These days live albums are not valued in the same way they were a few decades ago. Today, more often than not, they are tossed off to fulfill a contractual obligation and rarely receive much attention. Releases that achieve the quality and acclaim of Live After Death or Alive in Athens are the exception, not the rule. In the Seventies however, live albums were major releases. The Seventies were really the heyday for improvisation in rock and roll, and as such, live albums often showed a much different side of a band than did studio recordings, which were more vulnerable to the influence of producers and record company executives pushing for a hit single. In fact, live albums were responsible for the commercial breakthroughs (in one market or another) of more than a few big-name rock acts: The Alman Brothers Band (At Fillmore East), Cheap Trick (At Budokan), Peter Frampton (Frampton Comes Alive), and more to the metal point: Thin Lizzy (Live and Dangerous), Judas Priest (Unleashed in the East), and even more to the point of this review: Deep Purple (Made in Japan).
Made in Japan stands as probably the best and most famous live album in classic rock history, so when Ritchie Blackmore left Deep Purple in 1975 to form Rainbow, with three quarters of Ronnie James Dio’s band Elf, it was virtually assured that the band would eventually record a live album, and it did in fairly short order, with 1977’s On Stage. On Stage did not have nearly the same impact as Made in Japan, but it was nonetheless a fairly successful release. Live in Germany 1976, originally released in 1994, is, like On Stage, a double live album, recorded during the same period, with the same personnel, and featuring almost the same playlist as On Stage. So it would be easy to dismiss Live in Germany 1976 as redundant, but it is not, and I can tell you why in two words: fucking “Stargazer”. “Stargazer” is Rainbow’s crowning achievement, a true fantasy metal epic, and an important song in the development of heavy metal as we know it. A Rainbow concert without “Stargazer” is like an Iron Maiden concert without “Hallowed Be Thy Name”, or a Slayer concert without “Angel of Death”. Yet, for reasons that will forever remain a mystery, On Stage does not feature “Stargazer”; Live in Germany 1976 does, so it is better.
If bigger is better, then Live in Germany 1976 trumps On Stage in that respect as well. With a running time of over ninety minutes, ’76 eclipses On Stage in length by more than fifty percent. With only eight tracks on the album, that equals an average of twelve minutes per song, which can only mean one thing: excessive jamming. Keyboard solo? Check. Drum solo? Check. Vocal/guitar duel? Check. Blues jam? Check, check, check. Extended guitar solo? Check, check, check, check, check, check, check. If that sounds bloated and overblown, well, it is. It was the Seventies, and as Rick James once said: “Cocaine is a hell of a drug”. While the jamming might be excessive, in the hands of this extremely talented group, it is rarely less than entertaining and frequently exhilarating. In the period between the death of Jimi Hendrix and the debut of Eddie Van Halen, Ritchie Blackmore was, arguably, the biggest guitar hero in rock, and Live in Germany 1976 finds him at the height of his powers, delivering an impassioned, multi-faceted performance. Dio’s performance is every bit the equal of Blackmore’s. Ronnie’s voice remained amazingly strong throughout his life, but ’76 showcases Dio in his early thirties, a seasoned veteran,but still in his prime, and at this juncture the strength of his voice seems almost limitless. The rest of the band — drummer Cozy Powell, bassist Jimmy Bain, and keyboardist Tony Carey — makes up the strongest supporting cast that Ronnie and Ritchie had in Rainbow, and each one shines in his respective role.
The highlight of Live in Germany 1976 is, of course, the seventeen minute rendition of “Stargazer”. The song begins with a lengthy keyboard intro — into which Tony Carey works some licks from “Tarot Woman” — but once the song-proper starts, the band sticks fairly close to the studio arrangement of the song until the guitar solo, at which time Ritchie Blackmore uses his slide and some slap-back echo to take his leave of planet Earth. Also of note is the band’s blazing stomp through “Sixteenth Century Green Sleeves”, and the delicately beautiful “Catch the Rainbow”, showcasing some sublime, Hendrix-inspired playing from Blackmore. As did On Stage, ’76 features a rendition of Deep Purple’s “Mistreated”. Dio cannot quite match the anguish David Coverdale captures in his renditions of this gut-wrenching blues tune, but what Dio’s voice might lack in vulnerability, it more than makes up for in power, matching Blackmore’s deep-cutting licks slash for slash.
There is no getting around the fact that Live in Germany 1976 is a behemoth of a recording. An hour and a half of arena rock bombast is by no means casual listening, and so it is unlikely to appeal to the casual fan. For the die-hard Rainbow fan, however, Live in Germany 1976 is an all-too-rare opportunity to indulge in the fruit of Dio and Blackmore’s fleeting union, to hear these titans wield their might in their true element: on the stage, where legends are made.