Reviewed by Dougie Adam
Some fans of Larry feel there are already too many live albums and compilations around and not enough original studio work available. So how does this 4 CD stack up? First the facts, 'Rough Diamonds, Precious Jewels' contains a whopping 98 tracks (including jokes, audience interaction and monologues) and has a running time in excess of four and a half hours. It chronicles Larry's Belfast concerts from 1981 to last year's performance. Belfast just happens to be the European city which Larry has played most often over the years, a place where a special rapport exists between the performer and the audience. In Belfast, he feels free to try out new unreleased material, rarities and speak on a very personal level. Some of his appearances have gone down in legend, like the 1981 concert where Larry was backed by the Alwyn Wall Band featuring Norman Barratt. In the middle of their Friends On Tour schedule the Belfast concert fell on the same night as IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands died in prison. The show went on despite the tension and danger. In addition to his usual solo spot the audience were treated to band performances of some of his hits and new material from Larry's recently released 'Something New Under The Son' LP. 20 years later some Larry fans speak about that night in May 1981 and the power and impact of the concert. The 1987 concert at the Ulster Hall also stands out as another vintage performance, this time Larry held the stage himself and delivered definitive versions of classics from his back catalogue with a few surprises thrown in for good measure. A year later and the concert highlights were broadcast on the Ulster TV concert special Righteous Rocker, Holy Roller. Larry's regular visits continued throughout the '90s despite his problems with his heart condition, ending up on television once more in 1995 and turning in impressive performances in 1998 and again in 2000. Nearly all of the concerts were recorded from the mixing desk and Trevor King and Paul Shaw sat through hours of tapes and carefully selected the highlights from each concert. The strength of the compilation is such that it is almost impossible to pick out highlights from the 4 CD set. The truth is that there isn't a weak track here. On one or two occasions Larry comes in at the wrong point during instrumentals on cracking band performances of "Be Careful What You Sign" and "Why Should The Devil Have All The Music" and temporarily throws his fellow musicians, but these few mistakes aside, what we have is one of Christian music's greatest songwriters operating at the peak of his well documented performing powers for four and a half hours. There is plenty on offer here to satisfy both the first time buyer (if indeed a first time buyer spends £35 on their first album by an artist) as nearly all of the songs which sealed Larry's reputation as a top notch songwriter are featured, often with some great bands backing him well. Enthusiasts too can revel in the amount of rarities on offer with a number of charming songs from Larry's early songwriting efforts featuring and major new songs like "Near" and the poem "I Am Is". Then there are stunning band versions of "Watch What You're Doing" and "Feeling So Bad" which may even surpass the album versions on 'Something New Under The Son'. The icing on the cake has to be the three bonus tracks from the studio which conclude the set. "The Troubles" is one of those songs which Larry keeps coming out with once in a while which shows the gift for songwriting is still intact. And you can hear the small acoustic band getting really into the song as it progresses. The following track "Lugoj" ranks among the most beautiful studio recordings produced by Larry with subtle and tender instrumentation bringing out another fine vocal, but best of all are the lyrics. The wonderful "Centre Of My Heart" brings the project to its conclusion augmented by Celtic sounding strings, mandolins, banjos and all. Other comments: The subtitle "Belfast Bootlegs" is a bit misleading. When you think of bootlegs you associate them with illegal, dodgy releases and poor sound quality of limited interest to anyone but hardcore fans and collectors. Not so here. This boxed set was made with Larry's painstaking involvement and full commitment. 'RDPJ' is the first LN compilation which excels itself for the degree of care taken to ensure pristine sound quality. After much eq-ing and editing the tracks from the old hissy 1981 tape sound as clear and bright and detailed as the 2000 digital soundboard. Perhaps even more remarkably Larry's vocals have not deteriorated over this 20 year period. For three reasons 'RDPJ' is recommended to even the casual fan who might balk at spending £35 on any album: 1) Its the kind of compilation which does justice to Larry's status. All 98 tracks highlight the calibre and variety of his songwriting and showcase his abilities as a charismatic, daring and charming "performer" and meaningful communicator. 2) The sumptuous packaging flags up the importance of the project. Two top quality 16 page booklets accompany the four CDs. Great photos abound alongside well written pieces on Larry and his Belfast concerts, while a second booklet focuses on the work in Romanian orphanages. And for only the third time in his career Larry has even penned a hard hitting "As I See It " column to accompany an album release. 3) Since Larry himself met the costs of editing the project, mastering and manufacturing the CDs as his own donation to the project every penny of the £35 goes to support the work in the Romanian orphanages. If you only plan to buy one Larry Norman album this year you really can't go wrong with this one. And, if you weren't planning on buying any LN albums this year... its time to think again! A great introduction to a seminal artist and a fantastic treat for any long-standing fan. Hopefully this will set the standard for future Larry compilations and raise a significant amount of money for vital work in Romania.
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