BILLY PRESTON: LIVE EUROPEAN TOUR (1974)
1) Day Tripper; 2) The Bus; 3) Let It Be; 4) Will It Go Round In Circles; 5) Let's Go Get Stoned; 6) Space Race; 7) Amazing Grace; 8) That's The Way God Planned It; 9) Outa Space; 10*) Day Tripper; 11*) The Bus; 12*) Let It Be; 13*) Let's Go Get Stoned; 14*) Billy's Bag; 15*) Will It Go Round In Circles; 16*) Outa Space; 17*) Higher; 18*) Get Back.
Maybe this is it. Yep, if you are wholeheartedly determined to own a Billy Preston album because he has such a cute gap in his front teeth — but are stubbornly determined to own only one Billy Preston album because he only got one gap in his teeth, or for any other such reason — this live performance from the time when the man was at the peak of his powers (no matter how high one believes that peak to have been) might be a better choice than even the best studio records.
These recordings were made on the brief European tour where Billy supported the Rolling Stones — the same tour that did not yield the official release of the famous Brussels Affair show, but did yield a live album for Billy, and we do have the Stones to thank for that. First, because it is a real mean feat to be the opening act for the Stones, particularly around 1973: with all the people gathered to see a real hot rock'n'roll show, you have no choice but to work double hard on the atmosphere — leave behind most of the sentimentality and concentrate on the fire.
Second, because I have always felt that what was missing the most on Billy's albums was the presence of a reliable guitar sidekick — somebody who could, on a steady basis, provide much-needed sparring partnership, push the guy towards reaching new extremes, crunch-ify the proceedings and add diversity. Somebody like Clapton, whose presence on the original ʽThat's The Way God Planned Itʼ made it so unforgettable.
Well — turns out that for most of the duration of Billy's set, none other than Mick Taylor himself, warming up for the main gig, would come out and play along. It goes without saying that, consequently, the album is an absolute must-have for all those who hold a special place in their hearts for Mick's guitar tones and fluent bluesy phrasing. In fact, one could argue that it is on Billy's songs where Taylor really gets to play his heart out: with the Stones, the guy was «contractually» held back both in the studio and (to a lesser extent) on the stage, but with Billy, there was no such obligation — so that every time Mick launches into a solo on here, all the attention is immediately diverted to his playing... and Billy is such a nice guy that he doesn't mind too much: in fact, he does not fail to remember to thank «his friend Mick Taylor» at the end of the show.
The latest CD edition of the experience actually contains two versions of the album: one from the US and one from the UK market, which differ quite significantly — about half of the tracks actually represent alternate versions, plus the UK album has ʽBilly's Bagʼ and ʽGet Backʼ on it, whereas the US version replaces them with a closer-to-home instrumental take on ʽAmazing Graceʼ. So, despite all the similarities, there is really very little duplication going on here, and we should be quite happy with eighty minutes of live Billy/Mick material instead of fourty.
Billy winds himself up fairly quickly — after a brief two-minute warm-up with ʽDay Tripperʼ (yes, the Beatles crop up quite often on this record, but, given the particularities of Billy's biography, we could not expect otherwise), we get a ten-minute monster jam based around ʽThe Busʼ, which is as blisteringly raw and kick-ass as the album gets in general. With Preston hopping around from organ to Moog and back again, and Taylor having the permission to throw his hard blues chops in the spotlight anytime he feels like it, the ten minutes pass by in a flash — and at the jam's peak, with the two players «weaving» their lead lines around each other, they easily build up as much rock'n'roll excitement as the Stones themselves.
In a few tiny areas, the energy level might seem to sag a little — for instance, Billy's «comical» impersonation of Ray Charles on ʽLet's Go Get Stonedʼ is rather misguided, and ʽAmazing Graceʼ does not truly find its voice until Taylor joins in at the end — but for most of the time, the heat is totally on: if ʽThe Busʼ were to still leave any doubts, the monster run through ʽOuta Spaceʼ will dissipate the last of them. The final part of that jam features a particularly tense duel between Billy, getting a vile, poisonous tone out of the Moog, and Taylor, spurred on to new heights of slide-playing power (UK version only — the keyboard mix on the US version is not good enough, although Taylor's kick-ass licks are just as good).
Overall, this is an essential listen for all those who tend to think of Preston as somewhat of a lite-entertainment «sissy», all gospel anthems and sentimental ballads and fluffy pop songs about nothing from nothing (speaking of fluffy pop songs, even ʽWill It Go Round In Circlesʼ sounds tough and threatening in this here context). Were it so, the Stones would hardly have entertained the idea to pick on him as a support act (not to mention playing keyboards on their own part of the set) — and while, on his own, he would probably never be in a position to steal the show, the subtle alliance with Mick Taylor almost threatens to do just that. At the very least, I'd bet there was never any clamoring of «we want the Stones!» during Billy's star time. Thumbs up.