The freshest new DVD out right now explores the oldest story, Stephen Gammond’s documentary Woody Guthrie: This Machine Kills Fascists (snappermusic.com). Narrated by Billy Bragg, and with commentary from Guthrie’s family and surviving friends, this one’s a 2 hour, 40 minute life story that, refreshingly, pulls few punches and resists turning the man into a saint. Woody’s middle-class Oklahoma rearing, his little-known early years working in Texas, his country music bands, his songwriting methods, the nature of his political commitments, and the personal tragedies that shaped much of his outlook are all detailed, and in consistently involving style. The film includes a handful of numbers of Woody performing in the late 1940s — all of the existing footage there is.
In one number, he joins in with the celebrated folk blues duo Brownie McGee (vocals) and Sonny Terry (harmonica) — who happen to be the leading guests in the next DVD release from the 1960s TV series “Rainbow Quest” hosted by Guthrie’s cohort Pete Seeger. On Rainbow Quest: Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee And Mississippi John Hurt (Shanachie), Sonny and Brownie offer up such classics of theirs as “Key To The Highway” and “Hootin’ The Blues”. The second hour-long episode on the disc (which also includes often-forgotten folksinger Hedy West) features a rare video appearance by the infinitely sweet but tough Mississippi fingerpicker John Hurt, singing his “Spike Driver Blues” and, in a bit of a surprise, “You’ve Got To Walk That Lonesome Valley”.
If those older-generation friends of Seeger involved themselves in the left-end politics of the union and early civil rights era, Bernice Johnson Reagon and her associates followed forward on that road from the ’60s to this day, and along some feminist curves. The a cappella, genre-jumping, musical side of those efforts are on colorful, soulful and energetic view on Sweet Honey In The Rock: Raise Your Voice (American Masters/PBS), which tracks the long-lived female singing group’s story and focuses on Reagon’s last scheduled performance with the group.
A different style of brassy, vulnerable, unforgettable singer finally gets to the screen without the intervention of editors who don’t quite trust her music in Patsy Cline: Sweet Dreams Still — The Anthology (MPI Home Video). And yes, I mean this really is a collection of complete Patsy Cline television performances — seventeen of them, expanded further from the versions some may have seen on Public TV. You’ve likely never seen her do “I Fall To Pieces” and “She’s Got You” or even, in its entirely, “Crazy” — and here they are. The utter pizzazz of the woman when she’s on the upbeat is probably the surprise for those who’ve had to imagine how she really performed. Bonuses include a duet with Ferlin Husky (“Let It Snow”!) and a version of “I Saw The Light” with Ernest Tubb and Little Jimmy Dickens. Video quality is often excellent for its day, and knowledgeable country historian Robert Oermann provides perspective between (not during!) the numbers. This is obviously a must-see for lovers of country music — and singular singing.
Some of Patsy’s closest musical buddies are among those celebrating the home away from home for Nashville songwriters of the best idiosyncratic bent on Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge: Where The Music Began (White Star). This hour-long 1995 special brought together such country songwriting lights as Willie Nelson, Harlan Howard, Kris Kristofferson and Mel Tillis, plus such singers as Ray Price, Bobby Bare, Marty Stuart and Tanya Tucker, to reminisce about the lady who founded the famed bar across the alley from the Ryman, as well as the life there, the classic songs born there, and the golden 1950s-70s Music Row era. Everybody sketches in songs together. It’s great fun — and informative.
The Best Of Steve Earle: The 20th Century Masters DVD Collection (MCA Nashville/Chronicles) is kind of historic by now itself, containing as it does his first five 1980s videos, from “Guitar Town” to “Copperhead Road” — all of which were really quite good as videos, adding interest to the already generally terrific lyrics and sounds, and each a little better than the one before. “Copperhead” is actually a quite stunning mini-movie. For alt-country fans who didn’t get or turn to country video channels in the day, how these songs (and Earle) are handled and portrayed will be a revelation.
Entirely less polished, intended to be utterly lo-fi — and succeeding on those terms quite well — is Giant Sand’s Drunken Bees (www.drunkenbees.com), which amounts to a chance to hang out around Tucson with Howe Gelb, Joey Burns, John Convertino and their gang circa 1994. They’re not bad company at all, and the title film (one of three on this disc) is effective in showing how the style of the place leads to the sounds of their music. Also on this DVD is “Giant Prequel”, an “experimental” half-hour video catching the guys during and before a session on L.A. public radio’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic” show. With cuts to home shopping channels and video static, this film is a shade self-consciously alt for its own good — but then good music happens, and you may not care. A more finished video from back in 1988 is a bonus.
From a sublime moment in rock history comes a new “deluxe edition” of A Film About Jimi Hendrix (Warner Video/Experience Hendrix). This documentary was always one of the better musical bio-docs of its era (1973), showing unseen performances and adding insight from close associates as to what made the man tick — when not many outside his circle knew much about that. In retrospect, the film “assemblers,” as they were credited (including Gary Weis and Joe Boyd), seem to have missed capturing enough direct observations, and any footage at all, of Hendrix in the period when his music went through the first great leaps that made him the guy people still care about. Thus the short shrift to his post-army stint with Nashville R&B bands and subsequent time in New York’s Greenwich Village, all circa 1962-66 — leaving Little Richard to claim too much credit for his role in the process. The 75 minutes of new material on this release includes extended previously-unseen interviews with families and friends, a short on the making and mixing of the “Dolly Dagger” track, and an uncut version of a “Stone Free” performance that was cut up in the original film.
The Hendrix film includes Jimi’s measured, mature, unpretentious responses to smart but straight-laced TV talk show host Dick Cavett, the host most likely to get a “yes” from acts like that through the late ’60s and ’70s. A new 3-DVD set, The Dick Cavett Show: Rock Icons (Shout Factory), gathers whole episodes of the late-night show featuring the likes of David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, Sly & the Family Stone, and (oddly enough) Tex Ritter, often in terrific performances — and, for a full disc, Janis Joplin, with whom Cavett developed a special rapport over the years. The Joplin material includes her dealing with bands that worked less well, and that last one, with which she’s very much in tune, seen just weeks before her death.
Cavett’s uncomfortably out of his element trying to “get down” with stars of Woodstock (Jefferson Airplane, Joni Mitchell, Stephen Stills) the day after the festival — a full show — but his often topical comedy mainly holds up better than might be expected. Since multiple guests stay out on the couch together, you see the likes of Joplin exchanging social and political views with those drastically different models of womanhood — Raquel Welch and Gloria Swanson!
The next set of those wonderful 1966 soul TV shows shot in Texas and featuring the best musicians and singers from the other side of Nashville, The !!!! Beat: Volumes 4-6 (Bear Family), are as least as charming as the first three volumes and occasionally spectacular, with appearances by Freddie King, Joe Simon, Louis Jordan, and, for the final episode, Otis Redding, Percy Sledge, Garnett Mimms, and Sam & Dave.