Not much beats performing live. It’s even better when the audience is a little rambunctious and caught off-guard by what they’re seeing. You can feel the energy, that precarious balance that they might burst out of control but they’re enjoying the show too much.
I think that’s why I love live music albums so much, especially when you can really hear the audience responding. One of my favorite examples is Harry Belafonte’s At Carnegie Hall album from 1959. I guess this was the first commercially successful live album for music (although I don’t know how true that is since Benny Goodman’s Live at Carnegie Hall from 1950, the first double album, sold over a million copies). Either way, there are a lot of nice moments due to Harry Belafonte being a charming and funny presenter, in addition to his beautiful and powerful voice. It’s obvious the between-song patter was pre-written and rehearsed, but he’s good enough that when he messed up and started to repeat an intro for a previous song, he gracefully pulled out of the awkwardness by riffing with just enough self-deprecation.
But the height is the finale number “Matilda”. I guess the call-and-response thing is kind of a cheap gimmick by now but when the energy is just right and the musicians play around with it, each other, and the audience, magic happens. And that’s just what happens here. Harry Belafonte packs a simple song with surprises and playfulness. He playfully singles out members of his band, women over 40 (my favorite part!) and more to sing along to the chorus, and the audience loves every minute of it, chaotically laughing and singing along. You can almost see him traveling around the stage and then to different sections of Carnegie’s seating. He’s cheerfully determined and protective of his audience to make sure everyone gets their moment to sing along. He isn’t even afraid to stop the band cold not once but twice. The first to tease his conductor Robert Corman, and again to let the audience in the way back sing along so they don’t have to worry about the delay in sound traveling from the back throwing things off. So listen closely to the audience, and enjoy 12 minutes of a magical communication between the people on the stage and the people in the seats.