Judge Gordon Sullivan is a complicated cerise.
Simply Red are one of the most successful British acts of all time.
Liverpool gave us the Beatles, and London looms large in English music mythology, but Manchester has had an influence disproportionate to its size. Dylan's "Royal Albert Hall" concert (where he was called "Judas") actually happened at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, as did the famous performance by the Sex Pistols that catalyzed most of post-punk and New Wave in the country (think Joy Division, New Order, The Smiths, The Fall). The town also gave us Factory Records, and out of the ashes of one of their bands (The Durutti Column) came Simply Red. When the (former) rhythm section of The Durutti Column hooked up with smooth soul vocalist Mike "Red" Hucknall, the band went on to have a couple of huge hits ("Holding Back the Years" perhaps the biggest) before fading into that kind of obscurity that includes selling out massive tours all over the world without having another hit single or garnering huge headlines. Because its music mixes influences ranging from jazz to reggae, Simply Red has appeared at the Montreux Jazz Festival a number of times, including the performance captured on Simply Red: Live at Montreux 2003 (Blu-ray).
Fresh off a new label and back-to-basics recording, Mike Hucknall assembled a new band and took them on the road to back his latest album. That same group joined him for the 2003 Montreux Jazz Festival, where the group runs through eighteen songs, including a mix of new material and their greatest hits:
• "Sad Old Red"
There are superstars out there (think Madonna) whose ever new album and tour has garnered headlines and paychecks for thirty years. There are also one-hit wonders who write a single song that anyone ever knows about and then fade into obscurity. In the middle are those musicians who have a single hit, maybe, but then never quite go away. Buoyed by large (though not dominating) sales figures and popularity in a number of territories, these bands can sustain world tours and decades-long careers without ever being popular enough to merit front-page attention. Simply Red is in exactly that position. Early hits like "Holding Back the Years" put them high on a lot of people's nostalgia meters but their fan base has shrunk, despite the fact that Mike Hucknall has released music both in Simply Red and solo for years now.
What does all this mean for Simply Red: Live at Montreux 2003? Well, if you're one of those people who has been buying Simply Red albums for decades now and following Hucknall's career, this is the release for you. A solid performance (by Hucknall and a touring band) combined with a diverse set list equals the perfect mix for dedicated fans of the band.
For those with fond memories of those early singles, though, there isn't much attractive here. Hucknall sounds fine and the arrangements of the hits are okay, but there's no spark here. It's not the original band, and for those looking to feed nostalgia, there's nothing particularly appealing about the performance here. There's a whiff of karaoke about the whole affair, like everyone (with the possible exception of Hucknall) is going through the motions.
Similarly, for those unfamiliar with Simply Red, there's little here to tempt you to the fold. Without the nostalgic associations of the hit songs, these are a series of competently performed melting-pot soul songs. There's a bit of reggae, a bit of New Wave, and a touch of singer-songwriter, but nothing really stands out to ears not already primed to enjoy the product.
The Blu-ray itself is similarly a mixed bag. The 1080i, AVC-encoded transfer of the 1.78:1 source image goes from impressive (primarily in closeups) to disappointing (crowd and wider shots where detail plummets). However, the black levels are okay and the colors are better. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix is more impressive, with excellent clarity and good use of the sound field (especially with crowd sounds in between numbers). There's also a Dolby 5.1 Surround track and PCM 2.0 Stereo option, if you so choose.
The disc's main bonus is a set of seven songs from a 2010 appearance by the band at the same festival. These performances look a bit better, and fans will appreciate the fact that there is no overlap in track listing between the two shows. There's also a fine essay in the included booklet that gives a bit of history of the band and info on the performances.
Simply Red: Live at Montreux 2003 (Blu-ray) is a release aimed at fans of the band. For them, this is a solid concert that's captured well, though not perfectly. For those with fond Simply Red memories, a rental might be in order, while those who've never heard of the band have little reason to pick this disc up.
Though some fans might want to hold back the years on Simply Red, this set is not guilty.
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