Tuesday, January 31, 2012

“Troubadour Blues” (Tom Weber Films)

It would be hard to make any statement to the effect that the singer-songwriter, offering original song material to the accompaniment of an acoustic guitar, has gone completely unnoticed by the commercial music industry. One need only drop such names as Bob Dylan, James Taylor, and Leonard Cohen, to name but a few who have risen from the ranks of the so-called “folkie” singer-songwriters to great mainstream success. But those few names that are known by the public at large are a vast minority. In a world dominated by rock, pop, hop-hop, and now dubstep, the modern-day singer-songwriter has become akin to a prophet crying out in the wilderness.

That’s what makes Tom Weber’s film, “Troubadour Blues” a much-needed corrective to mass media’s constant exaltation of the same old insubstantial, uninspiring commercial banalities constantly being exposed on radio and on t.v. competition programs. There are dozens of creative, highly skilled singer-songwriters who have something interesting to say and the ability to say it in a manner that has a great deal of meaning among those listeners open to receiving the message. These performers may be heard on the radio, true, but only if you know when and where to turn, to the “right” station. A few may occasionally pop up on television, but don’t hold your breath waiting to see them, because it doesn’t happen often.

“Troubadour Blues” is a documentary look at the singer-songwriter scene of the past decade. It is by no means an exhaustive study of the phenomenon. Many of the artists seen here in performance and/or in interviews - not everyone interviewed is given a performance spogtlight - have devoted regional followings, some are nationally known. They may be heralded in one area of the country, and completely obscure in others. There are many artists whom I might have expected to turn up here who are not mentioned at all, and a few who ARE here whose names I’ve never encountered.Thus is the nature of the world of the “contemporary-folk” or “Americana” artist, to name two appellations used to lump a diverse assemblage of artists into genres for more efficient marketing. One hears influences from folk, country, rock, blues, and the proverbial “much more”, yet they all share a common attribute, the necessity to make their living by traveling from town to town, playing small venues for nowhere near enough money. Weber’s choice of artists is by nature subjective, but there is not one artist here - borderline-famous or mostly unknown - who doesn’t deserve far more exposure than they have received in the past.

Weber devotes a considerable amount of space to his major “case study” (yes, it’s a pun), Peter Case. Case, who grew up in Hamburg, NY (not all that far from GenEc’s “offices” here in Fredonia), was at one time a rock star, with the Nerves and the Plimsouls. But he chose to “downsize” his career into becoming a solo artist, with or without additional musicians. Early in the film, there is a striking collage of Case singing the same song in many places over a period of time, making it seem fresh for every new audience, despite the rigors of the road. (Case suffered serious heart problems during the time was being made, but is back on the road. Indeed, as I write this, there’s a report of a Nerves “reunion” making the rounds, albeit not the entire band.) The other “rock star” name here is Dave Alvin, who achieved cult status with the Blasters and X before turning toward a more folk/Americana direction. We also hear from Slaid Cleaves, Gurf Morlix, Amy Speace, to name a few of the more widely-known artists. Tracy Grammer is here, with a short memorial tribute to her old partner, Dave Carter, another victim of the hard life independent musicians must endure.

There is a lot to enjoy musically. There is much to learn from the interviews, so that fans of this particular sub-class of music will find this an essential addition to their DVD collections. But with any luck, this disc will reach far beyond the already-committed singer-songwriter audience, to let even those people who may be unfamiliar with ANY of the artists in this film know that there is something very worthwhile, very aesthetically satisfying going on in an underground of sorts that has difficulty attracting large numbers of new listeners. I certainly hope “Troubadour Blues” manages to reach that larger audience, and that the artists in the film can open many new doors as a result.

There are no extra bonus features on this disc. But the DVD case lists this as a 91-minute film. Actually, if you count the credits at the end - which most films do - it’s more like 95 minutes. In an era when some commercial DVD companies have taken to adding the total time including bonus features, trailers, photo galleries, and whatnot into the running time of the disc, I find Weber’s under-statement refreshing.

The film has its own website - http://www.troubadour-blues.com/

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Classic Motown Performances on the Ed Sullivan Show - 3 separate DVD’s (SOFA Entertainment)

For those of you who are too young to remember the Ed Sullivan Show, which ran on the CBS television network from 1948 to 1971, it was a variety program very much unlike the competition-style variety shows on-air today (and that means you, “America’s Got Talent”). Rather than present amateur or entry-level pro talent hoping to make it big, which is the raison d’etre of current music and dance shows on t.v., the Ed Sullivan Show featured the very finest and most popular performers of the day - in music, dance, comedy, puppets, vaudeville-style specialty acts (jumping dogs, plate spinners, and a host of etceteras) - you name it, Sullivan had it. To be sure, Sullivan was the quirkiest t.v. host you could imagine, with a tendency to start mumbling if he had to say more than a couple sentences, frequent mispronunciations ans scrambled names (as when he introduced Tommy James as “Tony Jones”) , and a variety of facial expressions and distinctive body movements that made him an easy target for impressionists looking for a celebrity to mock. But darned if he didn’t present some of the finest pop music on the airwaves, during an era rich with music shows featuring top-drawer professional talent. Would we had someone like him today. Television really WAS better when I was a kid!!

