One of the outcomes of South Africa hosting that global sports tournament that shall not be named is the sudden surge in international stars popping up all over SA – all, no doubt, with their eyes on their share of the money-pie. From the UK’s Fatboy Slim claiming to be the official DJ of the WC to the Columbian Shakira heading the official anthem, pillage is indeed in the air. One aspect that I’m more than happy to waive, however, was the recent Masters of Rock tour. When else, in this country, would you be able to see, live, in the flesh, some of the original pioneers of heavy metal and rock music as we know it today?

Above: Roger Glover, Ian Gillion and Steve Morse (Deep Purple).

Headlining the tour through SA’s metropoles of Joburg, Durban and Cape Town was the band I’m talking about: the legendary Deep Purple. For children of the Baby Boomers, Deep Purple were our childhood lullabies and the first song we could play on guitar. For our parents’ generation, Deep Purple’s progressive sounds of early rock ‘n roll were signifiers of the liberation of the swinging sixties and seventies and ones which never again could be surpassed.

Above: Bernie Shaw (Uriah Heep)

Playing alongside the Hall of Fame Greats were two other UK bands from almost exactly the same era, Uriah Heep – fronted, for the last 20-odd years by He-Man look-alike Bernie Shaw – and Wishbone Ash, famous for mastering the use of double lead guitars.

Above: Muddy Manninen and Andy Powell (Wishbone Ash)

The Cape Town leg of the tour was held this Tuesday 1 June at the Grand West Casino Arena – and the bands played to an almost completely sold-out venue, populated, amusingly, by a mix of 20- and 50-somethings, all equally enraptured by the singing electric guitars and old-school rock ‘n roll riffs that swallowed the voluminous concert hall.

Above: Bob Skeat (Wishbone Ash)

Starting with the lesser known of the three, Wishbone Ash (hailing from the seaside county of Devon), set the standard for the night, with their phenomenal predominantly instrumental, guitar-driven prog rock. Underscoring the twin guitars were the simple but powerful vocals of guitarist-singer Andy Powell who has fronted the band since its inception in 1969. And watching these golden oldies own the stage and their audience you could see they’ve been doing this their whole lives.

Above: Bernie Shaw (Uriah Heep)

Second up was Uriah Heep, and the undisputable star of the show was frontman Bernie Shaw. With his peroxide blonde hair, skin-tight leather pants and zebra-striped cowboy shoes, and the energy of a 20-year-old, the 53-year-old looked and moved like it was still the seventies. Uriah Heep played the heaviest set of the night – the closest, for me, to classic heavy metal, and a site and sound that will be locked in my memory for a lifetime.

Above: Mick Box on guitar, Bernie Shaw on air guitar (Uriah Heep)

Last up, and the reason most of us were there, was Deep Purple. Once listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s loudest band, and having sold over 100 million albums worldwide, Deep Purple are globally notorious and cemented in twentieth-century pop culture. Though the band lineup has changed over the years, ‘classic’ Deep Purple of the early seventies featured the same frontman as it does today, Ian Gillan, who has sang with the band over the periods 1969–1973, 1984–1989, and 1992–present. Alongside Gillan, and a rock ‘n roll frontman in his own right, was American guitarist Steve Morse, best known as the founder of The Dixie Dregs, and the star of Deep Purple for the last 16 years. Together, Gillan and Morse, accompanied by Roger Glover (bass & backing vox), Ian Paice (drums & percussion) and Don Airey (keyboard & organ), captivated the audience throughout their 20-song performance. Withholding the crowd favourite ‘Smoke on the Water’ almost till the very end, not a body in the audience left until the very last notes had emanated from the stage and reverberated into an awestruck silence. Though Gillian’s vocal range isn’t quite what it was, the masters of rock nonetheless gave a performance of a lifetime, one that literally moved people in the audience to tears.

Above: Roger Glover and Ian Gillan (Deep Purple)

A performance of that calibre is hard to justify with words, and to gain the enormity of the show you simply had to be there. One thing I was left with that has stuck with me since is witnessing such masters of their art form, seeing people who have been able to do what they love for their entire adult lives, and who have truly made it doing so. That, for me, is what South African artists should aspire to. Imagine that the band whose first gig you rocked to at fifteen still were able to knock your socks off by the time you’re losing your hair and your eyesight and your ability to hold your own in a moshpit. Imagine taking your grown-up kids to watch a band whose first album you owned on tape. The sad thing about South Africa’s music industry is, for most musicians, it hasn’t in the past been a viable career option. Hopefully those days are changing. SA bands of today: our eyes are on you to change South African music history. And to everyone else: support local music! Here’s to SA’s future Masters of Rock.

Above: Steve Morse (Deep Purple)

Above: Roger Glover (Deep Purple)

Above: Bernie Shaw (Uriah Heep)

all photos © Sarah Jayne Fell