- Isaac Hayes: Live at Montreux
There are times when one or two great songs can completely salvage what is an otherwise a mediocre show. String Cheese Incident did this to me on several occasions during 2002/2003, where I’d swear at set-break that this would positively be my very last show, only to be later floored by a second set “Black Clouds” or “Land’s End,” the glowing memory of which would sucker me back the next time, and Isaac Hayes pulls the same trick here.
When I first started reviewing the Live at Montreux series, I was worried about the festival’s reputation as an easy payday where aging musicians could come and bask in the adoring and uncritical gaze of well-heeled fans— not unlike playing a casino in Atlantic City. Previous editions had proved my fears groundless, but this concert, for its first half at least, reeks of a bad supper club vibe and has way too many Gucci clad fifty-somethings in the audience, desperately trying to show their younger, blonder companions that they can still cut a rug like it’s Studio 54 in 1975. Hayes’ voice is shot, sounding closer in places to Tom Waits than the rough-but-silky wonder of years past, and his backing band is stuck in a clunky, bottom-heavy late 1980s mode, made even worse by the unnecessary use of no less than three sets of keyboards, one of which fails miserably to come anywhere close to the sound of a real horn section. Things kick off with a medium-paced ballad, which is all slickness and no soul, and continue in the same vein for a turgid 45 minutes, featuring a perfunctory blues, a vaguely funky song that limps when it should swing, and a couple of bland ballads.
And then everything suddenly turns around. First up is a pretty damned good version of Walk On By” that even a ham-fisted drum solo tacked onto the end can’t ruin. Hayes seems to find his voice, and while the backing band certainly isn’t the Bar-Kays, they really do manage to hit a great groove and sustain it through twelve very soulful minutes. A couple of decent songs later, everyone on stage seems to wake up. The closing trio of songs are all top notch, and you’d swear someone just switched bands. “Never Can Say Goodbye,” which takes the same stretch-things-out approach as “Walk On By,” gets just as funky as its model, if not more so. The well-known encore of “Theme From Shaft” has all the wah-wah you could hope for, but it’s set closer “By the Time I get To Phoenix” that provides the show’s highlight and the “Isaac Hayes just hoodwinked me into coming back next time” feeling. It starts with Hayes alone at the piano, talking about his early days on the road, and unlike the rest of the show, you can see him really connecting with the audience. The band starts to build and build behind him with a dictionary-perfect example of a slow burn until the songs ends fourteen thrilling minutes later with an exhilarating climax. It really is a stupendous rendition of a classic song, and it makes the viewer forget the dull opening. This finale just might be worth the price of admission all by itself.