Friday, December 24, 2010

“Jimi Hendrix: Guitar Hero” DVD (Image Entertainment)

Back in the days when rock music still had guitar heroes, when the term referred to lead and solo (generally electric) guitarists who played with greater technical skill, more imagination, and a bolder vision than almost all of their peers, when Guitar Hero meant more than a video game, Jimi Hendrix was the greatest guitar hero of them all. That’s not just me talking, it’s an opinion shared by some of the finest rock musicians ever, many of whom share their memories of Hendrix on this documentary DVD. If you are one of the unconvinced, and even if you are already a true fan, this disc goes far in explaining why, a full forty years after his death, Jimi Hendrix is still idolized by so many musicians and fans alike.

This film would appear to be unauthorized by the Hendrix estate, which might explain why there are only a few snippets of Hendrix in live performance here, with most of the background music consisting of other people’s oldies. I enjoy listening to Hawkwind, Harry Nilsson and Lorraine Ellison (among many others heard here) as much as anyone, but they seem out of place in this context. This to me is the only real negative in this documentary, yet it’s a fairly small one. But the fact that this is most likely unauthorized means that interviewees feel free to speak their minds freely, without censorship. Thus we have, for example, a no-holds-barred look at Hendrix’s drug use, which everyone knows about, but which has rarely been openly discussed in such detail.

The film is narrated by Slash, whose admiration for Jimi Hendrix is well-known, and who seems quite well-versed in Hendrix lore, even though he died when Slash was only five years old. The great bulk of the interviewees, however, are people who knew Hendrix, many of whom played/jammed/associated with him, sharing their memories rather than relating unfounded rumors or hearsay. The musicians interviewed on-camera (mostly in 2009) include Eric Clapton, Eric Burdon, Mick Taylor, Zoot Money, Ginger Baker, Joey Covington, Bev Bevan. Mickey Dolenz, Lemmy, Stephen Stills, Alan White and Chris Squier, Dave Mason, and Paul Rodgers. Important, less publicly known parts to the story are recounted by Hendrix’ longtime English girlfriend, Kathy Etchingham, and his brother Leon Hendrix. Journalist/author Charles Cross adds a great deal of well-considered perspective as well.

Indeed, Leon’s tales of Hendrix’s poverty-filled childhood, raised by alcoholic parents who eventually split up and left the young brothers at the mercy of the Child Welfare system, provide many of the most poignant moments in the film. We learn that the parents’ constant arguing inspired one of Hendrix’ most touching songs, “Castles Made of Sand”. One can only speculate how this upbringing influenced the guitarist’s subsequent lifestyle choices. We hear from several sources that despite his copious drug use and “wild man” on-stage antics, Hendrix off-stage was quiet, polite, reserved, constantly with a guitar in his hand, practicing/rehearsing. Indeed, we are told that many of those on-stage antics were pure show-biz, his version of African-American showmanship that he learned during his apprenticeships with Little Richard, the Isley Brothers, Wilson Pickett, and others. Many of his “stunts”, such as playing the guitar behind his head and with his teeth, were used by earlier generations of blues musicians such as T-Bone Walker (and, I would add, Charlie Patton), but seemed new to the rock audience who hadn’t seen them before. Even his most outrageous moments were calculated, designed to gain maximum publicity, including the infamous guitar-burning/smashing at Monterrey.

We learn of Noel Redding’s jealousy, that rather than thanking his lucky stars that he found himself in an important, highly visible band, he felt he deserved to be “the star”, the guitar player for the band. (He was after all, as he would remind people, the best guitar player in Kent!). It turns out that he actually intended to audition for a guitar opening in the Animals, but that manager (and ex-Animal) Chas Chandler hired Redding as bassist for the Jimi Hendrix Experience even though he had no experience on the instrument. Redding’s dissatisfaction with and bare competence in his role explains why so much of the bass work on “Electric Ladyland” was by Hendrix himself, overdubbing, rather than by Redding. Dave Mason talks about how he came to play the acoustic guitar part on “All Along the Watchtower”, and how Hendrix’ classic solo on that track was actually a combination of three solos, including a slide part played with a cigarette lighter. I suspect much of this material may appear in various printed sources, but it’s nice to have it all in one place, confirmed by people who were there.

Musicians will appreciate the technical discussions of Hendrix’ fingerings, chord formations, sound effects, and amplifier set-ups by Slash, Stills, Covington, and Lemmy (Noel Redding’s one-time roommate, who served as a roadie for the Experience for several months in his pre-Hawkwind/Motorhead days). Thus, we learn that not only was Jimi Hendrix a guitar hero (we already knew that), but we learn WHY he was one, and how he became one. On a related subject, Hendrix was fascinated by sounds, and was always striving to turn the sounds and colors he heard in his head into reality. Producer Alan Douglas says you “couldn’t produce” Hendrix, “you could only help him to produce himself”; he knew what he wanted, but did not always know the technical means by which to achieve his goals in the studio. Hendrix died leaving many of his ambitions unfulfilled. We’re told he wanted to write symphonies. not only for orchestra but for large ensembles of electric guitars. We’re told he wanted to form bigger bands, that the short-lived Gypsy Sun and Rainbows, the band he played with at Woodstock, was only a small step in that direction. Others tell us he wanted to go back to his blues roots, while Stephen Stills feels he would have turned in the direction of fusion. But the business heads around Hendrix insisted he continue to do “Purple Haze” and his other hits over and over, which he grew to despise.

Bonus Features include an irrelevant ten-minute featurette of silent film footage of the Monkees, taken by photographer Henry Diltz (another of the interviewees on this disc), who didn’t join the tour in which Hendrix opened for the Monkees (talk about your classic mismatch!) until after Hendrix was dismissed. While it’s by no means uninteresting to see (though not hear) the Monkees onstage, it should be on another disc, not this one. Much more illuminating is the one full-length performance by the Jimi Hendrix Experience on the DVD, an early live version of “Hey Joe”, in which it’s clear that Redding isn’t connecting with Hendrix and drummer Mitch Mitchell. Also included are a number of extended interviews, which include insights not chosen for the original film. As in the main program, some of the most perceptive commentary comes from Charles Cross, while some of the most significant comes from Leon Hendrix, with more fascinating info on his brother’s youth and musical upbringing. There are two small photo galleries, one of random shots and one of Henry Diltz material, plus a 20-page booklet of photos and biographical material, which does not merely reproduce the film’s contents.

In all, I would say that this would be a highly instructive and rewarding way to spend some of your Christmas gift money. Not only did I learn a lot, I found the great bulk, perhaps all, of it to be trustworthy, much more so than one might find on a bowdlerized “authorized” DVD.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

“Andy Williams Collection” 3-DVD box set (Questar)

To the oldest generation still with us, the term “Christmas music” conjures up images of Bing Crosby. But to those of us who grew up watching television in the 1960’s, Christmas is near-synonymous with Andy Williams. This new collection of three DVD’s, featuring material from Williams’ t.v. series, which aired through most of the 60’s, includes one whole disc entirely devoted to his annual Christmas special, plus two discs of non-seasonal material.

Andy Williams, who turned 83 earlier this month, is still a popular live performer, in Branson, MO, Las Vegas, and other venues which cater largely to an older audience that remembers him from his heyday. What makes this particularly extraordinary is that he’s been doing this for over 70 years, beginning in the late 30’s as the youngest member of a family quartet from Iowa called the Williams Brothers, who hit the big-time singing with Bing Crosby on his 1944 hit, “Swingin’ On a Star”. When the rest of the group decided to quit in the early 50’s, Andy embarked on a solo career, and has never had to look back. By 1956, he began turning out a long series of hit records that continued into the 1970’s. His clear, appealing voice, with a strong falsetto that set him apart from other middle-of-the-road pop entertainers of the era, was combined with a stylistic versatility that made him a favorite of the Welk crowd, the Sinatra audience, and the Top 40 charts, all at once - no mean feat during the British Invasion and psychedelic eras. The one thing he lacked was a rhythmic feel for jazz, yet he sounded quite comfortable over the swinging big-band arrangements that were a staple of t.v. variety shows back in the day.

