engineers to fully capture the live experience. With so many variables at play both internal and external, the impact of attending a concert is highly subjective. I’ve been to shows of big name artists with high expectations and come away disappointed. In contrast I’ve spontaneously gone to see an artist I’ve never heard of and been blown away. So herewith, a short list of other great live albums (in no specific order): “Live and Dangerous” – Thin Lizzy; “Live from Mars” – Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals; “The Alice Cooper Show” – Alice Cooper; “Stop Making Sense” – Talking Heads; “Strangers in the Night” – UFO).
“Mistreated” is dominated by Blackmore’s amazing dexterity and fluidity on guitar. The rest of the band does get to play a part though after a couple of minutes and they swing like mad. Tony Carey is simply wonderful on his massive electronics rig and is more than a match for Ritchie’s over-driven Telecaster theatrics; Cozy Powell dictates the tempo and his fills are an example of how to support the sound without taking it over for any aspiring jazz/rock/metal drummer.
“Sixteenth Century Greensleeves” is an early indicator of Blackmore’s obsession with renaissance folk music and is an intricate and beautiful example of mixing different forms of music together to come up with something new. Dio’s vocals are typically powerful and melodic; really the man couldn’t sing out of tune if he tried and the world is a poorer place without Ronnie. Again the bass and drum foundation on the track is top echelon, tightening the overall effect without constraining the band.
The final track,”Still I’m Sad“, is a cover of a Yardbirds’ tune but so expanded that it sounds like an original Rainbow/Deep Purple creation. The band is as tight as a wound up spring and lets the energy loose in various sections of eleven minutes of showmanship, highlighting each instrument in turn. A fitting end to an amazing hour of music; I never got to see Rainbow (or Ronnie James Dio) live but this album is my solace and, whenever I play it, I am transported again to the delight of discovery that has stood the test of time for over forty years.