If there's a Mount Rushmore for American-born musicians, Ray Charles would be carved in a couple spaces on the mountain. The blind musician who first established a foundation of success in the rhythm and blues genre expanded into more blues-oriented music and even released a couple of country records here and there. The width and breadth of his musical influence in many of today's musical talent is admirable and well-respected, and his presence in R&B and jazz was well appreciated, to the point when his appearance at the 1997 Montreux Jazz Festival (his third over the years of the festival) was a much-anticipated event. His setlist at said concert is as follows:
"I Don't Know"
"I'll Be Home (Sadie's Tune)"
"Georgia on My Mind"
"Just for a Thrill"
"You Made Me Love You"
"Song For You"
"Watch Them Dogs"
"Shadows of My Mind"
"Smack Dab in the Middle"
"I Can't Stop Loving You"
"What'd I Say"
I've never seen any of Ray's performances, unless you count his song in The Blues Brothers, but I was surprised when watching this performance that there seemed to be a sort of big band influence on the music this go 'round. There was a bit of soul and R&B in the setlist, but the horns and backing vocals in the Ray Charles Orchestra help elevate the performance past the traditional soul performance. It becomes less of a performance and more about a journey through Charles' music, and that's what his concerts must have been like to see in person.
A minor complaint that I have is the relatively docile nature of the Montreux crowds. Many a performer has to beg, borrow and steal to get some sort of visible reaction from the crowd, and in seeing a few of these discs before, one that I really admired in the way she handled the crowd was Nina Simone. Come on, it's fricken' Ray Charles! Granted, he can't see the standing ovation, but that doesn't mean you can't give him one. Jaded jazz fans, lighten up for the musical legends!
Presented in 1.78:1 widescreen with the MPEG-4 codec, this decade-old performance looks excellent. Detail is abundant throughout the performance, black levels are sharp and consistent, and the concert lighting looks vibrant without much bleeding. One particular scene early on has one of the orchestra's horn players playing stage center to the microphone, and you can spot the sweat coming off the brow as he belts out the notes, and other details in Charles' piano, or the performers costumes are just as impressive. Eagle Rock has quietly been releasing their Montreux (and other) concert series with solid, if not excellent presentations, and this is another one of those occasions.
You get a choice of a two-channel stereo LPCM track, along with TrueHD and DTS HD Master Audio lossless tracks. There isn't one thing that the DTS HD track offers that's overly spectacular (the DTS HD track was my audio option of choice), but it's very effective, keeping vocals in the front of you but panning when necessary. Directional effects from the background musicians are occasional but clear as a whistle, and the subwoofer engages when it has to. Overall, the music's fidelity is excellent, and Eagle Rock is definitely on the ball when it comes to the next-generation audio on performance discs.
Three additional songs accompany the disc, played by Charles' orchestra, which are "Just Friends," "Beatrice" and "Passeone Blues." If you like the background stuff, you'll like the tracks, but I'm more a fan of Charles' vocals than anything else.
The 1997 Montreux performance by Ray Charles might not be for many people, but if you're even remotely curious about his music, aside from Jamie Foxx's Oscar-winning performance in Ray, then you owe it to yourself to give Live at Montreux a spin. You get Charles' music in the best possible audio and video presentation, and it's an enjoyable experience.