Put the Boot In: Harry Nilsson – 1971 The Music of Nilsson ‘Listen to My Song’

by | Jul 18, 2015 | 0 comments

Jamming visually and audibly today in the rock room is a
stellar video document of Harry Nilsson ‘In Concert’ from the aptly titled The Music of Harry Nilsson broadcast in
1972. Ironically, Nilsson never
performed live in concert and this particular performance was recorded in the
studio with the audience applause overdubbed after the fact. This is no way affects
the absolutely stunning performances contained herein. There is plenty of
intimate footage and sticky sweet songwriting to go around. The half hour special
plays more like a movie short or long play music video using goofy effects and
some cool animation spots to accompany the music.

Luckily this performance captures one of the most
extraordinary singer/songwriters of our time in an emotionally stirring and low
key setting. Nilsson’s personality is put beneath glass for the duration of the
performance, bearing his soul and sharing his gift through truthful renditions
of many of his finest compositions. The entire half hour performance is
available because of the loving time and effort of an enterprising fan. Clips
have been put together seamlessly and from multiple sources to create perfect
representation of the 1972 BBC broadcast. It could be and should be an official
release.
The concert features Nilsson solo, with voice and piano
(sometimes guitar) and some silly shenanigans to keep things interesting and to
deflect some of the cameras from their subject I’m sure.
The performance opens with the dampened blue and rolling
saloon introduction of ‘Mr Richland’s Favorite Song’, a shifty narrative
outlining a confused rock star and his equally special admirers.  Nilsson’s vocals are gripping, wringing the
storyline from the songs shadowy melody. The verses of ‘Richland’ move in and
out of the Nilsson original and 1969 hit for ‘Three Dog Night’, ‘One’ and back
into ‘Mr. Richland’ seamlessly. The song then continues into a wordless scat sung outro
jam where Nilsson rises and falls with regal resonance, a beautiful conclusion and opening.
After the simulated audience participation, Nilsson bounds into ‘Got To Get
Up’ from  1971’s Nilsson Schmilsson, his succinct piano melody evoking a melodic
hustle and bustle and the inevitably of time. This rendition is sparse in
comparison to the big sound of the studio rendition, but is no less effective.
Nilsson’s colored piano trills that conclude the song are especially inspiring.

 
‘Walk Right Back’ follows, a cover song probably learned via the
Everly Brothers, the song weaves and bobs on a delicious Nilsson piano line.
Two Harry’s share the piano bench harmonizing together. Verse two begins and a
third Harry appears lending the sparkling counter melody and eventually some wheezing
harmonica. The footage is 1970’s antiquated with its split screen, but stunning
in its portrayal of Nilsson’s stratified vocal styling’s and quirky sense of
humor.  The triad of Harry’s segue into a
honky-tonk appearance of ‘Let the Good the Good Times Roll’ and conclude with a
glimpse of Nilsson watching himself amidst a snoozing crowd of onlookers.

The delicate simplicity of “Life Line’ from  Nilsson’s 1971 LP and story The Point makes a welcome and rare appearance.
His performance here reminds me of a John Lennon home demo tape in its scarce
but effective lyrics and chanted piano mantras. Nilsson’s influence on Lennon
is obvious when this track is analyzed. Nilsson uses vibrato and vocal droning effects
to enunciate the succinct lyrics. His voice is indescribable in its perfect expression
of Harry’s soulful air.
Nilsson looks out at a staged disinterested crowd and then gazes
into a television screen placed on his piano, where an animation for the
cartoon adaptation of Harry’s LP The
Point
 illustrates the fairytale lyricism
of ‘Think About Your Troubles’. The songs natural progression of events and
tic-toc cadence is aurally excellent and acts a cool little interlude.
The soaring contrasts of sorrow and ‘Joy’ a song not yet
released by Nilsson until Son of Schmilsson
make an appearance here and revel in the context of a celebration of love and the eventual
loss of that love. Nilsson again sings with passion and his vocals are rich,
vibrant and flexing, he sings like the professional hired hand at an upscale
1920’s saloon. The song is a highlight of the performance and possibly a highlight of all available Harry footage. Only one person
claps at the songs conclusion though…. as you will see on the accompanying video.
 
‘Are You Sleeping’, another feature from The Point is joined by the animated
footage and is the studio version as far as I can tell. The dreamy wandering of
the song plays against a cartoon background of stars and again acts as a diversion from featuring Nilsson in more footage humorously.
Nilsson next dons an acoustic guitar and sings ‘Without Her’
from 1967’s Pandemonium Shadow Show in
a version that stays remarkably true to the original minus the swirling
strings. Each line is dressed in angelic falsetto and wordless ‘do do do’s’
that add a carelessness to the expressed desperation illustrated in the
narrative. The performance is a classic portrait of an artist at the top of his
game and is an additional highlight.
Nilsson’s classic track ‘Cocunut’ follows ‘Without Her’ and is performed
by three gorilla’s in bowler caps, one on piano, one on percussion and one on
guitar. Those familiar with the pop culture effect of the ‘Cocunut’ song will
be interested to know that the song is only played on one chord. Again, this
performance has a home demo feel, with Nilsson’s perfectly layered vocals and
the spacious one man (3 gorilla)instrumentation constructing the song. The accompanying video, well, check it out
and call me in the morning, just the good Dr. says.

The performance and broadcast closes with ‘1941’ as Nilsson’s sneakered
shoe taps and his fingers pluck out the acoustic melody. The song’s lyrics use
years to express the circular way that family’s often find themselves in the
same traps the generations the precede them.  Autobiographical in a sense, the song reminds
us of heritage and the way some of us are doomed to repeat the mistakes that
our parents did. The camera pulls away and rises as Nilsson fades to black and
white his heart felt oooh’s and moans like gentle fingers on my neck. Just when
it gets right to the edge of the nerve, color returns and Nilsson is tagged
with a direct hit of a cream pie to the face. Just when the listener is in danger of
getting too deep or taking the tale a bit too seriously, Nilsson reminds us of
the humor and enjoyment present in all of his music.

1971’s The Music of
Nilsson
should be preserved forever with an official and specially packaged
edition so fans and prospective listeners may be able to witness this special
collection of performances. Humor, poignancy, revelations and secrets abound
through the songwriting and instrumental expressions of Nilsson. The abilities
on display during this concert range from ragtime singing, jazz sensibilities, compositional
prowess, revolutionary arranging, storytelling and deep humor.  Nilsson was a man of multifaceted abilities;
the aforementioned document captures a few of them for eternity and all of our musical
enjoyment.

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