Wednesday, December 28, 2011

"The world's only operatic rockabilly singer"

"I used to listen to a group called The Beatles; do you remember them? The very first record I ever had by them was called 'Please Please Me,' and that was written for Roy Orbison. If you slow that song right down, you can hear Roy Orbison in it. And that's the story."

So says Elvis Costello during the closing credits of A Black and White Night, the gorgeously shot 1988 concert special that spotlights the incomparable, groundbreaking talent that was Roy Orbison. It's among my favorite concert movies, and I watched it last night for probably the ninth or tenth time. As Costello suggests, The Beatles were huge admirers of Orbison and operated under his influence early in their career (go here for more). In the 1980s, George and Orbison even collaborated as members of the Traveling Wilburys.

Capturing a master singer-songwriter at work, A Black and White Night underscores just how influential Orbison was. He is joined by Costello, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Jackson Browne, T Bone Burnett, k.d. lang, Bonnie Raitt, James Burton, Jennifer Warnes, and other devotees to perform his indelible songs. The supporting cast is an astounding collection of stars - many legends in their own right - and yet they all happily play second-fiddle (or lower) to that melancholy man with the black sunglasses and heavenly three-octave voice.

The joy shown onstage by these folks says it all. There's the shit-eating grin on Tom Waits' face at the rousing conclusion of "Mean Woman Blues;" there's the eager, daughterly affection conveyed by Raitt, lang, and Warnes as they supply backup vocals; and most memorably, there's the recurring sight of Bruce Springsteen - brawny, brash Bruce Springsteen - reduced to a puddle of boyish glee. In the presence of one of his heroes, Springsteen wears a reverence and elation on his face that couldn't be more genuine. As he trades guitar solos with Burton and Orbison during "Ooby Dooby," he occasionally looks up at them with the expression of a young boy excitedly seeking approval from his father. You've never seen the Boss quite like this.

It's all for Roy, and if you don't understand why, watch A Black and White Night and let Orbison's mesmerizing, immortal voice work its magic; it will transport you. Though most of the songs - like "Only the Lonely, "Dream Baby," "Oh, Pretty Woman," and more - are deserving classics, I'll highlight "In Dreams," because it's a pop gem as unorthodox as it is beautiful. Like other songs by Orbison, it has no verse-bridge-chorus structure to speak of. It just flows, wondrously following the desires and whims of Orbison's sad, dreamy vocal. As Jennifer Warnes observes at the end of the concert, it's "timeless stuff."

*The quote in the title comes from J.D. Souther.

1 comment:

Robert Stam said...

This is truly one of the best shows I've ever seen if you have 5.1 surround system you should watch it I haven't seen anything like it and I have seen most of the big ones from Rolling Stones to the talking heads(stop making sense) show. It truly is spectacular the harmonies the beautiful vocals and the amazing instruments in the background including Elvis Pressley's backup band as well as beautiful string players this is something you should not miss if you have's not seen it. I'm like the author I have watched the show countless times.