Kirk Bruner - drums; Lenny Castro - percussion; James Newton Howard - keyboards; Melissa Manchester - vocals, piano; Cooker Lo Presti - bass; David Wolfert - guitar
Mentored by Paul Simon, Melissa Manchester emerged in 1973 with a debut album containing original material that assimilated aspects of pop, rock, soul, gospel and jazz, while showcasing her rich earthy voice. Heavily influenced by Laura Nyro, her early material lacked Nyro's intensity, but was impressive on its own terms. Her second album, Bright Eyes, released in 1974, still clearly showed her influences, but was another step toward originality. It revealed that Manchester had a knack for sensitive and romantic songwriting, and her voice displayed more restraint and confidence, particularly on the piano ballads. Her breakthrough third album, Melissa, released just days before this remarkable Record Plant performance, is still considered her masterpiece to this day.
This performance, before an intimate in-studio audience, literally captures Manchester standing at the threshold of stardom. Accompanied by many of the musicians that helped her record that breakthrough album, one could hardly ask for a better time to capture her live. The album was quite polished, but here those same songs have more immediacy, and as great as that album was, in many ways this performance is even more impressive and satisfying.
The set begins with "Bright Eyes," the title track off her 1974 album. It's a perfect opener as this was one of the songs that began to display her potential. With the exception of "Easy," a highlight track off her 1973 debut album and "Newton's Ego," an instrumental showcase for her keyboard player James Newton Howard, the remainder of the set concentrates strictly on material from the new album.
Right after the opener, she performs "Midnight Blue," and it is wonderful to hear this before it had any recognition from the audience, totally fresh and new. This highly intoxicating piano ballad, which she will always be recognized for, would soon tear up the charts, reaching #6 on the pop charts and #1 on adult contemporary. Before long, it would join the rare ranks of becoming a permanent radio staple worldwide and be covered by countless other artists. The follow-up single, "Just Too Many People," also debuted here later in the set, would have less impact, but not by much, as it too charted and hit #2 on the AC charts. The songs in this set would function as a virtual blueprint for much of her later career.
The torch song ballads, like "Bright Eyes," "The Lady's Not Home Today" and "We've Got Time" are all soulful and beautiful performances, with great passionate vocals from Melissa. This is not to say all the best music is introspective. "Party Music" goes for a more up-tempo feel, and there is also not one, but two tributes to Stevie Wonder here - Melissa's own personal tribute, "Stevie's Wonder" as well as the nearly nine-minute jam on the set closer, an engaging cover of Wonder's own "Love Havin' You Around." The latter rocks pretty hard and the entire ensemble is allowed plenty of room to stretch out and solo.
Manchester's career would really take off during the course of this year and thanks to this remarkable recording, one can enjoy a very special moment in time, when fame and stardom was just around the corner.