If I figured correctly, this is the 54th episode of FNWGG, which means Guitar George has survived one full year in existence. To begin our hopefully successful second year, I want to do something a little different this week. Each week as I conduct my extensive *research* to find videos of great live guitar performances, I invariably find lots of other interesting things along the way. The only thing that grabs my attention as strongly as great guitar work is a really strong or unusual vocal performance. This week’s episode is a montage of some of Great Live Vocal Performances, hence the title “GLVP Episode.”
I’ll include links to each song mentioned here, so please click on those that seem interesting to you. I had to choose only one to be the “featured” video of the week, but when you read my commentary on it and see the video you will understand why I chose it. But please avail yourself of some or all of the rest of the videos—hopefully you will find some that will be as enjoyable to you as they were for me.
Peasall Sisters “Farther Along”
Remember the three little girls who sang “In the Highways, In the Hedges” in O Brother, Where Art Thou? Here they are again with another gospel standard. The elder sister’s solo from 0:47 to 1:32 will melt your heart.
The Cox Family “I Am Weary, Let Me Rest”
Speaking of O Brother, Where Art Thou, this performance is from the 2000 concert in Nashville that showcased the artists whose music was part of the movie’s soundtrack. After playing this number, the Cox Family brought down the house with a rousing rendition of “Will There be Any Stars in My Crown?”. But I prefer this quiet, soulful lament. Suzanne Cox’s voice has a genuine earthiness that is both heart-warming and heart-breaking.
James Brown and Luciano Pavarotti “Man’s World”
The Godfather of Soul and the best tenor in the known universe on stage together. I don’t think any further explanation is required.
The Edge “Love is Blindness”
“Love is Blindness” is the song of wearied resignation that concludes U2’s classic 1991 album Achtung Baby, a collection of songs fraught with the pain and bitterness of crumbling relationships, songs that cry and scream and beg and mourn and then finally shrug with despair and whisper “we are all fools, Love is Blindness.”
Van Morrison “Caravan”
In 1976 The Band famously gave themselves a “farewell” party, complete with a live concert that featured numerous special guests. Martin Scorsese taped all the proceedings and a movie of the event was released in 1978. It would be easy to cast stones at such self-aggrandizement, except that this actually worked. The concert was great, the guests were enthusiastically engaged in the premise, and everybody had a good time. One of the highlights of the concert was Van Morrison’s performance of “Caravan.” He sang with a passion befitting his Irish lineage and with the urgency of a tent revival preacher. During the song’s coda Morrison stirs up the crowd with a series of vigorous fist pumps and leg kicks, then he drops the mic and kicks his way right off the stage, to the delight of everybody. (This just might be the origin of the *drop the mic* conceit.) A bemused Robbie Robertson points in the direction of Morrison’s dramatic exit and says simply “Van the Man.”
Buffy Sainte-Marie “Cod’ine”
I discovered this bone-chilling song while working on my essay about Gram Parsons, who sang a relatively quiet, understated version of it. The original song (whose title is written and pronounced “Cod’ine” instead of “Codeine”) was composed and recorded by Native American songstress Buffy Sainte-Marie. Her original full length version will give you the willies, but this short version is just as chilling as the original.
Courtney Love “Cod’ine”
One of the unfortunate ironies that lies in the rancid belly of the blues is that those who are most qualified to sing about its ancillary excesses are those most ravaged by these very excesses.
Randy Newman, “Louisisana 1927”
Newman’s solemn Southern remembrance of the terrible 1927 flood first appeared on his 1974 album Good Old Boys, and is seen now as a spooky foreshadowing of Hurricane Katrina. I casually assumed that the best performance I would find would be a poignant post-Katrina rendition, but instead I found that this 1983 performance had a more convincing blend of pity, disbelief and compassion than any of the latter day versions I watched.
Vince Gill “Go Rest High”
Yeah, I know–Vince’s “Aw shucks” demeanor sometimes comes across a little insincere, but there is no shred of insincerity when he sings this moving tribute to the late great Keith Whitley and to Vince’s own brother, Bob.
Bette Midler “One More for the Road”
It’s a wonderful performance anyway, but context is crucial to fully appreciating this one. On Johnny Carson’s last night on the air, he had exactly two guests: Robin Williams, who was, of course, ridiculously funny, and Bette Midler, who serenaded Johnny with this torch song. Carson was deeply touched, as were all of us lucky enough to have witnessed it on live TV.
Taylor Swift “Red”
I understand there is a sharp and vociferous divide between the pro-Taylor Swift camp and the anti-Swifty camp. Allow me to offer this assessment from a mostly objective viewpoint: her early material was mostly bubblegum and lipstick, but there were glimpses of a budding talent; her more recent stuff is mostly mature and life-tested, but there are still patches of lipstick and bubblegum on the scarf. Her live performances, dictated by today’s marketing formulae, pander to the hysterical 97.8% of the audience. But then you have this beautifully mature rendition of “Red” performed at the 2013 CMAs. You don’t get Alison Krauss and Vince Gill sitting on either side of you unless you have legitimate talent, and no bubblegum song will earn you an upright bass, a mandolin, and a washboard as backup. I am pretty sure that both sides of the Swift debate can agree on the quality of this performance.
Louis Armstrong “What a Wonderful World”
The best. Period.
Joe Cocker “When the Night Comes”
There are many videos of Joe Cocker giving more powerful performances than this one, but this is a personal favorite for reasons too complicated to explain. Which is not to say that this video won’t rock your socks. I mean, this is Joe Cocker—he could stand up and sing the phone book and it would knock yer ass right off a bar stool.
Wilson Pickett “Mustang Sally”
This, my friends, is the real deal. Pickett’s energy is so powerful it cuts through the grainy video and scratchy audio and grabs you by the neck. The frenetic vibe is so palpable you can feel the fever, smell the sweat. This dude is flat out bringing it.
Bonnie Raitt “Angel From Montgomery”
John Prine wrote it. I am from Montgomery. I love Bonnie Raitt. So, this might have made the cut anyway, but it deserves to be here on its own merit.
Famous Artist, Classic Standard
This is the mystery guest and the unexpected dud all rolled into one. Brilliant artist, great old song, should be a home run, right? Well—you be the judge.
Stevie Nicks “Rhiannon”
So now we come to this week’s featured video. When Fleetwood Mac made an appearance on The Whistle Stop television show in 1976, those who tuned in to watch probably were not prepared for this. Originally an all-British blues band, Fleetwood Mac had enjoyed a fair amount of success in the U.K. but had garnered only modest attention in the States. The 1975 addition of young Californian Lindsey Buckingham and his girlfriend Stevie Nicks changed all of that. Stevie’s song “Rhiannon” became an unexpected hit on both sides of the pond and fueled sales of the eponymous Fleetwood Mac album, setting the stage on which the all-time classic Rumours album was built. But in the pre-Rumours world, Big Mac was putting most of its eggs in the Rhiannon basket, and was performing the song as though not just their careers but their very lives depended on it. At 4:39 we get a little hint of what is to come; at 5:00 we are all staring in attention; at 5:28 Stevie completely loses her mind and we are utterly spellbound. We stand with mouths agape in our living rooms in Albany, New York and Tucson, Arizona and Omaha Nebraska—and Montgomery Alabama–and we realize that we have witnessed something really, really special. Almost forty years later and this performance still gets our attention.