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Music DVD Review: The Moody Blues – Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970; Live at Montreux 1991

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Back in the day, the 1967 Days of Future Passed didn’t kick-start my interest in The Moody Blues. I never was a fan of rock/orchestra fusions. The records I was enamored with began with In Search of the Lost Chord (1968) and pretty much ended with Seventh Sojourn (1972). That was, of course, the “Mark II” line-up including the “Blue Jays” of Justin Hayward (guitar) and John Lodge (bass) along with Ray Thomas (flute), Graeme Edge (drums), and Mike Pinder (keyboards). Back then, the Moody Blues seemed a complete, equal opportunity outfit with all members singing and composing except for Edge who didn’t sing lead and only wrote poetry for the albums.

Then came break-up, shake-up, and make-up as the Moodies shifted into the Mark III line-up with Patrick Moraz replacing Pinder on keyboards. This meant the dropping of the signature, ethereal Mellotron sounds. They did some good stuff in the ’80s like Long Distance Voyager (1981) and The Other Side of Life (1986). Then, the offerings, at least studio-wise, began to thin.

Moody Blues (2013 DVD/CD Reissue)Now, the reissued concert DVD/CDs, Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970 and Live at Montreux 1991 serve as an ironic compare/contrast between the two eras. As the Moodies themselves felt, Isle of Wight allegedly caught them “in their prime.” Montreux, filmed 21 years later, captured a far more polished concert band that could no longer be considered vital spokesmen for a generation. However, the Moody Blues had become a far more accomplished live attraction.

As the interviews in the 20 minute documentary that set up the Isle of Wight DVD tell us, the August 1970 festival performance was considered to be something of an event. The Moodies had just recorded A Question of Balance and were playing their current hit, “Question,” for an intimidating audience estimated at over half a million. For the band members, that concert was not only a significant night in their lives as a band, but a moment of the “Flower Power” era of which they were a part.

So the interviews with Hayward, Lodge, Pinder and Edge (no Thomas) provide context by going back, briefly, to their early blues days with Denny Laine. Then they take us into the studio to share how Days of Future Passed came to be, and analyze how Pinder created his signature Mellotron sound. In fact, Pinder’s explanation on how the tape loops inside the early equipment worked is worth the price of admission. It’s obvious why that sound was difficult to re-create live. Finally, the four Moodies critiqued the meaning of it all, the “Flower Power” scene that is, and arrive at very different conclusions. Then, ladies and gentlemen, the Moody Blues.

Clearly, the Moodies and many others saw the Isle of Wight performance as an historic moment worthy of a re-visit on DVD. But, unlike the previous year’s Woodstock festival, there were apparently no professional filmmakers on hand, so footage from several 16mm cameras was edited together for this disc. The problem is, while the Moodies were at the top of their game in the studio, they weren’t quite as powerful in concert. They admit themselves they have no idea how they were able to pull off what they did considering the technology of the times. But, compared with other bands of the day, the guitar work of Hayward doesn’t seem synced with the rest of the band and was often out of tune. When the four singers deliver their ensemble parts, we hear no harmonies. It’s rather rough, and one suspects this was due to a lack of stage monitors.

Depending on your tastes, it doesn’t seem the Moodies had really yet jelled a good rock and roll set list. From Days of Future Passed, they played the already obligatory “Tuesday Afternoon” and “Nights in White Satin” along with Pinder’s baleful “Sunset.” Along with “Question,” from A Question of Balance we get “Melancholy Man,” and melancholy is the word. Other low-key offerings include “Never Comes the Day” and “Tortoise and the Hare” before the group comes together for “Nights in White Satin” and a nice performance of “Legend of a Mind.” But Lodge’s “Ride My See Saw” doesn’t do justice to one of my favorites. Not in 1970, anyway.

Flash-forward to July 3, 1991 and the Montreux Casino. By this time, Pinder had long been in the rearview mirror and the band had just jettisoned the disgruntled Moraz and released Keys of the Kingdom. The Moody Blues were now obviously centered on Hayward and Lodge’s vocals and songs. Two keyboardists played supplementary roles on stage, namely Paul Bliss and Bias Boshell. Edge was joined by a second drummer, Gordon Marshall, and two comely ladies, Sue Shattock and June Boyce, were added to the back-up vocals.

At Montreux, one problem was evident: these new players were very new to the show and it took time for the ensemble to really get on the same page. The recording engineer, likewise, took some time to find the right balance for all the parts. The good news: no orchestra. Most importantly, the musicianship of everyone involved was miles and miles better than 1970. In fact, as players, they were now better on stage than what they did in the studio decades before.

By 1991, the Moodies reflected their times again, now pumping out pleasant love ballads with radio-friendly hooks. They had a rich catalog to draw from, including new songs “Bless the Wings (That Bring You Back),” “Say It with Love,” and tracks from the ’80s including “Gemini Dream,” the jumpin’ “The Other Side of Life,” and their very successful “Your Wildest Dreams.”

By now, “Lovely to See You” was the standard show opener (taken from 1969’s On the Threshold of a Dream). The group offered their now long obligatory greatest hits including “The Story in Your Eyes,” “Isn’t Life Strange,” and “I’m Just a Singer (In a Rock and Roll Band.” By this point in their career, the Moodies could feel free to tinker with their old chestnuts and spice the arrangements with different instrumentations and codas. One nugget is the extended Thomas/Boshell flute/keyboard duet on “Legend of a Mind.” This time around, I once again wanted to “Ride My See-Saw.”

The material in the two-disc Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970 was first released as an audio CD in 2008 and the DVD a year later. So this is the first time fans can have one package that includes the documentary, concert film, and the audio-only songs not in the film. If you already have these releases, there’s nothing here you’re missing.

Likewise, Live at Montreux 1991 was issued back in 2005, but without an audio-only CD. This time, inexplicably the DVD has more songs than the CD. There are no other features. Then again, there isn’t really anything that’s needed. If you’re a Moody Blues fan and don’t already have a copy, don’t consider this release indispensable. But it’s quite listenable fare.

If you’re old enough to have attended the Isle of Wight Festival, or any other Moody Blues concert of the time, and you’re willing to forgive a really rough and ready sound, by all means spend Tuesday afternoon, or any other, back in an era when live meant live. Pinder fans will benefit the most, hearing different interpretations of some of his early work. In the main, you had to be there.

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About Wesley Britton