Nearly two decades after the first volume, the second installment of the Beatles BBC recordings arrives and, like its predecessor, On Air: Live at the BBC, Vol. 2 condenses the Fab Four's voluminous BBC sessions into an easily digestible double-disc of highlights. The generous 63-track running length is slightly misleading as this, more than the 1994 set, is peppered with dialogue, interviews, and silly sketches -- a total of 24 of them, to be exact, including the five-minute "Pop Profile" interviews tacked onto the end of each disc (CD 1 showcases John and George on the eve of the release of Rubber Soul, CD 2 Paul and Ringo prior to the release of Revolver). Such a heavy emphasis on on-air banter winds up cementing On Air as something like a documentary: it is capturing a specific moment in the Beatles history. Specifically, this moment is 1963, with three quarters of the collection dating from that year. It was a momentous year, of course, the beginning of Beatlemania in Britain and, appropriately, there's a greater emphasis on original Beatles music than there was on the covers-laden 1994 set. This is a mild disappointment, as much of the really interesting material is hearing the Beatles tear into the rock & roll classics that were staples of their club set; not only does their kinetic interplay leap alive, but it's possible to appreciate just how good McCartney and, particularly, Lennon were as interpretive singers (John kills on the Chuck Berry songs "I'm Talking About You" and "Memphis, Tennessee"). Which isn't to say these early Beatles originals are tossed off without a care. They're also treated with exuberance and, at times, the enthusiasm is intoxicating (they punch hard on "I Saw Her Standing There," "Roll Over Beethoven" swings with purpose, "You Can't Do That" retains a glinting, hard edge, and Paul's Little Richard impression always dazzles). Crucially, the banter contains a similar sense of excitement; as this concentrates on 1963, the Beatles have yet to grow tired of their shtick, so it's fun to hear them trade barbs with the BBC hosts and with each other. When the dialogue is combined with those wonderful performances, On Air: Live at the BBC, Vol. 2 helps paint a portrait of the Beatles just reaching the peak of their powers.
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