"When you experience Simply Red onstage…you hear not only a great singer and an exceptional band, you also hear Mick Hucknall the man."—Adrian Thrills
Formed in 1984 by singer and songwriter Mick Hucknall, whose trademark red locks inspired the group's name, Simply Red fuses soul, jazz, and reggae influences with pop for a sound that is as distinctive as it is difficult to categorize. On Home Live in Sicily the group performs songs from their latest album, "Home," in the ancient Teatro Antico amphitheater during a July 2003 concert in Italy.
Facts of the Case
"Home" offers a departure from Simply Red's previous albums: It's the first recorded on the band's new, independent label, simplyred.com, and it reflects Hucknall's desire to shed electronic furbelows and return to the style of the music that influenced him, particularly classic soul and reggae. For my part, I have to admit I lost track of Simply Red for a time after the release of their greatest hits CD, but "Home"—appropriately—welcomed me back as if I'd never left. It's a great mixture of the elements that attracted me to the band in the first place, way back in (gulp) 1986. Fans old and new should enjoy this DVD, especially since it also contains some of their best singles from previous albums. It's hard to believe Simply Red is 20 years old; their sound just hasn't aged.
Surely there can be no more perfect setting for Simply Red's music than a warm Italian night under the stars. The open-air amphitheater is a craggily magnificent setting, but the concert seems surprisingly intimate, with the audience (of 10,000!) responsive and enthusiastic. Cherubic-looking Hucknall is a charismatic performer—he even addresses his audience in Italian—and his enthusiasm and enjoyment are a pleasure to watch. Here you'll find no dancers or explosions to tart up his performance, just a solid musical evening showcasing Hucknall's distinctive voice, which is even more agile than it was twenty years ago. The concert begins with a couple of laid-back numbers, then starts to get funky with "Home Loan Blues." (Dig that cool brass section!) All but one of the songs from the album "Home" are performed, including covers of "You Make Me Feel Brand New" and Bob Dylan's "Positively 4th Street," as well as the hit "Sunshine," with its groovy sampling from Hall and Oates. In addition, we get classic hits like "Money's Too Tight (to Mention)," the band's very first single; the playfully sexy "The Right Thing"; and a wonderful new take on "Holding Back the Years": Hucknall accompanies himself on solo acoustic guitar for the first verse and chorus of this jazz-tinged hit, giving an already pensive song a beautifully elegiac quality.
The DVD sound quality, which is of course of greatest concern in a concert video, is remarkable. Except for the judicious inclusion of audience applause and occasional participation, this could be a studio recording: there's no ambient noise, and the mixing superbly balances the different sections of the band. Hucknall's vocals are never overpowered, always enhanced, by the mixing, and there's no echo or reverb to distort his performance. Sound options include Dolby digital stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, and DTS 5.1 surround. Unfortunately I wasn't able to try out the surround sound options, but the stereo is terrific even on my bare-bones setup. You'll definitely enjoy listening to this over and over.
There's a nice little batch of extras, too. Menus are stylishly designed, and other features include a camera angle option, the appropriately titled Mick Cam, which keeps a single camera on Mick for the entire time. This can get dull—he's usually in medium-close shot, so you miss everyone else on stage. But it's a nice option, and especially during the slower numbers it's a blessed alternative to the quick-cut style that plagues the editing in general (which I discuss below). A 20-minute documentary features interview footage of Mick and various band members, and it's conveniently organized in chapters that cover different subjects, such as the making of the album, the band's group dynamic, and Mick's affinity for Italy, which he says has become a second home to him. An intriguing undercurrent in the documentary is the implication that Mick can be quite a taskmaster, but everyone's quick to add that his drive for perfection is responsible for the band's success. Not an extra per se, but worth mentioning, is the placement of the dual-layer transition at the end of a song—not during—so there's no irritating interruption during the performance.
There are also two bonus musical performances, essentially alternate versions of two songs from the concert: "You Make Me Feel Brand New" performed live in Croatia, and "The Right Thing," performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival (as the script on the upper left corner of the screen constantly reminds us). These aren't markedly different from the performances in the concert proper, but it's a nice gesture to include them (although these are not available in surround sound). An eight-page booklet features lots of photos of Mick and commentary by Adrian Thrills, some of which repeats material from the interviews in the documentary.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Visually, I have a bone to pick. I'm sure that editor Mark Alchin is a good person: I have no doubt that he's kind to animals and old ladies, that he pays his taxes, and that he occasionally takes the trash out without being reminded. But I want to pinch his head off. The man either has the shortest attention span in the world or assumes that this sometimes laid-back music will lose the audience's attention unless there are constant editing cuts. Rarely does he hold a shot for as much as three seconds; typically, it's more like one. Toward the second half of the concert, which features more up-tempo tunes like "Fairground" and "Something Got Me Started," this was less irritating. But during the mellower songs, of which there are many, the choppy rapid-fire cuts bear no relation to musical phrasing and served only to distract and unsettle me. If you were distracted by the quick cutting in Rob Marshall's Chicago, you will probably quickly grow to hate Mark Alchin too.
Nevertheless, the picture is clear, with no visible grain, and the use of widescreen is a nice touch, enhancing the grandeur of the venue. The lighting design is also effective, using saturated blues for the early, mellow part of the concert and gradually shading into warmer tones as the music selections get more upbeat. And if you're not planning to plant yourself in front of the screen every time you play the DVD, the irritation factor will probably be negligible.
If you're a fan of Simply Red or even if you're just looking for some stylish, grown-up pop music, Home Live in Sicily is a DVD you'll definitely want to own.
Mark Alchin is hereby ordered to undergo attention-deficit therapy, but everyone else involved is acquitted with the court's thanks.
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