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Blackmore’s Night as an On-stage Spectacle

Mike Garrett discusses the band’s Scenery, Stage Props and Costumes (Part 1)

Introduction

As an avid fan of Blackmore’s Night, I have often admired their efforts to present their music with scenery, props and stage clothes that befitted their music; all playing their integral part in "something that would move the soul; transcend people into a majestic world" as Ritchie Blackmore once said. I have taken much delight over the years in wondering how the scenery and costumes were designed or chosen and what practical considerations influenced their inspiration.

What follows, are my own thoughts on the matter. Given my limited perspective, I would not define this as a "definitive work" but I would encourage the reader to interpret this as my own tribute to the efforts of the Blackmore’s Night stage set designers and clothing suppliers, whose efforts surely merit acknowledgement and praise?

Stage Backdrops and Scenery Panels

The stage backdrops used by Blackmore’s Night are always (in artistic terms) very impressive and seem to evolve with increased quality as the tours and years unfold. The "Live in Germany ‘97 – ‘98" video (plus other photographic sources) shows the "Shadow of the Moon" CD cover replicated on the design of the stage backdrop (or at least a portion of it: the segment with the castle on!). The shining moon on its surface is occasionally made to appear more prominent when the appropriate lighting effect is used. Apart from the limited use of "foliage" (discussed later) on equipment stands, the artistic backdrop itself seems to constitute the only stage scenery during this tour (?), impressive though it is.

The "Under a Violet Moon" tour witnessed the not unexpected introduction of a stage backdrop based on the second CD’s front cover artwork, approximately the upper 60% of that cover’s artwork. If you compare the artwork to the backdrop, you will notice some slight differences (a few simplifications in regards to the painting of the buildings, that were obviously done for practical reasons, that in no way detract from the overall effect). The "Castle Tour 2000" video again shows the familiar shining moon effect achieved on the backdrop, with the nice added touch of adding the silhouette of the witch flying on her broomstick, as depicted on the back cover artwork of the second CD.© Mike Garrett

Further study of the "Castle Tour 2000" video seems to suggest that the band possibly had the choice of at least two scenic backdrops on this tour? A second backdrop, depicting a forest clearing at night (with prominent hills on its horizon and clouds passing over the face of the full moon) seems to be apparent on some of the video footage?

The "Fires at Midnight" tour witnessed a change in backdrop ideas. This time (in keeping with the new CD cover), the band appeared to be performing in front of a large castle wall and gateway. As I recall from the Liverpool gig (22nd September 2001), the top of the apparent Medieval wall was adorned with hanging medieval banners. Mounted in the front of the castle backdrop were a series of burning torches, very much in keeping with the "Fires at Midnight" CD artwork theme!

The stage scenery revealed on the 2003 "Ghost of a Rose" Tour, must surely represent (for the band’s stage-set designer) the greatest triumph so far? The design of this latest generation of scenery is clearly the product of much planning, preparation and effort. In my own words: "in artistic terms, it seems to have been designed to incorporate all that the band have learned from previous stage set ideas; and thrown in a few more surprises as well". When I walked into the auditorium at Buxton Opera House (4th November 2003), I was "absolutely overawed, delighted and gob-smacked" (my words) when I saw the mass of medieval scenic imagery incorporated into the stage-set design. It took several shows worth of viewing (and occasionally studying many of my photos for some time after) for me to fully absorb and appreciate every detail of it – there being so much detail to take in.

I now interpret the stage scenery as representing the view through a medieval town gate, showing the houses either side of a road that is going through the town; the road at this point being the stage. Then (depicted on the painted backdrop), the road exits the town and goes up to the top of a hill where a castle is perched high on the crest. I remember stopping in my tracks when I first saw this and saying "Oh wow, that’s brilliant!" I also then thought that the quality of this stage scenery set was so good, that they could tour with it for at least a couple of years? This thought seems to have been confirmed by Paul Deblond’s photos of the Stockholm concert (8th June 2004).

I would define the first two "layers" of scenery as respectively being "The Town Gate" (nearest the audience) and "The Medieval Houses". These are constructed from a series of large (but relatively light?) scenic panels that are painted incredibly convincingly to represent the medieval structures. I would define the third "layer" of scenery as being the huge "Medieval countryside scenic backdrop" at the rear of the stage itself.

