By Chris Shapiro:
On his first live album, Donnie Iris gives a performance that equals Bob Seger’s Live Bullet. His performance not only earns him the right to call himself King Cool but the King of Pittsburgh.
A live album can be a tricky feat for an artist. Often times, the live versions do not measure up to the studio versions. Seldom do the live performances out weight the studio versions as did Bob Seger’s Live Bullet released in 1976. The live versions of “Turn the Page” and “Travelin’ Man” became staples of live music during the 70s.
Throughout his musical career, Donnie Iris has released two live albums. The first was 1998’s Live! At Nick’s Fat City.
Live! At Nick’s Fat City starts off with the Iris and Mark Avsec penned Agnes. It kicks off with a throbbing drum intro before the rest of the band shifts the song into gear. A minute of pure rock instrumentals preludes Iris’s vocals. Once Iris takes charge of the song, the story of Agnes comes to life, in all her “madness.” This version is a fully charged, engines to the max, rock song with the band providing an unyielding instrumental foundation and Iris delivering a powerhouse of vocals.
Nothing on the album compares to the rawness of “Minnie the Moocher.” The growl of the guitar riffs coupled with Iris’s signature rock cry during the chorus and the pulsating bass throughout makes the song the coolest on the King’s album. The talk-box during the guitar solo is performed with such expertise that it would make Peter Frampton jealous.
“Ah! Leah!” the song that defined Iris’s solo career, starts off with a dark, sinister, yet almost pray like introduction. The song starts off like a distant wave in the open waters of the ocean. Avsec’s keyboards provide a gentle calm while a chant like repeat of “Ah! Leah!” causes a disturbance in the water. The bass and drums built suspense as the wave reaches the shore line. Suddenly, with the guitar faded-in and the hammering of the drums, the crest of the wave breaks and “Ah! Leah!” blasts onto shore.
With perfect vocals from both Iris and his band’s backing, it is easy to see how this gem rocketed to success. Fans will love the extended amount of time the song is played. The studio version runs just under four minutes, while the live version clocks in a seven minutes and six seconds.
The song comes to a close after Iris completes a call and response from the audience. If Leah was in the crowd, she surely heard the call.
“Poletown” starts off with a slow groovy beat driven by the rock-solid drum performance. The song tells a story with Iris talking lines at times and giving his signature rock cry during the chorus. “Poletown” acts as a slowing force between the upbeat songs of “This Time It Must Be Love” and “That’s The Way Love Ought To Be.” It’s a slow groove that triggers reflection and memories of what use to be.
“Injured in the Game of Love” is the longest track on the album clocking in at over eight minutes. It’s the whole package. The song embodies everything that makes Donnie Iris and the Cruisers great. Every instrument shines through with just the right intensity. Iris’s vocals soar to a higher range as the second repeat of the chorus kicks-in.
Halfway through the performance the song slows and Iris comes in talking about the “Game of love.” Iris speaks as one with experience and every listener who’s taken a chance in the game is able to relate. With organs playing in the background, the listener is reminded of the stakes of getting involved in the high risk game of love. It is a must listen to for Donnie Iris fans.
“Tenth Street” is a song that showcases Avsec’s skills on the keyboard. Avsec and spotless backing vocals by the band members drive the song. “Tough World” is another song that exemplifies the musical skills of the Cruisers.
“Do You Compute?” was a solidly performed song yet it didn’t quite measure up to the studio version. At times it’s difficult to understand Iris over the crowd as the vocals seem to get drowned out. It also lacks the echo effect of the vocals that the studio version features. Yet, still it’s an amazing song.
The album closes with a classic from the Iris vault, “The Rapper,” a song Iris perform early in his career with the Jaggerz. Avsec’s keyboards add an updated electrified charge to the 70s hit.
Personally, my favorites included “Poletown” and “Injured in the Game of Love.” They provided a connection that resonated inside. Certain songs just have that effect and those do.
Overall, I recommend this album to every fan of Donnie Iris and every resident of Pittsburgh. If you call yourself a Pittsburgher and this album isn’t part of your collection, then get out of Pittsburgh, because this is the King’s land. I give a rating of 4.5 out of 5 stars to Live! At Nick’s Fat City.