From the land of E. Scruggs and D. Boon
The 35th-anniversary release on DVD of Albert Ihde’s singular and very rarely screened color documentary feature Bluegrass Country Soul (Time-Life) fills a missing link in the filmed history of American music. Ihde created a loving and detailed portrayal of the era when bluegrass festivals first got established via a close look at the performances and attendees at Carlton Haney’s fest at Camp Springs, North Carolina, in 1971. This film, the first feature on the genre, transports viewers to the moment when longhairs and country cousins first came together, jammed at night, played through the rain, and heard the greatest names in the field — first-gen performers and future stars alike — all in one place.
It may seem that only the car models and hair have changed much since — but the lineup, too, was only of that moment. Ralph Stanley performs “Man Of Constant Sorrow” with teenagers Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs. A new act, Del McCoury & His Dixie Pals, first gets attention. The Osbornes, Mac Wiseman, the Country Gentlemen with new member Doyle Lawson, Jimmy Martin, and even Roy Acuff play in prime form. Among the youngsters present are J.D. Crowe and a long-haired pre-New Grass Revival Sam Bush.
The finale brings virtually all of the great banjo players alive at the time onstage with Earl Scruggs, taking turns on “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”. Optional voice-over commentary from Fred Bartenstein can help identify those too young to tag. For anyone with the slightest interest in bluegrass at its best, this one’s a must-see.
Now it may alternately depress, thrill, or do both at once that we’ve reached a point far enough away from the years of punk rock’s creation that a flood of backward-glancing films about that era has been upon us this year — from the New York Dolls to John Lydon appearances on the “Tom Snyder Show” to the coming Pixies film. But two just out on DVD pull themselves from the pack instantly, focusing as they do on two of the most lasting and influential promulgators of punk assault — the Minutemen and the Clash — and doing so with style and intelligence.
The two-disc We Jam Econo: The Story Of The Minutemen (Plexifilm, combing full concerts and an insightful bio-documentary) has been made by longtime fans (director Tim Irwin and producer Keith Schieron) who, like most people who’ll check this DVD out, never saw the band live in the ’80s. They have, however, assembled lots of telling, riveting footage of the Minutemen at work, jumping manically from tone to tone as D. Boon jumps around the stage, setting a precedent for lots of imaginative rotund guys with musical chops who do not play bluegrass.
The film shows unassumingly smart but firm musicians — Boon, Mike Watt and George Hurley — whose leanings toward jazz and folk were not always appreciated by hardcore contemporaries. These fellas had conversations with so-called classic rock, including older roots rock, not just door-slamming rants about it. (A full 1985 acoustic set, including a turn on Creedence’s “Green River”, underscores the point, as does their discussion of what they meant by “Bob Dylan Writes Propaganda Songs”.) Well-assembled interviews on matters musical, personal and political keeps the late D. Boon in the film’s own conversation.
Since the Clash were sometimes criticized for having incorporated unique, catchy pop elements in their punk, it seems fitting, now, that about the most compelling footage ever shot of them is as part of an almost Hollywood-like narrative movie just reissued, The Clash: Rude Boy (Epic-Sony/BMG Legacy). The 1978 bit of fiction, filmed as the band toured, places Joe Strummer, Mick Jones and comrades in their context of social upheavals and the search for hope among the hopeless. It’s as good an intro to them now (no kidding), as coming to Elvis via Jailhouse Rock or Loving You, or the Beatles via A Hard Day’s Night.
The DVD is set up so you can view “just the Clash,” since viewers will more than likely want to see “I’m So Bored With The U.S.A .”or “Garageland” or “I Fought The Law” more often than the story, which is not bad itself. (Clash members were spared playing the lead character, by the way.) Bonuses include deleted scenes, several extra Clash numbers, and talk about the making of the film.
There’s some real life in the ol’ alt-country rock horse yet, as seen in new combined DVD-CD releases from two crowd-grabbing Texas bands. Reckless Kelly Was Here (Sugar Hill) hails from the school of Steve Earle, mixing roots-rock, singer-songwriter balladry and even a little Irish stuff, all played with forceful aplomb. On straightforwardly-filmed live numbers such as “Wild Western Windblown Band”, there’s no mistaking the pumping ’95 style attack. Nice rocking cover of Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”, too. Two Ton Tuesday Live From Gruene Hall (Palo Duro) reveals Two Tons Of Steel to be one of the strongest rocked-up honky-tonkin’ bands around now. They get everybody two-stepping and jitterbugging away at the famed old Texas dancehall in this live, hard-driving show. Dale Watson can be spotted among the dancers if you watch closely. Their brand of honky-tonk includes a twangy take on the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated”, but there are no retro affectations or joking around when these guys turn to outright country.
From The Big Apple To The Big Easy (Rhino) is a two-DVD concert set documenting the Madison Square Garden tribute to Nawlins. The Crescent City’s Irma Thomas, the Dixie Cups, Allen Toussaint, the Neville Brothers and Clarence Frogman Henry are terrific; Elvis Costello, Simon & Garfunkel, Ry Cooder and John Fogerty also appear.
Fogerty shows impressive lasting vocal and instrumental performance power on John Fogerty: The Long Road Home In Concert (Fantasy). Filmed at a Los Angeles show from his recent tour, it includes material from across the Creedence years to this day, which is to say, one great song after another, and nicely shot.
Other new releases of note:
While the deluge of live Johnny Cash material has arguably been overdone, Man In Black: Johnny Cash Live In Denmark 1971 (Columbia) is a worthy show to catch, with the Carters and Statlers and Carl Perkins offering a full show, and in good form. A Johnny & June duet on “Help Me Make It Through The Night” is one surprise treat, and everyone takes part in a rousing finale, “Children, Go Where I Send Thee”. Until the full set of Johnny Cash TV shows becomes available — and I’m told that it eventually will — this is a decent stopgap, a good portrait of the road show in the day.
Blind Faith: London Hyde Park 1969 (Sanctuary) may be a surprise, in that it will come as news to lots of people that this short-lived, sometimes-super, sometimes-noodly and not entirely super group was ever filmed at all. But here’s a whole show, in color, with Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Ginger Baker and Rick Grech on hand. They’re good about where I’d have imagined they’d be — on the couple of strong Winwood vocal numbers (“Presence Of The Lord”, “Can’t Find My Way Home”) and a Buddy Holly cover. There’s also a version of the Stones’ “Under My Thumb”. The narration setting up the show is plain abysmal, the sort of cookie-cutter mix of cliche and hype that gives a lot of rock documentaries a deservedly bad name. The performance footage itself is a lot better than that.
Tommy Emmanuel Live At Her Majesty’s Theatre, Ballarat, Australia (Favored Nations Acoustic) presents the celebrated Aussie flat-top fingerpicker and sometime singer-songwriter covering traditional country and his own compositions. The fire, of course, is in the fingers; pickers will find much to hold their attention from this heir to Travis and Atkins.