September 14, 2008

Joe Cocker DVD Captures End of Mad Dog Era

A Joe Cocker performance is a primal experience, not only because of how the legendary British vocalist sheds his soul (and shreds his vocal cords), but also because of how his audiences behave in response. In fact, the first time I saw him in concert, some people were so enthralled by Cocker’s fury that they climbed over the theatre’s balcony, suspended (and rocking) from its rafters.

Joe Cocker: Cry Me A River affords an indicative, albeit modest glimpse of this visceral artist on the stage. Originally recorded on October 31, 1980 and aired live on the German-based television program, Rockpalast, the concert shows Cocker a decade removed from his iconic Woodstock set, but just prior to his most commercially successful era.

Inside two years, he would reach the top of the charts with “Up Where We Belong,” his Grammy and Academy Award winning duet with Jennifer Warnes. And with his career revitalized, he would score a succession of hit singles, including “When the Night Comes,” “Unchain My Heart,” and “Shelter Me,” in the years to follow.

Thus, this hour-long performance captures Cocker at a crossroads.

Shaggy-haired with a homicidal glare in his eyes, he cuts quite the disheveled figure, but his voice is classic. On tracks like “High Time We Went” and “Hitchcock Railway,” he puts his raspy pipes through the ringer. He invests enough vitality into staples such as “Delta Lady” and “Feelin’ Alright” to satisfy longtime fans. And yet, he receives the warmest audience reception with his inimitable covers of “You Are So Beautiful” and “With A Little Help From My Friends,” the latter delivering the concert’s climax.

He also turns out impressive covers of “Whiter Shade of Pale” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” And though the inclusion of these tracks, in particular, may seem a bit curious (as Cocker hadn’t yielded popular versions of them), it makes better sense upon considering that they appeared on his most recent album at that time, 1979’s Luxury You Can Afford.

All in all, Joe Cocker: Cry Me A River offers a representative snapshot of this feral performer at the tail end of his mad dog days. It’s not essential viewing, but Cocker’s fans will surely find it worthwhile.