|Fats & Friends
Label: Time Life
Life is short, and things change so rapidly.
At the Cinemax-and-Paul Shaffer-assembled show featured on this DVD, it probably seemed a routine gig, a contrivance, really -- getting a long-in-the-tooth Fats Domino on stage with Jerry Lee Lewis and Ray Charles, with accomplices Shaffer and Ron Wood. It made for an interesting pay-cable special back in 1986. No more, no less. It would soon drop out of the cable network's rotation.
Two decades later, this hour-long show represents pure gold. Charles is dead. Jerry Lee's still The Killer today, but not the piano-busting maniac he was in the '50s. Fats? Let's just say he ran into this bitch Katrina. Rumor has it he's down, but not out.
The show, performed in New Orleans at Storyville, features a stage big enough for a massive grand with the top ripped off, an eight-man horn section, and a full rhythm section. It's a rockin' R&B festival, sprinkled with cayenne and smothered in smoky Creole gravy.
You may know Fats only for three-minute pop chestnuts like "The Fat Man" and "Blueberry Hill." But his performance here is more reflective of the type of open Crescent City R&B jams for which he and his colleagues, Allen Toussaint and Art Neville, were known. With a horn section and untethered from radio constraints, he has time to solo and demonstrate the rhythms that quantify New Orleans' culture in a nutshell. Smooth and suave, Domino sets the tone with his opening set, which includes "Walking to New Orleans," and "C.C. Rider," chestnuts that one would imagine don't so regularly ring down Rampart Street anymore.
Lewis still had the chops in 1986, but his high-energy act had been put on Valium. There are flashes of the old brilliance here: He briefly dumps the piano bench, jumps on top, and shakes his hips in the old-school way while singing "Whole Lotta Shakin'." But disappointingly, he's either too cool or too old to bang on the keys with his feet, head and other extremities -- just a couple token ass-bumps in the upper registers as he leaves the stage. Luckily, he's got Ron Wood for a foil, who was so happy to be playing with Lewis that he punched up the energy level of his guitar solo a few notches.
Ray Charles is Ray Charles. Evermore. Sublime. Head-rockin', smiling, banging out those gospel blue notes. Amen. If you're a piano player, you focus on him, wondering how in the hell his simple, straightforward playing gets infused with so much emotion, soul, and greaze, a small fraction of which you will never achieve despite knowing the notes and decoding the exact rhythms. For his solo set he reaches deep into the pre-soul song bag with "I Got a Woman," and "Drown in My Own Tears."
Definitely the highlight of the show -- and the real reason to pick up this well-directed, well-edited, and nicely filmed performance DVD -- is the last set, where the three players come up on stage together for a super jam. Shaffer seats Ray at a Fender Rhodes, a jazzier cousin of the Wurlitzer he made famous with “What'd I Say,” and puts Lewis on a Yamaha CP-80 “electric grand,” a 1980s creation that was not as grand as Yamaha envisioned but still a great classic electric keyboard. He saved the acoustic grand for The Fat Man, who leads the band through “Low Down Dog,” “Jambalaya,” and “Swanee River Rock.”This disc is about piano. It's about New Orleans. It's about a music scene that was aging but thriving just a couple short years ago, and is pretty much gone now. God bless Paul Shaffer. He might be a little flaky, he might be a weird maestro, but he and his boys threw one hell of a party this night. He even brought in Sugar Blue on harmonica, who played the most memorable licks from the '70s Stones’ records, and plays a crucial part here, ratcheting up the energy at the end of the set. The Cinemax dudes captured it well. The only thing that could have improved it would have been a few snorts or shots of something to set The Killer's clock back 20 years, if just for one more acrobatic, vein-popping "Great Balls" solo -- back in the day, the closest thing to orgasm a rock show could offer.
~Mojo Flucke, Ph. D.