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/

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