Various Artists The Old Grey Whistle Test: Live Review

Released 2012.  

BBC Review

A set of nostalgia and discovery, with thrilling turns from Tom Waits and Rory Gallagher.

Mike Diver 2012

The revitalised Old Grey Whistle Test brand’s latest compilation taps the archives for a spread of live recordings. Amongst the cuts are quite splendid renditions of familiar favourites, barnstorming bursts of fevered rock’n’roll, and a whole disc of new sessions recorded in 2011. It all adds up to a package well deserving of the OGWT seal of approval.

Disc one’s first standout is a wonderfully understated Tiny Dancer, finding Elton John alone with his piano and a bucket-load of emotion. Sure, the tracks been wheeled out for dozens of comparable compilations before this one; but this recording resonates with a tenderness less apparent on the studio version. Suzanne Vega’s Luka and Van Morrison’s Into the Mystic are fine takes, and Hall & Oates’ swaggering She’s Gone is a smile-inducing cut that leads the contemporary listener into imagining Flight of the Conchords giving it the pastiche treatment.

Best of all on disc one is Tom Waits’ Burma Shave, as uniquely dishevelled and as singularly menacing as any song one will ever hear. To this day Waits is a true original, and here he’s as raw as his reputation dictates, stealing the show from the ‘friendlier’ sounds of Lindisfarne, George Benson and the in-beautiful-voice Bill Withers.

Disc two kicks off with Lynyrd Skynyrd’s (likely) immortal Sweet Home Alabama, but the song sounds as if it was recorded from the other side of an aircraft hangar. Argent’s God Gave Rock and Roll to You resets the quality control, its sing-along chorus as glorious in 2012 as it was in 1973 – although these ears will forever be more receptive to the boisterous 1991 cover of the track by KISS. Captain Beefheart is maniacally mischievous on Upon the My-O-My, and Ramones thunder through an awesome medley of Don’t Come Close, She’s the One and Go Mental; but perhaps the most thrilling track on the second disc is Rory Gallagher’s Bullfrog Blues. Simply breathless, it’s a bracing nine minutes that regularly bursts into a brilliant racket, piano and guitar duelling until both are sweaty messes.

The newer sessions are primarily reserved for old hands, artists whose careers stretch back to the days of OGWT on the telly. Chuck Prophet is a notable exception, with his Summertime Thing. Overall, this release is a journey both of nostalgia and discovery – experienced ears will appreciate the rougher-edged versions, and fresh ones can explore superb talents for the first time.

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