Although his early hit singles included both rockabilly (Charlie Gracie’s “Butterfly”) and country-music (Carl Belew’s “Lonely Street”) covers, Williams’ repertoire of the 60’s featured a number of songs from movie scores. The first disc in this set - all three discs are available separately, as well as in this box - “Moon River and Me” includes televised performances of such movie songs as the title song (from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s; the song was a hit single for Jerry Butler, but has become associated more closely with Williams over the years, due largely to his t.v. exposure), “The Shadow of Your Smile” (with a tasteful trumpet counter-melody by Al Hirt), “Born Free”, “Call Me Irresponsible,” and several others. There are also a couple unusual production numbers that go beyond the typical dance routines, such as a chorus line jumping-rope to “Goody Goody” and ice-skaters during “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve”. Unlike many of his pop-music contemporaries, Williams also had a taste for folk-flavored songs, on this disc “Leavin’ On A Jet Plane” and “Abraham, Martin and John.”

Amidst all the well-known songs, there are a couple daring choices, Broadway songs which have never received as much attention as they deserve - Ira Gershwin/Kurt Weill’s “My Ship” and Truman Capote/Harold Arlen’s “Don’t Like Goodbyes”. Many of the songs have new introductions by a white-haired, bespectacled Andy Williams, whom I don’t know whether I would have recognized if I didn’t already know it was him. Four additional songs, including a lovely “Danny Boy”, are included as Bonus Features.

The second disc, “My Favorite Duets”, features Williams in collaboration with a wide variety of guest stars. Despite the designation “duets”, he is joined by a few ensembles - Peter, Paul and Mary, with whom he blends seamlessly on the Weavers’ “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine”; Simon and Garfunkel, on a version of “Scarborough Fair” which may even exceed the duo’s original recording; Phil Harris and an unidentified male gospel quartet; a reunited Williams Brothers; and a highly impressive Osmond Brothers, in he days before they became Jackson 5 imitators and still based their sound on that of the Williams Brothers (no wonder Andy featured them so regularly!).

As for the “real” duets (the two-person variety), Sammy Davis, Jr. does some eccentric tap-dancing mixed in with the twist. A dance routine pairs Williams and former college athlete Johnny Mathis with basketballs and gymnastic equipment. A medley teams Andy with his old colleague Bing Crosby. Roger Miller scats through a wacky version of “You Don’t Want My Love”, an atypical Williams hit which Miller wrote). A funny bit finds Pearl Bailey dancing in her chair as the two engage in song and patter. Antonio Carlos Jobim, a Williams favorite, backs Williams on guitar and sings a bit himself, though Jobim was really a composer/pianist more than a singer). Inevitably, perhaps, there are a few collaborations which simply fail to catch fire, with Lena Horne, Julie Andrews, and a vocally shot Judy Garland.

Sprinkled throughout are reminiscences by Williams, music director Dave Grusin, and Mathis. All three offer additional commentary in the Bonus Features, along with a few repeats of their comments from the program. Because of the level of talent involved, I would suggest that - all things being equal - this would be the disc to get if your budget allows to only get one.

But that’s just my opinion - I have a feeling that most single-disc buyers will opt for disc 3, “Best of Christmas”. Goodness knows, I can picture this becoming an annual ritual around our house. The Andy Williams Christmas Special became such a yearly institution that it continued to appear for several years after the weekly show left the air. The disc has no bonus features and no guest stars aside from the Osmond Brothers, the Williams Brothers, and the whole Williams family - and it doesn’t need anything else. There are a couple more of those typically atypical Williams Show production numbers, in this instance with old-fashioned, small-town sets, vintage clothing, and people milling about (one hesitates to call it dancing, though the choreographer’s touch is obvious). There are also straightforward solo renditions of sacred Christmas hymns, “Silent Night”, “O Holy Night”, “Ave Maria”. And of course, Williams does his own Christmas hit, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”. There really is no need to say much more, because this is the sort of fondly remembered disc that sells itself.

This would make a perfect last-minute Christmas gift for an, er, somewhat older person on your list (somebody my age, in other words!) Or treat yourself to some timeless entertainment. This should be well-distributed enough that there may still be time to pick it up for Christmas 2010. Or buy it in 2011, watch the first two discs, and save the third for next December. In any case, give this one some serious consideration.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

“America’s Music Legacy” 4 DVD’s, sold separately (MVD)

MVD has recently embarked on a reissue project involving a series of DVD’s under the heading “America’s Music Legacy”. Eight volumes are now available, in a concert format featuring a variety of artists within specific categories, originally taped as a series of television specials during the 1980’s. Since there is no real thematic link between the discs, and they are sold separately, I’ll review the first batch of four now, and the others at a later date. They are in no particular order, so I’ll simply review them in the order I viewed them.

“America’s Music Legacy: Rock ‘n Roll’ strikes me as the most problematical of the four. If you’re a purist looking for a serious-minded, hard-core rock’n’roll concert, you might find this disappointing. But if you want a fairly typical lineup of an oldies-for-nostalgia-purposes variety show, then you’re more likely to be satisfied. I confess I was a bit turned off right from the start by the simple fact that Fabian, one of the most sorry excuses for a “rock’n’roll” star ever concocted, is the host. The original title of the show seems to have been “Fabian’s Good Time Rock’n’Roll”. Alas, as host and star, he is allowed to “sing”, something he never was able to do, particularly in the pre-autotuning era. Actually, I’ve always found him to be a personable, ingratiating sort, but he never did carry a tune in his entire life. Still, he makes for a likable enough host.

The performers are a mix of 50’s and pre-Beatles-60’s, running the gamut from rockabilly to doo-wop to the twist to girl groups to pop. The Coasters’ arrangements are a bit looser and rhythmically modernized compared to the originals, but quite agreeable nonetheless. Lou Christie has a few intonation problems, but was still hitting the falsetto notes, perhaps even more fully than in the old days. His Vegas-style showmanship may be a bit overdone, but the crowd loves it. Leslie Gore, on the other hand, sounds a bit frenetic, as if she can’t get through her set fast enough. She is a much stronger performer than she shows here. The duet between Christie and Gore on “Since I Don’t Have You”, on the other hand, is one of the highlights of the set, as if the pressure to reproduce their hits for the nostalgia crowd is off, and they feel relaxed enough to just flat-out sing. Chubby Checker is another performer who is trapped by his old hits, but darn it, he can entertain with the best. In a medley of other people’s hits, he doesn’t exactly make you forget the originals, but he brings his own personality and years of experience into play to make them sound fresh.

The Crystals’ backgrounds sound a bit thin when divorced from the Spector wall of sound, but their singing and stage presence is decent. I do miss Darlene Love’s lead voice, though, on “He’s Sure The Boy I Love”. The Diamonds (down to three singers, none of whom look familiar) are bolstered by a solid lead singer (unidentified). Little Anthony performs solo, sans Imperials, but fortunately sounds essentially the same as he always has, one of the premier singers of pop-r&b, whether solo or with group. Another of the true artists in this set, Bo Diddley, is in fine fettle, but the backing band - which has been quite good throughout the rest of the show - seems to be hemming him in, so that he never really catches fire. Still, even second-level Bo is better than no Bo at all. Overall, an inconsistent, yet by no means bad DVD. Less fussy admirers of the artists than me will no doubt enjoy it.

