When Ritchie Blackmore announced his intentions to return to rock music with a reformed Rainbow in 2015, understandably, the press and the fans got excited. At that time, it had been a couple of decades since the legendary guitarist had recorded anything resembling the hard rock music that had given him worldwide fame. Since calling time on a new version of Rainbow in the mid 90s, he’d been more interested in medieval and folk styles – something which brought him cult success with his partner Candace Night, resulting in eight albums under the Blackmore’s Night banner. Some fans enjoyed this new phase in his career; others hoped he’d return to his roots. With each passing year, that seemed unlikely, so it’s no wonder the decision to resurrect Rainbow got almost everyone all agog.
It was one of those ideas which was better in theory than reality. The band’s longest serving vocalist Joe Lynn Turner – a member of the band between 1981 and 1986 – had even gone on record saying that if Ritchie called, he would accept the job…but the call never came. Instead, Blackmore surrounded himself with unfamiliar hired help: vocalist Ronnie Romero (from Spanish metal band Lords of Black), bassist Bob Nouveau (ex-Mink De Ville), Blackmore’s Night drummer David Keith and Stratovarius keysman Jens Johansson. Aside from Johansson briefly working with Turner as part of Yngwie Malmsteen’s best ever band in 1988, none of these musicians had the faintest connection with Rainbow’s rich history, so clearly Blackmore’s vision was for the band to include one – and only one – true star.
The new Rainbow played two festival shows in Germany, followed by a sole UK date in Birmingham which, obviously, sold out in record time, despite this being the most expensive tribute band in the world – a band which even made the then current version of Queen seem legitimate. The Birmingham show was recorded and released on CD; the best bits of the two German festivals were released as a blu ray and CD. While the shows were not flawless, if Ritchie’s desire to revisit his past were just a flash in the pan, at least fans would have a keepsake.
In 2017, Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow – still having no further links to the past – embarked on a full tour, giving more people a chance to see their hero. Lots of people were too young to see Ritchie in his early 70s prime with Deep Purple or catch Rainbow in full glory at the first Monsters of Rock Festival in 1980 so, again, the run of UK shows was more than well attended by a broad spectrum of fans. A further memento from the shows was released in April 2018. A lavish 2CD & DVD set, ‘Memories In Rock II’ should have been the best document of the current band. With a full tour from which to select the best performances and with the kinks ironed out, the opportunity for a definitive live document presented itself (regardless of line-up), but the fact is, even at it’s best, it really isn’t very good. At it’s worst, it’s lumpy and bordering on the unlistenable.
As ‘Over The Rainbow’ emerges from the speakers, much in the same way it had for Rainbow shows back in the 70s and 80s, there’s a small amount of nostalgic excitement. Unfortunately, regular set opener ‘Spotlight Kid’ comes with none of its former gusto. Instead, a band sounding like a passable covers band lumbers through the intro at about three quarters of the necessary speed. Even Blackers himself is struggling: the lead guitar parts are clumsy and unsure. To make matters worse, they’re placed so high in the mix that his general fudgery is impossible to overlook. While no Turner, Romero puts in a more than decent vocal performance, but it isn’t enough. When the time comes for the neo-classical soloing, Johansson’s keys take the brunt of the work, presumably to disguise others not being up to the job, and Ritchie’s featured solo is limp in comparison to his 1986 self. By the end of the song, everyone appears to have warmed up a touch more, but there’s still a wobbliness that such a release shouldn’t convey so obviously. The AOR classic ‘I Surrender’ doesn’t fare any better. Blackmore hits an absolute stinker of a bum note during the intro and again during his first fill, whilst the should-be rousing chorus sounds like a rehearsal with the stabbed keys almost non-existent. On the plus side, Ritchie can be heard throwing out a couple of bluesy howls, but since these seem to be placed between various clumsy rhythms, it’s just painful to listen to, especially by the last chorus where Romero even sounds like he’s resenting every second of fronting such a mess. If ‘I Surrender’ sounded bad, then the evergreen pop-rock sheen of ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’ surely would stand no chance – and sure enough, what again sounds like seasoned pub rockers trudge through the classic with no real finesse and Romero’s voice is disgusting, as he chooses to chew through each line really heavy-handedly. His previous work with Lords of Black more than showed off some great pipes, but he has a great metal voice; it’s really not suitable for the range required here.
After a few ropey performances, Deep Purple’s ‘Mistreated’ gets the full ten minute treatment and there’s a definite improvement from all concerned. Keith’s drums have a real weight and obviously more comfortable when tackling louder, bluesier things. When Ritchie actually hits the notes instead of merely plunking with genuine indifference, echoes of the past – and his distinctive tone – are there for all to hear. When ‘Mistreated’ works for the best, there’s almost a validity to this nostalgic release; when the band subsides and Blackmore teases with vibrato, it almost could be any Rainbow show, so distinctive is his approach, but it doesn’t quite make up for the terrible performances up to this point.