Which brings us to three new DVD’s (actually four, as the anthology has two discs) devoted to Sullivan appearances by some of Motown’s finest artists during that fabled label’s Golden Era. We’ll start with the various-artists set, ”Motown Gold From The Ed Sullivan Show”. This set consists of three “volumes” of 40 minutes each, with Vols. l and 2 on the first disc, and Vol. 3 on the other DVD. (One wonders if these had originally been released separately on three discs or three VHS tapes.) It’s fascinating to watch the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Gladys Knight and the Pips, all in their prime all these years later. And, given all we know - from the highest highs to the tragic lows - about what happened to Michael Jackson in his subsequent solo career and off=stage foibles, it’s refreshing to see young Michael and his Jackson 5 siblings so fresh, energetic, enthusiastic, and, um, “normal” at the beginning of their stardom.

There is a definite imbalance among the performers, whether due to perceived audience demand or availability of strong performances. But the Supremes and Temptations dominate the proceedings. We see two glimpses of Stevie Wonder, first as a 13-year-old boy genius, singing and playing up a storm on chromatic harmonica, plus a more mature Stevie on “For Once In My Life”. But Wonder’s finest hours post-dated the Sullivan Show. Marvin Gaye has one, only one selection, and that’s not even of one of his better-remembered songs (“Take This Heart Of Mine”, only a #44 hit) - BUT this was Gaye’s ONLY appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, for reasons I don’t know. Likewise Martha and the Vandellas are here only once, looking splendid for “Dancing In the Street”. But we must be thankful for what we do have here. There are no selections at all by the Marvelettes, Isley Brothers, or Jr. Walker - I can’t recall after all these years if any of them ever appeared on Ed Sullivan or not.

For the most part, Sullivan allowed his guests to shine without undue interference. They sang, they danced (Motown was very careful to school their artists into being all-around entertainers, not simply singers who stood rock-still around microphones), they dressed well, they were presented in a attractive surroundings, their orchestrations were professionally handled. There were no “Shindig”-style go-go-girls, half-naked models, or embarrassing attempts at singing songs totally unsuited to them. Yes, there are times when Motown’s finest sang covers of other people’s hits and/or jazzy, nightclub-pop songs instead of “The Sound of Young America” - the Four Tops do it twice here - but that was also part of Motown’s concept of grooming artists for what they hoped would be long-term careers. So these atypical songs were not removed from what these artists might do in a nightclub situation removed from their usual Funk Brothers backing. There’s just so much good stuff here, I can’t imagine any fan of Motown, of 60’s music in general, heck, of music period being disappointed by this set.

If you’re looking for individual artists instead of an anthology, SOFA has at least two DVD’s by classic Motown groups, though there is a great deal of overlap between these individual discs and the above set (plus some material that appears on the individual discs and not in the set).. “The Best Of The Supremes On The Ed Sullivan Show” not only contains strong performances by three editions of the trio, it shows the original line-up of Diana/Mary/Flo assuming a variety of identities. Unfortunately, it’s not presented in strict chronoloigcal order (the key word being “strict”; it does, however, appear to be arranged in early-to-late order; the clips are undated), but the changes the group underwent through the mid-to-late 1960’s are quite visible.

We start in 1964 with “Come See About Me” in black-and-white. (Subsequent clips are all in color.) All three large-haired singers are crowded together as a unit, with Diana’s big eyes and infectious grin showing an innocent delight in getting their big break in the national spotlight. All three seem a bit uneasy, as if their fabled lessons in dance and deportment hadn’t quite taken hold yet. By the time of the second clip., “You Can’t Hurry Love”, from 1966, the hair has been re-styled, eye makeup has been slathered on injudiciously, the wardrobe seriously upgraded, and - most telling of all - Diana Ross has been separated from Mary and Flo, less a unit than a star with backup singers. The grueling dance lessons pay off in “Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart” (also released in 1966), as this is Flo Ballard and Mary Wilson’s most significant contribution to the performance seen here. By the time of “The Happening”, 1967, Florence Ballard seems pushed even further into the background.

The move away from the Sound Of Young America to a more polished pop identity in the trio’s nightclub engagements (a move which eventually paid off in Diana Ross’ solo career) is represented in the lushly-orchestrated swing-waltz version of “My Favorite Things”. (Speaking of orchestration, I’m thinking Motown’s touring-unit musicians are absent from these Sullivan shows; backing was probably supplied by Sullivan’s regular bandleader, Ray Bloch.) Pop becomes increasingly prevalent, including an uncharacteristic version of “More”, which begins with unison trio vocals. Flo and Mary show themselves to be much more graceful than Diana in a brief dance sequence. Irving Berlin’s “Always” starts out as pure supper-club, before an ill-fated decision to add a hipper, more “contemporary” uptempo beat to it.

