Recorded in late 1987 and filmed for a cable-TV special, A Black and White Night Live is a curious document indeed. First, this postscript to the career of one of rock & roll's most singular artists is primarily a greatest-hits package released by the label for which Orbison re-recorded his greatest hits three years ago. Second, while the backup support on this occasion — legendary guitarist James Burton, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Rain, et al. — is beyond reproach, the truth of the matter is that there is very little in the way of distinctive playing that would merit accolades. Third, and finally, all of this is probably as it should be.
Any other approach on the musicians' part would have been disastrous. Orbison's most theatrical songs are built on a precarious structure of vocal styling and complex arrangement that allows no intrusions. The arrangements and the singing are so intricately intertwined to create a fevered ambience that Orbison simply needs no help: He is so much in control of the mood that another voice — other than the requisite backup sha-la-las — would threaten the very stability of the structure. This, then, is no different than any Roy Orbison session: It is his hour, and he delivers.
The best songs remain those nightmare visions that can still put a hurt on a person: "Only the Lonely," "In Dreams," the bizarre "Leah." Elvis Costello's "Comedians," a song from Orbison's last studio album, Mystery Girl, is cut pretty much from the same cloth as "In Dreams" and is given one of the most stirring vocal treatments of the set. "Oh Pretty Woman" aside, Orbison was hardly a convincing rocker, but he offers a swinging take an "Uptown" and gets goosed a bit by a robust Burton guitar solo.
Strict critical judgment retreats as Orbison strains to reach the high notes in "Only the Lonely." It seems more respectful to focus on the measured, subtle treatment of "In Dreams" and remember how that song can pierce a heart. It does that to you, great rock & roll, and only Roy Orbison could work this turf so well.