Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 22, 2015)
On the cover of Live at Knebworth, we find the claim that it offered “the best British rock concert of all-time”. Given the existence of a little show called Live Aid, that seems like a high standard to match.
On June 30, 1990, more than 120,000 patrons flocked to Knebworth House north of London. The concert included these acts and the following songs:
Tears for Fears: “Change”, “Badman’s Song”, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”.
Cliff Richard and the Shadows: “On the Beach”, “Good Golly Miss Molly”, “We Don’t Talk Anymore”.
Phil Collins and the Serious Band: “In the Air Tonight”, “Sussudio”.
Paul McCartney: “Coming Up”, “Birthday”, “Hey Jude”, “Can’t Buy Me Love”.
Status Quo: “Whatever You Want”, “Rockin’ All Over the World”, “Dirty Water”, “In the Army Now”,
Eric Clapton: “Before You Accuse Me”, “Tearin’ Us Apart”.
Dire Straits: “Solid Rock”, “Think I Love You Too Much”, “Money For Nothing”.
Elton John: “Sacrifice”, “Sad Songs (Say So Much)”.
Robert Plant: “Hurting Kind”, “Tall Cool One”, “Wearing and Tearing”, “Rock and Roll”.
Genesis: “Mama”, “Throwing It All Away”, “Turn It On Again Medley”.
Pink Floyd: “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”, “Run Like Hell”.
What you won’t find on this Blu-ray: a full representation of the entire Knebworth concert. The event gets pretty severely abbreviated here, as we lose a whole bunch of songs.
This also creates visual anomalies such as during Tears for Fears’ set: it goes from rainy/overcast to bright/sunny in the course of one song. We also go from nighttime performances (McCartney) to daytime (Status Quo) – why not edit the Blu-ray in chronological order?
While it’d be nice to get a more complete package ala the Live Aid DVDs, Knebworth still provides a decent overview. Of course, which acts the viewer enjoys most will largely depend on individual tastes. Of the performers presented here, only McCartney counts as one of my true favorites, but I like many of the others to varying degrees.
Outside of McCartney, I can’t say I love any of the acts. I like John, Collins/Genesis, and Clapton to reasonable degrees, and I enjoy Dire Straits, Tears For Fears, Plant/Led Zep and Pink Floyd on a more mild level. Only Status Quo and Cliff Richard leave me cold.
Of those last two, neither changed my mind as I watched their sets here. In particular, Richard seems vaguely embarrassing, as he camps his way through his set. Beloved by generations of Brits, Richard never much caught on in the US – I think the Yanks got that one right.
As for the acts I do like, they tend to put on reasonably good sets. That said, if anyone hopes to find “breakout” performances ala U2 and Queen at Live Aid, one will discover disappointment. Those involved offer enjoyable performances but I don’t think any “rise to the occasion” with sets that seem great.
Knebworth finds McCartney in the midst of a very long tour – I’d see him live for the first time four days after this concert – and 1990 doesn’t show him at his best. As I noted when I reviewed the concert film from the 1990 tour, McCartney’s voice faltered a lot, and his band added little spark to the songs. Macca circa 1990 wasn’t bad, but he also fell far short of his live peak; he was better before 1990 and in later years.
Looking at the rest of the package, Plant’s set garnered the most attention because former Led Zep bandmate Jimmy Page joined him for “Wearing and Tearing” and “Rock and Roll”. I suspect that pairing would have been more exciting if it didn’t represent the third “Led Zep reunion” in then-recent years. Plant, Page and John Paul Jones played Live Aid in 1985 as well as an Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary show in 1988, so this 1990 performance almost bordered on old hat. (Page and Plant would record/tour together twice in the 1990s but I don’t think another formal “Led Zep reunion” occurred until 2007.)
While Page’s guest spot doesn’t turn Plant’s set into a mind-blower, he does help redeem matters. As evidenced by Plant’s versions of “Hurting Kind” and “Tall Cool One”, he needed the shot in the arm Page’s presence and playing added. Plant’s band seemed to be more about posing and “rock star movements” than music, but they shaped up their act with Page on stage – or he just managed to overwhelm them enough that they became irrelevant.
Whatever the case, the Plant/Page songs work pretty well. I’ve never been the world’s biggest Led Zep fan, but those two share an unmistakable chemistry, and it’s good to see them get it going here, even if Plant’s voice falters at times.
In 2015, a Pink Floyd show would be a massive deal, as their short set at 2005’s Live 8 demonstrated. However, in 1990, such a performance was less of a big deal, as the Roger Waters-less Floyd finished a massive two-year tour about a year prior to Knebworth, and they’d also spend much of 1994 on the road.
Even without Waters, the Floyd had a reputation for strong live shows, but that doesn’t come through all that well via Knebworth. I suspect the band needs their own staging to pull off what they desire, so without those visuals, they lack the same impact. Knebworth offers a decent Floyd performance but not anything likely to earn them new fans.
When we look at the remaining acts, they all toured/performed a ton, so there’s no “special attachment” to their appearances at Knebworth. Collins was in the midst of a solo tour but Genesis were on hiatus at the time; other than the Atlantic Records show with Led Zep, they’d not played together since the end of their 1987 tour, and after Knebworth, they’d not regroup until a major 1992 tour.
Oddly, Knebworth splits the Collins/Genesis sets, even though it’s clear the latter came as part of the former. Strange editing choices aside, both sound fine.
Even with a couple of years apart, Genesis play their notable tracks well, and Phil’s band – parts of which toured with Genesis anyway – were in well-oiled machine mode. Neither Collins nor Genesis do anything revelatory, but they perform in a satisfying manner.
Clapton provides a pleasant surprise. I’ve seen old EC maybe half a dozen times over the last 30 years, and the more recent shows remain most prominent in my mind – concerts at which he looks bored and like he’d prefer to be at home in his den.
I don’t know if Knebworth just got Clapton on a good day or it accurately represents his live show circa the late 80s/early 90s, but Eric seems downright peppy during the show. He blazes away on guitar as expected, and he cracks an occasional smile. Clapton’s pink sports coat appalls, but otherwise, I like his set.
EC sticks around for Dire Straits’ performance as well. Oddly, the program credits the show to “Mark Knopfler”, but Clapton introduces them as “Dire Straits”, so it’s unclear what’s up with the billing. In another curious move, “Dire Straits” appears to consist of Clapton’s band with Knopfler on guitar/vocals and John Illsley on bass.
As strange as that seems, “Dire Straits” put on a pretty good performance. It’s a treat to watch guitar masters Knopfler and Clapton duel, and the whole set works nicely. I still don’t know if I can handle the sight of a happy-looking Clapton, though.
On the other side of the spectrum, Elton John was a physical mess in 1990, as mix of drugs, booze and other issues left him a wreck. He also plays with the combo Clapton/Straits band, and even though Elton looks horrible, he actually sounds pretty good.
Or maybe I’ve just seen him live too much over the last 10 years or so; modern-day Elton puts on a good show but his voice isn’t what it used to be. Heck, circa 1990, he’d already lost range, but compared to his current vocals, Knebworth Elton offers good singing.
Too bad the Blu-ray saddles us with two less than stellar songs. Granted, he only played three tunes, but why not include the high-energy “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting”? You have Clapton and Knopfler on stage but stick us with two light pop ditties from Elton?
That choice somewhat synopsizes Live at Knebworth. As a whole, it gives us a good collection of acts and performances. A few duds emerge – mainly Cliff Richard – but overall, this becomes an enjoyable concert.
I just can’t call Knebworth great in any way. While consistently likable, claims this turns into “the best British rock concert of all-time” don’t prove true.