NOBODY QUITE KNEW what to expect when Steve Morse joined Deep Purple in 1994. The Dixie Dregs/Kansas kingpin was stepping into a situation that didn’t bode well for longevity. First, there was founding guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, who came and went over the years; his initial replacement, Tommy Bolin, lasted only two years before the group’s first breakup in 1976. Joe Satriani stepped in for a tour in 1993 but was unable to join full-time because of his solo commitments. Would Morse, hailed as one of the most gifted and versatile guitarists of his day, manage to stick around?
As it turns out, he was a natural fit for Deep Purple; in fact, his 26-year tenure with the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers makes him the band’s longest-standing axman. “Yeah, I passed that mark a long time ago,” Morse says with a laugh. Detailing the group’s protocol, he likens the fold to a dog pack. “There’s a natural inclination for people to hold positions based on seniority. For a while, I was at the bottom, but when [keyboardist] Jon Lord retired, Don Airey joined, so I moved from the number five to the four spots.”
However, Morse notes that being the sole American in a group of Brits has its disadvantages. “Once Don started talking soccer — English football — with the other guys, that was it,” he says. “I went back to being number five, and I’ve been there ever since.” But his lack of U.K. football knowledge notwithstanding, Morse has made his mark on Deep Purple (which also includes three members from the classic Mark II lineup — vocalist Ian Gillan, bassist Roger Glover and drummer Ian Paice). In concert, he’s put his own stamp on the group’s rich cavalcade of hits, and in the studio he’s proved to be a dominant and invigorating force, dishing out robust guitar riffs and lyrical solos while becoming a central figure in their songwriting process.
The guitarist weaves blistering six-string runs throughout the band’s latest album, Whoosh!, an almost absurdly enjoyable — and surprisingly youthful-sounding — set full of spunky prog rock (“Throw My Bones”), quasi-rockabilly/boogie (“What the What”), lush power balladry (“Nothing at All”) and fist-pumping stompers (“The Long Way Round,” “No Need to Shout”). It’s the outfit’s third consecutive release they’ve made with veteran producer Bob Ezrin, best known for his work with Alice Cooper and Pink Floyd. According to Morse, Ezrin serves a key role when he’s sometimes called upon to mediate songwriting disputes.
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