Album Review: Jeff Healey – As the Years Go Passing By

Now here’s an interesting package. Compiled and released with the full cooperation, involvement and blessing of the family/estate of the late Jeff Healey, As the Years Go Passing By is a 3CD set bringing together three full concerts. Spaced almost evenly across an eleven-year span of time, these three shows – all done for broadcast in Germany – show the development of an imprtant artist. All of this material is previously unreleased.

The first show dates from 1989, and finds Healey fronting a stripped-down trio. His guitar playing is fiery, full of the energy one expects from a new-ish artist who feels he’s got something to prove. His playing and singing are assured, yet refreshingly free of cliche and any sort of rote approach. The night’s set list is a pleasing combination of original numbers from his 1988 debut album See the Light and some compelling covers. The sound quality is good, but bears hallmarks of compression for broadcast, and the bottom end is a little less well-defined than would be ideal. Still, fans of stinging blues guitar (in a rock context), especially those who enjoy such gunslingers as Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughan – will enjoy this one.

The second disc documents a 1995 concert. By this point the band had added a second guitarist, and Healey had moved in a more overtly commercial direction (i.e. more rock, less blues). While the playing is as impressive as ever, the overall feeling is a bit slicker, and the band seems a notch or two less hungry. But the song selection remains impressive: while it repeats four numbers form the first concert, this show adds inspired covers of a lesser-known Jimi Hendrix track (“Angel”), a heartfelt reading of The Beatles‘ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and a terrific, unexpected cover of Stealers Wheel‘s “Stuck in the Middle.” And when Healey cuts loose on his axe during a spirited version of “As the Years Go Passing By,” it’s clear why his playing is held in such high regard. Despite the slightly more commercial bent of this second show, Healey’s originality and overall appeal remain undeniable.

By the time of the October 2000 set that makes up the third disc of this set, Healey had moved even further in that commercial direction. Subsequent events suggest that he was finding that approach less than completely fulfilling: he would soon release a string of jazz-oriented albums. But on this night, he’s still in fine form, albeit serving up a more meat’n’potatoes flavored set. There’s still blues, to be sure: “How Blue Can You Get” is a delightful blues workout that puts the spotlight on Healey’s soulful voice and subtle, soaring guitar prowess. Four songs are duplicated from the ’95 set, and even the most hardcore Healey fans might feel that three versions of “Roadhouse Blues” is a bit much, but since the goal here is more about presenting full shows, that’s merely a quibble. (Plus, the dual guitar work on the 2000 “Roadhouse Blues” is pretty impressive.)

Healey passed away in 2008. The liner notes include a message from Healey’s family encouraging fans to contribute to Daisy’s Eye Cancer Fund, an organization dedicated to helping those suffering from the malady that blinded Healey as a child.

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