Don Airey at the Cambridge Rock Festival.

Don Airey at The Cambridge Rock Festival.

The Don of the keyboards. Don Airey playing at The Cambridge Rock Festival.

The Don of the keyboards. Don Airey playing at The Cambridge Rock Festival.

By Paul Monkhouse.

Photography by Sally Newhouse.

Modesty and good humour have never been well-known traits for ‘Rock Stars’ but these, along with a huge talent, is something that keyboard legend Don Airey displays in seemingly endless quantities. With a career in music spanning forty-five years, his CV looks like a Who’s Who; he has played on albums and toured with the cream of the rock world. Quite how he’s managed to stay not only grounded but sane is one of the great mysteries of the universe. Headlining the first night of the Cambridge Rock Festival, he brought a set cherry-picked from not only his illustrious back catalogue with other artists but also some prime cuts from his solo career.

Screen Shot 2019-08-04 at 02.31.44.png

The Rainbow classic ‘Eyes of the World’ opened the show, it’s dramatically building sci-fi intro leading to the hefty clout of the whole band tearing into this melodic but hard-hitting rocker. It was a joy to rediscover this track especially with the power and passion of the playing. It was easy to be transported back to the day when the needle first hit the vinyl and that huge rush of sound surged from speakers in thousands of homes up and down the country.

A trio of songs from Airey’s latest solo album followed with the Hammond Organ soaked ‘Respect’, the swaggering ‘All Out of Line’ and the titular ‘One of a Kind’, all proving that his self-penned material confidently sits alongside the other songs on display. It would be so easy for the show to be focused overwhelmingly on keyboards. However, with the rest of the band showcased throughout, each musician is given the opportunity to shine and play an equally important contribution to the set. 

‘I Surrender’ continued the Rainbow numbers. Then a heart wringing version of Gary Moore’s ‘Still Got the Blues’ found guitarist Simon McBride taking centre stage to show that he not only has the chops for the heavier tracks but also has a superb deft touch on the slower more pensive tracks. McBride’s playing throughout the evening was thrilling. And this was no more evident than in the latter, as his he brought the aching soul to his fellow Belfast born six-stringer’s track whilst never being flash or trying to dazzle with over the top technique or shape throwing.

Reaching deep into his back catalogue, Airey unleashed a frantic version of ‘The Scorch’ by Colosseum II. Its maelstrom of Prog Rock keys and guitar riffing swept the audience away on a sea of Hammond organ and power chords. 

Since playing for them since 2001, it was only natural that some Deep Purple numbers featured in the set and the crowd were rewarded with a brace of them. ‘Pictures of Home’ and a rapturously received ‘Child in Time’, prompted a sea of waving arms and communal singing. The second of these two highlighted Mitchell Emms; a last-minute replacement for regular vocalist Carl Sentance.

Singer Mitchell Emms.

Singer Mitchell Emms.

This former The Treatment singer filled the role of frontman perfectly and Airey couldn’t have chosen anyone better. Not only did Emms have the range and stage presence to really sell a set of songs that he had never performed before, he embraced the challenge like a champion. He conquered each and every song, including the notoriously difficult Purple number with its stratospheric vocals.

In a set peppered with inspired choices, the inclusion of ‘Difficult to Cure’ was a fabulous left turn. Rainbow’s take on Beethoven’s Ninth brought some added classical style to proceedings. From this well-known piece of ‘Baroque ‘n’ roll’, Airey slipped into the electrifying opening keys of ‘Mr. Crowley’. Whilst Emms doesn’t possess the same unique delivery as Ozzy Osbourne, he imbued a previously unheard-of subtle melody that wonderfully juxtaposed the menace of the music and lyrics whilst retaining a tremendous power.

Simon McBride added icing to the cake with a brilliant solo that clearly illustrated why he’s one of the most highly respected guitarists in the country. He combines speed with feel as his fingers dance across the fretboard.

The band managed to produce a Rainbow singalong during ‘All Night Long’ with an added sensuality and danger. Whilst another of the band’s creations ‘Lost in Hollywood’ closed the main body of the set in grand style.

The encore began with a section of the manic ‘Hocus Pocus’ by Focus, before segueing into a joyous take on Deep Purple’s first hit, Joe South’s ‘Hush’. Considering this track is over fifty years old, it sounded remarkably fresh and gave bass player Dave Marks and drummer Jon Finnigan the chance to shine in their own solos. Finnigan added a touching tribute to Airey’s former comrade, the late, great Cozy Powell, by including a snatch of ‘Dancing With The Devil’.  

The evening finished with a blistering and monumental ‘Black Night’, full of duelling guitar and keyboards that left ears ringing and hearts singing. The band were on ferocious form. Airey, as always, left the stage with a smile and heartfelt thanks to all being the very model of the modest but legendary musician he is.

Screen Shot 2019-08-04 at 01.54.30.png
Paul Davies