Review Summary: Roy Orbison singing for the lonely, hey that's me and i want you only - Bruce Springsteen - Thunder Road
In attendance for this evenings performance: Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Jim Burton, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Jennifer Warnes, kd. lang, Steven Soles, T-Bone Burnett, Ron Tutt, J.D. Souther, Timothy B. Schmit and Alex Acuna. Ok, now that the band has been mentioned we can now introduce the star of the show....Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome Mr. Roy Orbison.....
Perhaps welcome him in spirit, as this kind of all star tribute and assembled talent is usually reserved for the deceased rock n roll great. Well, lucky for us Roy was caught for this performance from Los Angeles's Coconut Grove Nightclub & Theater at The Ambassador Hotel while still walking among us in late '87 just a year before his untimely death. Enjoying a resurgence in popularity in the States as a result of some well placed songs in a popular David Lynch film and a remake of his ballad "Crying" sung with kd. lang that saw the pair win a Grammy Award for "Best Country Vocal (Duet)", and Roy Orbison was a man on a revivalist roll in the late '80's. On the verge of some of his biggest successes yet with The Travelling Willbury's and his own platinum selling "Mystery Girl", Orbison's magic was about to become known to a whole new generation. But first, for the past...
Black & White Night begins with Orbison's standard opener "Only The Lonely" and its clear from the start this Orbison show will be different from most of his others. Although always a great live act, many of Orbison's songs had arrangements (strings, back up singers, percussion) on record not easily duplicated on stage for the touring rock n roll musician of his time. And later shows saw the simple addition of a somewhat cold synthesizer trying to make up for what guitar, bass, piano, and drums cannot do alone. But with this T-Bone Burnett assembled and arranged back up band of heavy hitters behind him Orbison's songs would not simply be transformed for the stage, but the haunting beauty of the songs would be brought to life in a way the long ago studio cuts never achieved.
Not just the lush and elegant Orbison is represented here, however. And while its is hard to deny the ascending strings and powerful backing vocals on the classic longing for love ballad "Running Scared" and the heartbreaking finality of "Its Over", the themes of both songs being Orbison trademarks, it perhaps became easy to forget at this point in the singers career that he was and always had been a rock n roll artist first, cut from the same cloth as Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Jerry Lee Lewis. And while many credit him with inventing the "rock n roll ballad" with hits such as "Crying" and "In Dreams", both of which are featured to great merit on this disc, it pays to remember his best known song to this day is the rocker "Oh, Pretty Woman", and that is not lost on this album or its performers.
With a core band of Bruce Springsteen and Jim Burton on lead guitars, Jerry Scheff on bass, and Ron Tutt on drums, (in fact Burton, Scheff, and Tutt made up the heart of Elvis Presley's highly regarded backing band from '69 to '77, known as the "TCB" or "Taking Care of Business" band) Orbison and crew rock and roll through this night like Orbision hadn't rocked in years. "Go Go Go" (Down The Line)"builds from a bluesy rockabilly shuffle to full fledged hip shaker by songs end, the tinny organ of Tom Waits leading the way throughout, "Uptown" features excellent backing vocals by Bruce Springsteen and builds excitement and drama throughout, and "Ooby Dooby", Orbison's highly influential first single for Sun records way back in the mid '50's, are all performed with great energy, precision, and understanding of what this music was intended to do and meant to be.
Much of the credit for all this greatness must go to musical director T-Bone Burnett, who as mentioned before assembled and rehearsed this collection of musicians for this one off event, and the performances by each individual from the core group to the back up singers to the small string section are indeed impeccable. That said, however, it is without a doubt Orbison himself who among all this considerable big name talent is the true star of the stage. Never overwhelmed by the band or seemingly affected by the grandeur of the affair, his high sweet tenor leads the way throughout the evening, soaring to the heavens in all the right places and coming down to earth in equal fashion. To say Orbison's voice is one of rock 'n roll's all time unique instruments would most likely be an understatement of great proportion, as it is something not just heard, but truly experienced, and is almost otherworldly within' the context of rock 'n roll. On this night, well over 30 years into his recording career, Roy's gift was the true standout of the show, often bringing members of the band itself to near tears. Such is the beauty of his haunting voice and his heartbroken songs, Orbison was simply a singular Rock 'n Roll artist even among the greats. And it was never more apparent then on this incredible live disc of some of his most loved songs.
Black & White Night is without doubt one of rock 'n roll's all time great live albums. Perhaps not a classic as it doesn't carry the critical time and place criteria most classic live albums do (a truly small club in any case), it nonetheless captures one of rocks all time great artists just a year before his death honored onstage by those he influenced and inspired and in a musical setting which suited his style and low key showmanship to a tee. Originally taped as a special for HBO's Cinemax station this special concert is also available on DVD and is my recommended format for full listening and viewing pleasure, as the recording, shot entirely in black and white (hence the title) is considered a true classic of concert film performance. But if the music is all you want the audio CD is just as rich, powerful, and moving a document of any live rock 'n roll that has ever been put to record. Simply put, Roy Orbison's Black And White Night is as near heaven as you are likely to get while still tied to the ground. And its an event every fan of great rock 'n roll deserves to experience.