A Life in the Blues
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While more than a few notable blues artists enjoyed late-life comebacks after years of inactivity, Charles Brown was one of the few whose second run of success was arguably more satisfying than the salad days of his youth. Brown's work in the 1940s with Johnny Moore & His Three Blazers and the solo sessions that followed resulted in a number of truly classic sides, but when Brown began actively recording again in the late '80s, his skills as a pianist were as keen as ever (and he obviously relished the opportunity to flesh out his solos in ways he couldn't under the constraints of the 78-rpm recording format), and the patina of age added a greater resonance and gravity to his vocals, which still boasted the smooth fire of a snifter of fine brandy. In the spring of 1990, Brown's comeback was moving into full swing and he was about to record his superb All My Life album when he played an engagement at New York City's Lone Star Roadhouse. A Japanese television network had arranged to record one of Brown's sets for later broadcast, using an experimental high-definition video system coupled with a multi-track digital audio setup, and A Life in the Blues is a CD/DVD package that allows this material to be seen and heard in the United States for the first time.
Brown and his group are in nothing less than exemplary form in this recording; Brown was always a master of smooth, jazz-influenced "supper club" blues, but for all his refinement this set finds him drawing a remarkable amount of emotional heat from these tunes, and his elegant but inventive piano work leaves no doubt he was a master of his instrument. Danny Caron, Brown's guitarist and musical director, is as always a great foil for Brown's musical ideas, and if the DVD shows him mugging just a shade too much during his solos, given how well he performs with Brown, this can surely be forgiven. And the rhythm section of Earl May and Keith Copeland are perfectly simpatico, knowing when to add color and when to simply lend body to the arrangements. The CD and DVD both feature Brown's ten-song set in its entirety, while the DVD also includes two rare "Soundies" (shot in 1945) of Brown performing as part of the Three Blazers with vocalist John Shadrack Horace, two excerpts from an extensive interview with Brown, a gallery of still photos, and a heroically researched Charles Brown discography. The icing on the cake is the thick accompanying booklet, stuffed with photos, a remembrance from Brown's friend and touring partner Bonnie Raitt, and a marvelously detailed biographical essay from Chip Deffaa. The title A Life in the Blues is just a bit of a cheat — while it suggests a career overview, this could be more accurately described as "One Night in a Life in the Blues." But it was a fine, fine night indeed, and those who love Charles Brown's music (or want to introduce themselves to his work) will revel in this audiovisual tribute to a master returning to the stage at the peak of his form.
Born: 13 September 1922 in Texas City, TX
Years Active: '40s, '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s
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