Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Stepping: The Documentary

Stepping: The Documentary (CTG Films, distributed by MVD)

Stepping is an African-American phenomenon with African roots. Unlike so many other manifestations of black American culture, however, it remains little known to mainstream America at large.

Stepping may be best thought of as a form of exhibition dancing using the human body as a percussion instrument. There is much audible hard-stomping on the floor, slapping of the thighs and other resonating parts of the body, and occasional vocals/chanting/rapping, though the latter is not an essential component. It is done as a tightly choreographed group presentation, as much visual as musical, and can be a very entertaining spectacle indeed.

This film, by first-time feature directors Marshall Blackwell and Norman Whiteburn is a bit weak on background, but high in entertainment value. For example, the DVD’s liner notes rightly point out the very strong connection between stepping and South African gumboot dancing. But in the film itself, the interviewees – who are presented as stepping experts, not as anthropologists or folklorists - seem to imply that the phenomenon had its origins in those areas of Africa that were most affected by the slave trade. This is rather tenuous, since the slaves came primarily from much further up the Atlantic Coast than the South African gumboot dancers. However, the film could have very easily drawn a connection between stepping and the “hambone”, a related African-American body percussion tradition, the origins of which are more clearly West African. Stepping is also related to the march-dance styles of black college marching bands, as well as historically black American dances such as tap, buck and wing, et. al. It would have nice had these connections been explored in detail in the film.

On the other hand, there is a great deal of valuable historical background here on African-American Greek-letter fraternities and sororities, the organizations which fostered and developed the styles of stepping prominent today. Stepping is still often regarded as a college Greek-organization activity. As the film shows, however, it has spread to high schools and many elementary schools as well. Most of the stepping groups shown in the film consist of University students, and each unit has its own particular approach to the dance and the attendant showmanship.

Since most of the film is devoted to a wide range of highly entertaining and distinctive performances, with the intent of bringing attention to this growing phenomenon, one can overlook the lack of research into the roots of stepping and just enjoy the show. I know I did!

Monday, August 11, 2008

Lydia Lunch - Video Hysterie: 1978-2006

The world first encountered Lydia Lunch in 1978 as the “star” member of the anarchic New York “No-Wave” band, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. If anyone would have suggested that she would still be around thirty years later, I would have laughed in their face.

But here we are in 2008, and MVD has recently issued a career-spanning compilation of videos, film clips, and live performances covering not only TJ&J live at Max’s Kansas City in 1978 as well as her almost-as-fabled band, 8 Eyed Spy, from 1980, but numerous solo performances and collaborations from the 1990’s and 2000’s as well. The impression that the viewer is left with is that of an uncompromising, ever-evolving artist who may or may not have begun as a poseur, but who has developed into a artist of strength, purpose, and imagination.

One thing that needs to be acknowledged right off the bat is that many of these selections are primarily of documentary significance. The Teenage Jesus material in particular is shoddily filmed with poor sound. But when historians wish to get a real feel for what the late 70’s New York scene was like, these clips will be found to capture the story much more effectively than controlled studio recordings ever could. Who on that scene could afford major productions, anyway? In any case, there is Lydia shouting anti-melodically in her highest register over an explosive warped-power-trio backdrop of anti-music, looking as deadpan as can be imagined given the urgency of the performance. I find it fascinating, though I’m sure not everyone will agree.

With 8 Eyed Spy, Lydia put down her guitar and worked with a band resembling real musicians, blending elements of punk, pseudo-funk, pseudo-blues, and avant-garde jazz. The band is loose, yet energetic, and the music holds up surprisingly well. Lydia’s vocals had dropped down an octave or so to a talk-shout closer emotionally to Iggy Pop than to commercial pop. Visually, her blank, yet belligerent attitude is priceless. Bad-girl wannabes can still learn a lot from watching her performances here. By the way, there’s a rare cover song here, John Fogarty’s “Run Through the Jungle,” though you’d hardly recognize if it weren’t for the guitar riff.

Cut to 1991, by which time I personally had lost track of Lydia Lunch’s activities. Thus, everything from this point on is a surprise to me. We find a matured and mellowed Lydia whose declamations over a musical backdrop are closer to poetry-with-music than to rap. But unlike too many recorded poetry/music collaborations, one has the feeling that Lydia Lunch and her accompanists had a real feeling for each other’s artistic expressions and worked together to present a unified, fully compatible whole. Her two 1991 performances with the neo-surf, neo-psychedelic Shotgun Wedding are very strong, and she displays a swaying sensuality much more captivating than her former lack of expression. Alas, her words are largely obscured. It should be noted that she actually sings a bluesy melody here.

