Blackmore's Night - Castles & Dreams Review
I'm a sucker for all things medieval and having read all of Ellis Peters' Cadfael thrillers and watched the television adaptations with an equal joy, I found myself taking such an increasing interest in medieval matters that it borders on the worrying. The books of Paul Doherty and Alys Clare as well as Umberto Eco's The Name Of The Rose are all much loved and although I've never stood atop a hillside in Shropshire holding a homemade sword and wearing most of a saucepan on my head, the idea is not entirely without appeal.
How exciting it was when, in the opening minute of this DVD, a hooded figure walks onto a stage set within a medieval courtyard and lights a series of torches whilst a hugely appreciate German crowd (and David Coverdale) cheer. And when Ritchie Blackmore - ex-guitarist of Deep Purple and Rainbow - walks on with a lute and wearing a smock, a peasant's hat and velvet pixie boots, there is a massed Saxony cheer of, "Let's folk!"
Now, you're thinking, Ritchie Blackmore? Who wrote Smoke On The Water, the riff that you'll hear testing many a Squier Strat? With a lute? Indeed, because this is Blackmore's Night, the result of the guitarist's dabbling in medieval music. Still in Deep Purple, the band played football against a Long Island radio station, where he met Candice Night and the two fell in love. Finding that they had a shared love of medieval and renaissance music, Blackmore started playing it about the house, over which Night began singing and after leaving Deep Purple, then rejoining and leaving Rainbow, Blackmore's Night released their debut album, Shadow of the Moon, which mixed new compositions with Blackmore's arrangements of more traditional fare...or should that be faere.
Blackmore's Night is not, however, quite the sort of thing that you would expect to be hearing at a quiet, pastoral fair, whilst being served warm beer, watching morris dancers and cycling with spinsters across the village green. Blackmore still finds time for the use of his Strat, the very-twentieth-century amps are barely hidden under covers and there's much use of a keyboard. Instead, Blackmore's Night are much closer to Steeleye Span or Jethro Tull than they are to authentic medieval music but in summoning up as much enthusiasm as a valley full of battlefield recreationists, it's an infectious sound. With Candice Night on vocals, looking and sounding exactly how you imagine Stevie Nicks would love to, there's a soft rock sound to Blackmore's Night that, occasionally, wouldn't be out of place on a mid-eighties Heart album. But with Blackmore still finding room for lute, hurdy-gurdy or mandolin, the mix works best on tracks like Queen For A Day, Under A Violet Moon, the excellent Durch Den Wald Zum Bach Haus and Village On The Sand.
Granted, there is still the odd fan who looks nonplussed at seeing a one-time guitar hero like Blackmore doing a pixie dance to a folk tune. Indeed, the cameras pick up one such soul, who's quite obviously thinking, "Ich zahlte nicht dreißig Euro, um zu dieser Volksscheiße zu hören!" but, by and large, this is a very appreciative crowd. And, by rights, it should be as Blackmore is doing something wholly admirable and worthy of his part in bands like Deep Purple and Rainbow.
Compared to a band like Franz Ferdinand, who look and sound like tax accountants performing Gang Of Four B-sides, Blackmore's Night harks back to a time when rock musicians were the musical equivalent of Apocalypse, Now!, hoovering up drugs, conquering entire nations and destroying hotels wherever they went. Blackmore comes from a time when a rock manager would have been happy to say, "Six months off? To record a double-concept-album with Bolivian nose-flautists? Sure..." and would, no doubt, have been instrumental in leaving such a legacy that Bolivians of a certain age would still speak of it in hushed tones. Blackmore's Night is, therefore, wonderful and, despite the risk of much sniggering, Blackmore's willingness to dance about castles in the manner of a fifteenth-century minstrel is a return to proper rock stardom, when daft, risk-taking was an essential part of rock stardom.
And I absolutely loved it, putting a smile back on my face having just had a listen of this year's awfully safe Joy Zipper album. With Blackmore in the band, playing alongside Bard David of Larchmont, Tudor Rose and Sir Robert of Normandie, amongst others, this is music for whose who didn't object to the folk rock that the guitarist dabbled with in his previous bands or those who like a bit of Led Zep III with their mulled wine come evening time. In that sense, Castles & Dreams is a great DVD release - the audience is appreciative, the setting, in the grounds of a castle on a balmy summer's evening, is just right and the music is wonderful. With the band responding to the crowd, Blackmore's Night have produced a concert film that comes together in exactly the way that good examples of the genre should.
Recorded on video tape in the grounds of a castle, the only major disappointment with Castles & Dreams is the quality of the picture. Under the harsh stage lights and without any forgiveness from the video cameras, director Roger Bisson has produced only a functional picture although it is more the source material rather than the transfer that is at fault.
Regarding the audio track, there are three options, PCM Stereo and Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 Surround. Not being a convert to DVD-Audio or SACD, I found myself listening to the PCM Stereo track more than the others, simply because it offered a better and more coherent mix with less separation between the instruments. I also found it less boomy than the DTS track with a warmer tone overall.
Of the two surround tracks, the DTS one is the better with it sounding noticeably more powerful and with a much better use of the surround channels. On the Dolby Digital track, the overall mix sounded muddy whereas on the DTS track, each instrument sounded crystal clear within a very sympathetic mix.
