The Jeff Healey Band – Live in Belgium CD/DVD (2012)

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Jeff Healey’s very sightlessness — he lost his eyes to a rare cancer of the eyes at age one — helped him settle into his own unique sound in blues music. Healey eventually taught himself to play the electric guitar on his lap, like a dobro, something that allowed him to unfurl these distinctively long lines.

Yet, in many ways, Healey was never able to make good on his own dizzying promise, first because an out-of-nowhere radio hit seemed to steer Healey into more pop-influenced environs, then by a left turn into jazz, then by his own losing battle with cancer. Live in Belgium — a straight-blues release, put to tape when the Canadian guitarist was at the peak of his powers — gives Healey a retroactive chance to get back on track.

Appearing with longtime bassist Joe Rockman and drummer Tom Stephen, this July 1993 date is one of the only onces recorded with an expanded version of the Jeff Healey Band that featured the late keyboardist Washington Savage, surrounding the proceedings a deeper, more complex atmosphere. There are also additional vocals from a pair of backup singers, another rarity. Together, they give the familiar “Angel Eyes, Healey’s 1988 blessing/curse No. 5 hit, a good scuffing up. Brand new tracks like “It Could All Get Blown Away” — then just out on 1992’s Feel This — take on a deeper gospel inflection.

In fact, the songs from Feel This (which take up six spots in this 13-song set) are perhaps best served by the raw redrawings here, since that album suffered at the time because of its slick, more direct appeal for radio play. Back then, Feel This felt like Healey’s music with all of its edges filed away. But the same songs take on new life during Live at Belgium, which opens with “Baby’s Lookin’ Hot,” and eventually features “The House That Love Built,” “Evil and Here to Stay,” “Lost in Your Eyes,” “Heart of an Angel,” and “Blown Away.”

Live at Belgium also includes “Confidence Man,” which like “Angel Eyes” was composed by John Haitt. Both of those tracks appeared on 1988’s breakout smash See the Light, as did the title track and Healey’s “That’s What They Say.” The original “Full Circle” and Healey’s devastatingly emotional cover of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” first appeared on 1990’s Hell to Pay, which featured the former Beatle in a guest turn. The Healey band rumbles through the Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues” too, digging deeper into that song’s nervy blues core.

Of course, by the dawn of the next decade, Healey began to focus more on jazz, even appearing on stage (gasp!) playing — and by 2008, he had succumbed to cancer — just weeks before releasing his first blues project in eight years.

So Live in Belgium represents, in more ways that one, an important moment — for both Jeff Healey and for his lost blues promise. You get a sense all over again of just what made him special … and what he might have become, had the fates allowed it.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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  • Jeff Healey, was a welknown blind Canadian jazz and blue guitarist, and a song writer. He lost his sight to eye when he was one year old. He started playing guitar at the age of three.

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