Fortunately, most of the recited poetry on the rest of the DVD is far better recorded and certainly understandable. Actually, the term “recitation” may be inappropriate, as the body language and emotionalism she puts into these pieces place them into the category of “performance art”, however ill defined that term may be. A particularly interesting collaboration comes on the bluesy “Doggin’”, with the German post-punk instrumental band Die Haut. Others range in style from blues/r&b to cabaret-jazz to more definably avant-garde jazz, with frequent collaborators Terry Edwards, Joseph Budenholzer, and Ian White, among others. “Violence Is the Sport of God,” the most recent piece, from 2006, suggests that she is now as much a theatrical performer as she is poet or musical artist. Lydia Lunch, punk shouter, is still in there, but the transformation to ever more unique forms of expression is ongoing.

“Bonus Materials” include pictures of her many CD/DVD/book covers (I had no idea she has been so prolific through the years), a slideshow with well-chosen photos from various segments of her career, and a 14-minute film collage called “Flashpoints”, which incorporates quotes from reviews, more photos, and film clips. (This film duplicates a few images from the other bonus features, but in a different context.)

As with all Lydia Lunch material, this DVD is not for everyone. However, if I’ve made it sound at all interesting to you, it most likely will be.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Relaunching Under a New Name

It has come to my attention that someone else had previously come up with a name very much like "Eclectic DVD Review". Therefore, I am re-launching this DVD review blog under a new name, "GenEc DVD Review". (The name derives from my "General Eclectic" radio program. I have transferred the two reviews previously published in "Eclectic" into this new blog. Sorry for any inconvenience.

Yellowjackets - In Concert

I have to confess I pretty much ignored the Yellowjackets during the first couple dozen years of their existence. Despite the presence of original guitarist Robben Ford, the band struck me as somewhere between the bland pop-jazz of Spyro Gyra and the formulaic, barely-improvised stylings of so-called “smooth jazz”.

But then about, maybe, four years ago, the Yellowjackets made an appearance at the 1891 Fredonia House. I went to the concert for three reasons. For one thing, my wife loves smooth jazz (and has raised my tolerance of the genre, though not my admiration), and wherever she wants to go, I gladly follow. Two, we serve as semi-regular volunteer ushers at the Opera House, so we get in free. But perhaps most significantly, three – despite the continuing excellence of SUNY Fredonia’s much-honored jazz program (under the direction of former Maynard Ferguson and Woody Herman baritone saxist Bruce Johnstone), big-name jazz artists rarely make concert appearances in our fair town. (I didn’t say never, just rarely.)

To my surprise, I was quickly won over. The Yellowjackets turned out to be substantially more powerful than the blatantly commercial lightweights I was expecting, first-rate musicians, both technically and creatively. This was music of substance, of imagination, of emotional impact, of originality. I’m glad to report that this newly issued DVD on the German Inakustik label (distributed in the US by MVD), recorded for the German television concert series “Ohne Filter” in 1994, captures all the energy and excitement that won me over during the band’s Fredonia appearance.

There are 7 selections on this disc, everyone a highlight in its way. Right from the very beginning, with “Man Facing North” (primarily a feature for the deft six-string bass of Jimmy Haslip), a strong interplay of rhythms, arrangement, lyricism, and virtuosity by all four members of the band is constantly in evidence. The Yellowjackets work their way through fusion, light funk, melodic music of an accessible nature, and straight-ahead jazz. Saxman Bob Mintzer is particularly solid and fully in-command on the straight-ahead pieces, such as the hard-driving “One Music.” Keyboardist Russell Ferrante is especially impressive on “Dewey (For Miles”), in which he conjures up a Davis-like muted-trumpet solo on synthesizer. Will Kennedy (who is no longer with the group) may not be the flashiest drummer you’ll ever hear, but he is tasteful, always appropriate, and rhythmically inventive.

There are a few “Features” on the disc as well, none of them particularly indispensable. There’s a text biography of the band, which is interesting enough so far as it goes. I might point out that this bio defines “fusion music” as “the fusion of jazz improvisation and smooth pop melodies.” Those who remember the golden era of “Bitches Brew” and “The Inner Mounting Flame” will recall that the original application of the word referred to the fusion of jazz and rock. But realistically, I suppose this re-definition represents the directions “fusion” took after the initial excitement of the early days wore off. There is also an alphabetical listing of artists who have appeared on “Ohne Filter,” which whets one’s appetite for further DVD’s from the series. A six-minute interview with the program’s producer will be of primary interest to those who’ve seen it on a regular basis. I can only wish we had something like it in the U.S. The fourth featurette, “Sound Tuning” begins as a brief introduction to sound mixing before becoming essentially an ad for Inakustik cables.

But the concert is what really counts, and it’s well worth the price of admission. . Due to the time limitations of television, the concert is only 57 minutes long, and I found myself wanting much, much more. Check this one out.

Chris Barber - As We Like It

It was early 1959. Rock’n’roll was about to suffer the worst year of its history, with many of its prime movers set to leave the stage, whether through death or and number of unfortunate career moves. Pop music for adults seemed to be as strong as ever, while pop music for teenagers was poised to take over from rockabilly as the musical style favored by the increasingly more powerful record and radio industries.

