Doc-umentary, my dear Watson
The Merlefest organization has taken what’s so far a one-time step and brought out live highlights of last year’s extravaganza on the DVD MERLESFEST LIVE: THE 15TH ANNIVERSARY JAM. As might be expected, it’s a disc full of highlights, worthwhile for those who never get to the North Carolina event, and for those who do but never get close to the main stage.
There’s plenty of Doc Watson himself, including a couple of rousing rock ‘n’ roll medleys (sweet things happen to Elvis’ “Any Way You Want Me”) and a bluegrass and rockabilly take on “Blue Moon Of Kentucky” in the hands of Doc, Earl Scruggs, Alison Krauss, Jerry Douglas, and dueling mandolinists Sam Bush and Chris Thile. Thile leads Nickel Creek in a turn on the old-timey “Bury Me Beneath The Willow” that underscores the chops and passion the young band still brings to the traditional when they have a mind to. There are also keeper vocal moments from Patty Loveless on “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” and John Cowan in a semi-reunion of New Grass Revival. The disc’s producers merit kudos for including what so many music DVD packages lack — detailed number-by-number personnel notes.
By coincidence, footage of Doc and an onstage Merlefest finale from 1992 has also just arrived on the DVD DOC WATSON: RARE PERFORMANCES 1982-1993, one of an informative, very pleasurable and sometimes downright historic series of films and videos on the Vestapol label now coming out on disc for the first time, via Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop. Highlights of this one are performances by Doc with his late son Merle, for whom the fest is named, and some Monroe Brothers-style close harmony numbers from Doc and Ricky Skaggs. A companion volume, RARE PERFORMANCES 1963-1981, shows Doc all the way back to the era of prime-time Hootenanny broadcasts, shortly after he’d first come to attention.
The Vestapol DVD releases demonstrate important picking styles for musicians (without resorting to “lessons”) by assembling rare, revealing performance clips — and there’s no better example than MERLE TRAVIS: RARE PERFORMANCES 1946-1981, which shows Travis as an ace honky-tonker of the ’40s, father to folk-oriented Americana with his “Dark As A Dungeon”/”Sixteen Tons”-era mining ballads that seemed to be old but weren’t — and developing his flexible, rhythmic “Travis picking” style that has been a playing basis for countless solo acoustic performers ever since.
There are about as many blues performance discs as country in this Vestapol series, a remarkable one being DEVIL GOT MY WOMAN, which offers footage produced by Alan Lomax at the time of the 1966 Newport Folk Festival, in a juke joint setting with booze passed around. Participants include Son House, Skip James and, particularly rare, a set by Howlin’ Wolf with his classic band featuring Hubert Sumlin on guitar. The music and the loose interaction between these old acquaintances is something to behold. The Wolf, perhaps the greatest bluesman of them all, is captured in his fully wild and scary, funny and wondrous greatness, at one point tauntingly waving a $20 bill at House for having failed to become a commercial star!
There’s some outright rock electricity to report on, too. THE BYRDS SPECIAL EDITION EP (Classic Pictures) captures four numbers at just over twenty minutes of the Clarence White-era twang-informed Byrds, from a 1972 German TV performance. The highlight is no doubt White’s guitar pyrotechnics on a “Soldier’s Joy/Black Mountain Rag” medley; there are extended takes on “Chestnut Mare” and a somewhat meandering “Eight Miles High” too. The short-ish “EP” discs in this series toss in previews of other performances as a bonus — in this case, some Leon Russell, Procol Harum and New Grass Revival.
The MEAT PUPPETS: ALIVE IN THE NINETIES (Music Video Distributors) includes some of the Arizona band’s patented twang and headbang moments (“Lake Of Fire”) in both concert and informal settings. The Meat Puppets were among the first indie-rock outfits to consider country a sound possibility, long before these latter-day shows; fellow innovators Mike Watt, Flea and Sonic Youth show up to play with them and comment in the bonus footage.
A memorable, if finally sad, rockumentary of considerable interest is THE SHANE MACGOWAN STORY: IF I SHOULD FALL FROM GRACE (also Music Video Distributors), an intimate portrait of the Celt-punk Pogues leader. It offers up MacGowan’s remarkable, scalding, gritty vocals on “Dirty Old Town” and “Fairytale Of New York” (featuring the late Kirsty MacColl) while inevitably documenting his descent through wretched excess to a bloated, semi-coherent bag o’ bones — as the family and associates who choose to appear here watch at a remove without lifting many fingers. It’s like a contemporary turn on that second, downside volume of Guralnick’s Presley bio, only Irish, and taped.
On the essentially dispiriting side, too, is the performance captured on DAVID ALLAN COE: LIVE AT BILLY BOB’S TEXAS (Image Entertainment). Coe’s had his moments, but he often seems to be going through the motions here, uninterested before a crowd that doesn’t seem to be able to tell the difference or care. Some of the most convincing points are in the bonus footage, where Coe talks about his progression from bad childhood to prison to the stage; you may not buy all he has to say about why he’s important but neglected, but you’ll believe he means it, or most of it. And yeah, there are live versions of “You Never Even Call Me By My Name” and such.
There’s better news from Texas on ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL IN CONCERT (INAK DVD), which simply delivers an unadorned Wheel show from Stuttgart TV in April 2000. We get the Bob Wills covers, the honky-tonk turns, and assorted western swing, pretty much as you’d experience them at any recent show — and in pretty fine form too, with the terrific Cindy Cashdollar on steel.
And due out in late July — many will say “at last” — is the DVD version of the celebrated mid-1970s Texas/Nashville singer-songwriter documentary HEARTWORN HIGHWAYS (Catfish Entertainment/Peaceville), featuring performances by Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, that Mr. David Alan Coe, and a very young Steve Earle, plus a full hour of new footage. More details next time.
Meanwhile, Bear Family Records’ ongoing release of priceless, though grainy, kinescope moments from late 1950s Southern California television AT TOWN HALL PARTY sees two new entries from Marty Robbins and the Collins Kids. The rare Robbins appearances from a 1959 show tend to emphasize his more pop vocal drama side than rockabilly or country, but there’s a terrific bonus in the chance to see Tompall & the Glaser Brothers both as Robbins’ waa-waa backup and in several numbers of their own.
The Collins duo, always more of a live and TV act than recording stars, were no babies by the time of these heyday 1958 shows; Larry had become a virtuoso on double-necked guitar, still hopping around the stage like mad, and Lorrie had become the often seductive singer and looker who swept Ricky Nelson off his feet. They rip into rock covers here, most notably the Elvis-ized “Blue Moon Of Kentucky”, which will not remind you of Doc Watson’s live version — but gives me a convenient bookend to wrap up this roundup.