Delving further into a brilliant history, ‘Man On The Silver Mountain’ and ‘Woman From Tokyo’ are played in a lengthy medley that, back in the 70s, Blackmore would have turned into an angry tour-de-force, especially if coupled by Ronnie James Dio’s huge and powerful voice. By 2017, this still provides a set highlight, but it’s often merely good rather than great. Predictably, Romero’s voice fares so much better on the Dio material and moving into ‘Sixteen Century Greensleeves’ he sounds like a decent choice for the departed legend, even if he’s doing his damnedest to sound like a Stars In Their Eyes style Dio impersonator. The performance is a little lumpy compared to those from the epic German tour of ’76, but by mid-way, Blackmore has clearly oiled his cogs and the loud bluesy leads emerging from the right speaker channel at least sound like he’s interested…even if the playing is somewhat lacklustre compared to years gone by.
An unremarkable ‘Soldier of Fortune’ is followed by a frankly terrible version of ‘Perfect Strangers’ that’s played too slowly. With Blackmore dropping in random guitar fills seemingly any time he fancies – and of any melody he fancies – it sounds clumsy enough, but taking the trudging tempo and Romero’s horrible performance into consideration, this is a nasty five minutes that feels like it goes on forever. Dragged out to fifteen minutes, Blackmore’s showpiece ‘Difficult To Cure’ does, in fact, go on forever… On old Rainbow live albums, there was always a joy to be had in hearing him amp up Beethoven’s Ninth and bend his strings into oblivion. In its twenty first century guise it sounds sloppy, slightly out of time and like a rank amateur gen a Euro metal band pretending to be Blackmore rather than the genuine article himself. With some horrible backing vocals fleshing out a few empty spaces, it’s cringe worthy at the very best. …And since at least half of the performance is taken up by a lengthy solo by Johannson – a man whom, admittedly is a maestro when it comes to neo-classical keyboards – it makes it clear how often Blackmore is allowing the others to take the weight.
The old Rainbow hit ‘All Night Long’ is played pretty straight, with Romero and band sounding pretty good, all told, but unless you’re Graham Bonnet’s all-star vehicle Blackthorne, it’s a hard song to fuck up… It isn’t enough to save face, though, before a double whammy of epics – tunes that really should have been the highlight of the shows featured here – drop everything back to being average at best. During ‘Child In Time’, Ritchie spends far too much time making odd chopping noises only to come alive about ninety seconds before the end of the huge instrumental break – again, leaving Johansson to do the lion’s share of the work in hand – and while the bombast of ‘Stargazer’ shows Romero off in fine enough style, there’s nothing about the rest of the performance rising beyond merely workmanlike. Chances are, you’ll get a couple of minutes in and just find yourself pining for the various shows recorded on the legendary tour of ’76.
Moving into the final stretch of a release that’s felt like it goes on for an eternity, ‘Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll’s bluster is reduced to a stodgy and lumbering mess, as per ‘Spotlight Kid’; ‘Temple of The King’ is oddly presented, exposing some truly horrendous backing vocals, and a ten minute ‘Black Night’ offers brief excitement before exposing itself as a clumsy vehicle for a seven minute drum solo. Better all round, though never brilliant, Romero does his best with the beautiful ‘Catch The Rainbow’ but struggles with the finer points of the performance. On the plus side, a few more subtle blues licks from Ritchie almost suggest it’s one of the highlights, but even then, and even with best intentions, the end results sound like a pick up band doing their best…and seldom more. Following a vocal intro that just doesn’t translate if you weren’t there in person, Ritchie hammers out the riff from ‘Smoke On The Water’ at full pelt – at least sounding like a mid-80s Blackmore – before an average performance unfolds, with Romero making a few odd shrieks and fudging some of the lyrics. The audience sound thrilled, so it might’ve sounded more exciting on the night in question, but hearing this recording after the fact? In keeping with about ninety-eight percent of ‘Memories In Rock II’, it’s just not very good.
Having gained a lot of press before this live album’s release, could the then new studio track ‘Waiting For A Sign’ be a real gem? Something that gives the shows more validity and a genuine link with Rainbow? Something that makes ‘Memories In Rock II’ an essential collection filler? Sadly, the answer is…not really. What transpires is an okay blues rock number, the kind of thing Deep Purple Mk. II could’ve made great in 1984, but it’s rarely any more than an okay listen due to being rhythmically uninspired. It’s great to hear Ritchie playing a few riffs with ease – even if the opening does sound like a light impersonation of ‘Mistreated’ and Romero sounds much better than his live self, but fact is, you could get this from a hundred other rock bands – and more importantly, up and coming bands who need and would value your support. Given the retail price of this set, this isn’t really worth forking out for. [Containing only interviews and backstage footage, a bonus DVD is also a massively wasted opportunity.]
‘Memories In Rock II’, in truth, is for Blackmore obsessives only, and it’s likely some of those will come away feeling disappointed. Why bother with this when you could spin Rainbow shows from ‘Koln ’76’, ‘Monsters of Rock 1980’ or ‘Boston 1981’? Moreover, it isn’t always bad as much as sad. Sad to hear Blackmore going through the motions and not always up to the task in hand, but sadder still that nobody else within Rainbow’s rich and wonderful history had been invited to share in this nostalgia. Imagine if Joe Lynn Turner had been asked to do an hour’s set, followed by a lengthy encore where Graham Bonnet joined the band to perform highlights from ‘Down To Earth’ and Jorn Lande contributed a couple of the Dio classics… Just imagine. Even with a sub-par Blackmore, that would’ve been something…wouldn’t it?
Read a review of Rainbow’s classic ‘Down To Earth’ here.