Monday, May 31, 2010

Rainbow - "On Stage" (LP Review)

So I've been wondering how to commemorate the passing of Ronnie James Dio... Anyone who knew me in high school remembers that I was a huge fan. I believe it was Chris Miller that gave me a tape of "Holy Diver" right after it came out in 1983, and from there I slowly worked my way backwards through Dio's canon: Black Sabbath, Rainbow, then Elf. That was back in the pre-Web days when working out a discography took a lot of research (time and $) in the record store. I was proud that I had eventually collected all of his LPs on vinyl, including the Elf LPs which, truth be told, aren't very good.

By college I had mostly outgrown my fascination with the D&D / fantasy / metal genre, of which RJD was a central figure, but he'll always be nostalgically significant and I was saddened by his passing. But which LP to review for F-Measure? "Holy Diver" and "Heaven and Hell" are obvious choices -- too obvious, IMO. The same argument could also be made for "Mob Rules", which is at least as good as the latter two but often overlooked.

But perhaps the most important to me was "On Stage", the mostly forgotten 1977 live double LP from Rainbow. For one, I really love Ritchie Blackmore's guitar playing: fluid, effortless, expressive. I'm a Deep Purple fan as well, but Blackmore seems more comfortable here than any of his previous or later LPs. The rest of the lineup features Rainbow at the their finest: Cozy Powell (drums), Tony Carey (keyboards), and Jimmy Bain (bass). Dio would work with most of these people again in later lineups (Dio/Sabbath/Rainbow/Purple/Whitesnake all regularly swapped members from LP to LP), but this lineup, the same as on "Rainbow Rising", is Rainbow's strongest.

The second reason this is a good LP to revisit is that Dio's latter fantasy themes are only partially developed here. Sure, songs like "Kill the King", "Sixteenth Century Greensleeves" and "Man On the Silver Mountain" hint at the thematic direction for the rest of his career, but imagery is not quite as over the top here. Granted, I liked the fantasy themes 25+ years ago (cf. my review of "Queensryche"), but they seem silly now. At the time, I thought Blackmore's presence reined in some of the fantasy imagery, but ironically Blackmore's project of the last 10+ years, Blackmore's Night, is 100 times worse in its Spinal Tap cliches.

The LP itself features some of the excesses of 1970's live LPs: lots of patter with audience, long songs featuring extended solos of every kind, etc. Blame Frampton, the Grateful Dead, or maybe even Deep Purple: there was a template for live LPs at the time, and extended fusion jams is what you got. For some songs, it doesn't work: the medley of "Man on the Silver Mountain / Blues / Starstruck" would be stronger as two separate songs and without the "Blues" interlude.

On the other hand, the extended jams work in the case of "Mistreated" (a cover from "Burn" by Deep Purple, Mk. III), "Still I'm Sad" (a cover off the "Having a Rave Up" LP by The Yardbirds) and "Catch The Rainbow". The latter song is really the jewel of the entire LP; a 15:36 long workout of soft-loud-soft-loud-soft. Dio, Blackmore and Powell are all in exceptional form on this song. Occupying the entire side two of the vinyl, I used to listen to this song on maximum volume more times than I can remember. The soft->loud transition from ~8:15-9:40 remains one of my favorite musical passages. Listening to this version of "Catch the Rainbow" is an investment for me and is something that can't be done casually.

I've recently discovered that in 1990 Polydor reissued "Live in Germany" which appears to be recorded from the same tour as "On Stage", but perhaps without some of the editing required to fit "On Stage" to vinyl. I haven't brought myself to purchase this LP yet -- revisiting new/old RJD recordings isn't something I've been especially eager to do, "The Last in Line" was the last LP of his I really enjoyed even though I bought a few after that. Perhaps "Live In Germany" is actually a better LP, but I'm choosing to remember RJD with "On Stage" and in particular "Catch the Rainbow".

Standout songs: "Catch the Rainbow", "Mistreated", "Kill the King", "Sixteenth Century Greensleeves", "Still I'm Sad".

Skip 'em songs: "Man on the Silver Mountain / Blues / Starstruck" (or at least the "Blues" portion of this track; the link here is nicely just MOTSM).

Final score: 9/10. I've tried to adjust for the nostalgia factor, but it should be apparent from the above that is not easily done.

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