Rolling Stone, February 8, 1990

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Rolling Stone


A Black and White Night Live

Roy Orbison and Friends

David McGee

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.

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Rolling Stone, No. 571, February 8, 1990

David McGee reviews A Black and White Night Live.

Jim Farber reviews Chet Baker Live At Ronnie Scott's.


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Chet Baker Live At Ronnie Scott's

Jim Farber

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Bruce Weber's 1989 documentary Let's Get Lost centered on Chet Baker's decaying beauty as a Wildean metaphor for the corruption of his soul. But Chet Baker Live — taped two years before his death in 1988 — focuses on Baker the musician. Baker may have been in poor health after decades of drug abuse, but his trumpet could still be as sensual and ironic as in his heyday in the Fifties.

The utilitarian camera work sustains the mood, interrupted solely by an interview of Baker by Elvis Costello — a choice that will seem odd only to those who have never heard Elvis's "Baby Plays Around" (in Let's Get Lost, Baker essays Costello's "Almost Blue"). Here Elvis croons two standards, revealing nuances he has been able to capture on vinyl only in the last year. Van Morrison also appears on an underrehearsed "Send in the Clowns." Baker himself sings twice, his voice unmasking his dissipation. Still, Chet Baker Live offers a coda to Let's Get Lost, giving Baker back the last word.

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