August 12, 2015
Costa Mesa, CA
Review by Shawn Perry
Photos by Ron Lyon
Who’d have thought that in 2015, you could see Foghat and Deep Purple together on the same bill. At the fair, no less. Before a full house of some 5,000, both bands reignited the hard rockin’ 70s with strong sets of their greatest anthems. Foghat and Deep Purple have played the OC Fair many times in recent years, so their match-up was dripping with inevitability. Foghat tour the States constantly, whereas Purple, until recently, only paid occasional visits to America, choosing instead to clean up on the European festival circuit where they are highly revered as the rock gods that they are. Here in the States, they get lumped in with a lot of other “classic rock” bands that are operating strictly on past achievements. Tonight’s show would change that perception.
It being a weekday at the Orange County Fair, time constraints meant that Foghat only got a 45 minute slot. They made the most of it with a tight set that highlighted everything that’s great about the boogie-fied blues the band fries up. The lineup of original drummer Roger Earl, bassist since 1975 Craig MacGregor, and the two “new guys,” singer and guitarist Charlie Huhn and lead guitarist Bryan Bassett, have developed an intuitive chemistry in the 10 years they’ve been together.
“Fool For The City” remains the perfect opener, and it definitely got the still-incoming crowd on their feet (even after they found their seat). “Driving Wheel” may well have been their highlight as Bassett ably scaled the heights on his guitar, proving once and for all he is the proper successor to the band’s original lead guitarist Rod Price. It was also Bassett’s birthday, so maybe when the audience joined in to sing “Happy Birthday,” it fired up his fingers to slip and slide even more wildly all over the fretboard.
Forty years on, and Earl and MacGregor are a well-oiled rhythm machine. Front and center, Huhn has taken the baton with great respect and reverence from “Lonesome” Dave Peverett and extended it to the heavens. He churned out a bluesy progression before diving into “I Just Wanna Make Love To You.” At the helm, Huhn and Bassett swapped guitar licks. “Slow Ride” pounded its trademark thud and the band hit their marks and brought their set to a close.
Strong openers build anticipation, and it was at fever-pitch by the time Deep Purple hit the stage at 8:30. A movement from Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” got everyone shuffling in their stead as the band took their positions. “Highway Star” was up first, and almost immediately the chugging guitar magic of Steve Morse transformed the song into a juggernaut. From there, things got real interesting.
Perhaps one reason Deep Purple was making a return appearance after a relatively modest 2014 tour that brought the band here and to Las Vegas for a free show is their 2013 studio album, NOW What?!. I spoke briefly with keyboardist Don Airey before the show, and we both agreed the album reinvigorated the band’s quest for immortality. He told me they recorded more material with producer Bob Ezrin, so the possibility of hearing new music from Deep Purple is definitely something to look forward to. In the meantime, with the album charting in parts of Europe, many of the songs have been rotated into the setlist.
Tonight, four songs from NOW What?! were trotted out and the reception was actually more livelier than you’d think, despite the fact that a majority of the audience was unfamiliar with the material. Or in one case, the band themselves. One women nearby asked, “Who’s are the original members?” To which, I answered, “Only the drummer.” Then she asked, “Does the singer sound like the original guy?” I explained to her that Ian Gillan was the original singer of “Smoke On The Water,” and he was still in the band. It got complicated after that. It was a clear indication of how important band members and new songs are.
So “Après Vous” was rolled out to a mild ovation. “Weirdistan” or "Above And Beyond" may have been better choices, but “Après Vous” is one of the more solid tracks from NOW What?! “Vincent Price” has its moments too, despite its trite macabre feel. Thankfully, “Hell To Pay” and “Uncommon Man,” two of the more Purple-like numbers, made the cut, and both Morse and Airey rose to the occasion. Throughout the night, solo spotlights featuring these two, another set of “new guys” (even though Morse’s 21-year membership exceeds that of Ritchie Blackmore) reaffirm why the band still matters, nearly 50 years on.
What really made the night were those well-placed nuggets that Purple intermittingly sprinkle in with the mainstream stuff. “Hard Lovin' Man” from 1970’s In Rock album made enough of a splash in 2014 to remain in the arsenal for 2015. It was a real treat watching Ian Paice take the steering wheel for “The Mule” and blithely lay down the sweeping swirl of drums that drive the song. Yes, he is more than “only the drummer.” Like Charlie Watts is to the Stones, Ian Paice is to Deep Purple — irreplaceable and untouchable in the role as their band’s timekeeper.
Toward the end of the night, the crowd-pleasers started coming. After an enticing, multi-genre-encompassing solo from Airey, the tone was set for “Perfect Stranger.” As he had done all night, singer Ian Gillan stayed within his range and minimized the screeches he could, as a younger man, summon with relative ease. Nevertheless, he was sprite and spot-on during the choruses on “Space Truckin’,” and he eagerly lead the audience in a sing-along of — you guessed it — “Smoke On The Water.”
Remarkably, the one-two punch encore of “Hush” and “Black Night” sailed past the curfew, but no one was shutting down the power or running out the door. The members of Deep Purple may be older and a bit lighter in their attack, but the music still burns with intensity. Could more new music be added? Could other songs deep in their catalog be polished off and refreshed? The possibility is there. Could Deep Purple, a band often credited alongside Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath as one of the more influential pioneers of British hard rock and heavy metal, still have some tricks up their sleeve? We shall see.