“America’s Music Legacy: Gospel”, is hosted by the non-singing Levar Burton, who introduces a wide variety of gospel artists, mostly black, but some white; mostly contemporary (by 1983 standards), but some traditional; soloists, small groups, choirs. Burton makes the indisputable, yet often glossed-over observation that gospel music is influenced by blues, jazz, r&b, country, and rock, and all those influences are on display in varying degrees throughout the concert. By 1983, 70’s superstar Andrae Crouch was not considered as cutting-edge as he had been a decade earlier, but the funk rhythm section and blues-drenched guitar solo are perfect illustrations of what Burton was saying. But then, Crouch’s lead vocal and the responses of the chorus are straight out of gospel music’s past, thus making it easy to understand how the artist was able to command so much crossover attention in the 1970’s. An updated variation on the male quartet tradition is represented by the Winans (the original quartet, before family members joined in). The slick, smooth quartet is closer to the Gamble/Huff school of 70’s-soul vocal groups than to, say, the Swan Silvertones, but they’re quite good in their own way.

There are clips of some of the great gospel stars of the past, Mahalia Jackson and the Clara Ward singers, as well as a live performance by Ward alumna Marion Williams. But even the late, great Williams does a song with a calypso-style beat. Modern (1980’s standards) gospel choir style, in which a wailing soloist and choral responses are sung over a secular-influenced background, is represented by Doug Miller and his rousing choral ensemble. Walter Hawkins, who left his brother Edward Hawkins’ singer to achieve a more permanent fame (though Walter died this past year) fronts a somewhat thin-sounding, yet fully intense vocal group. By contrast, Sandra Crouch (twin sister of Andrae) harkens back to an earlier era in the choir sub-genre.

Wintley Phipps (name misspelled on the DVD case), now known primarily as a preacher and educator, represents a classically-trained baritone style mixed with a modern-gospel ballad-singer approach. Burton’s comparison of Phipps to Paul Robeson strikes me as hyperbolic, but he is more than acceptable at what he does. The Chambers Family Singers is an expanded edition of the psychedelic-era band The Chambers Brothers, with added family members. I’m afraid I found this larger group to be bland and uninspired. Linda Hopkins, whose career has wavered between gospel, blues, r&b, and Broadway, is heard in a more traditional vein here. The purity of her singing blends with a showbiz sheen which puts her in a category beyond her early mentors.

White gospel has never attracted critical attention to the degree that black gospel has. Nonetheless, the DVD tries to strike a bit of balance, by presenting two groupings of white performers. The Archers, a family singing trio, represent the adult-contemporary variety of CCM (Contemporary Christian Music), coming off as a sort of uptempo, jazzy, religious version of Manhattan Transfer. With a change of lyrics, these folks might have had pop potential, if that’s what they wanted. An older country-gospel style is sampled on the first song by the husband/wife duo of singer Reba Rambo and pianist Dony McGuire. McGuire sings their second song, which he tabs “Tap 40 Christian”.

In all, the gospel volume of this series get high marks for variety and choice of artists. As with almost any anthology, few people will enjoy everything to an equal extent, but I feel safe in recommending it to fans and curiosity seekers alike.

“America’s Music Legacy: Country and Western” is also a mostly well-chosen, variety-filled set, including some top-notch performances by a number of people. It was filmed at Knotts Berry Farm in 1981, with DJ-turned producer Gene Weed (a long-time Dick Clark associate) as the host. 1981 was a time when the Nashville scene - having become accustomed in the 1970’s to country-tinged pop singers such as Kenny Rogers and Olivia Newton-John -was becoming progressively slicker and more pop-conscious. Nevertheless, many of the excesses critics and detractors find in present-day Nashville music were still some years away. Thus, we have a mixture of the modern and the traditional, which a few artists (such as Moe Bandy) having stylistic influences in both camps.

Two stars of the that era, little heard from these days, get things rolling. Sylvia (no longer in show business) sounded much smoother on her studio recordings, but those viewers who remember “Drifter” and “Matador” (her biggest hit, “Nobody”, came out a year later) will enjoy her offerings. Razzy Bailey is now more active as a studio owner than a performer, and is far removed from the days when he was churning out one #1 hit after another. His soft-rock approach helped make it possible for today’s cosmopolitan country stars to replace him. Hearing this 1981 set almost 30 years later, he sounds a bit old-fashioned now, but comes off as an entertaining “old pro”.

The term “country and western” has rarely been used in recent decades, at least not by those in the know. But its use in the title of this DVD is justified by the presence of one of the great unsung movie “singing cowboy” heroes of country music’s past, Eddie Dean (1907-1999). In addition to his acting, Dean co-wrote one of the enduring honky-tonk laments, “One Has My Name” (“the other has my heart”) and the narrative tribute to deceased country artists, “Hillbilly Heaven” (later covered with great success by fellow singing cowboy, Tex Ritter). He was well into his mid-70’s by the time this was filmed, but his voice was still strong and controlled. His presence is definitely one of the highlights of the disc. Doug Kershaw first hit the scene in the mid-1950’s, as half of the Cajun-country brother duo, Rusty and Doug. By the 1970’s, Kershaw was a t.v. talk-show celebrity having added a rock’n’roll flair to the Cajun and country roots. The more he appeared on t.v., the more he relied on demented facial expressions and dance moves to live up to his “wild man” image, and America eventually tired of his antics. Perhaps it’s simply that I haven’t seen his shtick in a while, but he comes off as more of a showman than a crackpot in this set, in a performance which reminds me why I once found him so exciting.

Patti Page is thought of as more of an old-line 1950’s pop star than a country singer, though both country and big-band swing influences have always been part of her bag of vocal style. Of course, her signature song, “Tennessee Waltz” had originally been a country song (Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart), and Page recorded pop-country for Shelby Singleton’s Plantation label in the 1970’s. Even so, her set comes off rather too nightclubby for a country special. But vocally she still had “it” nearly 20 years after her last hit. I enjoyed her performances, they just seem out of place in this context. Moe Bandy was billed as a honky-tonk throwback in his heyday, but a song such as “Bandy the Rodeo Clown”, despite its obvious cowboy lyrics, could belong in the same category as some of Glen Campbell’s crossover hits. But though he lacked much of the nasal twang associated with honky-tonk, he was indeed proficient at the genre, as witnessed by “Take Me Back To Yesterday Once More”. Terry Gregory was being touted as an up-and-comer at the time this show was originally aired, but I have to confess I barely remember her. She’s a polished enough entertainer, but she doesn’t strike me as distinctive enough to break through into the upper echelons of show business.

Besides Eddie Dean, the two highlights of the disc come late in the set. Jerry Lee Lewis came to rock’n’roll with obvious country roots (plus gospel and boogie-woogie, of course), and made his late-60’s comeback as a neo-honky-tonk singer/pianist. But he has worked within and combined so many genres that it’s hard to predict what you’re going to hear at any Jerry Lee performance. The Jerry Lee presented on this disc is primarily the one-of-a-kind rocker with the pumpin’ piano (as it was once billed), drawing more from gospel and boogie-woogie perhaps than country. He looks healthy and sounds very much at ease, with a cool intensity that elevates a so-so song such as “I’m Rockin’ My Life Away” until it sounds like a near-classic. This is first-class Jerry Lee Lewis, well worth the price of admission. By the way, to the song list on the case, add “You Can Have Her”. Ricky Skaggs came out of bluegrass, became a Nashville superstar, then retreated back to the worlds of bluegrass and gospel. His set on this DVD captures him at the height of his country-music stardom. He’s backed by a solid band that is as capable as its leader in both tear-stained honky-tonk (“You May See me Walking”, “I’m Crying My Heart Out Over You”) and country-rock (“Get Your Heart Broke”). I didn’t realize until now how much I miss THIS Ricky Skaggs.

