Dolly Parton’s decision to release a live album and DVD from her 2008 European tour was somewhat surprising, since it had only been five years since her previous live album/DVD Live and Well, from her 2003 Halos & Horns tour. I wasn’t going to buy this one, mainly because it didn’t offer any new material, but also because I was a little concerned that it might be lacking in quality. Though I was loathe to admit it, there were a few moments on the Backwoods Barbie album where Dolly’s voice sounded weak, and I feared that the decline in vocal power of a 62-year-old performer would only be more apparent in a live recording.
I began to change my mind when someone at Dolly Records came up with the brilliant marketing idea of allowing Amazon MP3 to offer a free download of “Jolene” from the album for a short period of time. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Dolly sounded as good as ever on this song and on the preview clips of the other tracks from the album. That reassurance, along with my need to keep my Dolly collection as complete as possible — I have pretty much everything she’s released since 1983, except for the Rhinestone soundtrack and some redundant compilations — finally persuaded me to buy the album. I decided that I didn’t need the DVD; I have quite a few concert DVDs in my collection that I never watch. Instead I downloaded the audio tracks from iTunes, rather than my usual vendor of choice, Amazon MP3, in order to take advantage of the iTunes bonus feature — a video clip of “Here You Come Again.”
Recorded at London’s O2 Arena, the album contains fifteen tracks, spanning Parton’s career. Most of the songs are live versions of her RCA hits, along with “The Grass Is Blue”, “Little Sparrow” and five songs from 2008’s Backwoods Barbie. More of Dolly’s pop hits are represented here than has been the case with her previous live albums, which is not surprising since the British audience was probably more familiar with her crossover material. “Coat of Many Colors”, with an interesting autoharp arrangement, is the oldest song performed here, while the much-maligned “Islands In The Stream”, with one of Parton’s band members (I couldn’t make out the name) standing in for Kenny Rogers, closes out the RCA years. Perhaps the song most altered from the studio recording is “The Grass Is Blue”, which is given a keyboard-driven arrangement as opposed to its original bluegrass treatment.
The album’s primary weakness is the extensive editing that was required in order to fit all of the music on one disc. Most of Dolly’s interaction with the audience between songs was excluded, which makes the listening experience seem more like a series of live performances akin to CMT’s 330 Sessions, as opposed to feeling that one is listening to a Dolly Parton concert. The lack of banter is why this set is not as good as the two disc Live and Well, which is a better representation of a Dolly Parton concert. On the other hand, if you have Dolly’s previous live albums, you’ve heard much of that schtick before and probably don’t need to hear it again
Ultimately this collection succeeds due to Dolly’s impressive vocal performance. She sounded particularly good on “Shinola”, which is not one of my favorite Parton songs. However, it’s one of the songs from Backwoods Barbie on which her voice sounded particularly strained. None of that is apparent on the live version; this is a rare instance in which the live performance easily trumps the studio recording.
Although I did not have the opportunity to view the DVD, I did watch the clip of “Here You Come Again”, which was part of my iTunes purchase. It was a bit of a disappointment, primarily because the audio is badly out of synch with the video. Film editing necessitates the overdubbing of the audio track onto the final video cut; otherwise the music would be all chopped up as the camera angles change. However, the film editor’s failure to properly synchronize the audio and video gives the appearance of a poorly lip-synched, Milli Vanilli-style performance. I read one Amazon review that complained about the editing on the DVD, and I have to concur at least as far as this one clip is concerned.
Despite the shortcomings of the DVD and the lack of any new material, I still feel that Live from London is a worthwhile purchase. The moral of the story is to never underestimate Dolly Parton or count her out. I’m sorry I ever doubted you, Dolly.
Live from London is available from Amazon and iTunes.