Lone Star Attractions
An armload of new DVDs featuring adventurous Texans greet this new year, but the one many of you will have been waiting for is Old 97’s Live At The Troubadour (New West). The band’s first live video performance release ever captures the pop and alt-country vets in a show last spring, reunited in very fine form after a multi-year hiatus. The concert footage is excellently directed, emphasizing the interaction between the guys and their endearing pleasure to be back onstage together playing numbers new (“The New Kid”) and old (“Big Brown Eyes”, “Time Bomb”). There’s a new maturity to the band’s twang and pop assault that’s at once more playful and more committed; an accompanying documentary captures the background of the evolution.
A different style of Texas pop/country tightrope-walking is captured on Norah Jones & The Handsome Band, Live In 2004 (Blue Note), a pleasing document of Jones’ growing interest in the twang side. It was shot at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, with guests including Gillian Welch & David Rawlings (for a trio with Norah on Townes Van Zandt’s “Loretta”) and Dolly Parton. Highlights of the relaxed and breezy show include turns on The Band’s “Life Is A Carnival” and Gram Parson’s “She”, in a sweetly laid-back Jones performance.
Texas swings further on Soundstage Presents Lyle Lovett (Koch Vision). Lovett’s Large Band is escalated into a 26-piece orchestra, and Lyle uses this really large outfit and a gospel chorus to back renditions of old standards he’s done for the movies (“Smile”, “Straighten Up And Fly Right”) and some of his more seat-shaking numbers such as the only semi-satirical “Church”. A real bonus: Highly compatible sardonic Americana and Hollywood tunesmith Randy Newman shows up for duets with Lyle and to sing a couple of his own classics.
A treat and surprise is the arrival on DVD of Waylon Jennings’ rarely seen 1966 feature film acting shot Nashville Rebel (Bear Family), which holds up a way better than a lot of other B-movie country sagas of the time. Waylon looks as swell as Elvis, and acts better, in this tale of a guy not that comfortable with the ways of the music business. (That must have been a stretch!) Along the way, there are musical performances at the Opry from Loretta Lynn, Porter Wagoner, Tex Ritter and, of course, Waylon himself. The technicolor snapshot of Music City at that moment is an added attraction.
It would be nice to report that Waylon’s buddy Willie fares as well in the DVD Willie Nelson & Friends: Outlaws & Angels (Eagle Eye Media), but it’s about time to point out that this typically rag-tag, semi-prepared sort of instant duet outing with Nelson’s many friends is not that ripe for repeated viewing — even with friends such as Keith Richards, Bob Dylan, Jerry Lee Lewis and Lucinda Williams on hand. There are duets of note with Al Green, Shelby Lynne and Lee Ann Womack, which seem just to fall into place, and even nice ones from Merle Haggard and Toby Keith. But in general, loose is one thing, haphazard another. This one wears thin fast.
Dylan actually appears in that Willie show, which is more than can be said for the documentary DVD Tales From A Golden Age: Bob Dylan 1941-1966 (Chrome Dreams/Isis), a shoestring U.K. attempt at a bio of Bob’s rise from obscurity put together by admirers with no access to either footage of his early performances or rights to use his music. It’s strictly talking heads material here — and they’re too often slight acquaintances with nothing to say, commentators who make unsupported, assumed musical claims that Dylan hardly needs, plus familiar commentary from, for instance, biographer Clinton Heylin. (An official release of 1960s Dylan television performances has been announced for later in 2005, as well as a Bobumentary from Martin Scorsese.)
One of the U.K.’s happier exports to the U.S. of the past decades has always been Richard Thompson, as evidenced on new DVD The Richard Thompson Band Live In Providence (Cooking Vinyl/SpinArt). Thompson and company (including Pete Zorn on horns and backup strings) blast through some of his most trenchant numbers, from “Walking On A Wire” and other Richard & Linda-era killers to latter-day faves such as “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”. The bonus material is really a bonus — performances from his excellent 1985 Across A Crowded Room video, Guitar Player acoustic sessions, and several tracks from his 2001 Austin City Limits performance.
And now on to three new releases that simply demand attention from anybody in the least attracted to the louder side of the roots meets rock equation. These are performers, and performances, that continue to influence the music discussed here, decades after the fact.
The long-lost film of a casually wonderful and largely forgotten 1970 cross-Canadian train trek, mentioned here earlier this year after a film fest screening, is now out as a 2 DVD set, Festival Express (New Line/Think Film). This bit of filter-free time-travel includes the best-filmed performances of The Band and Janis Joplin anywhere, plus charming “you are there, but we don’t care” footage of often loopy-drunk encounters between those folks, the Grateful Dead, and more. The DVD adds another 50 minutes of performance and dialogue, including contributions from Ian & Sylvia with Great Speckled Bird, Eric Anderson, Tom Rush, and Buddy Guy, as well as more Joplin (“Move Over”) and Dead. Still no freshly retrieved Delany & Bonnie footage so far, though the filmmakers have suggested there could yet be more performances recovered. Documentary material added to this package shows the laborious and actually pretty interesting history of what it took to get Festival Express this far.
There’s a different time, generation and tone, of course, on Dead Boys Live At CBGB-OMFUG 1977 (Music Video Distributors) and Ramones Raw (Image Entertainment). Many will be surprised that the footage of the punkest-of-the-punk Dead Boys, at the spot where those Ohio boys got people to care, even survived — but there’s 45 minutes of Robert Swenson’s color video footage as it was in that place, with Stiv Bators and company slashing their way around the, uh, friendly confines of CBGB’s, plus interviews with each band member and even promo clips form the time.
John Cafiero’s Ramones documentary, which covers the life and music of the band that set the stage for so many others, includes some five hours of material total. There are Ramones appearances on the local north Jersey Uncle Floyd show, putatively for kids; a half-hour live show from Rome in 1980; appearances on MTV and USA Up All Night; and plenty of interviews. Then there are on-the-road outtakes such as the Ramones eating catfish at a Bob Evans restaurant — clearly the alt-country part of the program.
More at home with the catfish would be the stars of The Marshall Tucker Band Live From The Garden State 1981 (Shout Factory), which captures that band months after the death of Tommy Caldwell, but with brother Toy still up there with his patented thumb-picking. There’s much of the flute-driven pop that ardent fans will recall but which may surprise some who think these guys were Skynyrd the Second or something. A bonus documentary tells the band’s story, and answers the old “Which one is Marshall Tucker?” question.
Less necessary is George Thorogood & the Destroyers 30th Anniversary Tour Live (Eagle Vision), which amounts to rehashes of the predictable hits of years past by the current version of the band — a common live-DVD affliction. Fans might check out instead a new, DVD-inclusive version of the same band’s Greatest Hits CD, which has a bit of this material plus videos and live-show highlights from back in the day.
Finally, while there will be no official “Best ND DVDs of 2004” list here, I’ll take these last inches to remind you of a few true standout releases of the past year highlighted in this column. They would include the masterful Morgan Neville/Colin Escott documentary Hank Williams: Honky Tonk Blues; the expanded Elvis Presley’s ’68 Comeback Special DVD; all three volumes of the American Blues Festival series, with their unique performance footage of postwar and prewar blues greats; the ongoing Hee-Haw and Town Hall Party television show collections; and Calexico’s World Drifts In.