In sum, this is a fine collection which should please anyone who was listening to country music back in the 1980’s, and provide a few entertaining lessons for current fans who never bothered with country music until Rascal Flatts and Carrie Underwood came long.

The last disc under review at this time, “America’s Music Legacy: Rhythm & Blues” illustrates the somewhat ambiguous nature of that designation. Essentially, rhythm & blues is not a evolving style of music, but an overall term which incorporates almost any type of music popular among mass numbers of African-American listeners since the mid-1940’s. Co-host Brock Peters (who emcees the first half; Billy Eckstine takes over the second segment) is quick to acknowledge that fact, but refers to as r&b as “urbanized blues”, which can be justified, though it only goes so far. R&b can mean anything from the jazz-inflected blues style of the 1940’s, through a variety of nightclub styles, with stops along the way in doo-wop, soul music, Motown, funk, disco (sometimes), all the way to hip-hop. As with the other volumes in this series, this disc surveys a number of musical approaches to the variety of sounds labeled at various times as “rhythm and blues”.

Brook Benton gets us started with his biggest (though hardly best) hit, “Boll Weevil”, a novelty song with a very serious back-story, as well as 1959 hit, “Thank You Pretty Baby”. Mary Wells, with blond wig, represents Motown two decades after her hit days, with a saucy version of “My Guy”. She also shines on a funky, post-Motown song called “Gigolo” (her last hit, #2 on the disco charts in 1981, complete with rap midsection), which makes me wonder why Wells had so little success after leaving Motown. O.C. Smith adds a touch of country-pop with two Bobby Russell songs, his biggest hit, “Little Green Apples” and a soulful version of “Honey” which I personally find far superior to Bobby Goldsboro’s smash. Sam Moore is heard here after the break-up of the Sam and Dave duo (after which Dave Prater went out on the road with another Sam). I have never understod why Sam Moore’s recording career post-David has met with such spotty success, as Moore had by far the more distinctive voice and style of the duo. Frankly, I don’t even miss Dave on “Soul Man” and “Hold I’m Coming”. Peters introduces a film clip of r&b forerunner Slim Gaillard, from the days when Scatman Crothers was his drummer. Crothers himself comes out with a tenor guitar (or is it a baritone uke?), to do a jazzy vaudeville set, reminding us that his career went all the way back to the mid-1920’s. Though known by this time primarily as an actor (t.v.’s “Chico and the Man” and the movie “The Shining”, among many other roles), Crothers was still an ingratiating performer in his later years.

Billy Eckstine rivalled Nat “King” Cole as the ultimate black popular entertainer of his day (1940’s and well into the 50’s, after which he maintained a steady, though less spectacular career). He could boast of bona fides in jazz, blues, r&b, and mainstream-pop ballads.He wraps his warm, tremulous baritone around a couple songs from his big-band blues career, with such songs as “Jelly Jelly” and “Little Mama”. He also does a Duke Ellington medley, in which the song “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” is misidentified on the case as “Mr. Saturday Night”, which would seem to be a mishearing of the song’s opening line, “Missed the Saturday dance”. Eckstein also introduces clips of a couple of his pioneering contemporaries, Louis Jordan, who brought his lighthearted blend of jazz and blues to a mass audience before the term r&b was even coined, and club singer-pianist Amos Milburn, doing one of his biggest hits, “Bad Bad Whiskey”. Eckstine also uses an old clip to introduce Ruth Brown, who offers a rollicking version of her classic “5--10-15 Hours” and a jazz reading of “Teardrops From My Eyes”. Don’t know who the sax soloist is behind Ms. Brown, but he has the Texas tenor sound down pat. I could use an entire DVD of Ruth Brown!

Billy Preston goes back to the pre-rock church-organ style of his pre-Beatles collaborations with a mostly instrumental, gospel-meets-Baroque-meets Ray Charles interpretation of “Summertime”. Eckstine also connects “Will It Go Round in Circles” to gospel music, which I find tenuous, but it’s a nice version of the #1 hit. The host talks about doo-wop - someone should have told him that the Ravens and the Orioles pre-dated the Larks - but no actual doo-wop is presented. The soft-jazz/pop vocal style of the r&b balladeer is represented by Gloria Lynne, with her 1964 hit “I Wish You Love”, as well as a duet with Eckstine. An unknown (to me) vocal trio named Sheer Delight is intended to relate the Motown influence to the music if the 1980’s, but I find them to be quite nondescript.

Several songs listed on the DVD case are missing from the program itself, which is a bit over 90 minutes, rather than two hours as stated. While I would have loved to hear Brook Benton sing “Rainy Night in Georgia”, I can’t say I feel bad missing out on another Sheer Delight song. The notes on the performers (a bonus feature common to all the DVD’s in this series) misses the fact that Billy Preston and Ruth Brown both died in 2006, so this may have been prepared before that year. In all, a good concert, perhaps not a great one, but with much worth seeing and hearing.

I’ll be back with reviews of the next four discs in the “America’s Music Legacy” series once I have them all (I’m missing one at the moment). But for now, this should give you some ideas for any last-minute Christmas shopping you may need to do for the music-lovers on your list!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Les Paul: Live in New York (Questar)

Les Paul (1915-2009) wore a whole lot of hats during his very productive 94 years on this planet. In the 1930’s, he was country guitarist/singer/radio personality Rhubarb Red, and accompanied blues singers on the side. He began to play jazz under the influence of Django Reinhardt, formed a trio which included Jim Atkins (thus becoming a crucial influence on Jim’s kid brother, Chet), and played with the Fred Waring aggregation. And that was just the 1930’s.

The 1940’s found him accompanying Bing Crosby (a role filled a generation earlier by the great Eddie Lang), developing the solid-body electric guitar, as well as beginning his investigation of the possibilities of the tape recorder. His technical innovations included overdubbing, multi-tracking at multiple speeds, delay effects, and more. Slowed for a substantial period following an auto accident which caused him to request that his arm be set permanently in guitar-playing position, he had time to think up even more ideas for the 1950’s.

As a result, the ‘50’s would prove to be the apex of Les Paul’s popularity, as he developed an entirely new approach to making pop vocal-and-guitar records with his then-wife Colleen Summers, a/k/a Mary Ford. Employing most of the techniques he’d invented up to this point, the duo of Les Paul and Mary Ford had a number of huge-selling records, as well as their own syndicated five-minute t.v. series. Mary Ford had become sick of the couple’s touring schedule, the pressures of which led to the couple’s divorce and Paul’s semi-retirement. If that had been the last anyone ever heard of Les Paul, he would still be lionized as one of the most influential pop-music innovators of the 20th-century. But he wasn’t done yet.

In the mid-1970’s, Paul returned briefly to the spotlight to record two LP’s with Chet Atkins, which made a whole new generation (and, eventually, a couple subsequent ones) aware of who this man was and why he was important. After yet another decade out of the spotlight, Les Paul made his return to public performance. This brings us to the Last Act of his career, which is the subject of his “Live in New York” DVD. I have gone through the bother of sketching, in however incomplete a manner, the background of Paul’s amazing career arc, in part because this disc not only captures him in live performance, it attempts in spots to fill something of a documentary function. One of the few very minor failings of the disc is that it tends to assume that viewers are already familiar with most of the things the man had done in the past. They are discussed, but perhaps not explained to newcomers as thoroughly as they might be. To be sure, there are other Les Paul discs that ARE intended to be full-blown documentaries, so viewers who want to learn more after enjoying this DVD may turn to these for a more comprehensive look at his long life and career.

