I got hooked on the album many years back – a favourite across formats (LP, tape, CD, iPod) – I’m onto my second LP-copy of the album; the original record I had was scratched and though some of the pops and clicks were, well, endearing – it wasn’t long before it became frustrating, unlistenable.
The record features performances from two live sets, side one was recorded at The Troubadour in Hollywood and side two’s material comes from The Bitter End in New York. So it feels right to listen to it on vinyl – flip it to hear the different sets/bands. For the Hollywood-recorded material Phil Upchurch is the guitarist. In New York it was Cornell Dupree; both wonderful R’n’B guitarists with a touch that is subtle, encompassing jazz, funk, blues and rock.
The rhythm section is sublime; Willie Weeks (bass) provides a solo during Voices Inside (Everything Is Everything) that has become a favourite for bassists; a touchstone, an inspiration. Fred White (drums) and Earl DeRouen (conga) keep the groove rolling and flowing. Mike Howard’s rhythm guitar is crucial also. The songs seem to have no beginning and no end as such – it’s almost as if we are eavesdropping in on a performance (which is actually pretty accurate, given it’s a live album and we’re the audience of a recording from another time, another place). These songs seem to just evolve, rolling through in to place without ever being completely pinned down. It’s an incredible band performance (or band performances, given there is a change in the line-up and this album comes from two different venues).
Across the eight songs there are feel-good glimpses and stop-you-in-your-tracks moments; sometimes within the same piece – there are perfect cover-versions and stunning original tunes. The dynamics of the live band could (should) be studied by anyone wanting to make music as either a hobby and/or a career. It’s perfect playing – similar in that sense to the great Bill Withers album, Live At Carnegie Hall (also a must-hear/must-have).
From there the sound – the vibe – of this album has infiltrated so many live-performance albums, from George Benson’s Weekend In L.A. to Erykah Badu’s Live. And Hathaway’s soulfully laid-back version of jazzified funk feels right as the correct criterion to measure anything from Alicia Keys to our own L.A. Mitchell – it’s a tough yardstick, most definitely, but it is also most assuredly and assiduously a blueprint. A gold standard.
Here on this record Hathaway takes on powerful songs by Marvin Gaye and John Lennon that were essentially brand new at the time. But the album-opening cover of What’s Goin’ On has its own sound; it’s no trace-around of Marvin’s buzz. And the soul-drenched Hathaway remake of Jealous Guy is my favourite version of the song – no cash-in tribute like Roxy Music; Donny did it at the time, right after the song was recorded; he wanted to do the right thing and pay tribute to the song).
If Weeks gets his chance to shine in one of the album’s two long tracks, then The Ghetto gives space for percussionist DeRouen to dominate; his solo providing punctuation to the effortless band-churn that the song had been riding on – it might never have stopped otherwise.
Little Ghetto Boy kicks off side two and you can hear how Donny took something from Stevie Wonder and then passed on so much to George Benson – from there we roll on into We’re Still Friends, a ballad that has the audience caught, listening, held by Hathaway having his way with the song – and there’s some great lines from Cornell Dupree. There was a touch of Curtis Mayfield to his guitar playing and the very early Jimi Hendrix-as-sideman sound. And before Willie Weeks has his moment on the final track, Voices Inside, Dupree chews out some more guitar-funk, grimy R’n’B licks that pinch out blues and jazz; it’s lead playing without being spotlight-stealing. All of the players sit inside the collective groove.
It’s a magical album – one of my all time favourites. If there was no YouTube, no Spotify, no internet access to music (making it so easy – and allowing me now to share the album with you in bite-sized sample pieces and below as a whole) and if I had to shrink my collection of music down to just what I could carry with me I would take this album. Always. Because as much as it is a journey through groove, through a beautiful sound – that feels seamless on side one then starts up again on side two and rolls through – it’s also a huge emotional journey. The music is beautiful, but there’s a sadness, a darkness to so much of it also.
Hathaway’s short musical career only offered us a handful of studio albums, some winning duets with Roberta Flack and the two great live albums (this one of course and one released posthumously).
So there’s much pathos within the groove/s on (and of) this album; just a few years after it Hathaway’s body was found on the sidewalk outside his 15th-floor hotel room. He had removed the glass and jumped; his death ruled a suicide. There were voices in his head (Voices Inside), he suffered from depression and paranoid schizophrenia (Everything Is Everything) – it gives some of the song selections on this album a whole new meaning. Well, I choose to hear them as powerful statements that both propel against and feed into the struggle that was his life.
And I hear this album and think of the samples that have appeared in modern R’n’B and hip-hop, of how it is so much the blueprint for many serious modern soul sounds and how it is not only a stunning band-effort but a showcase for one of music’s greatest voices; one of my all-time favourite singers.
It’s simply one of the finest records in my collection – a special album, one that has a huge effect every time I hear it. And one that is almost always in the DJ crate; great album to ‘play out’ as they say, great album to introduce visitors to at home. Hathaway never over-sings – but he never crumbles, he not only carries the emotional weight of each song in some cases he adds to it with his performance.