Roy Orbison

Live at Austin City Limits: August 5, 1982

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Before he re-emerged in the second half of the 1980s as a living legend and a rock & roll god, Roy Orbison was a working musician sustaining a career without a lot of help from the popular mass media -- all that carried him was the music and his ability to give a great show, without the sense of a part of history passing by. Live at Austin City Limits: August 5, 1982 is built around his appearance on the PBS show, playing with a five-piece band and three backup singers. This performance took place a half-decade prior to the late-career surge that accompanied Orbison's induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, his return to the charts, and his linkup with George Harrison, Bob Dylan, et al., in the Traveling Wilburys; it shows Orbison, even in this relatively low-profile period of his life and career, doing a superb show with a laid-back, smiling countenance in a relaxed mood, going through all of the expected hits right back to "Ooby Dooby" and up to 1980's "That Lovin' You Feelin' Again."

What's fascinating, apart from the performance -- a tight, hard-rocking set highlighted by Bucky Barrett's lead guitar embellishments (including a killer solo on "Mean Woman Blues") and Jim Kirby's understated keyboard accompaniment -- is the way he gradually wins over the younger members of the crowd. The thirty- and forty-somethings all applaud the early numbers with enthusiasm, while those in their teens and early twenties seem at a loss over the man and his music -- at the time, they were probably trying to sort out what to make of the likes of Culture Club or Duran Duran on that then-new MTV channel. Then he gets deeper into his repertoire and hits a few operatic-scale high notes, and gets their attention. And speaking of high notes, the hauntingly beautiful and catchy "Lana," with Orbison's falsetto all over the place and a doo wop-style vocal accompaniment, is just about worth the price of admission -- it also explains why Orbison was such a charismatic figure to several generations of listeners across several genres of music, because (like Elvis Presley), his music embraced country, blues, rockabilly, doo wop, pop/rock, gospel, and film music. He was fluent in all of those forms and could mix them up or pick and choose as he wished, and unlike Elvis, he could also write; the signs of light bulbs illuminating on several audience members' faces can be seen as they begin to realize, "He wrote that?" or "He did that?" Yep, and even played electric rhythm guitar on it too, on top of singing -- "Crying" brings the whole crowd to its feet, and after that he owns them. He doesn't even address the audience until he does "Ooby Dooby" (on which he plays lead) 11 songs into the set, at which point he can barely contain the smile on his face.

Except for a couple of wide shots that seem slightly out of focus, the video quality is excellent throughout, sharp and well defined, and the director has taken great pains to keep the cameras mobile and focused on whatever is relevant, whether it's a guitar solo, a particularly rich chorus, or a compelling image of Orbison at the microphone -- nowhere is he more so, incidentally, than on his performance of the Elvis Presley memorial song, "Hound Dog Man"; quite frankly, this reviewer cried a bit at that part of the performance, and there are guys in the audience who look like they're holding back tears as the camera pans past. And then there's "(Go, Go, Go) Down the Line," which stands at the crossroads where rockabilly, country, and pop intersect, and, along with the extended break on "Oh, Pretty Woman," constitutes one of the better pure rock & roll moment in the show. The sound is excellent, good and loud and detailed.

After the finale of "Running Scared," there shouldn't be a lot of say or see, but there is -- a beautiful but much too short seven-minute documentary, "Roy Orbison: The Wink Years." This film takes viewers back to Orbison's hometown of Wink, TX, and to classmates and bandmates in his first group, the Wink Westerners, who eventually evolved into the Teen Kings, the band he was playing with when he first broke into recording. They tell the story of how music gradually filled their daily lives while they were still in their mid-teens -- one only wishes it ran longer, because the bandmembers are so interesting to hear and the music scene they describe in Texas in that time is so fascinating. This viewer would happily have watched another 30 minutes or an hour about it all. Other supplementary materials include a photo array covering Orbison's life from the 1930s to the 1980s, lyrics for the songs on the video, and promotional frames for other releases from his estate. The disc opens automatically on a very easy-to-use menu that's clearly designed and labeled, and cued to "Ooby Dooby."