There's nothing like a live performance. The energy that crackles across the footlights. The indescribable bond between audience and performer. The sheer joy of knowing that you are seeing something transitory which will never be repeated exactly the same ever again; all this makes theater and concert going such powerful events. The desire to capture this lightning into a bottle, or at least onto a medium that will at least partially immortalize it, has led to the recording of live events from the inception of practical microphones and has led to the production of some truly amazing albums. With the advent of better recording technology and the sharp decline of costs, more and more performances are being preserved on disk, be it a concert in front of thousands or an intimate cabaret show for dozens. Thus, we are going to celebrate the joys of the live recording versus a studio situation by examining some recent releases.
In 1998, My Favorite Broadway: The Leading Ladies burst on stage, video and CD with enough star wattage to alleviate our current energy crisis. While that concert focused on the women of Broadway, the follow-up October 2000 concert, My Favorite Broadway: The Love Songs, went co-ed with mixed results. Overall, the album is a 50/50 affair that unfortunately balances each dazzling moment with one that is merely adequate or worse. For every Marin Mazzie (giving sterling performances of the seldom heard "When Did I Fall in Love" from Fiorello! and "Not a Day Goes By" from Merrily We Roll Along) there is a Robert Goulet (forgetting, it seems, that he is not in Vegas with his ultra-lounge rendition of "If Ever I Would Leave You"). The simplicity of Heather Headley (truly breathtaking with her less-is-more take on "He Touched Me") is in stark contrast to Linda Eder's bombastic medley of "Come Rain or Come Shine," "I Don't Know How to Love Him" and "What Kind of Fool am I," which showed great vocal prowess but little interpretation or build. Nathan Lane breathed new life into a song long associated to him, Guys and Dolls' "Sue Me," (newly reinterpreted as a '50s doo-wop number) but Michael Crawford practically sleepwalked through his 2000th rendition of "Music of the Night."
Also, the selections are somewhat puzzling. Tom Wopat sounds great in his number, "Lullaby of Broadway," but to call it a love song is quite a stretch. While Chita Rivera acts the pants off of "How Lucky Can You Get," the number is from a film, Funny Lady, and has only appeared Off-Broadway in the revue And The World Goes 'Round. Likewise, "Every Single Day," sung by Barry Manilow and from his show Harmony has never even been near a Broadway stage. The fact that it sounds remarkably like any number of Jerry Herman songs makes the exclusion of songs by Herman, who has written so many great love songs that actually appeared on Broadway, a mystery. In fact, a great number of Broadway songwriters who have contributed heavily to the love song genre are conspicuously absent. In addition to Jerry Herman, Richard Rodgers (with either Hammerstein or Hart), Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Jule Styne and Jerome Kern (whose "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" was in the show, just not on disk) are all among the ignored. Yet Lerner and Loewe are represented by two solos (Ron Raines' masterful but slightly disturbing "Gigi," which makes one realize that it really is a love song to a child/woman, and the aforementioned "If Ever I would Leave You") as well as a medley of songs from My Fair Lady, which only exists to display a treasure long thought lost, host Julie Andrew's singing voice.
The album's skimpy 59:30 length is another mystery. The album could have included any number of the half dozen or so numbers which are included on the upcoming VHS and DVD release but are missing from the disk. While Heather, Marin and Nathan make it enjoyable, this is hardly a 'must-have' album and you would be better served by purchasing the aforementioned video releases.
One strong argument for the recording of live performances is the chance it gives us to take a peek at performers long gone. Who among us doesn't thrill at listening to Judy Garland live at Carnegie Hall or Ella Fitzgerald in Berlin? For most of us, this is the closest we will ever get to attending a show by some of the greatest performers of all time. Stephen Cole and Harbinger Records has given us a chance to hear old leather lungs herself, Ethel Merman, performing her 1960s nightclub act in Mermania! Volume 2. The recordings that comprise this CD languished in Ethel's closet until discovered and brought to light and disk by Mr. Cole. While the sound quality is not the greatest, as the disk has a flat, mono sound that does not do full justice to the originator of Mama Rose, Reno Sweeney and Annie Oakley, it does serve to give us a glimpse at a star performer in top form singing the songs that made her famous (largely in a ten minute medley containing eleven songs). It also features a variety of numbers you would not expect Ethel to sing, such as "A Lot of Livin' to Do" (albeit with lyrics tailored for her). Her patter may be strained and stilted, but when she starts to sing, watch out! Ethel is, of course, best known for filling the house with sound back in the days before microphones and shines on "Lady with a Song" and "Blow, Gabriel, Blow." But she also can impart a more tempered emotionality through songs like "Make it Another Old Fashioned Please," and "That Old Feeling." As an extra bonus, the CD includes a rehearsal track recorded during the last year of her life, when she was still teaching accompanists how to make "I Get a Kick Out of You" sparkle.
Another powerful set of pipes, complete with oversized persona, has been preserved on Lillias White's album, From Brooklyn to Broadway. Recorded live at Arci's in New York, the CD perfectly captures the attitude, talent, charisma, and most importantly the voice that makes Lillias a star. It should come as no surprise that the album largely contains big, bluesy belt numbers, given Lillias' track record on Broadway. But when she gets intimate, as with the Zippel and Pomeranz "Born for You," you just want to melt and buy her a drink. The patter is succinct, usually limited to a line or two to set up the song, or a quip directed towards a chatty audience member. The medley of songs celebrating her Broadway appearances is worth the price of the CD alone. Her ballsy R&B take on "The Way He Makes Me Feel" is pure gravy.
Less successful is Jason Graae's album, An Evening of Self-Indulgence, recorded live at the Cinegrill in Los Angeles. On his previous studio recordings Jason displayed a charming ease and intimate manner which is largely missing on this album, where he often comes across as sounding strident. In addition, too much of the humor on the album falls flat without the visual cues (especially an overlong oboe solo for Jason). Bruce Kimmel has wisely tacked the sometimes overlong patter to the end of the songs, making it easy to skip past the chat for repeated listenings (trust me; for those of you thinking of recording a live CD, please remember that patter is usually only funny or enjoyable the first couple of listenings. After that, it becomes something to skip over). Fynsworth Alley has continued its tradition of making the best song on the album a bonus track available only to those who purchase the CD through their website. In this case, the track is Craig Carnelia's "Just Where They Should Be," which displays Jason at his relaxed (and studio recorded) best.
When is a live album not a live album? When it is a half-and-half hybrid like Michael Feinstein's latest release, the two disk Michael Feinstein: Romance on Film, Romance on Broadway . The first disk is devoted to love songs from movies and appears to have been recorded live at his cabaret space, the elegant Feinstein's. The second CD, which focuses on Broadway love songs, seems to be 100% studio recorded. Neither album contains any patter and Michael Feinstein is at his best and most consistent on both. Reminiscent of my favorite of his albums, Isn't It Romantic, this Bistro Award winning set of CDs is lush, romantic and makes for perfect background music. Unlike most of his previous albums, the two Romance CDs contain no surprises; no long lost gems or forgotten verses this time around. Also, this is not an album for long car trips or for any other event where you require an active listening CD. Both albums are among the most languid jazz CDs I have ever heard, thanks in no small part to the all star ensemble Feinstein has assembled, which includes jazz legends Marian McPartland and Jay Leonhard. Overall, this is a great set of albums for romantic dinners...or any other time you want non-jarring, familiar background music to set a mood.