Sunday, March 11

Greatest Hits Live (1988)

Greatest Hits Live was just about the least likely Carly Simon album title imaginable. True, by 1988 a greatest hits album was long overdue, but her live appearances were about as rare as blizzards in July. That is, they had been known to happen, but most of us would have to travel long and far to see one. In the 1980s, her concerts were especially rare. She had toured in 1980 - briefly and only in the northeastern United States - and those few dates were her only public concerts for the entire decade. But in June 1987, and as part of the career resurgence underway with the recently released Coming Around Again, she gave two concerts on Martha's Vineyard. These were, to put it mildly, exclusive events. Only friends and neighbours were invited, and the venue was a temporary, outdoor stage erected on a remote spit of sand near the tiny fishing village of Menemsha. Thankfully, though, in addition to the friends and neighbours, there were the cameras and recording equipment on hand to turn one of these rare concerts into an HBO television special as well as this landmark live album.

Both the HBO show and the album offered the opportunity many of her fans had waited years for: a chance to see and hear her perform live, and so it was no surprise that the television ratings were stratospheric, the album was a million-seller, and that the concert has proven to be perenially popular on VHS and DVD.  That her songs have "legs", in the showbiz sense of the term, was a given. Some of the big hits - "Anticipation", "You're So Vain", "The Right Thing To Do", "Nobody Does it Better" and "You Belong to Me" - had become such radio staples that they probably had more airplay in the '80s than they had in the '70s. More recently, the Coming Around Again album had brought a succession of new songs to the airwaves.  But there was also some undeniable intrigue in seeing a Carly Simon live performance.  Would her well known stage fright be apparent? Would she be a shy wallflower of a performer or the extrovert who posed so confidently for album covers? Would this concert be a quick run through the hits or were there surprises in store? And were the songs themselves - so polished in their studio renderings - suited to live performances?

The cover shot by Bob Gothard answers every question. It is a perfect illustration of the lyrics of one of the concert's surprise songs, the hitherto little known "Never Been Gone": The wind is coming up strong and fast/And the moon is smiling on me.  The Carly Simon Smile, surely worthy of a registered trademark by this point, seems more relaxed and spontaneous than it did on the studio-bound cover of Coming Around Again. The light breeze ruffling her hair and the big blue sky background also suggest the informality of the event. This is not a meticulously planned Las Vegas-style extravaganza or a sweaty rock and roll performance in a grungy basement club.  Rather, a free-flowing and amiable atmosphere is established on the cover, which is itself a representation of the pastel-themed color scheme of the concert, its splendid outdoor vistas, and of course its warm, personal music. The full moon - such a frequent metaphor in Carly's songs - signals the passion of the performance and, situated so prominently on the cover, it also offers a form of weight and power that effectively counterbalances the amiability. This concert may have the atmosphere of a picnic in the park, but don't mistake it for an everyday or innocuous event:  it's not often that the moon and Carly Simon align to smile upon us in this fashion.

There is certainly no stage fright apparent here. In fact, the big surprise of the concert is what an arresting live performer she is. Her vocals are not studied or contrived to recreate the original recordings, but have a free-spirited and natural quality. As we might expect, she picks up the guitar for songs such as "Anticipation" and "It Happens Every Day" (another surprise song, and very welcome too) and she sits at the piano for "You're So Vain", looking every inch the 1970s folk-rocker. But she is also a natural rock and roller, owning the entire stage as she spins, struts, runs or glides across it.  She sings with her entire body, with sweeping arm gestures, rhythmic dance steps, and show stopping turns of the head to hit and hold that big note.  It is clear that her own music moves her - at times right across the stage - and that in each performance she embodies the song.

It is not what one expects of a performer who started her career as a folkie, alongside her sister, singing traditional ballads on the tiny stages of Greenwich Village nightclubs. But then, one of the functions that a concert can serve is to measure the distance covered in a career. She was not likely to tour the world, or even the country at this stage in her career, but luckily the world could come to her. And there, in Menemsha, and in the early evening of a summer's day, it found a performer in her prime, with a rich variety of old and new songs, one of the most distinctive voices in pop music, and a captivating stage charisma. By the ending - an encore performance of "Never Been Gone" that has even greater power than the original studio version - it is clear that the career distance has been considerable and that, like the rest of us, the moon would not have missed this celebration of it.