“Renaissance,” “Medieval,” “Baroque,” and other musical terms are applicable to the unique modern-day efforts of the most recent aggregation that counts legendary guitarist Ritchie Blackmore as a member.
Along with partner/singer/lyricist Candice Night and other associates, the combo known as Blackmore’s Night has released four albums since its inception in the mid 1990s: Shadow of the Moon (’97), Under a Violet Moon (’99), Fires at Midnight (’01), and a live double album, Past Times With Good Company, which debuted in February ’03 (all on the Steamhammer/SPV label).
Not only has Blackmore’s Night nurtured Ritchie’s longtime love of ancient musical genres, the band also uses many ancient-style instruments in its presentation.
In a recent conversation with Vintage Guitar, the veteran player enthusiastically brought us up to date on his decision to head down different musical paths.
Vintage Guitar: When we conversed in 1997, you alluded to going in the direction of what Blackmore’s Night is doing. But how would you explain your decision to someone accustomed to hearing you play a Stratocaster – loudly?
Ritchie Blackmore: Well, it’s not very different. When I first heard Medieval/Renaissance music, the harmonic structure was very similar to rock and roll. It’s quite easy to imagine something like the “Smoke on the Water” riff being played by medieval instruments from the 1500s, like shawms. It’s very similar music, and what I’m playing on the acoustic guitar is not that dissimilar to what I’ve played on electric.
For instance, back in the days of Rainbow, when I played songs like “Temple of the King” or “Rainbow Eyes” on the electric guitar, it still had a Medieval/Renaissance influence; a “minstrel” influence. The only difference is the volume.
Is it fair to say that each of the three studio albums became more diverse? The title track from Fires at Midnight sounds like it has a Middle Eastern or Turkish influence…
It’s hard to say. I know that when I started Shadow of the Moon, I wanted to stick strictly to acoustic guitar. But as it has progressed, I’ve kind of gone back to playing electric and acoustic guitar – whatever fits the bill.
But in the beginning, I wanted to make it very “woody” and organic. I tried to steer clear of playing any electric solos, although I did on one or two tracks. It had gotten to the point six years ago where I had to put the electric guitar down, because I was kind of boring myself.
The (“Fires at Midnight”) melody line was originally written in the 1200s by King Alphonse X of Spain. I’d kind of envisioned a witches’ meeting in Germany, which is where the Walpurgis Night legend came from.
One of the most “electric” tracks so far was “Written In The Stars,” but even it has a horn chart.
That was taken from a Tchaikovsky concerto; the “Swan Lake” piece. It’s very famous, and I’ve always liked it. So it was very easy to introduce into that song. It was almost tongue-in-cheek, like we’d done a disco version of it. Some people asked, “Why is it on the CD? It’s so out of-place.” And yet other people would tell me it’s their favorite song.
And speaking of tongue-in-cheek, the intro to your cover of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'” is a direct cop from Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You, Babe.”
That is exactly what we wanted to do! (chuckles). It was done on purpose; we wanted the oboe to do it exactly like “I Got You, Babe.” I tell people we’re trying to copy Sonny and Cher.
The new live album was recorded in the Netherlands. Have England and the European continent been more receptive to Blackmore’s Night?
Yes, they have. But I think it’s more the agencies and people involved when we’ve toured who have been receptive.
In the United States, promoters are bit more skeptical of this kind of music. But the people in America are just as “into” this music as the people in Europe, even though in Europe, I think they’ve been a bit blasé about the history they have, yet they know about that type of music, and they like it.
I get the feeling Americans look at it like a fairy tale, with castles; I feel like the Americans get more excited about the music than even the Europeans. We’re about to start touring in America, but we’re always working in Europe.
I think Americans have been left out because promoters can sometimes be a little bit lazy over here. If they know something’s an instant sell, they’ll book it into rock clubs. But we don’t want to play rock clubs. We don’t have to play in a castle, but would like to play in some place with a sort of special feel, like a big stone church. Logistically, you could get into some problems, but this music is special.
