Elvis, Dolly, and Dock
It was already at the top end of any even half-considered list of most important television musical broadcasts of the rock ‘n’ roll era. The new “deluxe” 3-DVD release of Elvis Presley’s ’68 Comeback Special from BMG/Graceland can only further the show’s legend, even as it extends its pleasures.
If, somewhere out there, someone reading this column doesn’t know about this broadcast, it was Elvis Presley’s “comeback” to performing live — very live, indeed — in front of people, not just the cameras of cheap movies, after a decade away. It was his first classy TV special ever, and marked his public re-emergence (dressed in black leather) into a very changed musical world. In this one program, Presley recaptured his reputation as a world-changing performer, delivering the “life at stake” intensity that brought “Suspicious Minds” and “Burning Love” back to the top of the charts, as well as previously unseen sit-down casualness with old buddies that revealed just a bit of the inscrutable King.
The new package begins with the original special, uncut, in quality picture and sound. It then offers the full “sit down” mainly acoustic show only excerpted in the original, but sometimes seen since as the separate One Night With You film. An additional alternate sit-down show is included — and, most excitingly, two full versions of the electric “stand-up” show that were filmed for the program but seen in it only fleetingly. You can practically recut the special’s big production numbers from the supply of outtakes tossed in here. Arguably, Elvis was never quite this hot again, nor was he ever captured as a performer quite so well before; so this, folks, is it. You need it.
Also spruced up and extended anew is Elvis, Aloha From Hawaii, the performance lurking behind Presley’s 1973 worldwide satellite TV broadcast — the first any performer had then done. For the first time, the uninterrupted live performance is available here, in addition to the U.S. broadcast version (which was chopped and further limited by the addition of lesser staged numbers and videos).
This show, in any case, is certainly problematic compared to the comeback special. In retrospect, Elvis’ sometimes stiff, somewhat distanced white suit performance looks like the first public step in the decline that would follow. A complete tape of the stadium rehearsal show he did several days earlier is, in fact, marginally looser, and better; it’s the best stuff on this release. Both performances, by the way, include Elvis’ takes on outright country from Hank Williams, Jim Reeves and Don Gibson. My recommendation, for Elvis of the ’70s: Consider before Aloha the previously released special-edition DVD of the documentary That’s The Way It Is, from 1970; it shows the real peak of Las Vegas-era Elvis.
Quite far from Vegas — from Dollywood, to be specific — comes the consistently entertaining, sometimes quite touching Dolly: Live And Well (Sugar Hill), a full-length late 2002 concert capturing Dolly Parton with bluegrass-derived backing. If Dolly’s performances occasionally seem studied these days, she’s in loose, fine form here, moving through the newer back-to-the-hills hits (“The Grass Is Blue”, “Little Sparrow”), her ever-potent country classics (she picks up a dulcimer to accompany “My Tennessee Mountain Home” and “Coat Of Many Colors”), and even a few semi-dubious Dollyized stretches (“Stairway To Heaven” and “After The Gold Rush”). The performance of her own classics alone is bound to move you; she also kills on a full-tilt “Rocky Top”. And if you haven’t seen Dolly and her band adopt some of her compositions to a cappella doo-wop, including a live Chipmunks-speed version of “Two Doors Down” — well, you will here.
From further back in the hills, providing a real journey in time, comes Shady Grove: Old Time Music From North Carolina, Kentucky & Virginia (Vestapol). It will be enough information for a lot of fans of old-time country that this DVD includes excellent footage of the legendary hell-raiser and dark side icon Dock Boggs, shot in 1966, performing his “Country Blues” and “Pretty Polly” completely, and discussing his recording career in the 1920s. The disc also includes color footage of Tommy Jarrell (fiddling furiously, sometimes backed by Mike Seeger, circa 1976), early-’70s films of Appalachian autoharp balladeer Kilby Snow, and some rare color footage of the higher-and-lonesomer-than-anybody vocalist and clawhammer banjoist Roscoe Holcomb (including his version of “Old Smokey” from way before the song went pop).
A piece of electric postwar blues history returns in Gunsmoke Blues (Universal/Hip-o), so-called because it was shot in October 1971 in Eugene, Oregon, by the crew that ordinarily filmed Marshall Dillon and Miss Kitty for prime-time TV. Here we get some pretty prime Big Mama Thornton (“Hound Dog”, “Ball And Chain”), Big Joe Turner (“Shake, Rattle & Roll”) and George Harmonica Smith (“Juke”), plus a large, fine dose of Muddy Waters (“Mojo”, “Mannish Boy”, She’s 19″, “Walking Through The Park”). The music is loose and funky, the film is in color — and its most priceless parts are conversations between the star musicians filmed in a car. Willie Mae Thornton has some rich things to say about Presley’s version of “Hound Dog”, for instance. (A slight warning: The Muddy set, extracted, appears also on a DVD reviewed here previously, Muddy Waters Live In Concert 1971, paired with his famous Newport 1960 show.)
An unusually revealing bio documentary, now extended for DVD release, is Mark Moorman’s Tom Dowd & The Language Of Music (Palm DVD) which looks knowingly at the life and musical lessons of the extraordinary recording engineer and producer for Atlantic Records who recorded everyone from Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin to John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk to the Allman Brothers and Lynryd Skynyd. The DVD adds some 90 minutes of additional interviews and comments to the many in the film, from the likes of Charles, Eric Clapton, Ahmet Ertegun, and Jerry Leiber. But what working makers and recorders of music will find most memorable here are the comments and session reminiscences of the late Dowd himself.
What still seems as good an overall video history of rock as we’ve had from broadcasters, 1995’s ten-hour The History Of Rock And Roll (Warner Brothers Television), has been boxed up onto 5 DVDs. Though this multi-producer, multi-director epic seems most at home watching rock ‘n’ roll turn into big-time, ambitious rock in the mid-’60s to early ’70s, it also goes back to rock’s antecedents and forward to the punk and hip-hop era. There’s tons of footage, although they didn’t take the trouble and expense to add, say, full versions of key performances as a bonus.
It would be more than swell to be able to report that Neil Young’s Greendale (Sanctuary) goes against the tragically reliable rule of thumb that being a great rock musician does not automatically make you even an adequate filmmaker, but you won’t find that report here. Neil’s generally arresting storytelling songs have given way in this case to often monotonous and very similar patter numbers, apparently because they were meant to be amplified further by the film’s picture of small-town life and stresses. The footage, it turns out, is often amateurish, non-acted “Mickey Mousing” — silent lip-synching of supposedly spoken dialogue to a bit of the lyric. The non-drama/non-comedy becomes pretty much intolerable as it goes on in its mix of the obvious and the empty. Dull music and dull scenes, unsurprisingly, don’t add up to an engaging whole.
The many fans of the unpretentious bar-band rock of NRBQ have reason to welcome the release of NRBQ: One In A Million (Music Video Distributors/Creem), which captures the quartet in 1989, very much in their prime, ripping at numbers such as “I Got A Rocket In My Pocket”, “Wild Weekend” and “Little Floater”. Like the Blasters, these gents never let a solid knowledge of rock’s roots stand in the way of plunging ahead with abandon.