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Music Review: Ray Charles – Live at Montreux

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 “As long as I can remember, music has always been something extraordinary in my life. It's always been something that completely captured my attention.” ~ Ray Charles

Dear patient readers.  I am sitting here at my key board and I am struggling with a massive case of writer’s block.  I just don’t quite know what to say or where to begin.

I’ve just finally had the time to view my copy of Ray Charles – Live at Montreux 1997 and I am ready to write a thoughtful review of a brilliant performance and yet here I am, completely stumped. My mind is blank and I’m at a complete loss for words.

I know; it’s insane. How can I be at a loss for words about the legendary Ray Charles; the genius of soul, the icon, the music pioneer?  Even if you‘ve never heard of the Mr. Ray Charles (say if you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past fifty years in a vacuum sealed soundless capsule on Mars or something), you just have to Google him (just when did Google become a verb anyway?) to find a ridiculous amount of information.

Born in 1930 in Albany GA., Ray Charles Robinson was blind by the age of 7 due to Glaucoma and subsequently attended Saint Augustine’s School for the Blind.  His professional career started in Jacksonville Florida in 1946 but he moved to Seattle in 1948 and changed his professional name to Ray Charles.  He released in first single “Confession” under the Swingtime label in 1949, had his first R&B hit with “It Should Have Been Me” in 1954 and his first crossover hit on the pop charts with “Swanee River Rock” in 1957.

However it was in 1959 that the legend that is Ray Charles was truly born with his mega hit and signature song, “What’d I say!”  From then on he went on to make Ray Charles history and created the very definition of Soul Music to this day.

But that, I realized is the problem with this review.  It’s a tricky thing reviewing a legend.  Where can I possibly begin? What can one possibly write that has not already been written, filmed, sung about, performed, or otherwise covered?  Who am I to sit in judgment of Ray Charles?  It’s a daunting task that I’m not certain I am worthy of attempting.  Nonetheless, I’ve been given this DVD and I made a commitment to write my humble opinion for you dear readers. So, calming my slightly nervous fingers, here goes.

Ray Charles has performed at the Montreux Jazz festival on more than one occasion and his 1997 concert that Eagle Vision Media decided to release as a part of its Live at Montreux series is considered on of his finest.   Mr. Charles is in very good company here as the Live at Montreux series includes the likes of such artists as Canned Heat, Johnny Cash, Ella Fitzgerald, Eric Clapton, Deep Purple, Steve Earle, Emerson Lake and Palmer, and of course, my favorite jazz/blues man, Jeff Healey.

This particular concert delivered a sparkling performance by the tireless legend still pounding out some of his favorite tunes on his keyboard.  I must say, I’ve never found piano, organ, or other keyboard players particularly exciting to watch.  I mean, they sound amazing and add a texture to music that guitar and percussion could never deliver; but visually, well, they’re dull.  

Let’s be honest folks, how can a musician sitting at the ivories compete with  the jumping jack flash of guitar and bass player or the pure animal adrenaline rush of the drummer mercilessly beating the skins? (Okay Jerry Lee Lewis notwithstanding this example.) But you understand what I’m saying right?  

Ray CharlesRay Charles however was apparently unaware that keyboard players were supposed to be boring.  Looking as energetic and passionate, Ray could barely stay seated throughout the entire performance. 

The Live at the Montreux DVD is not an extensive list of songs (only 12 songs in 14 tracks), however this performance does offer us a glimpse of the truly genius artist that was Ray Charles.  Rounding out at 57 minutes, it includes some classic favorites such as “Georgia on my Mind” and a truly funky soulful version of “You Made Me Love You” that I think is the best rendition of that song in existence.

With the instrumental “Scotia Blues” Ray showed off his prowess and the impressive range of music he could squeeze out of a keyboard.  He had so much fun performing this tune that he can barely contain his ebullient joy has he jumped up and down from his bench.

Backed up by his orchestra and of course, the fabulous Raelettes, the show ended with his quintessential song, “What’d I say.”

From “I’ll be Home (Sadie’s Tune)” to “Busted” from “Mississippi Mud” to “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” Ray didn’t just play or sing for the audience.  He gave his heart and soul to every lyric and every note every time.  A consummate perfectionist, if it wasn’t done to the max it wasn’t worth doing.

In music Ray Charles existed, lived, breathed, and loved.  He lived his passion and shared his entire being with his audience.   If we all learned from his example and lived out our lives with only a fraction of the conviction and passion that Mr. Ray Charles did for the expanse of his impressive career, we would all be much richer for it.

"It's like Duke Ellington said; there are only two kinds of music – good and bad. And you can tell when something is good." ~ Ray Charles

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About Nathalie Vanderheyden