The pigeon has been unholy. Now the pigeon, former Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, has been unholed.
Once known for ripping guitar solos through piles of Marshall stacks alongside Ian Gillan's feral rock screams, now you're more likely to see Blackmore playing the hurdy-gurdy through a tiny P.A. in a German castle. His wife, Candice Night, sings plaintive, soaring melodies that sound like Joan Baez covering Enya, if Enya was a 16th-century music buff.
Both would be dressed in medieval garb, the ornate, frilly costume of choice among Renaissance-fair geeks. It sounds like the scene from This is Spinal Tap, when Nigel Tufnel tries to resurrect the aging rockers' career with dwarves dancing around a pint-size replica of Stonehenge.
"In ancient times, hundreds of years before the dawn of history lived a strange race of people: the Druids. No one knows who they were, or what they were doing....
And, oh, how they danced.
Difference is, Purple's famed axeman and his wife aren't trying to resurrect anyone's career with Blackmore's Night. The only thing they're resurrecting is the music Blackmore fell in love with while touring with Deep Purple. Back then, he'd burn through "Smoke on the Water" on arena stages for fans, but later, alone with his record player, he'd listen to ancient songs that used instruments like chawms, lutes and the cornermuse.
"Back in 1973, I was listening to David Munroe's early music concert in London. It was Renaissance music-a TV series for Henry VIII," he explains. "That's when I first was involved with this type of music. And I rushed out and bought all the CDs and everything. I would always play them on tour, in between playing rock 'n' roll onstage-I'd go back and listen to music of the 1500s."
During Purple's European tours, with the rest of the band staying at Holiday Inns adjacent to the concert halls, Blackmore would drive "25 miles out of town" and find himself a castle to stay in. At one castle, he came upon a Renaissance band, and asked to join in. They said no. So he formed his own thing, with vocals by his wife, who had first sung publicly during Deep Purple's reunion tour in 1993.
"[Ritchie] had heard me singing around the house or the hotel room just humming to myself," says Night, who met Blackmore in 1989 and moved in with him in 1991. But at a concert in Czechoslovakia, "he asked me to sing background on his "Difficult to Cure' solos-Beethoven's Ninth part. So they hid me away behind all this drapery and amplifiers and stuff so that no one could see me, and they set up a mic. I was scared to death because there were 15,000 people out there, but I just tried to close my eyes."
In down time on tours, they'd write songs together, with Blackmore interpreting ancient music and Night singing her own lyrics. They never thought they'd do it publicly, until Ritchie grew tired of Deep Purple and his later band, Rainbow. Then they went for it.
Record labels and music industry friends thought they were crazy. It'll bomb, they said. But it was all about product placement, as a salesman might say. Forget America or Blackmore's native U.K. When Blackmore's Night released their first CD, Shadow of the Moon, in Japan in 1997, it sold more than 100,000 copies in a few weeks, debuting at No. 14 on Japan's Billboard charts.
In 2001, their second album, Fires At Midnight, would enter various overseas charts with equal aplomb: No. 20 in Japan, No. 9 in Germany, No. 34 in Austria, No. 21 in the Czech Republic and No. 26 in Slovakia.
The German success didn't surprise Blackmore-it's a culture he'd been smitten with for a while, and he knew the audience for something other than Limp Bizkit or U2 was there.
"Most of the music that inspires me is European and Teutonic and Germanic by nature," he says. "We often go there and we went out of our way to concentrate on that market. They relate to the historic folk music. They still have lots of historic, authentic Renaissance bands over there."
Plus, he says, the German media doesn't discard older musicians.
"They don't suffer from ageism so much as they do [in America]. It's quite common to see someone who's 65 years old on the TV playing the trumpet, or a woman who's equally as old. Whereas over here you're not going to see anyone who's over 30 years old."
"Which is so ironic," adds Night, "because it takes such a long amount of time to live with your instrument and emote through it and allow it to become an extension of yourself. Here in Long Island, there's, like, eight rock stations. But all eight stations are playing the same songs. If you go over there you have one station, but it's playing folk and rock and dance. It's got all this variety."
Now Blackmore's Night has become a traveling circus of music history-their tour busses are filled with bales of hay, drapery and other Shakespearian décor. Their fans are encouraged to dress the part.
"When you look and see these people dressed up in Renaissance garb, it's a meeting of the minds." Night says. "They're not fans, they're like friends we haven't met yet, because they're so into what we're doing and we feel so strongly about what we're doing creatively. And it's a lifestyle, it's not just clock in and clock out. This is how we live and what we incorporate into our belief systems and our very lives every day."
They know some people think they're a few sandwiches short of a picnic. There are fairies on Night's website, for chrissakes. But the fans who get it, and like to transport themselves back in time for a night, are treated to a guitar legend and his wife playing not to them, but for them.
"We try to knock down the wall and get away from the rock-star approach, which is flaunt around on stage and the audience is merely there to pay," says Blackmore. "We try to look at it from a different angle-that the audience is the royalty and we're these musicians and we have to play to the royalty."
In fact, the band's newest album-Beyond the Sunset, a collection of romantic ballads-was inspired by fans, who often write to Blackmore and Night about using their music for their weddings. It could've turned out horribly Captain & Tennille, but it's well done-majestic and regal, the same attributes that attracted Blackmore to the music in the first place.
"A lot of the music you hear on the radio stations is so obvious and in your face with the short skirts and the cleavage and the dance moves, or it's anger," says Night. "There's no innocence, there's no mystery. I feel we're sorely missing that. We wanted to try and put some more positive stuff out there."
Blackmore's Night goes all Renaissance and stuff at 4th & B, 8:30 p.m. on Jan. 29. $25-$30. 619-231-4343.