Since Ray Charles’ passing earlier this year, he has enjoyed a wealth of attention rarely seen in the last decade of his life. His final album, Genius Loves Company, has enjoyed unexpected chart success, and there is also the Oscar-hyped biopic Ray, with Jamie Foxx in the title role, opening this fall. With all this steam building, there is no doubt that a plethora of Charles material will be hitting the market hoping to cash in on the resurgence of interest in his work.
One of the first out of the floodgates is Live in Concert with the Edmonton Symphony. At the time of filming in 1981, Charles was still a popular concert draw, however, his years of cutting classic soul and R&B records were well behind him. With a crisp picture, and presented in Dolby surround sound, the concert looks and sounds great. At a mere 48 minutes, this DVD is priced for any budget, and will please both casual and serious Charles fans. However, this is a bare bones release, and any extras—particularly the story of how the meeting between this R&B legend and the Edmonton Symphony came to happen—would’ve been a nice addition.
The 11-track video features a 51-year-old Charles running through a repertoire of his most beloved songs and covers. After starting off with the lesser-known track “Riding Thumb”, Charles swings into “Busted”. Written by Country music songwriter Harlan Howard, the song has been performed by Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings among others, and Charles covered it on his groundbreaking Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. From there he swings into a beautiful rendition of “Georgia on My Mind”, and a lively version of “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning”. The set is rounded by R&B favorites “Hit the Road Jack” and “What’d I Say”, the lovely “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and the soul favorite “I Can See Clearly Now”. However, it is odd that Charles chooses “America the Beautiful” to close the set while in the heart of Canadian prairies.
The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra does a great job of accompanying Charles through a wide range of material. The arrangements are never overbearing, always tasteful, and fit the mood needed for each song. Charles has always been recognized as the innovator and creator of soul, however, as this performance confirms, he was also an excellent arranger and interpreter of song. Songs like “Georgia on My Mind” (written by Hoagy Carmichael) and “I Can’t Stop Loving You” (written by Don Gibson) are best known in their incarnations by Charles and are testament to the variety of sources that he draws his inspiration from.
Live in Concert with the Edmonton Symphony is a fine document of Charles in the last half of his career. By this point, he had moved from the R&B that marked his early works, into the adult contemporary songwriting that arguably brought him his widest audience. Fans looking for footage of his incendiary R&B will need to look elsewhere. However, Live in Concert is a pleasant trip to the crisp, seasoned concerts Charles gave in the latter part of his life.