STILL SMOKING: HOW DEEP PURPLE KEEPS THE FIRE BURNING AFTER 18 YEARS ON THE ROAD
Deep Purple in concert
When & where: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 8, Ottawa Civic Centre
Tossing guitar wiz Steve Morse onto the smouldering embers of Deep Purple helped fuel a new era for the classic British rockers that’s kept them burning for nearly two decades.
Since the flaxen-haired guitar hero replaced rock legend Ritchie Blackmore in 1996, Deep Purple has not only released four studio albums, a handful of live projects and a couple of concert DVDs, but also spent much of their time touring the world. The latest leg of the voyage, part of the Songs That Rock Built world tour, is a cross-Canada excursion that starts in St. John’s on Feb. 2, pulls into Ottawa on Feb. 8 and ends in Vancouver on Feb. 26.
“The last 18 years of Deep Purple has been pretty much unpack the suitcase, wash your clothes, pay the bills, fix things that are broken and start packing your suitcase,” says Morse, who, like any professional musician, appreciates a steady gig, especially one that lets him stretch out alongside a top-notch band.
“I had my doubts as to whether it was going to work with them,” the Ohio-born musician confides, “but as luck would have it, we happened to come across with great chemistry. I was surprised, frankly, that they were such good musicians.
“Don’t tell them I said that,” he adds, laughing. “They really blew me away with how good they were playing. They were all pulled into the band because they were exceptional.”
Of course, Morse is no slouch himself. Known for his inventive exploration of jazz fusion and Southern rock, the university-educated guitarist was the creative force behind the Grammy-nominated Dixie Dregs before going on to release a string of solo projects, including his landmark 1991 album, Southern Steel. He also did a stint with Kansas in the 1980s.
A Purple fan in his high-school years (who wasn’t?), Morse probably should have been intimidated at the notion of filling the role long held by one of the world’s most influential guitarists. But no.
“They wanted a guitarist that wasn’t the same as Ritchie and I had no problem being different,” he says. “The idea was where do we go from here, as opposed to how do we best present where we were. A lot of that is Roger’s way of thinking.”
Morse, who’s 57, rounds out a semi-classic Purple lineup that also includes bassist Roger Glover, singer Ian Gillan, drummer Ian Paice and, the newest member, keyboardist Don Airey, sitting in for Jon Lord, who is battling cancer.
A fifth latter-day Purple album is in the works, Morse confirms, but only a few songs have been written. The work gets bumped when touring opportunities arise. “Because recording is not anything you can realistically expect to make an income off, it has to be timed. Any time a tour comes up, it gets pushed aside,” he explains.
When they are in writing mode, Morse’s job is to contribute lots of musical ideas. The others pick the ones they think would work and they tackle them as a group. “I encourage everyone, if you’re going to bring something in, don’t bring in a finished piece because then it’s not a group effort,” Morse says. “The idea is to get everybody involved in every piece and that really keeps our group identity going.”
Another secret to songwriting success is to pursue side projects. Purple encourages the band members to expand their horizons in order “to get more flavour and different experiences within the group,” as Morse puts it.
In his case, Morse is part of an all-star collaboration with prog-rock singer-keyboardist Neal Morse (no relation). Their band, Flying Colors, also includes former Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy, Dixie Dregs bassist Dave LaRue and Austin singer-songwriter Casey McPherson on lead vocals. A self-titled debut album is due for release this spring.
“It started with me going to make a prog-rock album with Neal,” says Morse. “So we got together and wrote some stuff, and then it shifted from being prog rock to actually being very accessible material. And of course, it’s not us trying to be 20 years old and trying to look cool. We just love music and have a lot of experience doing it.”
Which is pretty much the same approach he takes to his day job in Deep Purple. In their concerts, the setlist is designed with four elements in mind: First, the hits that everyone expects, the likes of Smoke on the Water and Highway Star. Second, the key songs from the newer albums. Third, obscure album tracks from deep in the vault. Fourth, the space to play some improvised bits.
For Morse, the improvisational element allows him to indulge in some guitar solos.
“This is something I’ve been trying to do in every band,” he says, evidently aware of the declining appetite for extended noodling on guitar. “We keep those short enough to keep people involved. Don’t make ‘em so long that people applaud when you’re ending.”