k.d. lang: Live By Request

k.d. lang
Live By Request
Warner Bros.

There’s really something fascinating about the whole concept behind A&E’s Live By Request. The idea of musicians performing on television is hardly foreign, and it’s not completely unheard of to hear a band take a request or two during a show, but to have internationally successful artists performing live on television and radio a whole set of songs chosen by the audience is pretty unique. And it probably presents a distinct challenge to the performers. The band has to be equipped to deal with a large range of possible requests, the vocalist has to be fluid and flexible enough to head into a song more or less at the drop of the hat without, hopefully, screwing it up. Of course, these are consummate professionals that get picked by A&E and they should be able to handle it, but these are also performers who usually perform shows with established sets.

In practice, the show isn’t quite as spectacular as the concept. Sure, everyone sounds great, and it’s always fun to watch an artist you like perform, even at the distance of the moderating TV screen. But it’s not like they dig deep into the catalogues to pick out some of the more obscure tracks as a diehard fan might request. You can’t really throw out a cover tune just to see how they’ll handle it. And unlike some concerts, improvisation is at a bare minimum. Of the whole viewing experience, the most compelling aspect of the show usually turns out to be the onstage banter of the artist, speaking to the live audience in the auditorium, but also to all of the unseen viewers and listeners through the ether.

Which is why the most horribly disappointing part about the first Live By Request album release is the fact that they cut all the interesting bits out of the recording. The track on the CD starts when the music starts and ends when the music ends. An occasional smattering of clapping, and the obligatory “thank you” from the performer to close the disc, and that’s about it. Once condensed to its purely plastic commodity product, the performance loses everything that’s organic about the experience. This is something that plagues most live albums really, but the best engineered live discs usually manage to include something of whatever stage presence and banter is available. The first attempt at a Live By Request album chucks that whole idea out the window.

It’s doubly unfortunate that the first attempt at such an album has been made with k.d. lang’s December 14, 2000 performance on the show. For someone who is such a warm and entertaining performer, such a treatment comes across as cold as a compilation album. However, at the very least you get an album that shows off the incredible quality of lang’s music in performance. There is little doubt that lang possesses one of the most dynamic voices of contemporary music. Strong, confident, incredible in tone, and simply entertaining, the woman can sing. Unlike many other vocalists who can sing well but need the aid of a studio to help them achieve the richness and depth that a discerning ear demands, lang sounds practically perfect live.

To the consternation of critics and fans alike, lang’s musical career has taken her rich voice and excellent songcraft into a wide range of genres over the years. I can still remember the first time I ever saw or heard k.d. lang. She was the musical guest on The Super Dave Osborne Show on the Showtime cable network. This was probably in the late 1980s. The show’s musical performance slot had previously been filled by the likes of Bobby McFerrin and The Nylons. I didn’t know what to make of lang then, with her country music tiered skirt and tacky Western vest. It was years later when I heard her again in the form of the majestic “Constant Craving”. Since her initial days as a Patsy Cline devotee, lang has developed her own style, and her shifts between country to pop to jazzy blues have seen her truly come into her own as an artist. Today I simply marvel at the sheer elegance and power of her voice, that seems so much more developed than her days on Super Dave.

Until the release of Live By Request, lang has never released a compilation of her work. If anything, that makes the album a must for casual fans who want an introduction to the span of her music. From the opening notes of “Summerfling”, her most recent major single, to the closing notes of “Simple”, lang takes the listener on a tour of her career. Her earlier, more country efforts are represented fairly well with “Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray” (Angel with a Lariat), “Black Coffee” (Shadowland), “Big Boned Gal”, “Trail of Broken Hearts”, and “Pullin’ Back the Reins” (Absolute Torch and Twang). And, of course, her more commercially successful pop numbers are present as well in “Miss Chatelaine”, “Constant Craving”, and “Wash Me Clean” (Ingenue), “Consequences of Falling”, “Summerfling”, and “Simple” (Invincible Summer). Only one song from her concept cover album, Drag, made it onto the disc in “Don’t Smoke in Bed,” but it’s made up for in the inclusion of her Unplugged single “Barefoot” and her cover of “Cryin'”, although obviously not the duet with Roy Orbison that helped launch her success. The only album that is not represented at all is 1995’s minimally successful All You Can Eat.

Admittedly, I am a bigger fan of lang’s pop work and torch songs than her more classic country tunes, but in this performance she makes even these seem wonderful, and, thanks to the incredible anchor of her voice, the variations in genre and style never seem to clash. But if you’re like me, and are more into the pop side of lang’s coin, this album is worth owning simply for the excellent versions of “Miss Chatelaine” and “Constant Craving” included here. However, the lush takes on “Summerfling” and “The Consequences of Falling” are enough to convince me that Invincible Summer was entirely underrated.

In the world of contemporary female performers, k.d. lang is one of the few artists currently making music who truly deserves the label of “chanteuse”. There is a decided cabaret flair to even the neo-classical country music she performs. And in a world of contemporary pop divas who fit into the Barbie-doll-with-a-set-of-organ-pipes mold, there’s something refreshing about lang’s sultry torch singing. Live By Request proves that lang live is the “real deal”. It’s just unfortunate that the producers of the album cut out all that makes the show organic and fun. Were this a better conceived attempt at a live album, it would be one to hang onto for a very long time. As it is, it’s simply a disc that collects some of the best of lang’s music, with the added benefit of being live. And that ain’t so bad, either.