He may once have enjoyed eight consecutive sell out concerts at Wembley, but for his first official live release one of the most distinctive and soulful voices of the 1980s is captured earlier this year in a retrospective at Hammersmith Apollo.
Clearly Alexander O’Neal still has many fans, as the recent platinum status afforded to his greatest hits album testifies. However there’s no getting round the fact that his best music is now nearly two decades old, and while he continues to make records, the impact of that early promise has yet to be matched.
That music owed much to the production team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who carried all before them in the mid to late 1980s as they secured hit record after hit record, with Criticize and Fake being two of O’Neal’s best examples.
Here the pair clock up a staggering 23 minutes of stage time between them, partly due to O’Neal’s extended stage banter but mostly due to an over-inflation of the musical material.
Criticize in particular suffers from an indulgent, faux-rock guitar solo during which the vocalist introduces the majority of his eighteen piece band. Fine if you’re there, but painful otherwise, especially when some of the band have come “all the way from London, England” – O’Neal obviously forgot where he was! Vamped up with synthesizer and hyped up vocals, the song sadly loses much of its sharpness and crisp delivery. Fake fares much better, the singer continuing to spit out the dismissive lines over a rolling funk beat.
One of O’Neal’s popular slow tunes, If You Were Here Tonight, also lasts over ten minutes and is victim to the long if atmospheric preamble that is Bedscene, over which two female members of the audience are plucked onto the stage. That’s assuming their fellas don’t mind of course, though judging by the number responding to O’Neal during All True Man the audience is at least three quarters female.
Alexander’s voice still sounds good, mind – rich and soulful, even when he huffs and puffs from the exertion of live music. The banter with the crowd becomes tiresome after a while though, the talk of “getting the party started” in the final encore sounding a touch fake. A shame, as What Is This Thing Called Love? drops the funk in an appealing way and the singer is genuinely grateful for the rousing reception at its close.
A live album from the late 1980s would surely have been a better option than this – one of those Wembley concerts, perhaps. In the wake of the sad passing of Luther Vandross it’s good to have a timely reminder of this heady period for soulful pop music, but only heightens the desire to hear the albums of the time rather than these enlarged versions.