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CHRIS REA: THE ROAD TO HELL & BACK

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars: Chris Rea
Director: George Scott
Audio: PCM Stereo, DTS 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.77:1
Studio: Universal Music
Features: Documentary
Length: 160 Minutes (concert + documentary)
Release Date: October 16, 2007

She said Son...what are you doing here?

My fear for you has turned me in my grave.

I said Mama, I've come to the valley of the rich,

Myself to sell,

She said Son...

...THIS IS THE ROAD TO HELL.”

Concert ****

Most people who know me know that The Beatles are my all-time favorite band. I'd wager very few, apart from my wife, could name my favorite solo artist.

It's Chris Rea, the husky-voiced songwriter and blues guitarist from Middlesborough, England. I discovered him back in the mid 80s when his song “On the Beach” was frequently played on VH1. It didn't score chart success in America, but I was captivated by the sound; the relaxed guitar licks that just seemed to reflect the mood of the song's title and easy lyrics. It evolved into a double time jazzy crescendo that made me take notice.

It wasn't Chris' first appearance in America. In a career that defied every known convention, Rea was hardly an early bloomer...he picked up his first guitar at age 22 when he was first introduced to the sound of old school American blues, with its sound of pain and longing, and especially with the sound of a guitar technique that captivated him: the bottleneck slide.

Using the guitar to fuel his creative output, he wrote songs and appeared in a few bands around town. One day a potential manager brought a record company man to hear the group. Chris was not the singer, but since he wrote all the material, the band convinced him for the audition to sing, since he knew the words better than anyone. A record deal was offered...but only if Chris continued to be the voice.

His love for the blues fueled his creativity, but record companies were into other things. He wrote a little tune called “Fool If You Think It's Over” that he envisioned as blues, but the producer turned it into a mellow, sweet adult contemporary song that hit number one on that chart here in America and stayed for three weeks. It would earn Chris a Grammy nomination (he would lose to Billy Joel and “Just the Way You Are”), but it also set worldwide expectations on himself that he never envisioned. He saw himself as a blues guitarist and songwriter, and his first big hit didn't even have him playing guitar on it.

The initial American success finally caused his native Europe to take notice, but he would never again achieve that kind of recognition in this country, despite years of quality albums and eventual worldwide sales of 22 million records.

It would be decades and take a brush with death for Chris to take back control of his music. After spending a few years struggling with cancer and losing his pancreas, duodenum and gall bladder to it, he swore if he recovered, he would embrace the blues and never look back. The record companies shunned his heartfelt new direction, the double album Dancing Down the Stony Road, so he launched his own label and released it himself, where it went gold.

But continual health problems would mean an end to Chris Rea touring as a solo artist. He convinced his doctors to allow him one last tour, and so his farewell to his fans began. It ended back in England, and the final show of his solo career was filmed for release as The Road to Hell & Back.

The show spanned his love for the blues, including material from his epic 11 disc release (you read that right) Blue Guitars, that traced the history of the blues from early African roots up to its revival in the 60s and 70s. Songs like the haunting "Where the Blues Come From", "Easy Rider" and the mesmerizing "KKK Blues" captured his passion for the art form.  But the hits were also there; “Josephine”, “Stainsby Girls”, “I Can Hear Your Heart Beat”, “On the Beach”, “Let's Dance” and more. His approach was stripped down...no fancy lights or effects, no overblown productions, just Chris and his band playing Chris' indelible songs without the glitz or glamour of the music business scene.

He looked well, considering all that he's been through and continues to go through. His gravelly voice is in fine form, and when he touches the strings of his guitar with a glass slide, few do it better.

This DVD represents the closing of a long and fruitful chapter in the life of Chris Rea, as he embarks on a new project as...a band member. The Memphis Fireflies are set to continue to give him a creative output while taking the pressure off of touring solo. He will write, play, and yes, continue to sing, but unless there's a miraculous change in his health, Blue Guitars and this DVD will be the final word on his solo career.

Chris Rea, in my opinion, has never released a bad album, although I have yet to hear a few out-of-print or hard-to-get releases. The combined strengths of his voice, guitar and amazing songs is a combination that never seems to miss. I continue to wish him well in both his health and his career, and will always be grateful for the over thirty years of indelible music he's brought to his fans around the world.

Video **

I can't say it's the best I've seen, and maybe I'm just used to what Blu-ray offers now, but this concert appears shot on standard tape and remastered for anamorphic widescreen. That means there are images that aren't quite as clean and pristine as I would like, some occasional over-saturation of colors, and a little graininess here and there. It's far from unwatchable, but modern fans might have some higher expectations.

Audio ***

Many purists prefer uncompressed stereo for music releases when there's a choice like this disc offers, but I tend to prefer the surround mixes; it gives you more a feel of being there. This DTS offering captures Chris and his band at their most raw and potent, and the tunes go from upbeat and potent to haunting, quiet, and even MORE powerful.

Features **

Only one real extra, but it's a good one, a full length documentary of Chris' final tour across Europe and what it was like for him behind the scenes, in front of the audience, and having to deal constantly with the medical regiment that lets him live one more day. It's on a bonus disc. The first disc, which is the concert, has an easy-to-find Easter egg of Chris performing “Fool If You Think It's Over”...arranged a bit differently than you might remember, but still potent.

Summary:

The Road to Hell & Back is an occasional both joyful and sad; joyful in that it celebrates the music and career of my favorite solo artist, but sad because it represents the end of the line for him in that capacity. Chris Rea is one of those rare artists I can point to and say without hyperbole that the work he's produced has made my life a more enjoyable place to be, and no matter what the future holds for him or how much time he has left, I will always be thankful.

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