Roberta Flack - vocals, piano; Eric Gale - guitar; Ralph McDonald - percussion; Rick Moratta - drums; Terry Plumeri - cello; Chuck Rainey - bass; Richard Tee - electric piano
The late 1960s/early 1970's was an era of great musical diversity, but few musicians were as diverse or adept at interpreting contemporary songs as Roberta Flack. Her versatile body of work encompasses soul, R&B, jazz, folk and pop, but regardless of genres, Flack's voice penetrates straight to the heart and stirs emotions. Flack's recording career began in 1968, but being classically trained and perceived as a serious artist made it difficult to achieve widespread commercial success. Flack's initial recordings were critically acclaimed, but did not sell particularly well. This all changed in 1971 when Clint Eastwood chose "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," a track from Flack's 1969 album, First Takes, for the soundtrack of his directorial debut, Play Misty For Me. This was the turning point in her career as the song became a #1 hit the following year. "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" and her other intimate, folk- oriented 1973 hit, "Killing Me Softly With His Song" would cement her reputation, receiving a Grammy for Record Of The Year.
This performance, recorded near the tail end of 1972, captures Roberta Flack during this most compelling era. On this tour Flack had assembled one of the most phenomenal bands one could possibly imagine. Augmenting her own impressive Grand piano work is the electric pianist, Richard Tee, who had graced hundreds of notable recordings as well as cellist Terry Plumieri. Jazz guitarist Eric Gale, another ubiquitous session musician had a well established reputation, including memorable sessions with Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon and Carly Simon, to name but a few. Bassist Chuck Rainey was once tagged "the hardest working bass player in America" and his session work remains unparalleled to the present day. The same can be said for percussionist Ralph McDonald and drummer Rick Moratta. These musicians lay down the perfect grooves for Flack, unburdened by ego and needless complexity. Flack's rich, soothing delivery and her band's refined performances are undeniably captivating.
The recording begins near the end of Flack's first set of the evening, with "Do What You Gotta Do," a soulful track off her second album. This first set concludes with Flack's take on Marvin Gaye's classic, "Inner City Blues," a nearly eleven-minute groove fest that allows her to introduce these great musicians, allowing each to take a solo in the process. However, it is the second set that truly reveals Flack's great diversity.
After the intermission, Flack returns to the stage. She begins the second set uncharacteristically, beginning with a humorous rendition of "Tennessee Waltz," a song then synonymous with Patti Page. This song is so embedded in American musical culture that it's hard to imagine bringing anything new to the table, but Flack does just that by her soulful phrasing. Prior to the next song, Flack delivers a monologue about her younger days studying classical piano and the equality issues black artists face in the classical music world. This serves as the perfect prelude to the ballad "It Could Happen To You," where one may recognize the theme to Rachmaninoff 2nd Piano Concerto. Next up is a lovely interpretation of Stevie Wonder's "Never Dreamed You'd Leave in Summer," that is undeniably classy, smooth and sophisticated.
Flack has the audience in the palm of her hand by this point, so she takes the opportunity to have some fun by telling a joke, before offering up an intoxicating blend of "Frankie & Johnnie" paired with Miles Davis's "All Blues." In the hands of Flack and these outstanding musicians, both songs truly become one with the edges deliciously blurred. This is a truly astounding performance both vocally and instrumentally. The unique interpretation of Bob Dylan's "Just Like A Woman," with the chorus rewritten in the first person, is equally captivating, as is this live performance of "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," featuring beautiful cello accompaniment by Plumieri. She concludes this concert with "No Tears (In The End)," a preview of a song destined for her next album. Reminiscent of her Atlantic Records labelmate, Aretha Franklin, this number demonstrates one of Flack's specialties, hooking into the phrase with the most power and repeating it over and over with deliriously effective results.
This concert makes it abundantly clear that Flack is a serious talent who pursues her vision without limitations. These performances are a true testament to her music's seductive power.