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The Rat Pack - Live at the Villa Venice Print E-mail
Tuesday, 28 October 2003

The Rat Pack

Live at the Villa Venice
format: DVD-Audio
label: Reprise
release year: 2003
performance: 8
sound 6
reviewed by: Jerry Del Colliano

Image Sammy, Dean and Frank – the Rat Pack were headed towards the primes of their careers in 1962 when they were asked to play 14 nights of concerts, not at The Copa Room at the Sands, but at a banquet hall one-and-a-half hours outside of Chicago. Rumor has it, and Dean makes jokes about the fact, that these A-List entertainers did the gig for free. The reason was, as legend tells it, Sam “Momo” Giancana was being repaid for a favor he did for JFK during the 1962 election that helped the young senator win the West Virginia primary. Now Giancana was getting his payback with the best entertainment money could buy at the time (the Beatles were still learning how to tune their instruments in 1962) to play just blocks away from Giancana’s illegal casino in suburban Chicago.

One of the prerequisites of the 14-night gig was that Frank could bring the engineers from his upstart Reprise records to record the shows. They set up and recorded the complex and impromptu performances, which are the basis of this DVD-Audio disc. The disc features solo sets from Martin, then Sinatra, then Sammy Davis, Jr. After that, the three goofballs do medleys and unscripted comedy in between songs together.

Dean’s set, while vocally competent, is more designed around comedy and it did kill. “Straight from the bar” Dean butchers classics like “I Left My Heart In San Francisco” and “The Lady [Gentleman] is a Tramp” with hilarious results. The band, playing in various configurations during the night, has the bombastic effect you expect from the era. They transition from one song to another as if they knew exactly what was coming next (they didn’t). They are able to smash the dynamic window right after the punchlines of jokes, which directs the cadence and sets the truly fun tone of the performance.

The end of the Martin sets wraps up with a medley of “Volare/On an Evening in Roma” and transitions into a rocking swing track from Sinatra entitled “Goody Goody.” None of the guys stick with a song very long, which keeps the show fast-paced. For the listener, if you are fond of one tune, you can rest assured that another is mere seconds away. The performance clearly highlights the talent level differences between Sinatra, who was clearly the best of the group, and Martin, who might have been the funniest. Davis, a very capable performer, was not nearly as funny or vocally talented, but could however deliver a politically incorrect zinger. Sinatra’s set quickly works towards “Chicago,” a hometown favorite. He wraps up his set with impressive versions of “Angel Eyes” and “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You.”

Sonically, this recording is before the heyday of large-scale multi-track recordings, so you need to set your expectations for the sound of this DVD-Audio release accordingly. Elliot Mazer and Diana Reed Haig take this recording’s original tracks and create an open and wide sound stage. Very little is mixed into the rear channels however you can hear some of the depth of the room. What is more interesting is the timbre of the instruments of the band mixed in with the clanks and clings of the glasses and plates of the guests enjoying the show that night. It might not sound stunningly resolute but it is definitely real. The recording sounds warm, especially the vocals, which do beam above the mix. As long as you don’t expect to hear an aggressive mix with the Pack doing vocal harmonies out of all of your speakers in surround, you will be in good shape and ready to have some fun with this special place in time.

Davis bangs out a set that is shorter than those of Sinatra and Martin and then the Pack starts in with jokes medleys, impressions and basically anything that will get a laugh or applause from the audience. Although the recording has 29 different tracks on it, you still feel sorry it is over when the disc is done spinning. There are a number of cool added features on the disc including a photo gallery and a video, which will play on any DVD player. The recording comes with a 24-bit 192 kHz stereo track, which can sound impressive for those with stereo systems, but the way to really enjoy this record is in surround.

The Rat Pack has important lessons to teach today’s prepackaged pop performers about entertainment. These swinging crazies didn’t get hung up about owning the copyrights of all of the songs on their albums because they could make more money. They played songs that people loved – tunes that made them sound good. It worked then and still does today. They had bands that could play their asses off, no matter if they were in some wacky banquet hall in the middle of nowhere or playing the Copa. No drum machines, no samples (yes, I am disparaging rap right now) – these guys could play, they could sing, they could make people laugh and they could entertain like nobody’s business. The music business today could use less bling bling and more great entertainers like these. Perhaps the mold is broken, but I doubt it.

I came into listening to The Rat Pack Live at the Villa Venice primed to be disappointed, as the recordings were old and the surround mix was not going to sound like Yes’ Fragile on DVD-Audio or Dark Side of the Moon on SACD, but after one spin through the disc, I was converted. No, the record will not be your most gleaming demo of the DVD-Audio format. However, it might just be the most fun. My girlfriend and I were laughing out loud during the Rat Pack performances at the end of the disc. There are smooth performances and sneaky jokes placed perfectly throughout plenty of musical material. If you are making Sunday sauce and getting ready to watch some “Sopranos” on a Sunday night, this might be the perfect disc to warm you up. I know it will be on at my house.

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