Cowboy Jack, Bob, & the Wolf
He’s one of the most creative, unpredictable, fun-finding, fundamentally alive personages to have graced rock, country, and (but of course) Hawaiian and polka music over the past 50 years or so, but the first chance for most people to really encounter him in his full, multifaceted human wonderment is in the film just out on DVD, Shakespeare Was A Big George Jones Fan: The Home Movies Of Cowboy Jack Clement (Shout! Factory).
Filmmakers Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville persuaded Clement to let them get into the decades-worth of never-released TV specials he produced at his home studio and also the home videos of his friends at play, musically and otherwise. The friends include Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash (observed here without tears, at last — and often shown being hilarious!), John Prine, and Townes Van Zandt. It’s like hanging out with all the people you wish you’d hung out with, which Jack did, while producing some pretty wonderful unseen performances at the same time. Add in new commentary from Clement on the ways to write a song, make a record, and dance better, and you get the picture. And you ought to.
Murray Lerner, one of the innovative inventors of the rock performance documentary (his credits include Festival and The Who Live At The Isle Of Wight) has had the very bright idea of taking all of the almost archetypal performance footage of young Bob Dylan that he shot at Newport in the early 1960s, some 70 percent of it never before released, and assembling it into a new DVD, The Other Side Of The Mirror: Bob Dylan Live At The Newport Folk Festival 1963-1965 (Columbia). The revelatory stuff here, for many, will be the early, so-called protest-era performances from ’63, since little of Bob from that time has been in circulation. The riveting performance of “Only A Pawn In Their Game” certainly shows what made Bob (alone and with occasional duet partner Joan Baez) the star of that short-lived moment. He really was good at that stuff!
And then you watch this sometimes tenuous but gifted folk singer transmogrify into an in-demand, confident acoustic star in ’64, and — yes, you’ve heard about this part — a transgressing electric rocker in ’65. Lerner has always been known for his spot-on editing; the smash cut from ’64 Bob, at ease with the audience calling for still more and responding by telling them he loves them (really!), right to the audience-performer push-pull of ’65, speaks volumes — sans talking-head commentary.
I should lay it on the table that I consider Howlin’ Wolf the greatest of all blues performers, and one of the top handful of American musical performers, period. But you don’t have to share that view entirely to be in for an extraordinary treat viewing Howlin’ Wolf In Concert 1970 (Vestapol), a full, rarely seen film shot by Topper Carew that features Wolf in electrifying form at the first Washington, D.C., Blues Festival in November 1970. A lot more of us, by this point, have heard about Wolf prowling the stage on all fours, bringing the audience to a waiting halt with one stare, plowing into “Back Door Man” and “Sittin’ On Top Of The World” and “Killing Floor”, than can say we ever got to see it directly. This performance has all of that — and the band includes Hubert Sumlin on guitar and Sunnyland Slim on piano, to boot — plus some very freaky, hairy and lucky 1970-style white kid named Randy Joe Fullerton who gets to be part of all this, playing bass.
Willie King, one of the most involving, unusual and vital blues performers working today, if not necessarily the best known, is a self-proclaimed Wolf disciple; his music and unique story are presented on the new documentary Willie King: Down In The Woods (Visible World). You travel with King in his roles as a groove-driven electric blues performer at Alabama and Mississippi jukes, as a sharecropper’s son and working farmer who gives all the food he grows to the needy in his community, and, in fact, as a committed community activist. (“I’m trying to get the poor people to stand up,” he says.) Indeed, as commentators from Peter Guralnick to Willie’s girlfriend point out, his choice to stay home and do that work, even when his music is in-demand enough to put him on stages around the world, has kept him from being more of a star. He simply doesn’t care about that. If your view of blues has been that of “solitary, alienated soul” only, here’s an entirely different picture, of a talent whose music and social involvements are inseparable.
And, oh yes, while the late Stevie Ray Vaughan’s contributions to electric blues have sometimes been overstated by those basically unfamiliar with the territory, there’s a newly expanded and pretty good compilation DVD of Vaughan’s videos from the time he scratched the pop consciousness to his final (and arguably best) work with his brother Jimmie. It’s titled Steve Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble: Pride And Joy (Epic/Legacy).
While we’re looking at grits and greens territory, I also want to draw your attention to two significant releases from the soul arena, both of which are at once exciting and, from this distance, touching — The Stax/Volt Revue Live In Norway, 1967 (Universal), and Dreams To Remember: The Legacy Of Otis Redding (Reelin’ In The Years). The Revue puts on one stage, in succession, Otis, Sam & Dave, Arthur Conley, and Eddie Floyd, in by-now legendary if rarely seen European performances. Just watching the guys in Booker T & the MGs’ faces and moves in backing these extraordinary singers (and the MGs and horn-bearing Mar-Keys playing alone) gives a working illustration of what it means to visibly love what you’re doing. They’d all rather be nowhere else at all, and as you watch, you’ll feel the same way; ’nuff said.
The 90-minute Otis Redding collection includes full television performances of 18 of his major hits, culled mainly from TV shows of the time — including “Try A Little Tenderness” taped the night before he was killed in the plane crash. Some of the shows only allowed lip-synching, never the best option, but much of the best Otis available is right here — plus commentary from Redding, Steve Cropper and Wayne Jackson.
Also worth finding:
Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard & Ray Price: Last Of The Breed In Concert (A&E). Merle and Ray were in remarkable form throughout this tour, and Willie seemed pulled to match them, even bringing some new songs to sing. It’s very well-filmed in HD video, and even if you caught these performances, the up-close document of a typical show is worthwhile.
Best Of The Flatt & Scruggs TV Show, Volumes 3 & 4 (Shanachie). The second pair of releases from this charming and historic television series has all of the Earl, Lester and band power and charm of the first, plus notable and young special guests — an astonishing 7-year old Ricky Skaggs, singing and playing mandolin on Volume 3, and a developing Randy Lynn Scruggs joining on autoharp on Volume 4.
Dar Williams Live At The Bearsville Theater (Razor & Tie). Stand-and-strum singer-songwriters have a lot of disadvantages as video subjects, such as not offering a lot to watch, but fans of Williams should be enticed by the variety of songs, notions and rhythms, solo and electric-backed, here.
Two generationally (and attitudinally) separated rock DVDs of interest: A Night At The Family Dog (Eagle Vision) finds Santana, the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane playing the same room back in the day (San Francisco, 1970), and Ramones: It’s Alive 1974-1996 (Rhino) compiles two discs worth of straight-ahead, no-talk appearances by the band from their modest CBGB beginnings to arenas. Their version of “Baby I Love You” with orchestra (no kidding) on the BBC somehow seems the right tribute to Phil Spector as 2007 draws to a close.