Editor’s Note: This past weekend, I watched the recently-released Nina Simone documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? The film, directed by Academy Award-nominated documentarian Liz Garbus, uses footage from Simone’s gripping, shambolic, brilliant performance at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival as bookends for its biographical narrative. During one of those sequences, I remembered that I’d written about Simone’s Montreux concert before: almost nine years ago, in October 2006. This is that post. I should note, however, that it will be more heavily edited than most of the archival pieces I put up here: as a 22-year-old dingus who was not familiar with Simone’s legitimate mental illness, I made some insensitive comments about her behavior on stage (the words “bat” and “shit” were, I’m afraid, employed). So, this is my revised and, hopefully, less shitty version, which I hope will be the one to live on the Internet in perpetuity. Sorry, Nina. I was a young idiot then, but I’m trying to be a doper person now. – Z.H.
Nina Simone always did have a reputation for live performances. On the one hand, this was because she was simply unmatched in that capacity–a fact that’s evidenced by the sheer number of live albums in her discography, from 1959’s At Town Hall to the legendary In Concert in 1964, Black Gold in 1969, and so on. At the same time, though, Simone in concert has always been something of a prickly proposition; her eccentric, regal, and occasionally contemptuous stage persona is a big part of what earned her the sobriquet “The High Priestess of Soul.” And then there’s the recently released Live at Montreux 1976, which captures a complete and unedited performance by the singer at the prestigious Swiss jazz festival. On stage at Montreux, Simone is certainly eccentric, and occasionally contemptuous; but she isn’t “regal,” so much as she is raw, vulnerable, and defiantly unpolished. This makes it a bit of an uncomfortable watch–but, if one persists, it can also be a deeply rewarding one.
It should probably send up warning flags for even the most adventurous of listeners that, of Live at Montreux‘s 111 minutes, only 47 are taken up by actual music. The rest of that time is occupied mostly by a series of uncomfortable pauses, bizarre assertions (“the media, you see, is real… it lives”), and a seemingly endless battle with a vocal mic that just won’t stand still. The first moments of the concert set the tone, as Simone strides onstage, takes a bow, and then stands completely stock still for upwards of 30 seconds, an eternity under the circumstances. After taking her seat at the piano, a blank, distant look on her face, she speaks into the microphone. “I hear some other music,” she murmurs cryptically. She fiddles with the mic a little bit, and it becomes obvious that she’s referring to some kind of technical difficulties–though all that’s apparent to the audience, both in Montreux in 1976 and at home today, is a distinctly awkward silence.
Nor do the strange moments end there. By way of introduction to opening number, “Little Girl Blue,” Simone announces she won’t be playing any more jazz festivals, a point she doesn’t shy away from bringing up throughout the remainder of the concert with a series of jibes at her increasingly ungracious audience. “Yesterday I went to see Janis Joplin’s film here,” she says in the middle of “Be My Husband.” “And I started to write a song about it, but I decided you weren’t worthy. Because I figured most of you were here for the festival, and you just really… Anyway, the point is, it pained me to see how hard she worked. Because she got hooked into a thing, and it wasn’t on drugs. She got hooked into a feeling. And she played to corpses. You know what I mean?” At this point, she winks madly, cackles, and scurries briefly behind the drum stool. Later on in the show, she owns up that she’s “half high,” which seems to be an understatement.
Nina’s spare, funky version of “Backlash Blues“–dedicated, as usual, to its lyricist Langston Hughes–might just be the best version of the song I’ve heard her play. Her a cappella rendition of “Be My Husband” is lean and intimate–if, as we’ve seen, a little rambling around the midsection. Perhaps even more impressive, if less comfortable, is the second half of the show, when Simone’s onstage psychodrama bleeds into her music with truly powerful results. On that night, even the civil rights anthem “I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel to Be Free)” became a moving cry of personal and artistic defiance in Nina’s hands. As she crows near the final swell, “Jonathan Livingston Seagull ain’t got nothing on me!”
But the show really hits its climax with Simone’s performance of “Stars” by Janis Ian. It’s here when, fuming from hecklers and standing audience members–and apparently looking for her “dear friend” David Bowie in the crowd–her nerves and her insecurities are finally laid bare; when she projects herself, with a shuddering emotional intensity, alongside a pantheon of doomed stars from Joplin to Billie Holiday. And when she follows this devastating performance with a truly unexpected, edge-of-sanity cover of Morris Albert’s “Feelings,” digging to the very bottom of the insipid MOR standard, half sarcastic and half deeply earnest, in an attempt to understand “the conditions that produce a situation that demanded a song like that,” it’s obvious that what we’re witnessing isn’t just an awkward, messy, unhinged trainwreck of a performance. It’s also an incredibly moving one: almost as spellbinding, and about twice as personal, as her impassioned 1968 Martin Luther King elegy, “Why? (The King of Love is Dead).”
So, no, the Nina Simone of 1976 isn’t nearly as composed and in control as the Nina Simone of the 1950s and ’60s, the stately classically-trained pianist, the legendary “High Priestess of Soul.” But if you can stand to see a musical icon stripped to her very soul–if you can handle the sight of tears in Simone’s eyes because of “Feelings,” for Christ’s sake–then Live at Montreux 1976 comes with the highest of recommendations. This is not the kind of concert you see every day… or want to. But as human drama goes, it is truly riveting, truly one-of-a-kind stuff. The kind of stuff Nina Simone always did best.
Live at Montreux 1976 is available on DVD from Eagle Rock Entertainment. What Happened, Miss Simone? is currently streaming on Netflix.