The mix on the live album is fuller than some might expect.
We had three dates that we were going to record, but ended up with only one due to equipment problems. The one we got in Holland has all the mistakes, as well (chuckles).
Let’s discuss some of the instruments you played on the new live album. Isn’t the oval-shaped 12-string instrument on the cover a mandola?
Yes, it is. Most of the time, I use a similar tuning to a guitar. Other times, I’ll tune down, or do a Medieval tuning in A-D-A-D; sort of a drone tuning. It’s made by Freshwater, a Scottish builder; I think he only turns out three or four a year. It projects very well. I also use a Mid-Missouri mandolin.
As for guitars, I’ve been playing a special Alvarez-Yairi made for me. There’s a Fender Telecaster acoustic/electric; I think they only made them about six months, which is a shame; they’re not bad guitars. I use that with a synthesizer on “Shadow of the Moon” and “The Clock Ticks On” to get a fuller sound. I use Lakewood guitars more in the studio.
And I’ve been playing the hurdy gurdy for a couple of years. It has two chromatic octaves and a wheel that you turn that acts like a violin bow against the strings, which are made of gut. It gets a constant sound as the wheel revolves.
Comments about other ancient-style instruments that have appeared on your recordings, such as the shawm and the cornamuse?
The shawm is a wind instrument that Candice plays on “The Clock Ticks On.” The cornamuse is heard on “Mid-Winter’s Night.” And it’s funny – I don’t collect guitars; I collect shawms, and I can’t play a note on them! Candice does very well, though.
There are token covers of a Deep Purple song (“Soldier of Fortune”) and a Rainbow song (“16th Century Greensleeves”) on the live album. Many rock bands will play mostly electric, and will do a short acoustic “unplugged” segment in the middle of their performance. It sounds like your band did the reverse, as “16th Century Greensleeves” is about the only fully electric song on the album…
We do a 21/2 hour set, and most of it is “electro-acoustic,” but we throw in four or five heavy rock songs. “16th Century Greensleeves” is one, but we also do “Written in the Stars,” “Writing On The Wall,” and others.
I take out the Strat and play loud, which is kind of tricky onstage, because you’ve had an acoustic balance in the sound instead of a “heavy” balance… although it’s not really purely acoustic because we run through amplifiers.
The title track of the live album is also on Under a Violet Moon, and is credited to King Henry VIII, of all people.
It’s a very popular traditional song; it’s credited to Henry VIII, although maybe somebody in his court wrote it, and he chopped off their head. It’s always been one of my favorite tunes from the old, traditional repertoire. Using it as the title track fit it with what we were trying to convey; having a good time with friends.
It would seem a natural move for the band to do soundtracks; have you ever considered such?
Yes, we have; that would be very time-consuming, but a lot of the films that come out seem to have more-popular bands playing rock and roll – AC/DC, Aerosmith, U2, whatever. So far, this kind of music hasn’t been used in any films, which is a pity. I’ve been to see certain movies, like Elizabeth, which is a brilliant film, and I couldn’t believe that they actually played the correct music! I suppose I’m a purist when it comes to listening. When I’m playing, it’s more like I’m interpreting.
What do you envision in your musical future?
I just want to go on playing the music that appeals to me. In the old days, of course, you had certain obligations with the big record companies, and you had to play within that “box.” But in this project, we can basically do what we want, including cover versions of Bob Dylan songs, or whatever. It’s up to us, and I’m very happy with that.
I don’t know if anybody else would want to be into what we’re doing (chuckles), but there are bands doing it even more historically correct, with proper instruments. It seems there are an awful lot of bands playing the same type of music – blues, jazz, or straightaway pop – and that’s it. I never hear anything particularly new; it’s good music, but I’ve heard it before. What we’re doing seems to be generating some excitement among those who hear us, and that’s nice to know.
Photo courtesy of Steamhammer/SPV.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Sep. ’03 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.