Listening to and watching Luther Allison‘s Songs from the Road (Ruf Records), it’s pretty difficult to believe that the bluesman had only a month to live at the time of its taping. Less than a week after this July 1997 appearance at the Montreal Jazz Festival, Luther was diagnosed with terminal cancer, making this his last live recorded performance.
Albeit somewhat gruffer in the voice than on his previous live recordings, this CD/DVD set (available February 9) is a good reminder of the energy and skill the Soul Fixin’ Man brought to the stage for each of his shows, and does a great job of capturing the intensity of both his guitar and voice.
If the vinyl-look CD starts off hot with “Cancel My Check,” it’s sweltering by the time the band hits “Will It Ever Change” a few songs later. It’s about here that this listener began to realize that this isn’t just music – it’s magic. Luther’s vocals and guitar are both in full force for “There Comes a Time” (complete with talking guitar), “(Watching You) Cherry Red Wine,” and one of the most soulful renditions of “It Hurts Me Too” you’ll ever hear, before the band closes on a somewhat quieter note with “Serious.” It’s a bit puzzling to me that the producers chose not to include “Move from the Hood” on the CD (it closes the DVD), but otherwise, this is a solid and energized live recording worth adding to your collection.
While the CD itself is enough of a treat, to be able to watch this historical performance on the accompanying DVD is like Christmas in February.
On this night, whether due to the much shorter program than the three- to four-hour shows for which Luther was famous, or perhaps sensing the urgency of the diagnosis to soon follow, Luther and the band wasted no time attempting to build into the evening slowly, instead working into a frenzy on the opening “Cancel My Check.” What you hear on the CD now is confirmed visually, with sweat rolling off Luther by the end of the first song.
Beautifully filmed and produced, the DVD offers an interesting variety of angles on the show, with a nice balance of close-ups on Luther and his masterful fretwork and full stage shots. Along the way, the viewer gets to hear and see plenty of blistering guitar work, including a few actual “licks” when Luther plays the strings with his tongue. Like Luther, the guitar is drenched with sweat a few songs into the show, and Luther never stops moving, still dancing on the DVD’s closing track “Move from the Hood.”
In addition to the stage performance, the DVD also provides a short Luther-focused excerpt from a blues in Europe documentary, including interviews with Luther and some neat footage from performances in The Netherlands and France, often with his son Bernard, as well as an interview with Koko Taylor in which she describes Luther as “one of the finest guitarists around…when he breaks a string, it deserves to be broken.” Also included is a separate interview with Luther filmed the day after the Montreal Jazz Festival show, in which he talks about living in Paris, his Montreux live album, thoughts on jazz music, his love of baseball, his four-hour concerts, and his influences, including Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, Robert Nighthawk, and Otis Rush. Luther ends the interview with some sage advice: “Young people out there, whatever you do, listen to the blues sometime.” Hear, hear.
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