Hollywood biopics can be troublesome because they leave behind a lasting impression of a person. As good a job as Jamie Foxx did portraying Ray Charles in the movie, 'Ray,' I can't say I had ever really watched Charles play in concert. I've had Charles in my music collection for a long time though, and with the memories of that biopic still fresh in my mind, Ray Charles Live at Montreaux was an opportunity to refresh my lasting image of Ray Charles to what he did best, perform in front of an audience. An orchestra band comprised of mostly brass instruments accompanies Charles in 1997, in what is supposed to be the best of his many appearances at Montreaux, Switzerland.
After a brief warm-up by the Ray Charles Orchestra, Charles himself walks out and sits at his electronic Yamaha keyboard and goes to work. It doesn't take him long to get to the crowd pleaser, "Georgia on My Mind" and this song like most of his soulful, slower songs penetrates your skin and rattles your bones. "Just for a Thrill" and "Angelina" have a similar effect, but "Scotia Blues" will get your fingers snapping or your hands clapping with the crowd. "Song For You" just makes you stop and think about that certain someone who's always been by your side despite your faults. So many of his songs feel like a final goodbye, a last plea, or painful love, and even though Charles is past his best years, his voice still cuts deep. The Raelettes join him to close the last third of his set on greats such as "I Can't Stop Loving You" and brings the curtain down with "What'd I Say."
Cinematography is superb, with plenty of close-ups on Charles' face and hands working the keyboard and all of its controls. Whether they're performing a solo or just elbow-to-elbow with their band mates, each member of the orchestra is prominently featured on camera as well. Highly animated, and a marvel at what he did, watching Charles live is a treat, whether he's jawing at his band, kicking his feet up at the crowd, or just pounding away at those keys in an effortless manner. However, I do wish that Charles would have played some songs on a classic grand or upright piano. There's something about the sound of those pianos that is synonymous with Ray.
I do wish some personal favorites like "That Lucky Old Sun," "This Little Girl of Mine," or "Drown in My Own Tears" had made the 90 minute set list, but really, Charles had enough songs in him to play 900 minutes without repeating. Still, the songs that make the blu-ray don't disappoint and it's a noteworthy performance, even if it isn't the definitive Ray Charles experience.
1. I Don't Know
2. Ray Charles Opener
3. I'll Be Home (Sadie's Tune)
5. Georgia on My Mind
6. Mississippi Mud
7. Just for a Thrill
8. You Made Me Love You
10. Scotia Blues (Blues for Big Scotia)
11. Song For You
12. Watch Them Dogs
13. Shadows of My Mind
14. Smack Dab in the Middle
15. I Can't Stop Loving You
16. What'd I Say
This is the first time I've seen a Montreaux concert, so I didn't know what to expect from an international concert shot in 1997. Eagle Rock Entertainment presents a 1080i High Definition AVC encoded transfer in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio and I think it looks great. Details such as the swirls of the floral pattern on Charles' tuxedo can be made out along with all of the reflections in the instruments. Stage lighting was aimed at the band so there was plenty of pleasing contrast but you could tell that Charles had a few more spotlights on him. Beads of sweat quickly built on his upper brow and upper lip during each song. In between songs he'd pad his face clean and cameras would catch him swiping his hands on his pants to dry them too. But on the next song, back came the sweat. The golden colors in the brass instruments pop off the screen, and so does Charles' very loud scarlet shirt. I felt like I was sitting in the front row.
Ray Charles and his orchestra are captured in English LPCM Stereo, 5.1 English Dolby True-HD, and 5.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio. Of the three audio tracks I preferred the LPCM track over the 5.1 tracks. Charles' voice nearly drops out in the 5.1 HD audio tracks. It echoes too much and it's just plain hard to hear the soul in his voice. Although the orchestra sounds the best in surround sound, the loss in quality of Charles' voice isn't worth the compromise.
Bonus Songs If you enjoyed the jazz stylings of the Ray Charles Orchestra, then you'll find these three extra tracks equally entertaining: Just Friends (6:45) Beatrice (5:07), and Passone Blues (5:24). These songs appear to be cut from the beginning of the concert, before Charles makes his entrance, to put the crowd in an ambiance of jazz.
Montreaux, Switzerland is home to one of the biggest music festivals in the world and Eagle Rock Entertainment has been making these performances and other concerts available in their Live at Montreaux line of high definition Blu-rays. They provide simple, but strong efforts in sharing their broad library of concerts. With this excellent video transfer, viewers are given front row access to Ray Charles and his orchestra. Unfortunately I wish the 5.1 experience was more satisfying, but the LPCM track is still an accurate soundtrack. If you're a fan of Ray Charles, soulful rhythm and blues or jazz, then this one is for you.