Linda Ronstadt: Live in Hollywood

At the very least, this belated issue might reawaken interest in Linda Ronstadt as one of the early architects of “country rock,” or what we now loosely call Americana.

Linda Ronstadt
Live in Hollywood
(Rhino)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

For about a five-year stretch in the mid-late ‘70s, Ronstadt was one of — if not — THE most successful rock/pop/roots vocalists in the world. Her albums consistently went multi-platinum, she played cavernous, hockey-rink sized arenas and logged a clutch of hit singles that still sound great. And she was responsible for putting the Eagles together, perhaps her most unheralded achievement.

But 35 years after her heyday, Ronstadt’s many musical triumphs don’t seem to have transcended the decades. Perhaps this recently unearthed April, 1980 show — originally recorded for an HBO special and amazingly her only official live CD — will change that.

Better late than never? Maybe.

Despite crisp, stellar sound due to recording in Hollywood’s Television Center Studios, a crack live band that includes Little Feat keyboardist Billy Payne, guitarists Danny Kortchmar and Dan Dugmore and veteran drummer Russ Kunkel, along with a hit-heavy set list, this is less than the sum of its parts. The dozen songs clock in at an anemic 47 minutes, the arrangements are so close to the recorded versions as to be at times indistinguishable from them, and with a few notable exceptions, the performance feels routine, if not quite uninspired. The abbreviated set, shortened considerably from the 20-song original, generally sticks with crowd pleasers. Although her current album at the time, 1980’s Mad Love, included three Elvis Costello-penned tunes, they are ignored for the less interesting “Hurt So Bad,” “I Can’t Let Go,” and the harder rocking “How Do I Make You,” all hits from that release. Additionally, without the associated visuals that display Ronstadt’s low key yet charming stage presence, much of this feels predictable.

On the plus side, she’s in terrific voice throughout with a few standout performances like the closing “Desperado” — a knockout, dramatic vocal accompanied only by Payne’s piano — and a powerful take on Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou” (has anyone done that song better?).  When the band gets a chance to let loose on an extended, six-minute “You’re No Good,” we see the potential of what might have been a rollicking show. 

At the very least, this belated issue might reawaken interest in Linda Ronstadt as one of the early architects of “country rock,” or what we now loosely call Americana. Through her dynamic voice and arrangements, she also helped put once-struggling songwriters such as Warren Zevon, Jackson Browne, Glenn Frey/Don Henley and Lowell George on the map by including their work on her wildly popular albums.