This live two-album set is probably indispensable to diehard Joe Cocker fans. Anyone else should proceed at his own risk.
The reason isn’t too hard to figure out. Mad Dogs and Englishmen was formed on a few days’ notice to meet contractual obligations, and sounds like, well, like a group that was formed on a few days’ notice to meet contractual obligations. With the exception of Leon Russell, who excels on guitar as well as on piano, no one has any musical identity on this album. Neither is the group as a whole much of a back-up for Cocker. Each guy seems to be playing fills for everyone else, and the arrangements are oh so predictable and mechanical.
Which results in a spiritless version of “Honky Tonk Women,” undoubtedly the most spirited song in a good while, a version of “Cry Me a River” that’s in its own way as embarrassing as the original, sad fillers like “Superstar,” and a host of other songs that so overlap stylistically they tend to blur into one long, semi-interesting piece. Cocker either can’t or doesn’t want to rise above the cumbersome performance.
There are some highlights. “Feelin’ Alright” is rousing, and Joe and the gang do a pretty good job on “Let’s Go Get Stoned,” though the song suffers from all that superfluous emoting at the end. “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” almost saves a blue medley that also includes “Drown In My Own Tears” and “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby.” You can shake your moneymaker to “Give Peace a Chance” (the one written by Russell and Bonnie Bramlett, not John and Yoko), and they close strong with “Delta Lady.”
It should be noted that the Fillmore East audience (which included Dylan, according to the introduction to “Girl From the North Country” couldn’t get enough, so maybe it’s all just a matter of taste. It should also be noted that this is “music from the original soundtrack,” and you know what that means. Ninety minutes of variations on Joe’s Woodstock sequence, no doubt.
Mad Dogs and Englishmen was a lark, and seemed to be a lot of fun for many. But they sure didn’t cut it musically, and let’s hope that now that they’ve disbanded, Joe can reassemble a smaller group akin to the Grease Band and get back to doing his real thing.