Film & Music Reviews: Bee Gees ‘Live in Australia,’ Plus Nina Simone, Sunny War, and an Elmore James Tribute

Bee Gees.jpg
L to R, Maurice, Robin & Barry Gibb (photo: Eagle Rock Entertainment)

If you’re not at least a bit older than the concert featured on One for All Tour: Live in Australia 1989, you might not realize just how big a group the Bee Gees were. Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb (the brothers Gibb, hence the name Bee Gees) sold tens of millions of records—hundreds of millions by some estimates—and saw their songs recorded by upwards of 2,500 other artists. And they were in the unusual position of having had two distinct careers, both massive. First, in the late 60s and early 70s, they scored a long series of mostly romance-focused pop hits—including four that made the U.S. Top Ten; then after falling out of favor for a bit, they reemerged bigger than ever as a disco group and a dominant presence in the mega-selling Saturday Night Fever and Staying Alive soundtracks; this era produced about a dozen more hits, including eight chart-toppers in less than four years.

Both periods are well represented in this concert film, which was made in 1989, near the beginning of their first world tour in 10 years. It features highlights of a two-night stand that finds the Gibbs on their home turf in Australia. (The Bee Gees are often thought of as a British group because they were born in the UK and lived there when their careers took off, but they spent many of their growing-up years Down Under.) Their biggest successes were behind them at this point, but they weren’t exactly has-beens: they were touring to support the release of their 18th studio album, One, whose title track spent 10 weeks in the Top 40, starting in mid-August 1989, and reached number seven on the U.S. charts. They seem to be in high spirits throughout the concert film, though they were in fact still recovering from the death of younger sibling Andy a year earlier.

Bee Gees Live in Australia

Considering that this footage is nearly 30 years old, the audio and video quality is quite good. The sound has been newly mixed and mastered and is presented in surround DTS-HD Master Audio. The video is neither high definition nor widescreen, but the producers have done an excellent job with what they had.

Bee Gees fans may lament the absence of a personal favorite or two (I would have liked them to include a few tracks from Odessa), but no one can say that this 27-track program doesn’t touch all the important bases. From the group’s initial pop era, which mostly featured Robin’s thrilling vibrato, the set includes “To Love Somebody,” “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You,” “Words,” “New York Mining Disaster 1941,” “Holiday,” “World,” “Lonely Days,” “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” “I Started a Joke,” and “Massachusetts.” From the disco period, when Barry Gibb’s falsetto was more often featured, we have such tracks as “Jive Talkin’,” “Stayin’ Alive,” “Run to Me,” and “Too Much Heaven.”

Though the Bee Gees wrote many good lyrics, the words were rarely the point.

Also here are 1966’s “Spicks and Specks,” the group’s first major chart success (though not in the U.S.); and two hits that they wrote for other artists: “Islands in the Stream,” which Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton rode to the top of the charts; and “Heartbreaker,” a Top 10 success for Dionne Warwick. The set also features five songs from the then-new One: the title track, plus “Ordinary Lives,” “It’s My Neighborhood,” “Tokyo Nights,” and “House of Shame.” Finally, there’s “Juliet,” the hard-rocking European hit single from Robin Gibb’s second solo album.

Some of this material—including most of the tracks from One—sounds inferior, dated, or both, but the lion’s share of the program is excellent. Though the Bee Gees wrote many good lyrics (and some inane ones too—just listen to some of the lines in “I Started a Joke” and “The World”), the words were rarely the point, as you can see when you watch Robin Gibb smiling his way through a song supposedly sung by a man trapped underground (“New York Mining Disaster 1941”) and Barry Gibb grinning as he sings the first-person tale of a man about to be executed for murder (“Gotta Get a Message to You”). If the Bee Gees “gotta get a message to you,” they’re gonna do it primarily not with words, but with melody, hooks, an innate pop sensibility, and world-class solo vocals and harmony work.

When they were on their game, they combined these strengths as well as any AOR pop group. Their disco work still stands head and shoulders over most of the rest of what that craze produced, but it’s their early pop hits that I find most rewarding. Seeing them performed in this film reminds me of just how much of a bright spot they were on the radio in the late 60s and early 70s.

Also Noteworthy

Strange ANgels Elmore James

Various Artists, Strange Angels: In Flight with Elmore James. Blues giant Elmore James, who died in 1963 at age 45, would have been 100 this year, so it’s time for a party. Among the attendees at this one: the sisters Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer, who deliver the title cut; Rodney Crowell, who serves up a rousing “Shake Your Money Maker”; and Deborah Bonham (sister of the late Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham), who winningly tackles “Dust My Broom,” the Robert Johnson classic that became James’s best-known track. Also here: Welch pop singer Tom Jones, sounding suitably bluesy on a take of “Done Somebody Wrong”; and Warren Haynes (Allman Brothers), Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top), and harmonica player Mickey Raphael, who team up for “Done Somebody Wrong.” Like most multi-artist albums, this one has its ups and downs, but the material is uniformly excellent and most of the slide-guitar-spiced performances are memorable as well. If you’re not acquainted with James, you should probably start with an album like The Sky Is Crying: The History of Elmore James. After that, consider moving on to this 13-track tribute, which makes a strong case for James’s continued relevance.

With the Sun by Sunny War

Sunny War, With the Sun. Let’s cut to the chase: this cohesive and wonderful album signals the arrival of a major new talent. War’s voice and phrasing are redolent of Joan Armatrading and Tracy Chapman, but she’s no copycat: in fact, I’ve never heard anything quite like this all-originals program of bluesy folk tunes, which prominently feature violin and piano and War’s complex and emotive vocal performances and guitar work. The fact that this woman was recently singing on the streets in California for spare change is mind-boggling; she belongs in concert halls where large audiences can give her the standing ovations she deserves.

Mood Indigo by Nina Simone

Nina Simone, Mood Indigo: The Complete Bethlehem Singles. Thanks partly to the gripping 2015 film What Happened, Miss Simone?, there seems to be renewed interest in this troubled but brilliant jazz singer, who will be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in April. This well-annotated album, recorded in a single day when Simone was just 24, shows how fully realized her talent was in the earliest stages of her career. The program—most of which was first featured on the album Little Girl Blue in 1958—includes a couple of Simone originals plus her arrangements of such standards as “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” “Mood Indigo,” “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” and “Porgy (I Loves You, Porgy).” Accompanying herself on piano and backed only by a bassist and drummer, Simone is mesmerizing throughout.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.