Blasts from the Past
Maybe it’s flipping the calendar over; maybe it was the success of Buena Vista Social Club, or maybe it’s something in the water, but it seems so many key video releases of late look at longtime acts that have survived, or gotten back together to look back at what it all meant. With these “senior” DVDs, there’s almost a built-in “Are they still OK? Still any good? Why don’t they just show the heyday footage?” factor — and a great sigh of extra pleasure when the reunions and looks back manage to deliver music that’s vital now.
This past year’s reunion shows by the fabled original Blasters showed they could let loose their mighty Southern California blast as well as ever — which is about as well as any band in the rockabilly and R&B-heavy American Music mode has. For the many fans long awaiting a look at battling brothers Phil and Dave Alvin rocking out together, these shows were a sight for sore eyes. Their “last” show (and aren’t they all!) back home at the Galaxy Theater in Santa Ana is captured on the new Shout Factory DVD The Blasters Live: Going Home. It makes for a good time.
Phil’s dramatic facial contortions are as much on the job as his harp solo on “So Long Baby Goodbye”. All of the band’s instrumental chops are on display, still at full-throttle, though Dave’s not quite flying around as he used to. They play the hits and make the case that there’s no such thing as “roots rock” — because rock ‘n’ roll IS roots music — by bringing out such guests as blues harpist Billy Boy Arnold and ageless rockabilly Sonny Burgess to join in on some cool covers.
There are also sweet band interviews, and even a little touring of their old haunts. The 2003 band’s main competition, of course, is the memory of the 1980 band’s shows; this disc includes as a bonus three video performances of these same gents back when everyone was toothpick thin and screamin’. (We ought to see more of that, too!)
A very different Californian is chronicled coming to grips with his past, making his last music, and saying goodbye to friends through his final months alive on VH1 Inside Out: Warren Zevon (Artemis). No question that it can be disquieting, and plain sad, to witness the jocular bluntness of this on’ry and unmean, doomed ironist at work — not least because for all his career’s worth of playing with death and destruction, he handles the reality of it so well. There’s no “poor, poor pitiful me” in the man.
The DVD includes telling interview material and session outtakes not seen in the VH1 cablecast, and much is learned about this unique writer/performer’s life, thoughts, and deep friendships with the likes of Springsteen and Yoakam and Letterman. They might as well just have called this one by its secondary title, from Warren’s touching farewell song, “Keep me in your heart for a while.” A lot of us will.
And now for some really long-lived bands!
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band gets together with some of the twang artists who’d joined them on their three celebrated cross-generational get-togethers on Will The Circle Be Unbroken: Farther Along (Capitol). Performances by Rosanne Cash & John Hiatt, Del McCoury, Taj Mahal and Iris DeMent save this from being merely nostalgia for previous nostalgia. There are return appearances by Jimmy Martin and Earl Scruggs, and gulp-making ones from Johnny & June Carter Cash, but no signs of the Dirt Band looking to extend that circle forward to performers as generationally different from themselves as they were from their predecessors. The emphasis is on continuity that seems relatively easily won, mostly via these performers’ own children.
Only excited and positive things can be said about the saga and performances of a much more obscure acoustic twang band, the Dismembered Tennesseans, rambunctious amateurs who’ve been playing together as an old-timey and comedy act for some 60 years, from before there was bluegrass — so long that they’re closer than families, and have become quite good at what they do, even while becoming business executives and such. It’s fun, downright inspiring, and you can find it at their website, www.dismemberedtennesseans.com.
There’s a more celebrated long-lived outfit in Fiddlin’ Man: The Life And Times Of Bob Wills (View), which charts Wills’ life and his incomparably twangy role in western swing, presenting a good supply of performance clips (interrupted, documentary-style) along the way. Merle Haggard and Ray Benson add commentary; bonus bio and discographic material has been added to this 1990s film.
Only The Strong Survive (Miramax) takes a look at the current life, mood and performing chops of some now little-seen classic soul performers. This one’s mainly about the survival power and good-natured, loose-lipped comments by the likes of Carla Thomas, Ann Peebles, Jerry Butler and William Bell — but the exciting new performance footage included transcends nostalgia. On this DVD version, there’s an audio overlay track option with commentary by super-producer Jerry Wexler and others, performances not seen in the original feature film, and some extra quality time with the late Rufus Thomas. You get that sense of knowing the people seen, as this one’s in the able hands of D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus — virtually the inventors of the form, back to their days filming young Dylan for Don’t Look Back.
Pennebaker appears in, but very much did not make, World Tour 1966: The Home Movies, which is subtitled Through The Camera Of Bob Dylan’s Drummer Mickey Jones. There is about five minutes worth of silent home movie footage of Bob and the Band in this potentially misleading 90-minute DVD, which (like the full title says) is really about Jones, the fill-in drummer of that most famous of Dylan tours. Most of the “home movies” shown are of airplane wings in flight, fronts of motels, and Mickey talking about them. The five minutes of actual performance footage might make a nice bonus feature if they ever put out Pennebaker’s color 1966 concert tour footage and the “experimental” film Eat The Document derived from it — but as for this release alone, you’ve been warned.
You get a lot closer to someone who actually impacted Bob’s life, and the music of countless others, in Dave Van Ronk Memories: In Concert 1980 (Vestapol), which features the charming and sometimes powerful folk-revival performer in his best light — as a songster, wit, and predecessor to Tom Waits in mixing everything from Brecht to blues, Dylan to Bing Crosby. Van Ronk provides his own commentary while looking back at the footage from near the end of his life, in 2000.
Also from Vestapol, fingerpicking master Stefan Grossman’s rags and blues are visited in performances across the decades on Stefan Grossman: A Retrospective 1971-1995. The camera often stays in close enough for guitar players to examine the acoustic pyrotechnics. And one of the all-time acoustic guitar innovators and alt-country predecessors is visited similarly in John Fahey In Concert And Interviews, 1969-1996. Fahey’s introduction of actual country picks and his inadvertent creation of “Gothic Industrial Ambient Acoustic” are chronicled and portrayed.
And hey, it’s not all about looking back! A whole new generation of roots-rock bands, most of them Californians, is presented on Live From Los Angeles: The First Waltz, which does a good, straightforward job of offering video glimpses at acts on the upstart Trampoline label. There’s plenty of onscreen camaraderie between such bands as Gingersol (since moved to New York), Minibar, and Rusty Truck — and music that will be attractive, without a doubt, to fans of Wilco, the Jayhawks, Lou Reed or Neil Young, since there’s a good deal of reworking of those sounds here. Some of the standout live-show moments, though, are delivered by the acts that most break with those formulas, including Peter Himmelman and the label’s co-founder, Pete Yorn.