In terms of the inspiration for it, "The Town Gate" itself, seems to be a development from the relatively smaller arched gate idea, used as the backdrop for the previous "Fires at Midnight" tour. Being at the front of the stage, it is by necessity, higher and wider than its earlier scenic predecessor; it does however, retain one imitation "fire torch" on each side. Each torch is directly below a shield; the coat-of- arms on the right-hand shield shows a key, the left-hand shield side shows a red rose. It may have been a technical hitch but (on the 2003 UK tour dates at least), the left-hand torch was not "lit". Instead, a small spotlight seemed to illuminate the red rose. Was it perhaps, that the rose looked better - illuminated in this manner? Below each "torch" (halfway down each side of the arch) could be seen painted-on medieval weapons, each pair of weapons looking as if they were mounted on the wall, each pair forming a St. Andrew’s cross pattern. These painted-on weapons also seemed to be a strange amalgam of real-life weapons - lance, halberd, bill and sword components being prominent. Also, the same "pattern" for the crossed-over weapons was used on each side of the arch but the pattern on one side had been reversed, to make the two sets of painted-on weapons look symmetrical. These scenic factors, as well as the excellent painted-on masonry, helped to make the "The Town Gate" arch scenery a success in terms of being viewed by the audience.

Yet, despite the intricacies of the decoration on the arch sides, it could be suggested that the most important part of the arch, was the top segment. Why could this long section of plain "masonry" scenery be so vital? My suggested answer is: "…may be because the primary purpose of this scenic archway is to hide the stage’s overhead lighting rig from the public gaze?" Admittedly, one could try to suspend some form of covering in front of the lighting rig but it would still look "suspended". Given then, that it was best (to appear) to support something from the bottom, rather than suspend from the top, one can thus understand why a large piece of medieval-theme scenery, ("The Town Gate") was devised?

© Mike GarrettThe next layers of scenery -”The Medieval Houses” are also an artistic joy in them selves. They are good representations of the typical two-storey "stone and timber-framed" buildings of the period; each "house" being painted with some feature that makes it slightly different to the others. Each "house" has its roof tiles drawn in a slightly different pattern (i.e. each has darker tiles located in different locations when compared to the other scenic panels. Also, each tiled roof has a tile loose on its lower coarse but at a different location on each occasion). There also major differences on the "walls" of each panel. The front left-hand side panel (viewed from the audience) has no window in the lower storey; instead having a tethering ring for animals on its lower part, and a large chain dangling from the horizontal (middle) external timber support beam. The rear left-hand side panel has a rectangular window on each storey but also has crossed-over halberds on the lower storey wall, mounted on the vertical timber support beam. The rear right-hand side panel has its upper floor window bulging further out (in the "Oriel" fashion) and the window is also painted to look as if it contains highly decorative segments of stained-coloured glass. On the lower wall of this same panel, a sword can be seen mounted on it, together with a white shield (that has a red border and a red-coloured cross in its centre). The front right-hand side panel has arched-shape windows and has a treasure chest painted at its base. It is also the only panel that is painted to resemble an all-stone building?

I ask the question about "all-stone building" scenery, as I believe that the band may have some "spare scenic panels" that are slight variations on the designs that I described being used on the 2003 UK "Ghost of a Rose" tour? Toby Treichler’s photograph (taken at Trier, 17th July 2003) published on page six of "More Black Than Purple" Issue 23, shows an all-stone scenic panel (with two arched windows, one above the other), which seems different to the panels that I have photographed.

As a slight aside, one should perhaps mention that in terms of portraying weapons hung up on the "outside" of buildings, this would not be advisable to do in real life. Unless of course, one wanted the enemy to take the weapons in the middle of the night and then use them to murder you in your bed! Perhaps we can excuse this scenery-painting quirk, given that we accept that what we are being presented with, is a scenic fantasy, the hanging weapons being used as yet another well-known piece of Medieval imagery to help the audience feel that they are being transported back in time?