This is, as I say, only a minor quibble, because the focus of “Live In New York” is the late-period Les Paul, master guitarist and slightly risque entertainer, who spent what would have been the declining years for the average musician playing for listening and jamming every Monday night at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York. The particular Monday at the Iridium captured here is a very special one, Les Paul’s 90th birthday party, in 2005. Les was working alongside a top-notch backing combo (the members of which are given the opportunity to shine in their own right), dazzling audiences with his signature runs, ear-catching fills, and revamped arrangements which kept old favorite tunes fresh and continually interesting, not just for himself but for his listeners as well. He peppers the evening with slightly salty (but certainly not filthy) jokes and repartee. He brings to the stage a few lesser-known artists who apparently made regular appearances in the Les Paul jam session context, jazz singer Sonya Hensley, jazz violinist Christian Howes, and tap dancer Andrew Nemr. It’s good to see these worthwhile, yet not-quite-celebrity performers given a chance to be seen on this DVD alongside a fine assortment of more famous artists.

The top-name artists who get their chance to play with Les and the combo include David Grisman, Tommy Emmanuel, Jose Feliciano, Keith Richards (returning to his blues roots, as does Les in their duet), plus an extended turn by Les Paul’s godson, Steve Miller (who knew?). Given the informality of the situation, one should not be surprised when one hears an occasional off-kilter note, but there isn’t a slipshod performance in the lot. Indeed, there is a lot of inspiration, a lot of instrumental expertise, and a lot of fun on display throughout the entire jam session/party. I can’t imagine anyone viewing this disc with a sour expression on their face.

The Bonus Features are uniformly fine. “Thoughts on Les” (also filmed in 2005; in other words, they’re not memorial tributes) has a number of notables - Bonnie Raitt, Emmanuel, Bucky Pizzarelli, Tony Bennett, Steve Miller - speaking individually about Les Paul, the man and the musician, how they first encountered him, and what his accomplishments mean to them. We are also treated to an example of the 5-minute Les Paul and Mary Ford t.v. show, as they engage in some uncomfortably-delivered and awkwardly-scripted domestic dialogue before lip-and-hand-synching to “The World Is Waiting For the Sunrise”; an interview with the sound editor of the original shows; a Soundie of the Les Paul Trio (pre-Mary) doing a swinging version of “Dark Eyes”, marred by an unnecessary comic vocalist; and a very humorous appearance on the old “Omnibus” program, in which they are interviewed tongue-in-cheek by the very droll Alistair Cooke.

In all, when you combine the main feature and the Bonus clips, there are two jam-packed (pun partially intended) hours of first-class entertainment here. Sound and picture quality of the DVD are fine, but the Blu-Ray version is a mind-blowing experience. (I should point out that this is my very first Blu-Ray experience, and I am suitably impressed!) Whether you opt to buy the DVD or the two-disc Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital Copy deluxe version, you will not be disappointed.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

“Eric Clapton: The 1960’s Review” (MVD)

Sometimes it seems as if Eric Clapton has always been around.. But there once was a time when many rock’n’roll guitar heroes made their reputations putting out instrumentals on 45-RPM vinyl singles. There once was a time when almost all blues recordings were performed by African-Americans. (Yes, one can point to exceptions to both of these assertions.) And there once was a time when Eric Clapton was not yet a “god”.

This excellent DVD documentary takes us back to the beginnings of Clapton’s career and illustrates how he emerged as a game-changer, the first true Guitar Hero in the pre-video-game sense of the term, and the role model for so many white blues musicians to follow. As the title of the disc indicates, it is strictly dedicated to his most significant and most influential decade, the 1960’s. I do not, of course, mean this to denigrate all of his subsequent work. Even so, a large percentage of the performances which made Eric Clapton such a monumental figure took place during this seminal decade. The program includes reminiscences by several of the musicians who worked with him at that time, consistently intelligent commentary by historians and critics, and a gratifying number of video and audio clips to illustrate their theses.

We learn that Clapton’s earliest influences were not in blues per se - the genre was just on the verge of being introduced into England - but in the blues-influenced rock’n’roll of Bill Haley and the Comets and Elvis Presley. Then, still at a young age, he heard Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. At age 13 (1958), he was able to convince his guardians (grandparents) to buy him a guitar. From that point on, he was devoted to hearing, learning, and playing the blues, primarily off American records. Finding such records was not an easy task in London in this period, but a “blues underground” was developing whereby fans could meet up with other like-minded Londoners to listen to their music of choice. Many of these fans started to form bands, such as the group called the Roosters, which featured young Eric, Ben Palmer (subsequently Cream’s road manager), Tom McGuinness (known for his work with John Mayall and, later, McGuinness Flint), occasionally adding Paul Jones (of Manfred Mann fame). (All three of them are interviewed here.) The Roosters were more of an education, a jamming outlet rather than a “serious” band, though they did play gigs. Right from the beginning, Clapton was noted for building convincing improvisations over several choruses. But despite his ongoing quest for blues authenticity, Clapton would move on to a more pop-oriented band, Casey Jones and the Engineers.

In the meantime, Clapton’s school chums Chris Dreja and Top Topham were putting together the Yardbirds. Unfortunately, Topham’s parents made him quit because he was too young. (He and Dreja also contribute significant recollections on this disc.) Clapton was asked to join, which he did, because at the time the Yardbirds were a full-fledged blues band, quite unlike the Engineers.. The Yardbirds soon had a chance to witness the “real thing” up close, when hired to accompany Sonny Boy Williamson II on an English tour, as well as an LP and t.v. appearances, excerpts of which we get to see here. Two things are clear from the Williamson clip, as well as from a clip of the Yardbirds performing ”I Wish You Would” on British television. One, Clapton was not the main focus of the band; indeed, the late singer/harmonica player Keith Relf was the only member to stand out at all. Second, the Yardbirds were a fairly weak blues band when compared to the “real thing”.

Clapton also found the Yardbirds’ legendary “rave-ups” (think the last portion of “I’m a Man”) were “manipulative”, too carefully planned. Though a clip of “A Certain Girl” shows Clapton beginning to find his distinctive sound, his solo simply doesn’t seem to blend in with the rest of the band. The last straw came when it was decided the Yardbirds needed a commercial hit. Clapton wanted to cover an Otis Redding song, but instead they recorded Graham Gouldman’s “For Your Love”. The band thought they had much more in them than just to be a blues cover band. They wanted to explore their own concepts, establish their own identity. What’s more, Dreja feels Clapton was beginning to think of himself as “the star” of the band. He left the band almost immediately after the “For Your Love” session; whether this was a voluntary move or not is still a matter for disagreement among the parties involved. This is all fascinating stuff for historians and fans alike, and is covered in far more detail on the disc than this potted summary can allow.

Clapton soon joined John Mayall (who is also interviewed), who had to let go of Roger Dean (not really a blues guitarist) to make room for him. This not only gave Clapton a chance to play in a more congenial blues-dominated atmosphere, it also gave him access to Mayall’s enormous blues record collection. It was during his employment with Mayall that Clapton’s guitar work became more professional, more distinctive, more aggressive. It was also during this time that the infamous “Clapton Is God” graffiti began to appear. He quickly became the star attraction of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers.

