By Gregg Shapiro
Liza Minnelli, 64, is the Energizer Bunny of show biz. As long as they can keep replacing her failing parts (e.g., hips and knees), she’s going to keep on going. That can be both a good and bad thing, depending on what Liza is doing. Like Barbra Streisand, another aging diva, Minnelli has turned her attention to jazz vocals. On her new CD, Confessions (Decca), Minnelli raids the American songbook and bravely works her way through selections by Peggy Lee (“He’s a Tramp”), Irving Berlin (“I Got Lost in His Arms”), and Cy Coleman (“You Fascinate Me So”), among others. Unlike Streisand, Minnelli only had a few good notes to begin with, so her reading of “At Last” is problematic (Liza better watch her ass if Etta James finds out). But she makes the most of the clever title track and sounds as if she’s enjoying herself on “On Such a Night as This” and “All the Way.”
In one of the most talked-about collaborations of the year, Elton John, 63, and Leon Russell, 68, bring their mutual admiration society to bear on The Union (Decca/Rocket). Contemporary rock’s original piano men (sorry, Billy) touch on a variety of musical styles over the course of 14 tracks, a majority of which were composed by Elton and longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin. It’s a pleasant, if surprisingly low-key, affair. The guys alternate vocals and really heat up the piano keys on songs such as “Hey Ahab,” “Monkey Suit,” “A Dream Come True,” “I Should Have Sent Roses,” “Hearts Have Turned to Stone,” “In the Hands of Angels,” and the balladry of “The Best Part of the Day” and “When Love Is Dying.”
Live at the Troubadour (Hear Music) reunites ’70s singer/songwriter icons Carole King, 68, and James Taylor, 62, for a concert of their classic tunes. They both sound great, and the energy of the grateful audience must have been a source of inspiration for the pair. The chill-inducing rendition of “Up on the Roof,” which incorporates the arrangement from Taylor’s hit version of the song, is one of the high points of the disc. And just try not to get choked up when they team up to sing “You’ve Got a Friend.” On the shallow end, check out the DVD’s cover to see how the once-hot Taylor hasn’t aged so well, while King has never looked better.
Songs from the Road (Columbia/Legacy) is another concert CD/DVD from another living music legend, Leonard Cohen, 76. A compilation of live recordings from Cohen’s 2008-09 World Tour, songs such as “Bird on the Wire,” “Chelsea Hotel,” “Famous Blue Raincoat,” Suzanne,” and somewhat more recent selections including “That Don’t Make It Junk,” “Waiting for the Miracle,” and “Closing Time,” as well as his signature song “Hallelujah,” are performed in his renowned spoken/sung style, to the delight of the riveted audiences.
Also going the live route, Richard Thompson, 61, delivers Dream Attic (Shout Factory), recorded in February 2010. But instead of playing the familiar songs of his back catalog, Thompson unveiled 13 new songs for his fans in Seattle, Portland and Eugene, Oregon, and Arcata and San Francisco, California. Luckily for Thompson, and those in attendance, the new material, including “The Money Shuffle,” “Demons in Her Dancing Shoes,” “Big Sun Falling in the River,” and “If Love Whispers Your Name,” is solid and well-received.
Best known as both the lead singer of Canadian hit-makers the Guess Who and as a solo artist (remember “Stand Tall”?), Burton Cummings, 63, rises to the occasion on Above the Ground (New Door/Ume). Still rocking his trademark mustache, Cummings rocks harder than you might expect on tracks such as “Crazy If You Mess with the Gods,” “Junior Won’t Behave,” “We Just Came from the U.S.A.,” “Retribution,” and he isn’t afraid to dabble in country (“TPOS”), R&B (“Ponderlust,” “Up in the Canyon”) or just mellow out (“A Touch of Morning,” the title cut). The bonus DVD takes us behind the scenes during the making of the disc.
Intended to be a tribute to the late Mary (Travers), who passed away at 72 in 2009, one third of folk heroes Peter (Yarrow), 72, (Noel) Paul (Stookey), 73, and Mary, The Prague Sessions (WB/Rhino), sets politically conscious songs by the trio to arrangements including the Czech National Symphony Orchestra. “Some Walls” and “Don’t Laugh at Me” keep PP&M’s message fresh. Additionally, classics such as “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” “Day Is Done,” “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” benefit from the orchestration.
Following the massive success of the Beatles’ reissues, John Lennon and Paul McCartney are getting the reissue treatment this season. So where are the Ringo Starr reissues? Until they show up, Starr’s fans can occupy themselves with Y Not (Hip-O/Ume), on which he teams up with Joe Walsh, Dave Stewart, Gary Wright, Van Dyke Parks, Richard Marx, Joss Stone, Ben Harper, Edgar Winter, Billy Squer, and others. McCartney makes a guest appearance on a couple of tracks, including “Peace Dream,” in which Starr gives a shout-out to Lennon.
In addition to containing one of the best (and most unexpected) dance tracks of the year, “Only an Expert,” the CD Homeland (Nonesuch), by performance artist-turned-pop star Laurie Anderson, 63, features Anderson’s distinctive perspective on society and history. It’s powerful stuff, as you might imagine, and in Anderson’s hands it’s never short of riveting. The DVD includes “Homeland: The Story of the Lark” and “Laurie’s Violin.”
The late Johnny Cash would have turned 78 this year. As the title of his last studio recording with Rick Rubin suggests, American VI: Ain’t No Grave (American), the mood of the disc is funereal and final. Mournful and resigned, Cash put his spirit into the original “I Corinthians 15:55” and renditions of songs by Sheryl Crow (“Redemption Day”), old friend Kris Kristofferson (“For the Good Times”), Tom Paxton (“Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound”), among others.
Also still going strong are Neil Sedaka, 71, on The Music of My Life (Razor & Tie); Seasick Steve, in his late 60s, on Man from Another Time (Atlantic); and ABBA’s Benny Andersson, 64, on Story of a Heart (Decca) by Benny Andersson Band.
Gregg Shapiro is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.