Classic musicianship meets undeniable onstage persona in this 1982 concert, and Judge Bill Gibron couldn't be happier.
This is the sound of the city.
Make no mistake about it; while the band's name was clearly Mink DeVille, it was always all about Willy. When he walked on the stage circa 1982 (or any year), he was a pimp posing as a rocker, a reed-thin dandy delivering street-smart songs that practically reeked of pavement and payoffs. With his wild pompadour, New Age zoot suit, and pencil-thin moustache, he was every caricature of a coin-flipping hustler, the kind of guy you'd see on the corner talking trash to dames, mouthing off to cops, and challenging the toughs with a stiletto and his boot heels. As a matter of fact, his onstage persona often resembled a straight razor, body bent at just the right angle to sell a lyric—or slit a throat. That sense of danger was part of DeVille's aura—and it's an element that remains a strong part of his current appeal.
And then he opened his mouth to sing. Like a tortured old soul lost in a proto-punk's wiry frame, DeVille delivered his own songs (and the occasional cover) with a true artist's gift for interpretation and tone. He could make a ballad seem ballsy, a simple love poem part of some grand universal screed. Rendered in what the country tune would call a "cigarettes, whisky, and wild, wild women" wail, DeVille delivered homilies to roots, a melting pot as colorful and creative as the man they made. While this concert contains some of the last work he would do within a band setting (the group would officially split in 1985), Live at Montreux reminds us of how powerful a combo Mink could be. They're so tight they threaten to artistically implode. Yet their groove is so loose it's like the grindhouse revisited. Over the course of 68 sensational minutes, Willy and his compadres treat us to the following tracks:
"Harlem Nocturne"—cover of the instrumental track by Earle
The first thing that any DeVille virgin must know is that a Mink concert is all about vibe. The set list reflects a certain sonic need beyond the marketing man's idea of selling records. While both 1980 (La Chat Bleu) and 1981 (Coup de Grace) albums get lots of play, the band makes each track effortlessly flow into the next. As a matter of fact, the shift from "Just Your Friends" to "Love and Emotion" is so clean as to be almost continuous. Standing in front like a bad-ass bandleader, nonchalant face giving the audience a slight smirk of indifference, DeVille plays his guitar like a man chatting up a chum. There are moments of great emotion, as well as sequences of mechanical menace. Together with a stellar group of musicians, including an incredible Louis Cortelezzi on sax, Tommy Price on drums, Joey Vasta on bass, Paul James on guitar, and Kenny Margolis on keyboards, he creates a kind of urban jive, a true inner-city broth of blues, jazz, soul, rock, and every other kind of music wafting down from a crowded neighborhood brownstone.
It's oddly intriguing, a sound of its era and absolutely timeless as well. Mink DeVille frequently feels like Heaven's bar band, a cultural cacophony as only a man who resembles a street rat could create. The covers are okay; "Harlem Nocturne" is really nothing but an intro, while the finale of "Stand by Me" has power, but very little panache. Indeed, it's in the middle, when everyone is sweating and jams are going on for what seems like hours, that Live at Montreux truly comes alive. It reminds you that great concerts don't need to be showcase spectacles with flashing lights, dozens of dancers, and danger-inducing pyrotechnics. Instead, all you need is some artistry, a series of songs, and a vision to bring it all together. Willy DeVille and the members of Mink do a fine job of capturing that magical moment.
Presented on DVD from Eagle Entertainment, there will be some carping over the full-screen image. Purists will definitely balk at the occasional feedback lines, and the original analog videotape medium makes for some very fuzzy details. Still, the colors are crisp and DeVille's pharmaceutically enhanced cheekbones do stand out. The direction is rather mundane—long shot followed by close-up. Overall, the concert is captured well, but it's the sound that really soars. The Dolby Digital DTS is dynamite, as is the 5.1 mix. Both offer excellent separation, superb clarity, and a real feeling of being part of the audience. Even the PCM stereo is pretty darn good. Sadly, there is no added content as part of the disc itself. Instead, Eagle throws in a wonderful pamphlet featuring a detailed essay on the man and the band. It makes for wonderful reading.
Last time this critic reviewed a Willy DeVille performance (Willy DeVille: Live at the Lowlands), he had this to say: "Though he's far from the mainstream of the music business, DeVille demonstrates why so many people are drawn to song craft as an aesthetic. Art offers the ability to see reality in a totally different and direct light." Live at Montreux provides proof that craftsmanship comes in many diverse, delightful packages. It's as true today as it was twenty-six years ago. Not guilty.
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