Even so, Clapton was dissatisfied once again. He felt that Mayall was too much of a taskmaster who had too many rules for his sidemen, that he paid them too poorly, and subsequently held his musicians back. Thus, he accepted drummer Ginger Baker’s offer to join him in a new band. Clapton agreed, if two conditions were met - he insisted that Jack Bruce be added on bass, though Baker and Bruce did not see eye to eye while members of the Graham Bond Organisation. He also made it clear that would not play jazz, which was in both Baker’s and Bruce’s backgrounds.

The result was the first “power trio”, Cream, a lineup modeled after Buddy Guy’s band. But if people were expecting hard-driving, “authentic” blues, Clapton chose to shock the audience by releasing a light, piano-based ditty, “Wrapping Paper”, as the band’s first single. As Paul Jones rightly points out, Clapton found himself right back in the position he had found himself in with the Yardbirds, a rock band fusing blues guitar roots with psychedelia, far from blues purism a la Mayall. Atco Records’ boss Ahmet Ertegun felt that Clapton should be played up as the star of the show, with Bruce and Baker merely acting as accompanists. Of course, that’s not how it turned out. Clapton seemed to be pleased with the band’s psychedelic direction, since the move was made in the name of musical integrity rather than commercial motives. However, he soon became disenchanted with the long, extended improvisations favored by Bruce and Baker, and the internal conflicts brought the band to a woefully premature end. They recorded one last album to satisfy contractual obligations, even though they were no longer speaking to each other. (One quibble - I would have liked to have learned more about Bruce’s lyricist, Pete Brown, whose contribution to Cream’s success was crucial. He is acknowledged, but not discussed to any real extent.)

The public was expecting Clapton to put together a new band. The result was Blind Faith, featuring Steve Winwood’s vocals. Clapton found himself in a much-hyped “super-group”, which was simply not able to live up to advance expectations. After one pleasant, not particularly consequential album, the band split, and Clapton joined forces with their opening act, Delaney & Bonnie & Friends.

There, our story ends, before Derek and the Dominoes, before “461 Ocean Boulevard”, before “Tears in Heaven”, before Clapton’s re-dedication to the blues and Robert Johnson, before the Crossroads Festival. This means, of course, that there are 40 subsequent years yet to cover (and more in the future, one hopes). There is no indication that this is the first in a series. But if future volumes should appear, one can only hope that they will be handled with as much care, intelligence, taste, and commitment to the historical record as this DVD.

Extras include Chris Dreja’s thoughts on the Yardbirds’ experiences with Sonny Boy Williamson II, and why it turned out to be a much tougher gig than they had anticipated; Paul Jones on the little-known tracks credited to Eric Clapton and the Powerhouse, which appeared on an Elektra white-blues anthology called “What’s Shakin’” just prior to the formation of Cream; and recording engineer Bill Halverson on the song “Badge”, on which Clapton and co-writer George Harrison experimented with a new kind of foot pedal. There are also short text bios of the dozen people who were interviewed for this project.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

“Louie Bluie” (Criterion Collection)

Louie Bluie was a pseudonym used on a rare African-American string band 78 in 1934, a duet credited to “Louie Bluie and Ted Bogan” Decades later, the record fascinated Terry Zwigoff, a member of the Cheap Suit Serenaders, a somewhat eccentric string band led by underground comix hero R. Crumb. Indeed, it fascinated Zwigoff to such an extent that it altered the artistic direction of his life.

Zwigoff was determined to find out all he could about the elusive Louie Bluie, not realizing that the name hid the identity of fiddler/mandolinist Howard Armstrong, who had become something of a sensation in folk music circles during the 1970’s, again in the company of the very same guitarist, Ted Bogan, along with another veteran, Carl Martin, under the group name Martin, Bogan and Armstrong. Once he found Armstrong, he fortunately was able to convince him that he should make a documentary film about his life, focusing on the music he was still making in his 70’s. Bogan is featured in the film as well, but alas, Carl Martin had passed away in 1979, before Zwigoff entered the scene. During their 1970’s heyday, Martin, Bogan and Armstrong were considered the last of the old-time black string bands. Of course, since the film’s release in 1985, there has been a gratifying revival of interest in string band music among a handful of African-American musicians, most notably the Carolina Chocolate Drops (whom I would speculate took their name as an homage to a late 20’s band that featured Armstrong and Martin, the Tennessee Chocolate Drops).

Zwigoff convinced another legendary black mandolinist, Yank Rachell, to join Armstrong and Bogan for the film, but the three of them never quite click. Armstrong and Rachell may have both been born in Tennessee (Bogan was from South Carolina), but Armstrong’s deep roots in old-time country music and his penchant for applying these origins to old jazz and pop tunes doesn’t gel with Rachell’s Memphis-oriented blues style. Fortunately, Rachell pretty much stays in the background, aside from one solid blues number late in the film. Far more successful is the combination of Armstrong and Bogan with another guest invited by Zwigoff, Banjo Ikey Robinson, a sensational four-string banjo wizard popular on the Chicago scene during the 1920’s. The music these three masters make sounds as if they’d been playing together for years, even when they are merely jamming. The final member of this talented crew is Howard Armstrong’s son, Tom, on stand-up bass.

We get to know the off-stage personalities of these youthful old-timers as well. Armstrong may insult Bogan incessantly at the beginning of the film, but the latter merely smiles shyly, no doubt because he knows Armstrong is just razzing him. Armstrong actually seems to be a quiet, humble sort of guy for most of the film. Thus, it seems a bit jarring to learn that Armstrong was something of a pornographer in his sideline avocation as a graphic artist. He shows the camera a large book of his original artwork and writings that he assembled over the years, keeping it hidden away from the public, until he showed a few pictures here. Let’s just say there are certain, fairly short segments of the film you don’t want your kids to see. Not all of his art is salacious, by any means, and those drawings that are would appear to be based on folklore rather than hard-core. There is also a brief glimpse of his less racy pictures, which look surprisingly like very colorful, often elaborate folk-art equivalents of R. Crumb’s cartoons.

There is some fascinating interview material as well as a bit of a travelog, as Armstrong goes back to LaFollette, Tennessee to re-visit his old stomping grounds, finding some of his old acquaintances still alive and making music. Armstrong talks about how the black string bands would play country hoedowns every bit as much as white bands, but that the white musicians often refused to let black fiddlers play alongside them, even if they were better. Even so, Armstrong often played for white audiences at political rallies, excursions, etc. However, the white audiences didn’t care for blues, so he expanded his repertoire to include pop songs of the day. Thus we find over a half-century later, one of the most memorable performances in the film is a string-band version of the Bing Crosby standard, “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams”. First in Tennessee, and later, after arriving in Chicago in the 1930’s, Armstrong and Bogan also found they could earn a fair sum of money playing Polish, Italian, and other ethnic musics for European immigrants. They play a pretty mean polka in the film as well.

Sadly, most of the key participants in this film are now gone. Ted Bogan and Ikey Robinson both died in 1990, aged 79 and 86, respectively. Yank Rachell lived to be 87, passing from the scene in 1997. Howard Armstrong carried on as a solo artist for several years after the film was made, and was even the subject of a second documentary, “Sweet Old Song”. He died at age 94 in 2003.

Several years after making this film, Zwigoff directed the well-known documentary “Crumb”, and more recently helmed the plot-based films, “Ghost World” (which earned an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay) and “Bad Santa”. His film career has been somewhat inconsistent, but often rewarding artistically. 25 years after its initial release, “Louie Bluie” still holds up as one of the most delightfully entertaining music documentaries I’ve seen in quite a while.

