[12 February 2009]
Sax solos, falsettos, and facial hair. If you’re seeing those, you’re either watching vintage porn or vintage pop. Darryl Hall and John Oates: Live at the Troubadour is, thankfully, firmly in the latter category (although the way those two look at each other sometimes makes one wonder). Featuring Hall & Oates in a concert recorded in 2008 at LA’s Troubadour, the site of their first LA show 35 years ago, the live album and accompanying DVD is vintage pop of a very high order. It’s not much more.
Hall and Oates have written some of the catchiest tracks of all time. As if descended from the Platonic Heaven of pop songs, songs like “Sara Smile”, “Rich Girl”, and “I Can’t Go For That” and others helped the band keep the pop charts in their curly-haired, suit-jacketed grip for most of the early ‘80s. They’re cheesy, incredibly time-bound, and a nostalgia trip, even if you don’t remember them from the first time.
Those looking for a retread of those heady days of H&O domination will be both pleased and a little let down. The bad news first: Oates no longer has his distinctive ‘stache. This is old news, of course, but its absence here is missed. It’s just a part of the overall pall of serious that hangs over the proceedings. Not that everyone on stage doesn’t seem to be enjoying themselves – rather, it’s that these ephemeral pop confections are presented here in stripped down, acoustic form to draw attention to… well to what, exactly? The depth of their lyrics? To introduce the song “Cabdriver”, Hall says, “I was waiting for a cab one night, and this song just came to me.” The song begins, “Standin’ in the rain/Waitin’ for a cab.”
This idea has afflicted many pop stars in their latter days, from Neil Young to KISS, that somehow performing songs famous for their bombast without any bombast at all is supposed to make them more respectable. This does not always work, and does not always work here.
Now for the good news. Daryll Hall’s falsetto and 600-thread-count smooth voice has not left him. Synth lines and drum hits aside, this is the main attraction of most H&O songs, and it sounds as good here as ever. Even the occasional fumble is endearing: when he becomes red-faced with effort and laughs in exasperation while trying to tackle the protracted falsetto chorus in “One On One”, you root for him to make it work, and don’t mind when he starts kind of skipping it as the song progresses.
The song selection is also pitch-perfect. The album’s second disc features just about every H&O track you’re likely to be familiar with: “One On One”, “Kiss Is On My List”, “Private Eyes”, and many, many more. What is slightly surprising is the album’s first disc, a for-serious-fans-only collection of the band’s very early and late period. They play several songs from 1973’s Abandonded Lunchonette, as well as cuts from Daryl Hall’s 2003 solo record, Can’t Stop Dreaming, and their last record of original material together, 2003’s Do It For Love. If you’re a fan, it should be fun. If you’re not, I’d advise skipping ahead a bit.
On the whole, this is a warm and loving retread of some surprisingly durable quarter-century-old hits from a pair of master pop songwriters. If you’re looking for more than that, best look elsewhere.