Music Reviews

Live on Letterman

Music form the Late Show


In the words of Duckman (the USA Network cartoon voiced by Jason Alexander of Seinfeld) talking to an arch villain, a big power-lusting rooster losing its feathers: “You’re washed up! Finished! Don’t be surprised if MTV Unplugged calls you!”

Mercifully, this doesn’t apply to artists on Letterman’s first live music disc extracted from years of tuneful hopefuls who’ve served his show as musical guests. Whether they’re on their first, second, or even third career, the stars here emit honest, well-crafted performances, at times transcendent. The CD ranges from 1993 to 1997.

The pastiche begins with the late Jerry Garcia duetting in ‘93 with David Grisman on a version of “Friend of the Devil” which reminds one of how “live” the Dead could be. Jerry’s voice is clear and sweet as the chiming guitars and mandolin.

Sheryl Crow turns in a heartfelt, “Strong Enough,” painting a clear picture of love on the skids. Lou Reed burns a hole in the soul with a take on “Sweet Jane” he’s been meant to do since Cowboy Junkies started covering his songs.

There’s a live track each from Paula Cole, Lenny Kravitz, Aretha Franklin and Dave Matthews Band. Especially notable are tracks by R.E.M. (“Crush With Eyeliner”) and Rod Stewart’s take on the Tim Hardin composition “Reason to Believe,” which drips emotion.

Some cool juxtapositions of talent happen, as artists get their mutual appreciation gene working. Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach drive each other to slow distraction, producing mucho pathos in the cuttingly sweet “God Give Me Strength.”

Van Morrison almost makes up for that time he came on Letterman and was apparently so drunk he couldn’t remember the words to his biggest hit, “Moondance.” This he tries to overcome in a lovely duet with Sinead O’Connor on “Have I Told You Lately that I Love You.” The vocals are half-spoken, half-sung, endearingly enough.

Lyle Lovett does a memorably poignant take on “Funny How Time Slips Away.” And Patti Smith recalls days of yore as she kicks out the jams with longtime sidemen Lenny Kaye (guitar) and J.D. Daugherty (drums) on a raucous rocker, “Who Do You Love.” And Jewel turns in a perky reading of her tune “You Were Meant for Me” to the accompaniment of the Chili Peppers’ Flea.

Through the 14 cuts there’s a sense of excitement and a love of the music from the artists as well as the producers, Sheila Rogers and Bill Bentley. Bring on Volume 2.

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