The hour-long film is supplemented by an informative director’s commentary, a large chunk of unused footage, as well as some fine pictorial matter. Get this one.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Paul McCartney Really Is Dead: The Last Testament of George Harrison (MVD)

Beginning in 1969, and lasting well into the 1970’s, thousands of Beatles fans and critics pored over their Beatles LP’s (both the discs and their covers), searching for clues which would “prove” that Paul McCartney died in an auto accident in 1966, and was replaced by a look-alike double. After a few years, “Paul is Dead” mania faded away, largely because few fans really believed it to be true.

Now, decades after the phenomenon seemingly became a distant memory, along comes a documentary DVD which would have us believe that Paul is indeed dead, and that the man who has continued to tour as Paul McCartney to this very day is actually a fellow named William Campbell. The major piece of evidence presented here is a narration supposedly recorded at the end of 1999 by George Harrison, while he was hospitalized after being robbed in his home by an intruder. I have to say that while the voice claiming to be George sounds vaguely like him, it sounds more like an imitator than the late Beatle himself. I’m also a bit leery that for a hospitalized man who claims to be in fear for his life, he gives a very cogent, detailed account of the whole “Paul is Dead” affair, neatly arranged and leaving out very little.

But these observations are merely impressions on my part. I have no access to voice-recognition technology to either prove or disprove that the voice is indeed George Harrison. As far as I’m concerned, you may choose to believe this truly to be a documentary presenting the real facts of the matter, or you may find it merely an ingenious ruse exploiting the fact that George Harrison is no longer with us to deny the veracity of the disc. In either case, this is still an entertaining and informative presentation of the many theories and elaborately uncovered “clues” which have become part of the “Paul is Dead” legend.

“George” describes the accident that killed Paul in gory detail, because so many of the hints that surfaced through the lifespan of the legend have to do with the condition of Paul’s body after the accident. We are told that Paul had given a ride to a young lady named Rita, who later became Heather Mills, and that her screaming-fan behavior caused Paul to lose control of his car. (I might point out that Internet bios of Heather Mills have her being born in 1968, two years after the accident.) An MI5 representative named Maxwell informed the remaining Beatles of the accident, claiming that the government wanted Paul’s death hushed up. If it were made public, the government feared, it would result in a rash of teen suicides. The three living Beatles were sworn to secrecy, and willingly went along with the deception at first, so as to keep the band going. Eventually, the band had second thoughts about their part in the cover-up, but Maxwell warned them they would be killed if they revealed that Paul was, in fact, really dead. “George” claims that the three Beatles began dropping hints and clues into song lyrics and on the LP covers as a hedge against public reaction should the truth ever become known.

If you accept this premise (and I have to confess, I find it far-fetched), the whole collection of clues and hints falls into place very neatly. William Campbell has plastic surgery to increase his resemblance to the dead Paul, and becomes known to the living Beatles as “False Paul”, shortened to “Faul”. The video includes an interview with the “real” George Harrison in which he seems to consistently refer to Paul as “Faul”. We are told that the plastic surgery caused Campbell to also be called “Rubber Paul”, which was proposed as the name of the Beatles’ next LP; to make the clue less obvious to Maxwell, “Rubber Paul” was changed to “Rubber Soul”. And on it goes, one convoluted clue (and explanation) after another in lyrics, in backwards recordings, in photos included on LP covers, in design elements, all explained in elaborate detail. The cover of ”Sgt. Pepper” shows the people, dead or alive, whom Paul would have wanted to attend his funeral. The “Yellow Submarine” refers to a coffin, and so on and so forth.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the video is the examination of the audio clues, in particular those involving “backward masking”, that is, sound bites dropped into the mix which cannot be distinguished while the LP is being played in real time, but which show up when the records are played backwards. These have always been one of the best known, but least-heard clues, because so few people have had the equipment to play vinyl records backwards. (Some have been presented in other documentaries, but not as many as presented here, in my experience at least.) But now, one can actually hear a whole collection of such legendary phrases such as “Turn me on, dead man” and “I buried Paul”. Truth be told, not all the backwards clues sound to me like what they’re supposed to sound like, but many do.

This would all be great fun, until we are told that John Lennon had had enough of the deception, and was ready to blow the whistle on the whole charade. Maxwell warned him not to do it, but then Mark David Chapman assassinates John. The disc attempts to make clear that this was a direct result of John’s defiance of MI5.

Throughout the DVD, there is just so much “evidence” trotted out and explained with such conviction that one can either laugh it off as a total hoax, become convinced that Paul McCartney is really dead, or simply be impressed by the massive amount of effort producer John Gilbert put into tying together so many factors of the Paul is Dead deception. It’s a measure of how well Gilbert has put this together that there were moments when I was ready to buy into his story.

The programs lasts 97 minutes. The bonus features include MP3’s of the soundtrack music, and an only tangentially relevant 10-minute interview with the late music journalist Al Aronowitz, on how he introduced the Beatles to Bob Dylan and to marijuana. Not uninteresting, but it doesn’t really fit into the story of “Faul”.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

“Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost”; documentary by Todd Kwait (Folk Era Records) Paul Rishell and Annie Raines – “A Night In Woodstock” (Mojo Rodeo Records)

These two DVD’s were both put together by producer/director/writer Todd Kwait, and feature overlapping performers, so it makes sense to me to review the two of them together, though musically they are quite distinct.

“Chasin’ Gus’ Ghost” is an idea that has been WAY overdue – a full-length documentary film about the history of jug band music. What’s more, it doesn’t cover just the original jug band heroes of the 1920’s/30’s (Clifford Hayes, Earl McDonald, Whistler’s Jug Band, Will Shade and the Memphis Jug Band, and Cannon’s Jug Stompers, featuring Noah Lewis, Ashley Thompson, and the “Gus” of the title, Gus Cannon). It also features vintage footage and modern-day performances by some of the revered figures of the 1960’s jug band revival, most notably the Jim Kweskin Band (with Fritz Richmond, Geoff Muldaur, and Maria Muldaur). Also covered from the Revival era is the Even Dozen Jug Band (which included John Sebastian, Joshua Rifkin, Steve Katz, Stefan Grossman, David Grisman, and the very same Maria Muldaur when she was still Maria D’Amato; all at the beginnings of their careers). (I would have liked more discussion of Dave Van Ronk’s role in the revival, which is one of the few criticisms I can come up with.) The story is brought further up-to-date when the Kweskin Band and Sebastian travel to Japan to interact with the highly active Japanese jug band scene. There is also a segment on Sankofa Strings (an African-American band which overlaps in personnel with the Carolina Chocolate Drops), who are attempting to bring awareness of jug band music back to the black community which spawned it, then spurned it.

Much of the focus on the early days is on Cannon’s Jug Stompers, since it was the revival of key parts of Cannon’s repertoire that sparked Kwait’s interest in the jug band phenomenon and indeed proved crucial to the 60’s revival. The first inkling most folkies had that a jug band revival was even possible came when the Rooftop Singers had a monster hit with Gus Cannon’s oldie, “Walk Right In”. (The late Erik Darling lived long enough to tell the tale of his hit on camera and sing a somewhat curious arrangement of the song, in which he substitutes his harmony part for the familiar melody.) Is there any one interested in this music who discovered it during this revival period (as I did) and did not fall under the mysterious spell of ”Going To Germany”? We learn that the phrase “goin’ to German’” had nothing to do with the European nation, but refers to a town near Memphis called Germantown. The film also visits what’s left of “Minglewood” (more properly, Menglewood) home of a box factory which, like Germantown, was a place where black people were able to find employment. “Minglewood Blues” was one of harmonica virtuoso Noah Lewis’ great contributions to the jug band world; Lewis would go on to utilize the setting again for another song, “The New Minglewood Blues”. This song was one of the first recorded by the Grateful Dead, which itself evolved out of a jug band. In fact, Bob Weir is one of the interviewees in this film as well.

