Monday, September 1, 2014

Stevie Nicks - The Soundstage Sessions (2009)

As the new millennium proceeded, Stevie Nicks found herself increasingly in demand as a rock icon and institution. Little wonder she continued revisiting old material with releases like Crystal Visions and  - in 2009 - this live performance in Chicago entitled The Soundstage Sessions. However, this focus meant it was getting close to a decade since the release of her her last studio album of new material (Trouble in Shangri-La).

Surprisingly, Nicks has never released a live solo album before. Given her strength as a performer and her penchant for reworking her lyrics and phrasing to create fresh versions of her songs when they are performed live, this is a major hole in her discography. The Soundstage Sessions fills this gap but, between Fleetwood Mac tours without new material to support and her lack of new solo material, one begins to wonder if Nicks is winding her career down to coast on her laurels. While I watched and enjoyed the PBS Soundstage airing of this show, I did not buy the CD. I just didn't feel the need to own these tracks or, more exactly, I already own most of them in several versions.

To Nicks' credit, The Soundstage Sessions avoids a too obvious set list. Most conspicuous in their absence are "Rhiannon" and "Dreams", despite their inclusion in the live show. From her solo work, there is no "Stop Dragging My Heart Around", "Leather and Lace", or "Talk to Me" (not sure if these were part of the live show or not). That means most of her biggest hits are not included on The Soundstage Sessions. Despite this, the selection of songs contains several big hits and concert/fan favorites. On the downside, the sequencing of the set feels off. The energy level spikes and then lulls for long periods before spiking again. Keeping more of the spunkier songs from the concert (e.g., "Enchanted") would have made The Soundstage Sessions flow a lot more smoothly and increased its novelty.

The album kicks off with a rocking version of Nicks' most alluring hit of all: "Stand Back". She cooks through this number like a Welsh witch steamroller. Right away, you hear Nicks is letting her voice sail sans her trademark vibrato. Time - and perhaps substance abuse - have eroded her vibrato but she sounds great when she emphasizes energy over holding onto vocal stylings she may simply not be capable of anymore. It's a triumphant kick-off that instantly confirms Nicks still has the goods live.

However, the energy immediately slows down as Nicks covers Dave Matthews "Crash Into Me" and then goes into "Sara". During these songs, especially "Sara", I found myself wanting more presence from Sharon Celani and Lori Perry Nicks'. I felt this many times during the rest of the album/show. It's not that Nicks needs them for vocal camouflage, it's just that her two back-up vocalists have always been a big part of her sound. Their harmonic lushness always contrasted and mixed wonderfully with Nicks' alternately raspy rock and gentle twang. Their efforts could have livened up "Sara" and several other tracks, yet they repeatedly seem to be auto-tuned into a nondescript blob and then pushed way back in the mix.

A sturdy performance of "If Anyone Falls" ups the energy level, despite a cheesy synthesizer, but then the pace slows down again for "Landslide". While the song is a 'must' for Nicks to perform, committing a third live version to disc within the space of ten years is overkill. Another song with less exposure would have been a better choice for this album. "Landslide" is followed by the only weak point of the show: a seven-plus minute, self-indulgent performance of "How Still My Love". This okay song has somehow persisted in Nicks' concert set since 1981, despite dozens of better alternative song choices on more recent albums. "Rooms on Fire" or even "Blue Denim" would have been much more interesting inclusions.

After a nice, but unremarkable, reading of Bonnie Raitt's "The Circle Dance", Nicks finally amps up again for "Fall From Grace" and "Sorcerer" from Trouble in Shangri-La. The disc then coasts through the lovely "Beauty and the Beast" and a ten-minute(!) rendition of "Gold Dust Woman", before finishing up with the obligatory (but admittedly still fiery) "Edge of Seventeen". Waddy Wachtel who, as ever, is the perfect foil for Nicks' though-out The Soundstage Sessions really goes above and beyond on this number.

I never purchased The Soundstage Sessions, despite the obvious gap it fills in Nicks discography and the sheer pleasure of hearing how Nicks remains in fine form. It's a solid album and live performance but, for me, the backwards glancing in Nicks output is simply beginning to wear a bit thin.

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