A Killer Spree
For an artist with so much history under his belt, there’s been a relative paucity of original, uncut video material available capturing the electrifying performances of Jerry Lee Lewis. That a prime “What Made Milwaukee Famous” from his late-’60s hard country period was included on last year’s A Salute To Hee Haw DVD set was worthy of note — and that’s one number. The drought is over now, with three excellent but very varied Jerry Lee DVDs seeing release.
The new Jerry Lee Lewis: Last Man Standing, Live (Artists First) takes off from last year’s duets record, though the singers and songs included only occasionally match those on that disc. The man himself is mainly performing seated these days and shows signs of wear, but his singing attack is absolutely intact, and all of these performances are live onstage or in-studio, avoiding entirely the “phoned in” faked duets that were the lesser part of the record. There are fine duets with Solomon Burke, Merle Haggard, Tom Jones (no kidding!), Norah Jones (no relation!), and Kid Rock — plus rocking ones with John Fogerty, Buddy Guy and Ivan Neville that win the special Jerry Lee seal of rock approval: spontaneous affirmative full-face grins.
For some vintage material, there’s Jerry Lee Lewis: Greatest Performances Live (Time Life), which includes clean, uncut performances you may have seen as momentary clips elsewhere — the chair-tossing “Steve Allen Show” appearance from the ’50s, rarely seen performances on Dewey Phillips and Dick Clark shows, his “return to England” British Invasion-era show (complete with bouncing teddy boys and mods all over his piano), and some strong latter-day interview material.
But the really stunning release is probably Fats & Friends (Starring Fats Domino, Ray Charles & Jerry Lee Lewis) (Time Life). I’ve been known to rail against inflated live-show ticket prices, but this 1986 show induced and produced by Paul Shaffer at the Storyville club in New Orleans, with these three rhythm-rampant piano-playing vocal giants up close, individually and together, would have been worth emptying some pockets for. When all three join in on Hank’s “Jambalaya”, which they’d all recorded individually, it’s American music heaven.
If a DVD documents a performance you want to see and hear badly enough, you can perhaps willfully ignore a lack of directorial camera placement genius or even of visual quality. A good case in point is Neil Young Live At Massey Hall 1971 (Reprise), which captures Young just as he’s about to emerge into superstardom, performing material from his CSN&Y days and his first solo LPs, plus some that was about to be on Harvest. He plays acoustic, sitting in a chair, and is absolutely engaging, with vocal interpretations as intense as any he’s ever given on the likes of “Don’t Let It Bring You Down”.
There are “I remember that/I never knew that” moments of note; “A Man Needs A Maid” and “Heart Of Gold” are still a one-chunk medley, as generally performed then. The color filming (never released before) is primitive, and a half-dozen of the seventeen selections are audio-only, with still montages or even video of a tape recorder filling the gaps. But what’s here is enough to be thankful for. This is one of those DVD-plus-CD combos, and is a great argument for that format; Neil sounds so good you’ll want to play the record even if you generally avoid live ones, and the “not really filmed” numbers stand up to repeated hearing more easily than repeated semi-watching.
Also in the “glad it was saved for posterity, anyway” category is The Osborne Brothers Live In Germany (Pinecastle), a July 1989 show by the since-retired classic brothers-and-band bluegrass act at Streekermoor, Germany, with Terry Smith on bass, Terry Eldridge on guitar and additional vocals, and Steve Thomas on fiddle. Bobby and Sonny do a typically varied, harmonic, dynamic show, including everything from hits “Ruby” and “Midnight Flyer” to turns on Ernest Tubb and Bob Wills.
The packaging can give the impression that there’s a lot more music on the CD than the DVD, but it all turns out to be on the video, too. The visual quality here is of a video accidentally grabbed with a single, slightly panning, color security camera; there’s “blooming” off white shirts and such. But the audio is much better, and it’s good to see this band in action again.
A second, separate Pinecastle DVD, The Osborne Brothers In Concert At Renfro Valley, captures the band (with Gene Wooten on dobro, always a plus) back home in Kentucky in 1992 and offers performances as good or better, multi-camera video quality that’s clearly preferable, but a shorter and somewhat more predictable set list. Either way, Bobby Osborne sounds like no one else on earth — and nobody has bigger hats.
Contemporary country star Dierks Bentley has gotten his wish of headlining big amphitheaters now, and what that’s like is demonstrated on Dierks Bentley Live & Loud At The Fillmore (EMI/Capitol) — the “Fillmore” being not the storied San Francisco auditorium, but the larger venue in Denver. Dierks sometimes, a little disconcertingly, drops the guitar and rock-stars it now — but he’s also capable of bringing the intimacy of his barroom shows to these big spaces. The DVD doesn’t help reveal that much, however, since it’s edited in that “if any shot is longer than three seconds these kids will lose attention” mode without regard to the speed and intensity of any given song. Bentley’s performances are strong; if that sort of hopped-up, untrusting editing doesn’t bother you, the DVD will show that. (And there’s a nice cover of “Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This”.)
To many, Tim Buckley is a somewhat mysterious, vague 1960s-’70s hippie figure now, or just “the late Jeff Buckley’s late father,” but there’s a chance to get to really know the adventurous, enigmatic artist a via a strong new bio-documentary, Tim Buckley: My Fleeting House (MVD Visual), which does usual things unusually well. Buckley’s attention-riveting performances — which start out being sort of Irish tenor Phil Ochs gone baroque, and evolve into a startling vocal parallel to Miles Davis’ experimentation — are numerous and uninterrupted. And you can go directly to them without the talking-head part when you want to. The highly articulate talkers include Buckley’s close musical associates, including frequent co-writer Larry Beckett and his band’s lead guitarist Lee Underwood. You’ll find a singer-songwriter who often seemed out of time and step in his day, but who has emerged as an exquisite-voiced pop precursor of singers from Nick Drake to the Seattle grungers.
The music video-predicting era of the film jukebox is tracked on Soundies: A Musical History (Liberation Entertainment), which follows the rise of the technology and production company that put out thousands of black-and-white filmed musical performances — jazz, pop, country, and the occasional stripper — in bars and train stations, playable for a dime. There’s vintage Duke Ellington and Merle Travis here, and a fascinating piece of pop culture history. Host Michael Feinstein is, for some of us, a very slowly acquired taste, but he’s got a great sense of this stuff. Full performances from the with-it likes of Gene Austin and Harry The Hipster are added as bonuses to the DVD.
Nashville’s favorite contemporary western swing band, with Ranger Doug Green as sometime lead vocalist and a host of familiar Music City faces in the audience, are well-represented with a two-hour Station Inn show on The Time Jumpers: Jumpin’ Time (Crosswind). And veteran raunchy blues singer and harp player Bobby Rush, one of the few blues performers able to pull in African-American audiences across the south, has a DVD’s worth of material from his show, shot in Mississippi, on Bobby Rush: Live At Ground Zero Blues Club (MVD Visual).