This leaves John Sebastian, who is one of the stars of the DVD, both as an interviewee and as a featured performer. Much is made of the fact that jug band music was a major influence on the Lovin’ Spoonful. This is, of course, impossible to deny. But to think of them as an “electric jug band” leaves out a lot of their other, subsequent influences. Still, it’s a treat to hear Sebastian sing a bit of Cannon’s “Prison Wall Blues”, and to recognize it as the source of “Younger Girl”, another piece of the puzzle directly traceable to Gus Cannon. As you can see, Kwait really was “chasin’ Gus Cannon’s ghost” in this film. Sebastian not only performs in the film with his more recent outfit, the J Band (which includes Paul Rishell and Annie Raines), he achieves a life-long dream to perform on-stage with the Jim Kweskin Band. Kweskin and the Muldaurs sound as fine as ever, but alas Fritz Richmond (also seen in vintage footage), the greatest of all washtub bass players and a mean hand at the jug as well, was slowly dying of lung cancer at the time the film was being made. Richmond becomes as much a focal point of the film as Gus Cannon. The Japanese segments, in fact, were part of a Fritz Richmond memorial tribute, featuring the American guests alongside the Japanese bands MadWords (featuring Uncle Mooney) and the Southern Chefs. One person obviously missing from the Kweskin segments of the film is David Simon, a/k/a “BrunoWolf”. It seems no one has any idea what happened to him.

There is next-to-no film footage of the original jug bands, though Kwait does include an excerpt of the famous 1930 film clip of Whistler’s Jug Band with their three (count ‘em) jugs. Roscoe Goose and the late Gil Fish of current favorites, the Juggernauts, offer insight into the early Louisville Jug Band scene, while jug band entrepreneur Rod Wenz accurately observes that more people outside of Louisville know about that city’s crucial formative role in the music than do people in Louisville itself. Thankfully, the Louisville classic “Banjoreno” (Clifford Hayes’ Dixieland Jug Blowers) is sampled here. There is footage available on Youtube of Will Shade and Charlie Burse in the 1950’s that might have been used, but the Memphis Jug Band gets its due nonetheless. Swedish historian Bengt Olsson and Charlie Musselwhite are along to assess Memphis’ and Will Shade’s contributions. Historian (and Van Ronk jug band associate) Sam Charters offers valuable perspective as well.

There’s so much more I could say about this exceptionally fine film. No, it doesn’t include everything, and some statements may be open to interpretation. But it accomplishes an awful lot in 100 minutes. There is additional info on a commentary track featuring Kwait, Sebastian, and others. Other bonus features include a number of anecdotes told by Fritz Richmond, and a conversation between John Sebastian and performer/historian Delmark Goldfarb. (I should add that there is a CD companion to the film, available separately, consisting of a live performance featuring many of the film’s principal figures.) It’s always gratifying to be able to say that a documentarian working in a neglected musical area got it right. Todd Kwait got it right.

When you consider guitarist Paul Rishell and harmonica ace Annie Raines’s reputation as being true masters of acoustic blues, one might expect their concert DVD, “A Night in Woodstock” to be a purist’s delight. And indeed, the first half is a no-nonsense, thoroughly entertaining acoustic set, ranging from Piedmont rags to Delta blues, with a detour into swing territory. There is also an affecting rendition of Rishell’s most famous song, the blues ballad “Blues on a Holiday”. Rishell plays a gorgeous National steel-bodied guitar that’s a treat to see as well as to hear, while Raines is an absolute dynamo on harp. But then, the electric guitars and rhythm section come out, for a second half consisting of driving, roadhouse amplified blues. And it’s just as good as the acoustic half.

One of the reasons for this is a top-notch guest appearance by the Paul and Annie’s J Band boss, John Sebastian. The proceedings particularly catch fire when Sebastian and Raines get into blues-harp duets, something one doesn’t hear often enough, not this effectively. Rishell, meanwhile, acquits himself very well on electric guitar, and the band is a crack unit. It’s not until one listens to the commentary track (Rishell, Raines, Sebastian) – the commentary may be found under “audio options” – that one is aware of the massive problems the musicians and filmmaker Todd Kwait had to work under to get something that looks downright effortless. The music is energetic, beautifully played and sung, with a nice balance of styles in both formats, and a just-plain good time. There is nothing especially visual about Rishell and Raines’ act, but it’s always great to see fine musicians doing their thing this effectively.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Beatles: Rare and Unseen (MVD)

The Beatles – Rare and Unseen (MVD)

First off, let me acknowledge that I’m not so rabid a Beatles collector that I can judge whether these clips truly are as rare as presented here. In this Internet Age, after years of rampant piracy of unreleased material by both major and minor recording artists, it seems hardly anything can remain “unseen” for very long. The best I can do is tell you what’s on this DVD, and give my reaction to it.

As it turns out, my reaction to the presentation as a whole is very positive. Subtitled “The Unofficial Account of The Biggest Band In the World”, this would appear to be a British television documentary, and a very good one at that. While the rare, unseen footage is consistently interesting, the main feature of this disc from my point of view would be the excerpts of interviews with a variety of people “who were there” in the Beatles’ early days, supplemented by the comments of a few young Beatles fans who grew up to be celebrities in their own right.

Among the interviewees who were there, we hear from Allan Williams, Gerry Marsden (of Gerry and the Pacemakers), Tony Bramwell, Hurricane Smith (in his role as George Martin’s recording engineer), and John Lennon himself, in portions of a rare 1975 French t.v. interview. But the most revealing comments of all come from the largely unheralded Colin Hanton, the original drummer for the Beatles’ early skiffle-band incarnation, the Quarrymen, whose story is rarely told so well. The early fans who would later become celebrities include Phil Collins, Cockney Rebel’s Steve Harley, and – of all people – “Dancing With the Stars” judge Len Goodman. Discussing the Beatles 1963 Paris concert are Mickey Jones (who was the drummer for Trini Lopez, who was also on the bill for the concert) and French star Sylvie Vartan, also on that concert.

The early history of the Beatles is given a quick, yet surprisingly thorough runthrough. However, once the band hits stardom in America, the narrative leaps ahead to the filming of “Magical Mystery Tour”. One might surmise that the producers thought the mid-60’s were too well documented to warrant rehashing. In any case, this sin of omission, while quite noticeable, does not seriously detract from what IS here. It is worth mentioning that there is also some intelligent analysis of the Beatles as both musicians and as lyricists, so the disc does dig deeper than the more frequently encountered “golly-gee-whiz” fan hagiography.

As to the unseen footage, what we are offered are amateur, home-movie clips, all of them silent. The question as to whether they were originally shot as silent films, or if the music is missing due to the inability to secure rights, is left unanswered. But the footage is worth seeing, in any case. We have the earliest known footage of the Beatles on stage, Liverpool, February, 1962; the only surviving footage of their first tour of Scotland; home movies of the boys having fun on holiday in the Channel Islands; the aforementioned French concert (courtesy of Mickey Jones), and home movies shot on film sets. If you’re a hard-core fan and you haven’t seen this material before, consider it significant. Otherwise, consider it a bonus to go along with the documentary interviews.

The “extra features” consist of longer chunks of the interviews excerpted in the main body of the documentary itself. The Colin Hanton segment is particularly important when heard in this longer format. There are also fascinating details about the reaction to the Beatles’ visit to Tokyo.

I have to confess I’ve seen some pretty shoddy, almost worthless Beatles’ DVD documentaries in my day. “Rare and Unseen” definitely stands out above the crowd, as one that is well worth seeing.