Simply Red, from its late-1960s sense of pop-soul style to its keening, R&B-soaked countertenor, sounded old from the start. It was little surprise, then, that they eventually had a No. 1 hit with a remake of “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” — and even did an album with legendary Motown songwriter Lamont Dozier.
Calling Simply Red the MTV era’s Brit version of Teddy Pendergrass, however, leaves out a series of sleek pop successes, tucked in between the Stax/Volt-influenced blasts of retro-cool — not least of which was their other charttopper, 1986′s shatteringly melancholic “Holding Back the Years.” Live at Montreux, a new Eagle Rock concert DVD/Blu-ray due on May 22, 2012, doesn’t even get to their charttopping Gamble and Huff cover until the bonus material.
Instead, and this betrays the vintage of this concert, we find an abundance of cuts from Simply Red’s 2003 release Home, with mixed results.
“You Make Me Feel Brand New,” for instance, is a featureless cover of the famous Stylistics gem — surprising, considering the success Simply Red had with reviving older tunes, from “If You Don’t Know Me” to Dennis Brown’s “Ghetto Girl” to “Let Me Have It All” from Sly and the Family Stone’s 1973 album Fresh. Then, there’s “Sunrise,” which seems to reveal a writer bereft of ideas — from its Hall and Oates sample to its blatant lift from the vocal signature for Paul Carrack’s classic hit “How Long” with Ace. But then, in a classic Simply Red head fake, Hucknall slips into a suave funkiness on “Fake,” and summons some geniune emotion for “Home Loan Blues.” Live at Montreux also includes “Something for You” and “Lost Weekend” from Simply Red’s then-new project.
Home, really, works in microcosm for what made Simply Red such a deeply interesting, but often confounding group. Pick up most any of their releases, and frontman Mick Hucknall and Co. were just as apt to crackle and pop as they were to fizzle and flop. There were remarkable highs, and awful lows. Luckily, the lesser tracks from Home are sprinkled throughout the set, and they’re augmented by the absolute best of the rest of their 25-year catalog — giving Montreux rare momentum for a Simply Red project.
The two-hour, 18-song set (augmented by seven additional tracks from Simply Red’s 2010 farewell-tour appearance at Montreux) is highlighted by “Holding Back the Years,” a remake of a song Hucknall had recorded in an earlier band called the Frantic Elevators. Amazingly, this track — so full of longing for a life not yet lived, it’s given a near-definitive reading here — initially failed to chart in 1985; re-released in ’86, however, it went to No. 1 in America, and No. 2 in the UK. Also included from Simply Red’s debut Picture Book are “Sad Old Red,” the still-chunky “Money’s Too Tight To Mention” (a Top 40 hit in the UK), and “Come to My Aid.”
“The Right Thing” was a Top 40 hit from the 1987 follow up Men and Women, the album that featured two cuts co-written with Dozier. They were credited in the original liner notes, memorably, to “Hucknall/Dozier/Hucknall” as an homage to the Motown writing team of Holland/Dozier/Holland. Elsewhere, “If You Don’t Know My By Now” and “Enough” were plucked from 1989′s A New Flame.
By 1991, as the title track from Simply Red’s Stars became a minor hit in the U.S. (and the album became a 12-times platinum blockbuster in Great Britain), Hucknall was declaring the band essentially a solo project. Fast forward to 2003, as this concert gets underway, and Hucknall is the only remaining founding member of Simply Red — though saxophonist Ian Kirkham had joined a year later in 1986.
Yet, we don’t get the sense that this is a faceless studio band backing Hucknall. Instead, throughout they play with a confident sophistication, bolstered by these sharp blasts of carmelized soul — primarily because the concert showcases a veteran group of sidemen: Guitarist Kenji Suzuki, for instance, was a member of Simply Red from 1998 through its farewell in 2010. Bassist Steve Lewinson had served over two stints beginning in 1995.
Live at Montreux is rounded out by two more cuts from Stars, the lithe, episodic “Something Got Me Started” and “Thrill Me”; the cushy smooth-jazz of “Fairground” (Simply Red’s first-ever British No. 1 single) from 1995′s Life; and “Night Nurse” from 1998′s Blue. The bonus material includes “Out of the Range,” “To Be With You,” “Your Mirror,” “Heaven” (the spectacular Talking Heads cover from Picture Book), “For Your Babies,” “Ain’t That A Lot of Love” (the Homer Banks R&B smoker included on 1999′s Love and the Russian Winter) and — finally! — “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” the familiar 1972 ballad from Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.