In the midst of the chaos, a gentle reminder of an earlier time emerged, in the form of a plaintively melodic clarinet instrumental called “Petite Fleur,” by Britain’s Chris Barber’s Jazz Band. Its composer, New Orleans clarinetist and soprano sax master Sidney Bechet had recorded the tune only seven years earlier, during his extended stay in France. But the tune seemed to reflect back to an earlier era, a gentler time when music was more often played in parlors than dance halls. Barber’s recording focused wholly on the clarinet of Monty Sunshine, over a low-key backdrop of guitar, bass, and (my memory tells me) lightly brushed drums. (Ironically, on Chris Barber’s biggest hit, his own trombone was nowhere to be heard.) There was little in the way of jazz improvisation, but it was instead smoothly tuneful. Even so, it was certainly far meatier than most of what passes for “smooth jazz” in recent years.

That one hit, which reached #5 on the U.S. charts, was pretty much it for Chris Barber on the American scene. The truth is, he had already made a less publicized, but perhaps in the long run more significant contribution to the American scene a few years earlier. It was on Barber’s first 10-inch LP that his banjo player, Lonnie Donegan, recorded the Leadbelly classic, “Rock Island Line” (with Chris Barber on bass, released under the name “The Lonnie Donegan Skiffle Group”). That record became such an enormous hit that it sparked a “skiffle music” craze in England, thus influencing many of the young British lads who would go on to become leading lights during the British Invasion of the mid-60’s. What’s more, it provided many American baby boomers (myself included) who were just a bit too young to be affected by the Weavers our first entrĂ©e into the Folk Revival of the late 1950’s.

Barber himself would go on to become one of the great triumvirate of “trad jazz” bandleaders (the British name for Dixieland jazz) of the early 60’s (along with Kenny Ball and Mr. Acker Bilk). Barber also played a highly significant role in bringing many American blues legends to Britain for the first time in the late 1950’s, thus paving the way for the British blues boom of the 60’s, which once again impacted heavily on rock history. (A number of radio broadcasts from these tours, including previously unissued performances by Muddy Waters, Champion Jack Dupree, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, among others, have been issued recently under the series title The Blues Legacy: Lost and Found.)

Thus, while American audiences have pretty much lost touch with Chris Barber over the past half-century (although he has toured here several times), his influence continues to this day. I’m happy to report that Chris Barber himself continues to this day as well, as proven by a highly entertaining new DVD, “As We Like It”, recorded in 2007 and credited to “The Big Chris Barber Band”. He was 77 years old when this was filmed, but that hardly means he’s ready to retire and rest on past laurels. Indeed, this “Big Chris Barber Band” extends the Barber trad sound not only in terms of the instrumentation, but also in terms of versatility. There’s trad/Dixieland, there’s a considerable dose of blues with a touch or two of rock, a few arrangements of spirituals, and there’s a lot of Duke Ellington-inspired swing here as well.

Note that this isn’t labeled as the Chris Barber “Big Band” – at eleven pieces, with two trumpets, two trombones, three reeds, and four rhythm – it’s smaller than most “big bands”, yet larger than a typical Dixieland band. This increases the band’s flexibility, as well as increasing the voicing possibilities, particularly since Barber doesn’t feel the need to use all the horns all the time. Even so, the full band plays more often than not. “Petite Fleur” is here (though Monty Sunshine is not), all decked out in expanded instrumentation that to my ears works extremely well. Fans of the original 45 will be glad to know that an updated version of the record’s memorable B-side, “Wild Cat Blues”, is here as well. One of the highlights of Barber’s early career, “The Martinique” (which was recorded at the same 1954 session as “Rock Island Line”), is given a brand-spankin’ new arrangement – indeed, it has never sounded better. Two early Ellington classics, “Black and Tan Fantasy” and “The Mooche” are played as medley, resulting in another high point of the disc.

Barber’s singing is a bit variable, but there’s not so much of it as to lessen the fun of the proceedings overall. Somewhat more bothersome to American viewers may be Barber’s patter between songs. The song introductions would seem to be quite informative. However, he speaks so quickly with such a strong British accent that one wishes there were a Subtitle option available. As a bonus, veteran British rocker Andy Fairweather-Low, who first rose to fame with the Amen Corner, and who has been closely associated with Eric Clapton in recent years, makes a couple guest appearances, fitting right in as if he had been a trad man all along.

This live recording has a few performance flaws, but nothing so drastic that it can’t be overlooked given the high spirits of the music. Somewhat more problematical is the fact that the volume level is unsteady – as soon as you’ve turned it down, you want to turn it back up again. Once again, the high spirits and the top-notch arrangements will negate this flaw for all but the pickiest viewers.

Despite a few quibbles, this ranks very high on my personal entertainment meter. “As We Like It”? You bet!