Jerry Lee Lewis is 71-years-old. He is not, as many of my friends thought, dead. At first blush this indicates callous ignorance; youth’s flagrant disregard for all things that pre-date its own discovery of popular culture. This is valid and it’s also missing the point a bit. I think that setting the record straight on Jerry Lee is exactly what this special aims to do. The less that is known about Jerry, the more to learn. Frankly, flippancy may be the perfect attitude with which to appreciate this new special. Pop culture is many things, but it is often flashy, fast-paced and forgetful. Last Man Standing Live takes a moment.
The set opens, somewhat unfortunately, with “Great Balls of Fire”. Naturally Jerry Lee has to play this song, and naturally it sounds somewhat less fervent almost half a century after he first pounded it out. His present rendition is apt and his voice is impressively strong, it just sounds tame. There is a brief glimpse of a highly unnecessary gig here; a large, competent band moseying through one-time rockers. Some will no doubt be turned off enough to dismiss thusly. But smile at this quaint fire, accept that growing old is hard, especially for rockers, and you will find some genuine moments here.
Jerry Lee Lewis
Last Man Standing Live
Jerry Lee Lewis and various artists
Regular airtime: 3 March 2007 (check local listings)
(WNET New York)
Jerry Lee is far more comfortable, and hence effective, in slower territory. Ballads, blues, and mid-tempo, moderate rock dominate the show with mostly excellent results. It is a cliché that the blues gets better with age but it rings true in these songs. While young Jerry Lee sounds almost whiny (by comparison) on “Crazy Arms” he now sounds worn. This edge in his older voice lends a heart-wrenching level of lament to his words. Set against the delicate sultriness of Norah Jones the Killer’s first single may actually be improved.
This template works as well with Chris Isaak and Tom Jones. The maturity of Lewis’ voice lends authenticity to the world weary narrative of “Green, Green Grass of Home”, and his back and forth with Tom Jones is good natured and natural. Jones tempers his prodigious vocal to accompany Lewis, not take the spotlight.
Most of the duets are of this nature. Prominent figures fall in line with Jerry Lee, and it is never uncertain who’s running the show. This uniform adulation mostly works as Jerry Lee has no trouble carrying the numbers. His voice has an effortless stridency and, though he is far mellower than past clips evidence, he still displays flashes of winning charisma.
The exceptions to this style have varied results. Buddy Guy’s intensity on “Hadacol Boogie” enlivens the Killer and while they almost begin to strain, the passion is evident making this a true standout in an otherwise conservative concert. Ivan Neville comes close to stealing the show as he and Jerry Lee run through “What’d I Say”. On the other side of the spectrum Kid Rock’s grabs at attention fall awkwardly flat. He apes the antics of an erstwhile Jerry Lee with none of the talent. When he jumps on the piano you feel embarrassed for everyone involved.
All things considered this is an enjoyable concert, and not too short on excitement. The brief moments of narrated retrospective provide insight but are out of place, and hurt the feel of the program. They make it all too clear what a Jerry Lee Lewis show once was but in poorly placed bursts. Jerry Lee’s own reminiscing about making his first record for Sun is far more effective. While the stage band Jerry has are excellent in filling out his sound the best performance is probably the one they don’t play on. A duet with Merle Haggard, presumably recorded at home with Jerry, Merle and guitarist Nils Lofgren, steals the show. This number is the most casual and strikingly tender. It is a portrait of the aging musician with the showmanship removed. Long live Jerry Lee Lewis.