REVIEW BY: Mark Millan
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 09/17/2009
Following up her triumphant return-to-form with the stunning Strange Weather LP, Marianne Faithfull returned to the stage and played her first series of concerts for some years. The shows were very well-received and the decision to record some of them for a possible album was a wise move indeed. Blazing Away was recorded over two shows at St. Anne’s Cathedral, Brooklyn in November of 1989. The only song not recorded live is the title-track, but it still fits in quite well near the end of the set. In the liner notes, Marianne states that the chosen songs make up the story of her life. What a life it must have been if this performance is anything to go by.
Opening with the morbid French ballad “Les Prisons Du Roy” is a brave decision, especially when it’s followed with the dark blues of “Strange Weather,” but Faithfull offers superb readings of both songs and her voice has rarely sounded better. What follows is a mixture of angry rock and a few well-placed acoustic ballads. When I say “angry,” I mean angry – so angry in fact that Marianne on a few occasions sounds barely able to contain her rage, being that these songs bring back painful and dark memories of her past that can’t be easy to sing at the best of times.
The caustic lyric and menacing tone of “Guilt” is an early showstopper. Marianne weaves a story fueled by every emotion she can conjure up during the eight minute workout. She delivers the lyrics in a ferocious tone, and never have the lines “If I could get away with murder / I’d take my gun and I’d commit it” sounded more convincing. Next up, we have a masterful version of Lennon’s “Working Class Hero,” a song Faithfull recorded for her masterpiece Broken English. Once again, although her band gives it everything they’ve got, it’s Marianne’s delivery that steals the show.
“Sister Morphine” was a tune that Mick Jagger played around their house for ages until Marianne finally wrote lyrics and recorded the song herself. It was originally released as a single, but the censors saw to it being taken off the shelf (apparently they had no objections to it when it turned up on Sticky Fingers a few years later.) It’s given a wonderfully dark arrangement that builds to a raw climax, showcasing what an incredible band Faithfull had by now assembled. Regular cohorts Barry Reynolds and Fernando Saunders were now joined by an array of expert musicians, including Dr. John and Lew Soloff.
The track that started it all for Marianne, “As Tears Go By,” is beautifully transformed live into a dark waltz. Her lofty high notes on the original recording are replaced with her whiskey-laced alto despairingly observing, “My riches can’t buy everything / I want to hear the children sing.” Next up is by far Marianne’s most infamous song to date, the explosion of angry rock “Why’d Ya Do It?.” The lyrics, which Faithfull adapted from a Heathcote Williams poem, are laced with profanity and express the raw emotions of sexual jealousy painfully well. The band delivers a savage rendition which Faithfull matches with unnerving ease.
“When I Find My Life” is one of two new songs that were introduced on the album. The song is a sweet acoustic ballad that bears one of Marianne’s most personal lyrics. “The Ballad Of Lucy Jordan,” a cut that Faithfull made her own on Broken English, is given a faithful rendition that is dedicated to “every woman who has lost her dreams.” Just when you think that this record couldn’t get any better, along comes “Times Square” to prove you wrong. Faithfull relates the story superbly and paints an eerie visual of her stalking Times Square in the wee hours “with a pistol in my suitcase and my eyes on the T.V.”
The other new song debuted here is the title-track, written one Christmas with her partner-in-crime Barry Reynolds. The only studio recording here and easily one of Marianne’s best songs, “Blazing Away” evokes wonderful imagery while again conveying a wide array of emotions.
The beefed-up band had one more chance to put the pedal to the metal, and they didn’t let it pass them by. Closing out the show with a caustic, expertly paced version of “Broken English” is a stroke of genius only matched by their fearless leader once again digging deep and making one last statement of defiance before slipping away into the night.
Blazing Away is one of the best live albums I’ve ever heard. It’s a great account of why Marianne Faithfull is so revered as a live performer by her peers and fans alike. I caught her 2002 show here in Melbourne while she was touring Kissin’ Time and she was nothing if not brilliant; it was that night that converted me from just a fan to a fanatic. I have never heard more captivating interpretations of her own and others’ songs. This album is no exception – captivating is the word that best describes it. With Blazing Away, Marianne gave an astonishingly vital performance, and all I can say is that I’m glad the tape was rolling to capture it.