George Benson is a monstrously talented guitarist and vocalist whose career has spanned five decades. Since the 1960s he has cranked out dozens of albums, crossing over into several musical genres including jazz, R&B, and pop. Absolutely Live is a newly re-released concert DVD capturing Benson in all his varied musical guises. Whether you're a longtime fan or just discovering this dynamic performer, the DVD – taped in Belfast, Ireland in the year 2000 – is a rewarding experience. The concert, shot in a straightforward manner with the emphasis on the performers, runs 90 minutes. During that time, Benson and his bandmates cover quite a bit of artistic ground.
The stylistic variety could be met with mixed reactions. For straight-ahead jazz fans, the lighter smooth jazz numbers or the pop hits might be a distraction. I feel the wide range is one of the most recommendable aspects of Absolutely Live as there is something for everyone. The opening three tunes, performed with the BBC Big Band, left me a bit worried. "All Of Me" features Benson delivering a fairly standard reading of the old chestnut, complete with scat singing. Scatting just doesn't do anything for me – I prefer the soloing to be left to the instrumentalists. It's a little more justified when the vocalist doesn't actually play anything, but in this case I was a disappointed seeing Benson's guitar sitting untouched on its stand. Another full number went by, a very nice rendition of "I Only Have Eyes For You," before he picked up his axe and spun off a solo. That occurred during a so-so run through of "Beyond the Sea," originally made famous by Bobby Darin.
After an uneven start, the show really hit it's stride as Joe Sample – jazz legend and a founding member of the great Jazz Crusaders – took a seat behind the piano. The big band was gone and George Benson led the group through a series of mostly instrumentals. As much as I like Benson's singing, I love his fluid guitar playing. Trading solos with Sample on tunes like "Deeper Than You Think" and "Hipping the Hop," Benson created a heavenly treat for jazz fans. His improvisatory soloing can be truly astonishing, and throughout this middle portion of the concert he didn't disappoint.
The show switched gears a few more times after Joe Sample's guest spot, moving from pop balladry ("In Your Eyes") back to jazzy vocal numbers ("Moody's Mood"). A particular highlight was an instrumental guitar version of "Danny Boy." Benson even joked that a friend warned him not to play that that particular song in Ireland, apparently fearing it would be seen as cliched. He wanted to give it a shot anyway, attempting briefly to achieve a bagpipe-type sound on his guitar before switching back to his normal style. The understated jazz reading was met enthusiastically by the crowd.
Eventually the show settled into a crowd-pleasing string of Benson's best known '70s and '80s hits. Like any jazz musician who finds greater popularity in more commercial genres, in the 1970s he had his share of detractors who felt he was selling out. In fact, many music fans don't know George Benson as anything other than a pop singer. Benson, after all, released the original version of "Greatest Love Of All" in 1977, later a much reviled megahit for Whitney Houston.
This final section of Absolutely Live is where jazz purists might opt to tune out. Regardless, I enjoyed these performances and was impressed by how engaging Benson (nearing 60 at the time) came across as a mainstream pop performer. The biggest of his hits are accounted for, including "This Masquerade," "Turn Your Love Around," "Give Me the Night," and of course "On Broadway." Originally a hit for The Drifters in 1963, for my money George Benson released the definitive version of "On Broadway." His classic 1978 live version is a radio staple to this day. He gives the song a lengthy workout here, bringing up the house lights to encourage the audience to dance along.
This happens several times during the final numbers of the show, which is noteworthy because there are more audience shots during these moments. Throughout the earlier portions, the crowd is relatively sedate. But they really come alive during the big hits, almost too much so. For instance, during one song Benson brings a woman onstage from the audience to dance with. She takes things a step too far by attempting to grab the man's microphone right out of his hand. Benson's look of skeptical fright is hilarious. Another unusual moment occurs during the "On Broadway" finale as another woman is shown sitting on stage, her back to the performers, playing air guitar. Where was the security staff at this show? I guess that kind of thing is easier to get away with in Ireland.
Technically I cannot fault Absolutely Live in any way, as it looks and sounds great. The picture is presented in anamorphic widescreen, very crisp and clear. Besides regular stereo, the audio choices are Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS. Sampling both mixes, I found them equally robust. In the way of DVD features, there is an excellent 'Making Of' featurette that runs 16 minutes. We hear from several musicians that played at the concert, as well as George Benson himself. This is an informative overview of his career. A highlight is Benson's spot-on impression of James Brown as he remembers getting a compliment from the Godfather of Soul.