There really is almost as much here as the devoted fan could expect, including:
Behind The Scenes Footage (8m26s): This short feature includes interviews with the band and crew as they set up a stage in the grounds of a castle without any of the facilities that one would expect of a venue, including power. Given that Blackmore's Night really only play castles and medieval fairs, this is a common problem but still one that the crew have to confront with every new gig.
The dialogue of the feature is in English but unless you select English subtitles, the German-speaking members of the crew will not be automatically subtitled.
Ritchie Blackmore’s Guitar Special (6m47s): This is a multi-angle feature allowing the viewer to switch between either the normal footage of the performance of Village On The Sand as seen in the concert film or a close-up of Ritchie Blackmore's guitar playing.
The second disc has two viewing modes, the most basic of which is simply a list of all the bonus features allowing the viewer to select each one from the list or to 'play all'. There is, however, another option, which allows the viewer to enter an enchanted maze in which all the bonus features are represented pictorially.
Acoustics: This section offers the viewer two short acoustic sets, one from Burg Rheinfels and the other from Burg Abenberg (1.33:1). The Burg Rheinfels footage includes I Think It's Going To Rain Today (3m37s) and Christmas Eve (3m53s), whereas the Burg Abenberg footage is of Shadow Of The Moon (7m46s), Queen For A Day (4m49s) and Under A Violet Moon (4m06s).
Videos: Featuring castles, much dressing like a minstrel and long floaty dresses - Candice Night and Ladies Nancy and Madeline only - the videos for The Times They Are A Changin' (3m37s), Way To Mandalay (3m11s), Once In A Million Years (4m36s), Hanging Tree (3m55s) and Christmas Eve (4m19s) are included here.
The videos for Hanging Tree and Christmas Eve are badly animated, looking more like FMV video game footage than anything else, but the latter has the advantage of featuring live footage of the band instead of a CG Ritchie Blackmore.
Both of these computer-animated videos are in 1.33:1 and although The Times They Are A Changin' is in 1.78:1, it is non-anamorphic.
Blackmore's Night - The Story (4m48s): Filmed in Burg Veldenstein, the same location as the main concert, this features Ritchie and Candice sitting on the stone steps within the castle and telling the story of how they formed Blackmore's Night. Interspersed with this are short sequences of the band playing together and backstage footage, including Candice describing a Ritchie Blackmore doll as that of Jimmy Page.
Once Upon A Time - The Candice & Ritchie Story (4m48s): Following the same template as the first documentary in this section, this one sees Ritchie and Candice talk about their meeting, the first steps in their relationship and how they came to writing songs together.
Tourstart - St. Goar 2004 (8m08s): As well as featuring black-and-white footage from their music videos, this documentary also shows the band rehearsing their material before beginning their 2004 tour.
Making Music With Our Friends (7m06s): Featuring Ritchie and Candice sitting in a basement bar with an audience made up of friends, other members of the band and a select few from the earlier show at Burg Veldenstein, this gives Candice the opportunity to tell the story behind Hanging Tree before it is performed.
TV Appearances: This section includes three television appearances - Schlossgeister (6m08s), Goldene Henne (1.33:1, 4m37s, performing Home Again) and ZDF-Fernsehgarten (1.33:1, 3m58s, performing All Because Of You).
Whilst the last piece of footage is interesting for showing Blackmore's Night performing whilst the sun is still up - Ritchie, in particular, doesn't look like he's seen daylight since 1973 - the first piece is more of a short documentary on the band, with the presenter making much of Ritchie's love of castles. Showing that he has neither forgiven nor forgotten, Ritchie declares that whilst he was always aware of the connections between rock and renaissance music, the rest of Deep Purple were only, "aware how much money can be made."
Proclamations: This section includes biographies for Candice Night (9m26s of scrolling text), Ritchie Blackmore (15m40s of the same) and Interviews With The Band (5m33s), which takes in their views on the songs, their habit of performing in castles and the wearing of tights. Owners of plasma screens should be aware that the biographies do feature some text that remains on the screen for some time, which will linger on the screen.
Also included is a Discography of Blackmore's Night, which features nine pages of track listings and the playing of a song taken from each release.
Bonus Material - Slideshow (1.33:1, 2.46s): This is a rolling series of images of Blackmore's Night, both of publicity and in-concert shots.
Bonus Material - Candice's Private Cam (1.33:1, 12m03s): Featuring shaky, handycam footage, this allows Candice to provide some backstage and tour footage. Castles, Ritchie Blackmore and medieval fairs do, unsurprisingly, feature quite heavily.
All bonus features are anamorphically presented in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 unless otherwise noted.
The best way to view Blackmore's Night is through the actions of Ritchie Blackmore himself. Whilst he was in Deep Purple and Rainbow, Blackmore had a reputation for unpleasantness and as a dictator, possibly second only to Pink Floyd's Roger Waters were anyone to compile a Top 10 list of Rock's Great Bastards.
In Blackmore's Night, however, the guitarist looks happier than he ever did throughout decades of Deep Purple, even dancing at one point in the manner of a court jester. It's this obvious enjoyment that is so infectious and when that is combined with some traditional and more recent medieval and renaissance-era folk, Blackmore's Night become a worthy vehicle for Ritchie's talents.
This DVD is a very worthy release with a vast number of extras - more than enough to keep all but the most grumbling of fans happy. The concert film, although not as good as, say, The Last Waltz or Stop Making Sense, is much better than most but, best of all, there's just a lovely relationship between the band and the audience that the DVD does well to capture. And that should be enough for fans of Blackmore's Night to consider this a worthy purchase.