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Legends of Rock 'N' Roll Print E-mail
Tuesday, 07 September 2004
This DVD collection of concert performances, originally taken from the cable program Cinemax Sessions, actually dates back to 1989. While every artist represented here is no doubt a certified rock, blues or soul legend, they were all well past their respective artistic primes during the taping of these particular musical sequences. So on an energy level scale, at least, you may want to liken it to a baseball old-timer’s game, although it’s not quite that sedate.

So if you’re keeping score, to continue our baseball game analogy, each performer gets two swings at two signature songs (Jerry Lee Lewis is blessed with three plate appearances, though, while Little Richard gets only one at bat), and everybody participates in the grand finale. Taped in Rome, Italy, this DVD adds up to a communal celebration of some of the greatest rock, soul and blues classics of all time.
First in the batter’s box is James Brown, who -- after his usual lengthy introduction -- finally hits the stage wearing a shiny silver and blue jumpsuit. During his stage time, Mr. Brown sticks with two of his dance favorites. The first is “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag,” and the second is “I Feel Good (I Got You).” Although this particular clip doesn’t even hold a candle to the Godfather’s far-superior ‘60s footage -- when the gruff singer was still young, thin and amazingly agile -- it nevertheless offers a powerful reminder of this man’s great entertainment skills. After he’s done sweating buckets (and singing), Brown introduces the next act, Bo Diddley.

Wearing that trademark black hat and holding his signature square shaped guitar, Diddley appears ageless. Perhaps his more youthful appearance has something to do with the fact that he’s not expected (as Brown is) to reprise any awe-inspiring dance moves. On stage, while remaining relatively stationary, Diddley works up his infectious beat for the self-named “Bo Diddley,” then goes for the straight blues of “I’m A Man.” Amazingly, his sound is just as ageless as is his appearance. Nobody does Bo better than Bo.

Next is the late Ray Charles, who opens with the piano-pounding “Mess Around.” Charles is probably best known for his amazing voice, primarily because he could turn even a patriotic standard like “God Bless America” into a soul workout. This makes his rhythmic performance of “Mess Around” here so much fun, as it presents Charles’ instrumental prowess in all its ebony/ivory glory. He follows this up with “I’m a Fool For You,” which is the first ballad moment on this DVD. Like almost everything else Charles touched, it’s a thing of great emotional beauty. It’s hard to watch this, though, with the knowledge that he so recently passed on. But, as they say, the music will always live with us.

Little Richard follows Charles with a still potent burst of “Great Gosh A’Mighty.” Richard may be a frail little old man now – if you’ve happened to see one of his recent shows, I’m sure you’ll understand what I mean -- but even in the ‘80s, he was still able to rock out with the best of ‘em. Wearing a leather jacket and sweating before he even gets started (he and James Brown could easily irrigate many small towns with their sweat flow alone), the man with the thin moustache and big toothy grin still gets a lot of valuable mileage out of this pioneering rock song. Richard, who apparently has trouble staying seated too very long while he’s performing, walks across the stage just before he’s finished entertaining and throws out one of his blue boots into this wildly dancing crowd. While that audience member won one lucky surprise, Little Richard’s performance was by far the greatest souvenir of all.

“Are you ready?” Richard baits the crowd, before the classily dressed Jerry Lee Lewis hits the stage for a propulsive charge-through of “The Wild One (Real Wild Child).” Backed by a band featuring a four-man horn section, with a little help from retro rock guitarist Dave Edmunds, Lewis is shown here doing what he does best. He retains an amazingly stoic face as he rips off impossibly fast piano riffs, yet once in a while, he breaks into a few sheepish grins. The consummate showman, Lewis kicks at the keys with his foot, and slams down the key cover every now and again. But it was his groundbreaking playing and singing – not merely his showmanship -- that originally helped create the foundations for rock ‘n’ roll. Believe it or not, it all sounds fairly wild – even today. Lewis also performs “Great Balls Of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” It’s simply impossible, after reliving the excitement of Lewis live, to imagine rock history without his explosive and reckless rock abandon.

Dressed in an outlandishly pink suit jacket, Fats Domino completes this evening’s quartet of piano rockers by revving it up for “I’m Ready,” than slowing it down for “Blueberry Hill.” Although Domino has not received the same kind of publicity heaped upon the other keyboard-oriented artists on this bill – let alone the big Hollywood biopic treatment in Lewis’ case -- this man (with enough hand jewelry to make modern rappers green with envy over his bling-bling) bangs on the ivories like a champ. Unlike the stone-faced Lewis, however, Domino has a childlike smile on his face the whole darn time he’s playing.

B.B. King takes the stage last, wearing a silver-colored suit and standing next to Edmunds. He keeps the party spirit alive with “Let The Good Times Roll,” and then cries a little with “How Blue Can You Get?” It’s a brief moment in the presence of true music royalty.

This show’s final performance begins gradually, with everybody wandering back on stage to exchange smiles and hugs, as Edmunds and King play the guitar blues. It’s a crowded stage, with only two pianos on it, so Domino and Charles sit at the keys while Richard and Lewis get a rare chance to stand and sing into microphones. It’s an extended untitled blues jam, which gives everybody a chance to shout out a few verses before sending the crowd home happy.

While there’s no faulting the performances on this disc, the viewer may still feel a little cheated that there aren’t any extra features. Certainly, there must have been some fascinating conversations going on when these legends got together this night. Also, one wonders if there were any artistic rivalries exposed. The artists may have been grinning big up there on stage in front of that adoring audience and those cameras, but one has to doubt that it was all one big happy family, all the time. One certainly has to suspect that those competitive juices are still flowing. Nobody ever becomes a legendary rock star with a small ego.

Secondly, it would have been interesting to learn how the producers put this particular package together. For instance, how difficult was it to get these road warriors on the same stage, at the same time? Additionally, what kind of a thrill was it for Edmunds to play with some of his heroes? Even a little background about the Cinemax Sessions series might have helped. The potential for fascinating sidebars is endless, but nothing at all along these lines is ever explored with this DVD. This sin of omission adds up to a wasted opportunity.

It’s easy to play armchair quarterback and list the various “what if” factors missed by this production. But it’s impossible to criticize the actual rock solid music included here. If you’re still a little fuzzy on your rock ‘n’ roll history and you want to have a look at a few of the genre’s essential innovators doing their thing, this DVD gives you a wonderful sampling of rock music roots at its best. It’s a rare instance where the term “legend’ is not applied loosely.

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