Changing fashion finds the Supremes sporting Afro wigs and wearing a ghetto-chic wardrobe for “Love Child”. Flo Ballard is gone, replaced by Cindy Birdsong. One of this second edition Supremes’ last performances on the Sullivan Show, “No Matter What Sign You Are” (an only-modest hit from 1969), finds them in stunning colorful, loose-fitting,reflective, glitter-laden gowns that are far more striking than the cliche-filled, asgrology-themed song. The glitter returns on more conservative dresses for one of the group’s less well-remembered gems, “Forever Came Today” (1968), but the backing vocals by Mary and Cindy are almost hidden.

Regardless of staging, wardrobe, hair-do’s, choreography, and all the other changes from clip to clip, the performances are generally first-rate throughout. The one disappointment is a medley of ultra-short snippets of their greatest hits. Indeed, the excerpts are so short and go by so quickly that there is an occasional bit of confusion by the trio. Bit it \’s nice to watch Diana, Mary and Flo interacting as they do here.

Ed Sullivan was, in retropsect, an enigmatic television host, without charisma, polished delivery, or apparent talent other than supervising a consistently entertaining collection of diverse acts from week to week. His interviewing skills would often leave his guests bewildered. At one point, he introduces the Supremes as three girls from three different states, to which Diana has to point out that they are all from Detroit. In another clip, the perennially befuddled Sullivan tries to get in on the act by adding a bit of comic dialog and even singing briefly, leaving the viewer wondering why. But we watched him faithfully every week; to those of us who grew up watching him, he remains a cultural touchstone.

The program itself is 41 minutes long, but there is a welcome bonus song at the end - “Up The Ladder To The Roof”, the 1970 Top 10 debut of the post-Diana Supremes, featuring Jean Terrell as lead singer. Based on this opening success, the future looked very bright. But within two years, the hits began to dry up. But the highlights of the Supremes’ golden era, as captured on the Ed Sullivan Show, are a testament to one of the greatest singing groups ever. Highly recommended, whether you want to analyze, or simply enjoy.

The Temptations’ career was also dogged by a variety of soap-opera-like incidents, if the much-debated late 90’s mini-series (based on a book by Otis Williams, the last remaining original Tempt still alive, who is still singing with the group) is to be believed. But the Tempts’ problems were never as public as those of the Supremes, so it’s not as much of a game to try to read things into the performances on “The Best Of The Temptations On The Ed Sullivan Show”. Better to just sit back and enjoy!

This DVD includes both the “David Ruffin Temptations”, so to speak, and the “Dennis Exdwards Temptations”, though of course the group was much more eager to spread lead-vocal chores around than the Supremes ever were. Oddly enough, the earliest performances seem rather tentative, Ruffin in particular seeming much more under wraps than one would guess from his soulful singing on the corresponding records. But Eddie Kendricks and the choreography combine to rescue them. Thank goodness, Ruffin’s jitters - if that’s what the problem was - settled down on later Sullivan appearances. No such problem with Dennis Edwards, however, who is consistently emotional and professional at all times.

One of the definite highlights of the disc is a “duet” (if you can consider eight people in two separate groupings a “duet”!) with the Supremes, singing each other’s hits. Diana Ross sounds especially fine on “My Guy” (i.e., “My Girl”), while Ruffin comes to life on “Stop! In The Name Of Love”. Ross and Ruffin share “I’m Losing You,” which includes some energetic dancing by all eight.

“Runaway Child Running Wild” has some clever stasging, while “Psychedelic Shack” has some unusual visual effects. (Sullivan calls U.S. Congressman John Conyers to the stage at the end of “Shack”, as he had just honored the Temptations in the Congressional Records.) Eddie Kendricks is especially mellow on “Just My Imagination”, which the group uncharacteristically sings while sitting down. It’s to the credit of the Sullivan Show’s production staff that they could continue to come up with new ways of showcasing groups who appeared on the program multiple times.

The most unexpected example of that phenomenon may be a pop version of “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy” (not usually thought of as a Motown song even though it was co-written and originally recorded by Motown artist Brenda Holloway). The Tempts sing to, then dance with five beautifully dressed female dancers, in a style suited to a number of other variety shows but not often seen on Sullivan. It’s a very entertaining segment, choreographed by Louis Johnson of “The Wiz” fame. The Temptations were always one of the most versatile of all Motown groups, as witnessed by their many stylistic changes throughout the years (and notable here). So it’s not surprising that a medley of “Ain’t No Mountain High enough” and “My Sweet Lord”, done in a nightclub style, works as well as it does, even though the Tempts fail to put their own identifiable stamp on the tunes.

The body of the program lasts a somewhat scanty 35 minutes, but there are two bonus clips, both in the Copa vein - a jazzy, finger-snapping “Hello Young Lovers” (from the Ruffin era, sung primarily in unison), and a bossa nova-tinged “Autumn Leaves” (from the Edwards period). Both are well worth including, to round out this glimpse of the most beloved American group vocal groups in their prime (no pun intended).

If you buy the individual discs, you will already own a sizeable chunk of the anthology. It’s up to the individual purchaser to decide if you want to concentrate on particular artists or the overview.