On December 4, 1988, Roy Orbison was celebrating a huge year. His album with supergroup the Traveling Wilburys had sold extremely well; he finished recording his first album of original material in several years, Mystery Girl; and he was preparing for a worldwide tour in 1989.
The road to his comeback began in 1987, when several key events occurred. He rerecorded his greatest hits for a new collection entitled In Dreams; he remade “Crying” with k.d. lang, earning a Grammy for best country collaboration with vocals; Orbison was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; and he filmed a now classic Cinemax special Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black and White Night with admirers Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt, and Jackson Browne. As he performed at the Front Row Theatre in Highland Heights, Ohio that early December night, Orbison seemed genuinely grateful for such overdue recognition and appreciation from fans.
Two days later, Orbison would die from a massive heart attack.
Although his tragic death cruelly cut short his comeback, Orbison’s legacy has endured. A new generation saw that he was much more than “Oh, Pretty Woman”: He wrote and performed mini-epics of angst and heartbreak, joy and determination, and other themes that transcend time and generations. His seamless blend of country and rock harkened back to rock’s roots, but his unique voice and edgy image added something new. Bootlegged for many years, that last Orbison concert has been remastered and reissued, along with a DVD containing his final interview and vintage live clips. Though the CD suffers from an uneven sound mix, The Last Concert: 25th Anniversary Edition serves as an important historical document and a reminder of Orbison’s important role in rock music.
Since Mystery Girl had yet to be released, Orbison performed his greatest hits to an adoring crowd. At 52 years old, Orbison’s voice had barely dimmed since his 1957 beginnings. His rendition of the 1962 standard “Crying” alone is worth the price of the CD, for Orbison’s voice reaches astonishingly emotional heights during this performance. When he sings “Yes, now you’re gone, and from this moment on — I’ll be crying,” listeners can hear his anguish. After the audience justifiably rewards Orbison with an extended ovation, he thanks them with a brief reprise. “It’s Over” can be seen as a companion to the track, with Orbison hitting extremely high notes to emphasize the drama accompanying a broken relationship. At the same time, he can modulate his singing to emulate gently undulating waves in the beautiful 1963 ballad “Blue Bayou.”
While Orbison may be primarily known for heart-wrenching ballads, his multi-range voice could handle uptempo rockers with equal aplomb. The rock standard “Mean Woman Blues” brings out Orbison’s racier side, with his lips curling over the lines “She got ruby lips, she got shapely hips, yeah — boy, she makes ole Roy-oy flip.” “Working for the Man” features a working-class narrator lamenting harsh treatment from the boss. “Oh well, I’m pickin’ ‘em up and I’m laying ‘em down; I believe he’s gonna work me into the ground,” Orbison wails. As the song progresses, however, the protagonist reveals his true intentions: “I’m just biding my time, ‘cause the company and the daughter you see — they’re both gonna be all mine.” Here the worker plans his revenge: He will run off with the boss’ daughter and take over the company, thus “Yeah, I’m gonna be the man, gonna be the man; gotta make him a hand if I’m gonna be the man.” Though long past “working for the man” at this point, Orbison sings wearing a slight smirk, demonstrating that he still enjoyed voicing the subversive lyrics.
Unfortunately, the sound mix on the live CD is uneven at best — whether this is due to the master tapes’ condition or another factor is unknown. At times, the backup vocalists are too prominent in the mix, most noticeably on the opening number “Only the Lonely” and “Dream Baby.” The instruments are in the foreground too much, occasionally drowning out Orbison’s voice. This can prove distracting, but The Last Concert nevertheless provides an official document of his final appearance.
A bonus DVD includes his last interview, recorded immediately after the concert. The camera work is amateurish and the interviewer appears a tad uncomfortable, but Orbison seems upbeat, humble, and optimistic about the future. He reveals that his favorite cover version of one of his tunes is Linda Ronstadt’s take on “Blue Bayou,” and admits being initially baffled by Lynch’s use of “In Dreams” in Blue Velvet. As he enthusiastically discusses his future plans — a worldwide tour, promotion behind his upcoming album — one experiences an onslaught of emotion. On the one hand, Orbison’s reemergence remains inspiring; one the other, the knowledge that he would be gone in just two days is overwhelming.
Other bonus DVD features include previously unseen footage of early and mid-1980s live performances. While these clips are entertaining, it’s particularly remarkable to see how little Orbison’s voice and appearance had changed by 1988. That night in Ohio he stood at the top of his game, and despite its flaws, The Last Concert: 25th Anniversary Edition offers an opportunity to re-experience a truly unique voice in rock ‘n’ roll history.
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