Our Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
The Jeff Healey Band’s “Full Circle: The Live Anthology” box set is a most-welcome breath of fresh air from the holiday-spawned scheme in which record companies drudge up every goody that an artist has ever recorded and repackages it in hopes that completists will then part with their cash and repurchase a mass of material, most of which they already own.
The folks at Eagle Records skip the usual array of greatest hits, previously unreleased studio cuts, dusted-off-from-the-vaults demos and special remixes that are typical of this type of scam and, instead, serve up three CDs worth of live concert performances: one from 1989’s Montreal Jazz Festival, another from the Switzerland-based St. Gallen Open Air Festival in 1991, as well a Toronto show from 1995. A DVD of the 1991 show rounds out the package. It’s a ballsy maneuver and winds up turning what could have been a posthumous insult to into a tribute that truly befits Healey and is so richly deserved.
The set lists from each of the three shows documented by “Full Circle” often include the same songs and, as such, provide anchor points by which the listener can specifically hear Healey and his band grow from a raw three-piece outfit that, while still immensely talented, could be somewhat ragged and repetitive in its instrumentation into a finely-tuned machine that was a force to be reckoned with. The performances showcase the band ripping through their own material (including the sentimental mega-hit “Angel Eyes”) as well as an assortment of revved-up covers that includes the Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues”, the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You”. At the core of each and every song is Healey’s virtuoso blues guitar work and a bare-bones rhythm section that augments him perfectly. Envision ZZ Top or Neil Young’s Crazy Horse being fronted by Stevie Ray Vaughn and you’re pretty much there – save for one thing.
Only the DVD of the 1991 show allows the viewer/listener to discover the fact that Healey was entirely blind. Although often seated with his double-necked guitar positioned pedal-steel style in his lap and fretting in a way that more resembles piano playing, the video also captures him playing his axe behind his head, with his teeth and even with his feet. These flashy displays would seem indulgent and cliché if the musician presented throughout the 4 discs seemed arrogant and out to impress in a sideshow circus performer kind of way, but that’s far from the case. Healey’s frequent down-to-earth stage banter and ever-present true love of the blues consistently allows the music to outshine the man himself.
The only item that has been overlooked by the creators of the box set is the inclusion of any sort of write-up that explains why these three particular shows were chosen or any sort of biographical information about Healey. Liner notes from any of his contemporaries sharing their insights as to what made him such a consummate and gifted artist would almost seem to be a mandatory component as well. However, the only item included is a 4-page booklet that’s solely comprised of the track lists from each of the discs and restoration credits for the video footage contained on the DVD. Given that this text is already printed on the back of the standard-issue DVD case insert, it’s redundant and unnecessary – and a massive lost opportunity.
Regardless of this oversight, “Full Circle” is a well-envisioned package that, instead of being superfluous, becomes a necessary historical document. Fine musicianship rarely shines as bright as Healey’s and this set allows us to see a light that was extinguished far too early.