One should also remember that Blackmore’s Night perform on wide variety of stage sizes (and varying sizes of venue, ranging from spacious to very confined). Thus the development of their stage scenery as I have described, very much represents the "ideal" situation (i.e. in a theatre venue, where space allows the full scenic stage set to be assembled as intended). There are obviously some venues (and smaller stages) that oblige the band to use only part of their scenic repertoire, in a correspondingly simplified arrangement. Referring again to MBTP, Issue 23, Toby Treichler’s photograph taken at Glauchau (12th July 2003) shows such an arrangement; the band using just their scenic "house" panels to create the Medieval backdrop they require? Commenting on the 25th July 2004 gig at Esslingen, Steve Pearson said: "The stage had a black background, onto which was projected a moon, plus an occasional revolving field of stars; the latter being a lighting effect used on the 2003 UK tour. The other scenery consisted of simple panels that each looked like walls with two square windows."

A final example of "simplified stage scenery" that I would cite, is the 7th August 2002 gig at Schloss Wertheim. Again, a photograph by Toby Treichler (MBTP, Issue 21, page eight) seems to indicate that the "Fires at Midnight" backdrop, (showing the castle wall and gateway) was used, but the hanging banners were omitted due to the protective stage awning being erected not too much higher than the performers’ heads?

It is thus a tribute both to the scenic panel designers and to the band’s road crew that assemble them each night, that Blackmore's Night over the years, have always had a good enough selection of scenery to support their act. This is regardless of how much (or in what combination) they have actually chosen to make use of it.

The Stage Lighting Effects© Mike Garrett

As with any other band, Blackmore’s Night use either an overhead rig of lights at larger venues or stands supporting small clusters of lights in much more intimate venues. At the theatre venues at least, they make use of different special lighting effects during the show, the main backdrop sometimes appearing to be either a day time or a night scene (though I’m not sure if this is always intentional). One of my favourite lighting effects (on the "Ghost of a Rose" 2003 UK tour) was when the castle on the hill appeared as a night silhouette but the moon in the sky was full and shining. This was used to create the right atmosphere for some of Candice’s more emotive vocal performances.

The full, shining moon has always been an image (and lyrical subject) associated with Blackmore’s Night since their very beginnings. To see it shining on the scenic backdrops is perhaps seen by the fans as both a trademark and a joy! The later simple addition (from the UAVM tour onwards), of the witch silhouette flying on her broomstick, is a fun item that is viewed with humour and affection by the fans. A new version of it can be seen on the present stage backdrop that Blackmore’s Night introduced in 2003?

Another lighting effect that occasionally is tried, is some form of simple rotating imagery that can be seen reflecting off the back and sides of the stage scenery as it turns around. The "Castle Tour 2000" video ("Fires at Midnight" song, last concert song on the video) shows albeit fleeting glimpses of what appear to be "flame silhouettes" rotating behind the back of the band. Brief glimpses only (and the fact that these flames don’t contrast all that well with the backdrop behind) make this effect difficult to spot on this occasion but at least it shows when this rotating light effect was first being tried out?

The perfection of the technique mentioned above, seems to have been proven during the recent 2003 and 2004 shows. During the song I Still Remember, the entire stage area on several occasions, has thousands of tiny specks of light rotating around it (to tie in with the vocal line "A thousand stars lit up the sky"). It is obviously created by reflecting some sort of light off a revolving ball of some kind but I must say on a personal note, that this simple technique lends a superbly enhanced atmosphere to the song in question.

Camouflaging 0n-Stage Musical Equipment

It is readily apparent to fans of Blackmore’s Night, that the designers of the band’s stage scenery are acutely aware that their Medieval theme scenery is being fronted by a band that use predominantly modern instruments? This concept in itself is not condemned as being too contradictory however, as band members and fans alike know that Blackmore’s Night is deliberately based on an idea of (my words): "an entertaining musical fusion of the Modern world, meeting that of the Medieval".

© Mike GarrettDespite this, the use of artificial foliage (and potted plants) to either camouflage modern microphone stands, drum kits etc. is a common occurrence at Blackmore’s Night concerts. Perhaps it is reasonable to assume that the only way to truly hide modern musical equipment from view is to keep them behind small painted scenic panels placed on stage? This however would be totally unsafe and unpractical; the musicians could not easily move around them on stage and far more storage space would then be needed in the band’s truck? One can then perhaps imagine why instead, the decision to "keep things simple" with re-usable artificial foliage came about?

