Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Decent Live Album, Mediocre Use Of Medium: Peter, Paul And Mary In Concert Flounders.

The Good: Good vocals, Decent lyrics, Entertaining
The Bad: Short, Irksome conversational tracks.
The Basics: A creative live album, these two-discs occupy more space than they ought to and the material does not hold up well over multiple listens.

For those who do not follow my music reviews, "live" albums tend to have a tough time surviving under my pen. My main gripes with most "live" albums are either that the artist tends to try to convince the listener that the recording is live with ridiculous audience-noise conceits, stories that replay poorly over many listens or dramatically different interpretations of the songs they perform. In fact, the only folk-rock live recording I instantly recall loving is Janis Ian's Live: Working Without A Net. The songs are often reinterpreted well and her stories are short on that album. So, when I sat down initially to Peter, Paul and Mary In Concert, I probably was a little biased against the work just because of the vast number of mediocre to disappointing experiences I've had with similar live albums.

That said, as I finish my ninth listen to this two-disc set, In Concert offers the best and worst of what a live album can do. As far as the best goes, In Concert offers different interpretations of songs that actually work well for them. On the Peter, Paul And Mary version of "The Times They Are A' Changin'," the group includes the audience participation and the result is a feeling that the song has the weight of a social movement behind it and that is wonderful for the song when one considers the lyrics. It comes across as a powerful song in a way that a lone artist or even the trio singing it does not otherwise convey. Unfortunately, the album includes the sounds of the crowd on songs like "500 Miles" which undermine the emotional impact of the song and they have stand-up comedy ("A'Soalin'") and dated, live interpretations that fall flat now, as the rock-bashing live conversation during "Blue" does.

With just over 81 minutes of music, In Concert does not need two discs, yet it appears on two discs, despite being remastered recently. The album sounds generally decent on compact disc, but because it uses nowhere near the capacity of either disc, it is a poor use of the medium (remixers Peter Yarrow and Lee Herschberg went for a literal transcription of the original album as opposed to upgrading the content for the newer medium). In Concert illustrates the band's tendency to mix their works with cover songs from other folk artists. The members of the trio - Peter Yarrow, Noel Stookey, and Mary Travers - are credited with writing or co-writing eleven of the eighteen songs on the album. Other songs were written by Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie. Yarrow and Stookey provide the primary instrumentation with their two guitars (though they are frequently accompanied by Richard Kniss on bass). The three members of the band provide all of the lead vocals, often harmonizing.

Instrumentally, In Concert is appropriately stark for an early 1960s folk-rock album. The album features two to three musical instruments on each track and on songs like "Three Ravens" and "One Kind Favor," where the simple guitarwork is light and drown out by the vocals, the instrumental accompaniment is often underwhelming and leaves the listener with no real sense of tune or harmony. This is not the rule on the album, which also has songs like "Oh, Rock My Soul," "If I Had My Way," and "If I Had A Hammer," which have powerful, guitar-driven melodies to them that are easy to remember and pick out. But folk music of this era tended to follow the earliest intended principles of folk music: the instrumental accompaniment was intended to be simple in order to teach the songs to others easily. In Concert tends to follow that quite truly.

As for the vocals, In Concert illustrates well how Peter, Paul & Mary became huge in folk-rock circles. The men occupying the tenor and baritone ranges, harmonize beautifully with Mary Travers who is sings in the alto and soprano range. Travers is beautifully high-pitched on songs like "It's Raining" and the men carry vocals on songs like "Puff, The Magic Dragon" which lend that song a timeless quality. What Peter, Paul & Mary does exceptionally well is emote and articulate. All of the vocals are clear and crisp and when the trio is singing together, this is a beautiful example of how wonderful a band may be.

The vocals on In Concert are a fairly pointed bunch. The mix of these songs is largely one of musical storysongs, like "500 Miles," "Puff, The Magic Dragon," and "Jesus Met The Woman." While there are songs crying out for social justice, like "If I Had A Hammer," In Concert is more preoccupied with musical storytelling. Unfortunately, this also becomes a huge liability for the album. Tracks like "A' Soalin'," "Car-Car," and "Paultalk" are all more preoccupied with telling limited, sometimes repetitive, stories which do not hold up as well over multiple listens. "Paultalk" is a twelve minute stand-up comedy routine and while it is interesting, it holds up poorly over multiple listens. Indeed, by the third listen, the jokes about driving and dating seem dated and generic, family-friendly humor. Anytime one has to skip a track that is that long, the album suffers for cohesion. While this might have been a great concert originally, the recording of it works better as a rare b-side than it does as a track on a regular album.

That said, some of the original works by Peter, Paul & Mary work well in the live setting. While it is somewhat repetitive when the band sings, "Jesus met the woman / At the well / And he told her everything she had ever done / He said, 'Woman, woman, / Where is your husband?'" ("Jesus Met The Woman") over and over again, the story develops well as a musical-storysong, making it easy to listen to and enjoy. Similarly, "It's Raining" is creative and clever and the whole band performs beautifully on it. "Le Deserteur" is a decent antiwar song about a deserter and it has a strong folk sound to it (though it is mostly in French).

The album is not just musical storysongs, but the songs for social justice do tend to be more bias toward other singer-songwriters. "If I Had My Way" and "If I Had A Hammer," which both close off the album with strong messages of getting involved and tearing down institutions ("If I had my way in this wicked world / I would tear this building down" - "If I Had My Way") that enslave or ensnare people were both written by others. And while the mix of songs like "Blowin' In The Wind" works with "Single Girl" and "Oh, Rock My Soul," the social issues do seem to take a back seat to the entertainment aspects of the album.

Ultimately, In Concert is entertaining, but it unfortunately offers little else BUT entertainment. With so much time devoted to comedy and sound effects, it ends up with the same resonance as bubblegum pop; it's interesting to listen to, but it does not endure well over time or multiple listens. As well, most of the songs on In Concert end up on other compilations and albums, so it is easy to pass this two-disc set by.

The best songs are "The Times They Are A' Changin'" (Disc 1) and "It's Raining" (Disc 2) and the weaker tracks are "Car-Car" (Disc 1) and "Paultalk" (Disc 2). Worth one listen, but not the buy.

For other albums by Peter, Paul And Mary, please check out my reviews of:
Peter, Paul And Mary
Peter, Paul, & Mommy, Too
Around The Campfire
Songs Of Conscience & Concern
In These Times
Carry It On: A Musical Legacy
The Very Best Of Peter, Paul And Mary


For other music reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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