Release Date:
June 24, 2008

Reviewed by:
Shannon West

At the end of our dance fitness classes we always play a "cool down" song. Something that gives them a chance to get their breath back and send them back into their real worlds with a beautiful vibe. The first time I heard "Fearless," one of the new songs from this package, I knew I had to use it in class. Surrounded by the sound of Steve Oliver's voice and guitar, they melted into the music as they moved, shaking off those "to do" lists and cell phone messages begging for attention. About 10 of them came up to me after class to find out what it was and how to get it.

I have a friend who puts out a newsletter for the adult contemporary radio programmers who are still allowed to choose the music they play (there are a few of those left!). He plays new songs for panels of women in the target age groups and reports his results to subscribers. It is rare for a song to get a totally positive response the first time around. "This Fire" did. They got hit by the same "wow factor" that had me hitting replay all the way to work and back for several days.

That is the magic of Steve Oliver. People love his music when they hear it. It doesn't matter what genres they listen to or identify with by habit. When they hear him they connect. I've seen him win over crowds everywhere from the entertainment tent in a car show where none of the attendees could have cared less about "smooth jazz" to opening for "stars" in stodgy indoor theaters. Since he started building a national fan base when he was with Steve Reid's Bamboo Forest in the 90s, the people who have seen him have been excitedly telling others about him, but putting a studio CD in the player never captured the feeling. Now we have the "ammo" we need: a collection of some of his strongest material recorded live and a DVD of the concert itself. Corner your friends and put it on the screen because this is an artist who has not come near tapping his potential fan base and now the experience has been captured. One Night Live, the CD and DVD, reveal the essence of what Steve Oliver is all about - stunning musicianship, boundless originality, and the type of connection you feel when a singer sings words that clarify what you've been going through and shifts space and mood with the sound(s) of a guitar.

One Night Live shows that Oliver is in the same league as the finest singer/songwriters out there. He could hold his own at Kerrville (the festival that features the cream of the crop in that genre) or Hot Adult Contemporary radio, as easily as he does at the Smooth Jazz Awards. His voice has a rare level of melodicism and nuance and his guitar work is as indescribably original as it is technically impressive. This set features songs that have been highlights from his collection of solo projects as well as a few that are new or previously unrecorded. In the smooth jazz genre, which he long ago either morphed or transcended anyway, live is always better because the artists can play directly for the audience without the filters of label expectations and radio format criteria. Here, the experimental in-the-moment vibe brings a new level of life and energy to the songs and his creative use of technology adds texture and sonic surprises to the mix. His interaction with charismatic percussionist Humberto Vela brings a "third force" factor into play, adding even another dimension to the music.

This set is a perfect introduction to Oliver's music for new fans and those who have only heard a song or two on the radio. He puts a new spin on some of his most popular songs. The stripped down arrangements add warmth and momentum, then he spices them up with vocalese and flashy guitar runs. He somehow manages to create a loose, improvisational feel while playing tight and clean throughout. "First View" sounds spirited and joyous, he flies all over the high end of the fretboard during "Chips and Salsa" while still laying down a funky, bassy, backbeat. He plays with such deceptive ease that "Magic World," and "Wings of Spring" just flow through while he seems to be playing three guitars at once. This is where his ability to use technology perfectly comes into play. Oliver was involved in the development of the Carvin Nylon Synth Access guitar, a guitar that puts the sounds of multiple instruments - a guitar orchestra - at his fingertips. A skilled and creative guitarist could go bonkers with the effects. He has undoubtedly had a blast with them on his own, but he has the skill and creativity to know how to use it with restraint to add texture and shading to the songs. A warm layer of strings here, a flute solo or a piano embellishment there, but he never goes overboard. He opens the show with a lovely string synth intro then has a clever piece on both the CD and DVD where he demonstrates the effects for the crowd. After that he gets flashy with his guitar expertise and uses the toys to spice it up, not overwhelm it. Amidst all this brilliance "Sojurn"/"Fearless" - the instrumental and the vocal song that follows and continues with the same melodic theme - still stand out in terms of complexity and pure originality. "Sojurn" lives somewhere between ECM era Pat Metheny and Michael Hedges, crystalline guitar lines that phase in and out then a strong, clear voice comes in with a poignant lyrical message.  It's a song that you can dive into, it suspends space and time.

The vocals bring his jazzed up twist to singer-songwriter material, which is extremely refreshing in a genre too attuned to "oooohhh baaaybee" melisma and simplistic lyrics. On "Show You Love" and "I Know" he plays guitar counterpoints to the melody instead of matching it chord and note while his expressive voice carries the songs. "Bend or Break," finds him singing the most important lines of an incredible lyric with only percussion for accompaniment. "Radiant Dreams" is, as it was on the original recording, a song that touches a place we have all been, and the intimacy of the live setting adds to the magic. "This Fire," one of the two studio tracks, is a hit. One of those can't-get-it-out-of-your-head anthems that will make you spike the volume in the car and sing along loudly.

The companion DVD gives you a Steve Oliver concert that you can pop in and play anytime. The perfect way to show your friends (and strangers you corner wherever you have your laptop or portable DVD player!) what all the excitement is about. In terms of cinematography it is a work of art. Every shot is framed and composed like an artistic still, many are infused with colored  lights diffused by fog and shadows, or the silhouettes of the musicians. Although you can tell percussionist Vela is getting a workout on the CD the video really showcases him, allowing you to see him at work surrounded by his array of fascinating noisemakers. "Walkin,'" Oliver's interactive live voice-jam, shows that he is in the same league with the likes of Jarreau and McFerrin when it comes to inventing new places for the voice to go, even taking it into Take 6 harmonies with the help of his guitar-synth. My only little quibble is that I wish there had been some longer closeups of Steve. He is so animated onstage it feels like the music is playing him as much as he is playing the music. And that is as it should be. Having this package that gives you a chance to listen or hear and see at the same time with such visual beauty in the mix gives  you a multi sensory experience.

He may be signed to a record company and marketed to radio formats but Steve Oliver brings an indie sensibility to everything he does. His individuality, willingness to explore and ability to communicate with his fans and even channel their experiences into his songwriting will make him important to an ever widening circle of fans. This is an artist who will be able to build a career above and beyond the ebb and flow of the music business. He isn't going to be a “star.” He is more than that. A star shines down from above. Steve Oliver illuminates with his down to earth presence. Pick up One Night Live and experience the radiance for yourself.