Appellate Judge Dave Ryan's guitar gently weeps over the lack of attention given to this talented Canadian guitarist.
"Ain't nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell."
They say that lightning never strikes twice. However, in the late Eighties, two fantastic blues artists had big hit singles and albums, then completely disappeared off of pop music's radar screen. One story, that of the great Robert Cray, will have to be told elsewhere. This disc is the musical story of Jeff Healey, the blind Canadian version of Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Healey, blind since the age of one, has a unique style that makes him instantly recognizable: he plays the guitar (a modified Stratocaster with humbuckers) on his lap. Instead of wrapping his hand around the guitar's neck, he fingers the frets from above—which means he's playing the instrument "backwards." It's a difficult way to play the guitar, and one that really is only effective if it's the only way you've ever done it. However, this style enables Healey to bend the strings well beyond what a normal guitarist can achieve. When Healey plays, he bends so much that it almost sounds as if he's using a slide. His hammer-ons are also much stronger than a "normal" guitarist's, giving him the ability to create strong, staccato accent notes at will. When combined with the rich, throaty sound of his humbuckered Strat, it's impossible not to compare Healey to the late, great Vaughan—the two playing styles sound very similar. The biggest difference is in taste: Healey is more of a traditional blues practitioner than Vaughan. (Vaughan really created his own blues sub-genre that encompassed blues, R&B, jazz, and good ol' fashioned Texas twang.)
Of course Healey's big moment in the sun wasn't a technically flashy blues number that showed off his guitar virtuosity—it was a John Hiatt-penned love ballad called "Angel Eyes." The second single from Healey's debut album See The Light, "Angel Eyes" was a Top Five hit in late 1988; it sent the album up the charts as well. Healey attracted the attention of no less than George Harrison and Mark Knopfler, each of whom played on Healey's follow-up album, 1990's Hell To Pay. Knopfler donated and played on an unused Dire Straits song, "I Think I Love You Too Much," while Harrison did a duet with Healey on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." Healey even landed a role in the terrible Patrick Swayze film Road House, contributing several songs—including a cover of the Door's "Roadhouse Blues"—to the film's soundtrack. There weren't any more "Angel Eyes"-like chart successes, however, and by Healey's third album, 1992's Feel This, he had descended into relative obscurity. An album of cover songs, Cover to Cover, followed in 1995.
Along the way, Healey and his band continued to tour, working largely as an opening act for bands such as the Rolling Stones and Bon Jovi. Healey made two appearances at the Montreux Jazz Festival, first in 1997, then again in 1999. The latter show is the focus of this DVD. In a crisp ten-song set, Healey covers many of the highlights of his career to date:
• "My Little Girl" *
As an extra feature, four songs from the 1997 performance are included as well:
• "As The Years Go Passing By"
A bonus live CD is included in the package as well. All of the songs marked with a "*" above are included, as well as a cover of the Beatles' "Yer Blues" from the 1999 show that was not included on the DVD (presumably because of rights issues).
The knock on Healey is that he's too predictable and set in his sound; that he never varies the formula one iota. This is, to a certain extent, true—but that applies to B.B. King as well, and I don't hear anyone knocking him. Healey is a blues aficionado playing traditional blues to a traditional blues-seeking audience. It would be ridiculous for him to start throwing covers of "Gold Digger" or "Gangsta's Paradise" into his set just to please The Kids These Days. Healey is good enough to deserve a place at the blues table with King, Knopfler, Eric Clapton, Ry Cooder, Albert King, Robert Cray, and Robert Randolph (among others), the best in the business today. Why should he stray from that? Would you?
This performance is marred by one thing—the crowd. The audience is surprisingly unengaged and detached, even when Healey shreds the hell out of his solos. When Healey breaks a string in the middle of "Roadhouse Blues" and has to vamp for time while it's fixed, he tries a little audience participation call-and-response. It's…awkward. At a small, raucous bar (or, dare I say, a roadhouse), this would have been wild. Here, it's…not. You're relieved when Healey's guitar is fixed and he can get back to being excellent again.
Three audio tracks are provided, including an always-appreciated (especially on music discs) DTS surround track. Unfortunately, the DTS track for the 1999 portion of the show is a disappointment. It's too quiet, doesn't use the surrounds well, and lacks the "punch" a DTS concert track usually brings. It's not bad, mind you—it's just virtually indistinguishable from the Dolby 5.1 track, which is (in my experience) highly unusual. Strangely, the 1997 show's DTS track is terrific. So you get the superior sound you expect, but only for those four songs. Alas. (The 1997 tracks are also presented in a nonanamorphic widescreen aspect ratio, while the 1999 tracks are full screen. Hey…maybe they should have just released the 1997 show, no?)
I think the bonus CD is an absolutely fantastic idea, and that all concert DVDs should have one. The CD runs over an hour, with good sound quality. I can't tell you how many times I've watched a concert DVD only to wish I could rip the audio track into my iPod. This neatly solves that problem. (Although I do wish they had included Healey's rollicking cover of "Stuck In The Middle With You" on the disc.)
This is my first experience with Eagle Rock's "Live at Montreux"
series of DVDs, of which there are many (at least 39 so far, per the disc
insert). Based on what I've seen here, it won't be the last. The sound quibble
notwithstanding, this is a great disc.
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