Nina Simone Live at Montreux 1976

ninasimone125Last night I watched a DVD of a Nina Simone concert and I learned a thing or two about her I didn’t know before.

I first discovered Nina Simone about 20 years ago – ever since she’s been one of my icons. I get shivers up my spine whenever I listened to her sing Dylan’s Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues or Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne.  I explored the incredible diversity of her repertoire. I loved that she could handle anything – show music, children’s songs, folk music, pop anthems, jazz standards, protest songs – and make whatever she sang a Nina Simone song. I loved her voice. I saw the tail end of her career, and her impact was often diminished by poor recordings – sadly, her voice gave out in the end.

Back in 1976 Nina Simone was 43. She’s filmed in closeup throughout the concert. I could see an incredibly charismatic, powerfully emotional personality, and that she was a very beautiful woman, even in her 40s. Here was an intelligent woman who thought about her emotions and the world she lived in. There seemed a lot going on inside her and only a small portion of it was expressed.

Nina talked to the audience about some of the things in her mind. Then, abruptly, she sat down and played the piano. At some stage she said, I’m a pianist, the singing was just an accident, something she’s often said. She played some of the best piano I’ve ever heard. She played rhythm section on the bass keys while the drummer showed off, she played improvisational jazz chords, she played powerful classical crescendos. Nina played piano with a range and flair that I think few other pianists could match. She held the show together effortlessly with her piano, with only a percussionist to support her, and the sound was flawlessly recorded. I realised that a lot of her studio work has featured her vocal and that her backing combo has often not featured her piano, which seems more in evidence in her live recordings. Throughout the concert I got the feeling I was just seeing the tip of the iceberg, that she was capable of far more.

The audience loved her but they did not give her her due. She was just back from her residence in Liberia and I thought she seemed to want an African response, the rhythm clapped in unison, the chorus chanted in point and counterpoint. She got instead a fairly staid and sporadic applause, the faces in the crowd mostly expressionless. The men had long hair and beards, someone was smoking a joint (1976, right!) yet they looked conservative. Someone yelled at her for talking too much and asked her to start singing a song. I thought this might be why she was such an emotionally powerful performer, because she had never connected emotionally to her satisfaction with people in her personal life.

There were only six songs in the ’76 set: Little Girl Blue; Backlash Blues; Be My Husband; I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel to be Free); Stars / Feelings; African Mailman. Nina was a little high on the night, she was just back from Africa, she’d spent time with her daughter, she was bitter about what was happening in America. Whatever. I have rarely heard such devastating emotion in a singer’s delivery. Whatever was happening in Nina’s life, happiness, torment, fear, despair – or all of them mixed together, it was in her tones as she sang. When I say Nina Simone was an emotionally powerful performer I don’t just mean that she felt powerfully. She harnessed her feeling to an incredibly skilled vocal and musical performance, and that takes a discipline that few people are capable of.

The DVD includes some tracks from Nina’s performances at Montreux in 1987 and 1990. Nina was 54 and 57, grown somewhat portly and much more self contained. She now had a band behind her, stays behind her piano, engages a lot less with the audience and does more of a self consciously ‘entertainment act’. You’ll enjoy the music: Someone to Watch Over Me; My Baby Just Cares For Me; I Loves You Porgy; Liberian Calypso; Four Women / Mississippi Goddam; Ne Me Quitte Pas (Don’t Leave Me). But if you’ve not seen them before, you’ll never forget the ’76 versions of I Wish I Knew and Stars/Feelings.

Someone like this doesn’t happen very often.

©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

3 thoughts on “Nina Simone Live at Montreux 1976

  1. A recent viewing of this performance inspired the search which your review lay at the end of. Your explanation of the lack of rapport Nina Simone had with the audience during this performance shocked and saddened me enough to post this comment. Unlike you, my only significant exposure to Nina Simone was seeing the “feelings” segment of her performance a few years ago.

    I was stunned by it. There seemed so many ways of interpreting what she was saying. Yet as I watched her I felt she intended to imply every one of them.

    I only moments ago watched the entire 1976 Mountreux Stars/Feelings performance, from when she walks on stage, till she walks off. Again, I’m overwhelmed by the depth. I must say, when she stood up from the piano and began calling around the theatre for her friend David Bowie, I lost it.

    He wasn’t there, but all of her was. The piano riffs you mention were played with such confidence! Even though this is the only piece of hers I’ve really LISTENED to (and HOW could they NOT?) it’s clear she was ALSO a master pianist.

    The quintessential moment of prescience for me still seems to be when she breaks into her digression from the song she was “parodying” with an aside about the primary methods of social control (robots [us], drugs, and the MACHINE trying to control us).

    I only need this performance to know that she’s one of those artists that can project the depth of their soul’s /feelings/ along with the recording of their performance.

    Only now after reading your review do I understand the poignant melancholy in her voice. To be sharing your most authentic self, with all the skill as a story-teller that you could muster, and feel it fall flat to the audience?

    I’ll have to watch again to see if I can catch the moment she decides to feed the disappointment at not engaging the audience BACK into the performance. “It’s a sad story…but then again, that’s what you were expecting, wasn’t it?”


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