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Moody Blues front man Justin Hayward goes solo acoustic on new DVD

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Justin Hayward: Spirits Live at The Buckhead DVD

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Justin Hayward’s been keeping busy.

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The Moody Blues front man booked a handful of acoustic shows last year between jaunts on the iconic band’s extensive “Timeless Flight” tour to promote his first solo album in eight years, Spirits of the Western Sky. We covered the disc here: http://www.justinhayward.com/examiner-com-reviews-spirits-western-sky/

The singer-songwriter brought in director David Minasian and his camera crew to film his stripped-down performances (and some behind-the-scenes action) at a couple small halls and clubs. Complete footage from Hayward’s August 17, 2013 gig in Atlanta (which occurred a month prior to the Moody’s concert at Jacobs Pavilion here in Cleveland) is now available on Blu-Ray / DVD.

The main feature on Justin Hayward: Spirits…Live at The Buckhead Theatre finds the Moody front man regaling a capacity crowd with cuts from the album—along with selected classics from the Moodys songbook. It’s neither a strictly “solo” nor truly “unplugged” affair, per se: Hayward is accompanied by three capable friends, whose keyboards and guitars (even the acoustics) are all wired for (modest) amplification. But clips from the cozy, small-scale event highlight Hayward’s rich voice and underrated guitar chops in close environs, and the material holds up even without the trappings (or safety net) of full orchestration . There are no drums, bass, pyrotechnics or strobe lights, and the sole backdrop is a static print of the sunset adorning the Spirits cover sleeve.

All of which means there’s nothing fancy going on, save Hayward’s songs. And that’s enough.

We watched the bonus feature first, which helped prime us for the actual show. The 45-minute “backstage access” documentary follows Hayward and his crew during a two-night stand at The Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia (just prior to their Buckhead show). Here, Minasian’s roving cameras capture enthusiastic fans as they cue outside the venue (some hours in advance or doors), then shadow Hayward himself as he preps for the performances and mingles with band members and technicians. Concertgoers gush over the star while waiting out in the parking lot, share memories of Moody shows past, and discuss the impact Hayward’s music has had on their lives. Some ticketholders cite their favorite albums. A few females reveal girlhood crushes on Justin that date back decades.

We also meet Hayward’s ace band: We catch up with honorary Moodys Alan Hewitt (keyboards) and Julie Ragins (background vocals, percussion), and are introduced to newcomer Mike Dawes—a 23-year old English guitar phenomenon whose skills came to the attention of Hayward (and millions of others) via his jaw-dropping acoustic interpretation of Gotye hit “Somebody That I Used to Know” on You Tube. The long-haired youngster says it’s his first time in America.

Alan dishes on his favorite Moodys material, and Julie helps Mike modify a guitar capo. We watch—fly on the wall-style—as the band shares a meal backstage and does a fundraising photo op for PBS. We’re also privy to sound check, where Hayward leads the gang through some familiar songs. We also join Hayward in the green room (it’s actually blue), where he outlines the differences between a full-blown Moodys concert and his solo shows:

“You’re naked up there,” the singer explains. “You don’t have the drums washing everything out.”

“I can hear every nuance in the vocals, the guitar.”

The documentary features “soundtrack” songs that don’t make it into the evening’s set list: The new “On The Road to Love” was coauthored by Kenny Loggins; “Suitcase” hails from Hayward’s 1980 LP Night Flight; while “Troubadour” gives a dose of Justin’s last solo effort, The View From the Hill.

The concert film itself is a sterling musical experience. Hayward serves up fifteen crowd-pleasers, sealing the deal with his easygoing, between-song banter—wherein he discusses the often precarious chemistry in the Moodys, divulges memories of his late brother, speaks on musical influences (The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly), and talks about downsizing his home. The rapport he establishes with the crowd is genuine, as if he’d simply invited a few hundred guests into his living room for a private woodshedding session.

We’re treated to a slideshow of sepia tone images of Hayward and The Moodys as “Captivated By You” segues into the concert proper. Taking the stage alone, Hayward casts an immediate spell (and gets folks clapping along) on “Tuesday Afternoon” before bringing out Hewitt and Ragins for a mash-up of “It’s Up to You / Lovely to See You.” Dawes—who also served as the opening act—appears next, and the mini-camera attached to the headstock of his guitar becomes the source of several unique shots.

Hayward breeches the new stuff with “In Your Blues,” but decides to start over after flubbing the lyric. He laughs off the gaff, explaining that they must get in a full run-through for the cameras, but it speaks to Hayward’s lack of ego (and humor) that he allowed Manasian and his editors to preserve the very “human” moment in the finished film. Hayward dedicates “Western Sky” to his brother, with whom he gazed out the window as a child and contemplated the weather—and the future—before knocking out more new offerings (“In the Beginning,” “One Day, Someday,” “Eastern Sun.”

Hayward explains that Ritchie Havens taught him the alternate guitar tuning used on “New Horizons.” Another Seventh Sojourn (1972) track, “The Land of Make Believe,” also sparkles. Hayward trades guitars as needed—six and twelve strings—but sticks to his acoustic / electrics. Dawes strums, taps, and smacks his acoustic (a la late “new age” guitarist Michael Hedges),

For the first time ever, Hayward left his cherry red Gibson ES-335 at home and brought along the same arsenal of guitars used to write the material. The gambit pays off; the troubadour recreates the songs without sacrificing the immediacy that often gets lost whenever an artist of his caliber brings compositions from the studio to concert stage. Dawes occasionally plays an electric Telecaster guitar, fleshing out the mix while Hewitt orchestrates on a Yamaha Motif X-S8 and Hammond SK-1 keyboards. The lovely Ragins contributes lush backing and harmony vocals throughout, and plays tambourine and auxiliary keyboards as required.

Hayward says he reimagined “It’s Cold Outside Your Heart” (from the Moody’s 1983 album The Present) for Spirits of The Western Sky after hearing a bluegrass band cover the tune. He also confesses that he initially declined the Jeff Wayne-written “Forever Autumn” (from Wayne’s late 1970’s musical version of The War of the Worlds) but was glad he got talked into doing the fan favorite.

Several radio gems round out the set: “Your Wildest Dreams” retains the grandiosity of the recorded version; “Question” benefits from Hayward’s strident strumming on a 12-string; and “Nights In White Satin” features Dawes—who plays the song’s memorable flute solo on his acoustic guitar. 1988 chart-topper “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere” is a fitting encore, and brings the audience to their feet.

Live at The Buckhead Theatre is the latest in a series of concert and documentary titles issued by Eagle Rock, whose catalog of top-notch audio and video digital media just keeps growing. Other recent titles from the Grammy Award-winning company (over 50 platinum and 90 gold discs) capture shows (both new and old) by such artists as ZZ Top, Peter Gabriel, Queen, George Thorogood, The Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, Alice Cooper, and Santana.

The Hayward DVD is a nice home library companion to Eagle Rock’s Moody Blues-related titles Live at The Isle of White 1970 and Live at Montreux 1991, both reissued (and covered here) last year.

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