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Les Paul: Live in New York (DVD Review)

23 Aug, 2010 By: Mike Clark

$19.99 DVD, $34.99 Blu-ray
Not rated.

Electric guitar pioneer Les Paul died just over a year ago at 94, but this uplifting homestretch release clarifies why it was normal to think that he’d always be around to play. Arthritis didn’t stop him, and his on-stage banter — gorgeous redheaded bass player Nicki Parrott endures her share of harmless but mildly lascivious raunch here — remained till the end the product of a fine eye. (His ear was never in doubt.)

Bonnie Raitt, interviewed, talks of what it was like growing up hearing Les Paul Capitol recordings — which were backed many times, of course, by the vocals of then wife Mary Ford, whose voice switched from the merely haunting to all-out ethereal thanks to Paul’s (again pioneer) wizardry with multi-tracking. Also reminiscing is rocker Steve Miller, who knew Paul as a child (even before the marriage to Ford, who used to cook in the kitchen with Miller’s mother) because Miller’s father used to record the duo with a tape recorder that was advanced for its day. Not bad.

Two Paul-Ford “greatest hits” EPs were the first 45’s I ever owned, and the recordings of How High the Moon (duet) and Whispering (Paul solo) — just to name two of many — still sound as fresh as they did then, though also unlike anything else from this side of Mars. And because of Paul, just about everyone but the Sons of the Pioneers made the move to electric. As Paul mock-laments on stage here, his problem was that too many people thought he was a guitar (a “Les Paul” being one of the most formidable brand names in any field).

New York
captures Paul’s twilight performances at the Iridium Jazz Club (Broadway and 51st) when he jammed Monday nights on stage with guests (even Keith Richards made the pilgrimage). He was a fixture there for years, but these performances began in 2005 as part of a continuing 90th birthday tribute — a taping project that must have been keenly planned because the presentations are handsome views, even on the standard DVD. The playlist spans "Tennessee Waltz" (with a much different arrangement than that of the 1950 perennial with Ford) to "Limehouse Blues," and it’s fun to see Jose Feliciano in a show-up to perform Ray Charles’ "Unchain My Heart." On the bonus features, I was treated to the pleasant surprise of hearing Paul perform Santo & Johnny’s classic "Sleep Walk," which ranks with Ritchie Valens’ "Donna" and just a few others as one of the great pelvis-to-pelvis slow-dance tunes ever. (I’ve always envisioned a special-order CD devoted to this specialized genre, hawked at 2 a.m. on TV and “not sold in stores”).

The bonus material is copious and goes beyond additional Iridium performances. There’s an episode from the old “Les & Mary” TV show (I remember it well), whose 5-minute length provided just enough time for a couple numbers, some amusingly contrived household banter and a plug for sponsor Listerine. And there’s also the famous episode from “Omnibus” in which the couple has fun explaining multi-tracking against occasional crew laughter (the very un-“Omnibus” kind associated with Soupy Sales or maybe a Matt Lauer zinger on “Today”). Paul, at one point, even refers to Tony host Alistair Cooke “in the familiar” — which perhaps (who knows?) became the inspiration for Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al.”

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