By studying the video (and magazine photographic evidence), I get the following impressions: Initially, the use of artificial foliage seems to have started in a modest way. The front-of-stage microphone stands were deemed as most in view by the audience. After that, the drum kit, being the largest object behind Ritchie and Candice (and thus by default, also the most often in the audience’s-line-of sight and concentration?) was probably considered the most necessary to have its outline "broken up" by the use of foliage? This also helped to ensure that the appearance of the modern drum kit did not then clash too much with the Medieval scenic backdrop, immediately behind? The decision to try and camouflage the back of the keyboard (by the use of foliage or a scenic panel), seems to have been made a little later?

The other "quick fix" method of putting additional foliage around the drum kit and the immediately-in-front-of–the-backdrop-area generally, is the use of potted plants, which has survived as an on-stage practice to this day. (At Workington, 6th November 2003, it seems that potted birch trees were positioned on stage?). One imagines that the vast majority of these are not generally transported around by the band (being perishable); rather they are pre-ordered by the venues that are to host the shows? One could suggest perhaps, that the band acquires a few large replicas 16th century pots, which the modern plant and pot could be then dropped in to? Of course, this is all extra expense (and takes up more room in the truck), so perhaps these factors, together with the knowledge that the correct 16th century pottery in one country would look wrong in another country, may explain why the band have stuck to more simple solutions?

The use of foliage and flowers on stage admittedly does look "appropriate". If one imagines the band as a famous wandering troupe of 16th century minstrels, then a village that hired them to perform at their summer festival would cover its buildings and streets generally with many beautiful flowers as part of the celebrations. The use of flowers (together with the images of stars and moons at other points in the show), are all elements of "the forces of nature" that Candice enjoys so much to incorporate into the subject of her lyrics.

Another stage equipment disguise is the use of hay bails (and straw strewn about generally). I am not sure when these were introduced precisely but photographic evidence would certainly confirming their use during the "Fires at Midnight" tour. Obviously, the audience knows that it is viewing "modern straw bails" but the knowledge that hay would be in a 16th century village, in anticipation for the arrival of cart horses, perhaps helps one to think in general terms "that would be the sort of thing that would’ve been around". Incidentally, at Cheltenham (13th November 2003), I photographed some presumably imitation vegetables lying in the straw (Where they pumpkins?). This is evidently another new stage prop idea being tried out?

© Mike GarrettThe most difficult objects for the band to camouflage on stage are the monitors at the front? Studying the Blackmore’s Night videos, I come to the conclusion that at first, the band simply decided not to address the problem. Shortly after however, they seem to have changed their minds and strewn a bit of foliage around them? If you look at some of Steve Mill’s photos ("Fires at Midnight" tour, MBTP, Issue 18), one can clearly see foliage at the base of the monitors on the audience’s side. This is clearly what one might call " a step in the right direction" but it was not the perfect solution that the band wanted. By the time of the "Ghost of a Rose" 2003 tour, the monitors were instead covered with what I call "white fibrous sacking". I personally think that this material was chosen because it could be interpreted as "imitation sheep fleeces"? Admittedly, any attempt to camouflage the monitors will ultimately be labelled as "something put over the monitors". It is a credit to the band however, that they have tried to address the problem with something that looks vaguely appropriate? This seems to be the method chosen to disguise the monitors on the 2004 tour also.

One can perhaps suggest then, that Blackmore’s Night have continually striven to improve the appearance of the stage area (making it look more authentic) over the course of several years? The fact that several different methods to disguise modern-looking equipment has been used, makes the stage look far better than if one method had been used all over.

As a final note on this subject, I would like to point out that most photographs taken at concerts (and film footage) concentrate for obvious reasons, on the band members themselves. This makes a study of the band’s scenery that much harder. What I have tried to outline in this section, is thus again "an ideal situation" as I interpret it. Although generally, the standard of the Blackmore's Night on-stage "equipment camouflage" has improved, there must be occasions when the band arrive with too little time available to place foliage or straw around the stage area as they would like. Thus they might have to say "just a little bit will have to do for tonight". They are fortunate however, that the fans appreciate their efforts all the same.

Mike Garrett

Part 2 of this article will discuss the band’s stage clothing and also the appreciated part played by the costumed audience members in the front rows.




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