B.B. King is something of a mainstay of the world-famous Montreaux Jazz Festival; he first played there in 1979 and has since appeared nearly 20 times at the music fest on the shores of Lake Geneva. The new Blu-ray B.B King Live: Live at Montreaux 1993 captures King, his guitar Lucille, and his excellent band as they perform a marvelous 99-minute set at the 1993 festival.
After decades of performance, the man knows how to make an entrance--the first couple of numbers are nicely up-tempo mood-setters, in which his fine band takes turns soloing in preparation for the headliner. When he comes in, there's a funny speed bump when he starts to play before they've plugged Lucille in (he takes it in stride); once he's plugged in, off he goes.
I've seen a number of music DVDs that would work just as well without the image; it's a kick to hear a talented performer live, but the visual often doesn't add much. That's not the case here. Not only is the concert noticeably well-shot and rhythmically cut, there is a real joy in watching B.B. perform--the way he talks with his guitar, how he screws up his face, squeezing his eyes shut before popping them wide open on a particularly hot riff. Resplendent in a patterned, powder-blue tuxedo jacket, he knows how to work his crowd; in the midst of "Let The Good Times Roll," when he barks out, "B.B. King's in town!", they go bananas.
As well they should--this is a terrific set. His performance of "When It All Comes Down (I'll Still Be Around)" is soulful and crisp, while "Caldonia" is as high-spirited as all-get-out; the horns swing, B.B. grooves along, and it's big fun. So is the juke joint jumper "Playing With My Friends," while "Ain't Nobody Home" is a fun little throwaway with a mellow solo in which he takes Lucille for a little walk across the stage (and speaking of his famous guitar, there's a great moment of effortless stage management where he fixes a broken string during his vocal performance of "Chains of Love"). He also performs a rich, bravura guitar solo on "All Over Again," and has fun playing to the fabulous horn section in "Why I Sing The Blues."
His vocal highlight may very well be his take on "Since I Met You Baby"--he sings it full-out, to the walls, loaded with emotion, and all I could think was, "This is the blues." The vocals on "Please Accept My Love" are awfully good as well; he smoothly sings the verse, almost in a croon, before letting his voice rip on the chorus. The interlude where, in preface to "Blues Man," his pulls up a stool and talks about his 42 years (to that time) in show business is charming and intimate. And he has the good sense to close the show with an extended rave-up rendition of "The Thrill Is Gone," complete with band intros and a fine play-off. It's a stellar closing to a splendid concert.
The Blu-ray Disc:
The 1.78:1 image has been skillfully transferred via the MPEG-4 AVC codec, and the results are surprisingly good, particularly considering that the show was recorded over 15 years ago (Eagle Rock's Diana Krall: Live in Rio Blu-ray, shot only a year or so ago, was blighted by a far inferior video presentation). Details are razor-sharp; check out the rings on his fingers, the signature on the neck of his guitar, and the beads of sweat rolling down his face (this big man sweats a lot). Black levels are deep and rich, while the smooth-moving camerawork has a nice depth of field and some excellent on-the-fly camerawork. It's not a perfect picture: there's a soft shot here and there, the grain is a bit too heavy in some crowd shots, and there is occasional, minor compression blocking in very wide shots (though you really have to go look for it). But this is a fine transfer overall.
The viewer is given the options of LPCM Stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1, and DTS HD Master Audio 5.1. I went with the latter, and was pleased with the results; the concert was expertly recorded, with clear distinction between instruments and a full, rich sound for the vocals. The balance between them is spot-on as well, and, in general, the mix is lively and immersive. My only complaint is that, while the audio is spread nicely between all channels, there isn't quite as much channel separation as in the best live DVDs; it sometimes sounds like we're hearing the same thing out of all five speakers, instead of really getting placed into the middle of the hall. That complaint aside, this is a fine-sounding disc.
Eagle Rock is offering only one bonus feature, and it's a Blu-ray exclusive. "Bonus Tracks 2006" (15:02 total) gives us a peek at B.B. and the band playing Montreaux thirteen years later. They do a total of three numbers--"When I Sing The Blues," a fast-tempo, almost-unrecognizable version of his duet with U2, "When Love Came To Town," and "Guess Who"--buffered by a considerable amount of chatter and by-play with the audience (and a good deal of chair-dancing by King). It's a fine addition--neither B.B. (his hair grayer and closer-cropped) nor his band have lost their chops, making this an excellent epilogue to the main program.
B.B King Live: Live at Montreaux 1993 is a smooth, slick, professional blues program, featuring one of our true modern masters. It never quite catches fire the way some of the best in-concert films do, but the decades-sewn craftsmanship and honest-to-goodness soul and emotion of King and his crew make for a thoroughly entertaining, tremendously enjoyable package.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.