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.