It's become fashionable in recent years for big-time stadium rock stars to venture out into more mellow acoustic territory. Robert Plant, of Led Zeppelin fame, has teamed up with Alison Krauss to play bluegrass music. Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder has recorded an album of songs with voice and ukulele. Sting, already converted into a smooth jazz-fusion singer, has made an album of renaissance music with lute player Edin Karamazov.
It shouldn't surprise us. These guys are rich enough to do what they like. Playing the same riffs over and over again and screaming at the top of their lungs can get boring. They love the experience of playing for small audiences and being able to hear themselves and their band-mates. They also tend to be accomplished musicians and they like to show people that they are not just one-trick ponies.
Among all these big names, former Deep Purple guitarist Richie Blackmore is the one who has pursued his alternative bent most diligently and consistently. Blackmore's Night has recorded roughly an album a year since 1997 plus various compilations and live DVDs.
Blackmore is famous for two things. The first is the creation of the most recognisable riff in heavy rock music, which forms the core of Deep Purple's song 'Smoke on the Water'. The other is for being one of the more difficult people on the planet to get on with. Some of his former Deep Purple bandmates make no secret of how much they hate him. One of the former members of his other heavy metal band, Blackmore's Rainbow, joked that it had so many ex-members they were thinking of opening their own retirement home.
Still, you don't get to have an enduring musical career without serious ability and Blackmore's talent and versatility are imperfectly concealed in the straight-ahead rock music for which he is famous. He enjoys explaining to journalists that the Smoke on the Water riff is an inverted variation on the opening bars of Beethoven's 5th Symphony. He also plays it with a surprisingly light touch, plucked with two fingers on the second and fourth strings. Not that you'd notice with the amps turned up to 11 and the bass, drums and keyboard thumping along in unison.
Hence Blackmore's Night, in which he gets to play laid-back, acoustic, medieval and renaissance-influenced music with life partner Candice Night. Blackmore's Night also has a long list of former members or, as their Wikipedia article puts it, former "additional personnel". However, it seems less serious and fraught than other Blackmore bands. The members have jokey heritage stage names, they dress in Renaissance costumes, they laugh and joke on stage - even Blackmore condescends to dress up.
I suspect the light touch is down to Night. Blackmore's collaborations with singers have been the most important and most difficult of his career. Singers are expected to provide their own words as well as live up to Blackmore's exacting performance standards. Few have lasted long, most have come out bruised from the experience.
Night, however, seems to have his measure. In between flirting with the audience in their live performances she teases and cajoles him, complains to the audience about his "moody and difficult" personality, and commands him to the microphone when he mutters from his brooding posse at the back of stage left, the posse he has occupied in every band he has ever been part of. But she's more than just a show pony. She sings beautifully, plays an assortment of renaissance wind instruments, and brings to the band her own brand of slightly dippy new age fairy-loving oddness.
Then, or course. there is nothing to say heavy metal is incompatible with light-hearted folk. Sometimes it's little more than a question of volume. In evidence I cite the Deep Purple classic 'Child in Time', which first appeared in 1970's Deep Purple in Rock. This song is almost the definition of art rock, a simple two-minute song extended past nine minutes by guitar and keyboard solos and Ian Gillan's histrionic vocal improvisations. Sure it's pretentious, but what's wrong with that?
Blackmore's Night are not afraid to exploit his back catalogue and many Deep Purple songs sound brilliantly different in this context. Child in Time is one of them, combined here with an incongruously upbeat Renaissance tune before the pace slows to the sombre theatre of the original. Make sure you stick with it until the backing singers take over. Gives me goose-bumps every time.