Opry In Nyc, Acl At Home
Maybe New York and Nashville simply are doomed never to really see and hear each other without distortion, for all of the pre-set images and ideas each has of the other standing stubbornly in the way. New case in point: Grand Ole Opry At Carnegie Hall (RCA/Sony BMG), the just-released DVD version of the cablecast performance of some Opry cast members at the classic New York music palace last November. For all of the suggestion to the audience on hand that this was an example of what people see in Nashville on any Friday or Saturday night, it’s hardly that.
The performers include rarely seen Opry members such as Martina McBride and Alan Jackson, with a heavy emphasis on others who’ve played NYC regularly (Alison Krauss, Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill). Virtually all seem awed and even intimidated in the Hall surroundings — and under the impression the place is formal, upscale. (Charge enough and it gets that way, but your average, annual Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie family show in the same supposedly “hallowed” room is hardly a suit-and-gown, sit-on-your hands affair.)
So this was very far from the “good-natured riot” of real Opry shows. No musicians and technicians strolling through the back, fans coming forward to snap photos of Porter Wagoner’s jacket lining, live commercials, dancers, comedy monologues — not even from Jimmy Dickens, who, unlike Wagoner, is at least on hand. I can promise the Opry folks that a more genuine Opry show was what people up there were banking on, what they showed up for.
As bonus documentary footage on the disc points out, when Opry casts with Ernest Tubb (1947) and Patsy Cline (1961) played the same venue, they pretty much mouthed off in their own style. There are nice performances throughout this disc, ands it’s all very “professional,” with producers offering their impression of a “New York show.”
A drastically different, unselfconscious Opry view can be seen (as, in fact, it still can be, at home) on the just-reissued The Nashville Sound (Xenon Pictures) shot in and around the Ryman Auditorium and featuring performances and talk by everybody from Roy Acuff to Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs (separately), Jeannnie C. Riley and Loretta and Dolly, Tex Ritter, Johnny Cash, a young Charlie Daniels, and even Tracy Nelson & Mother Earth. Here you’ll see the undiluted good-naturedness of it all, plenty of healthy, energetic self-realized trashiness, and even the trials and momentary triumphs of one Herbie Howell, a fairly talented country boy come to town who gets an audition and a contract with the cameras rolling — probably because the cameras are rolling — and figuring his life is changed forever. (Which it was not.) A treat throughout.
A terrific show featuring one of the key 1970s roots music innovators in fine form is the most striking of the latest round of revived and extended “Austin City Limits” DVDs from New West — Live From Austin TX: Tony Joe White. Tony Joe not only comes up with on-the-money versions of “Polk Salad Annie” and “Rainy Night In Georgia” as well as his immortal and pointed “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Cowboys Grow Up To Be Babies”, but his pushing the margins with funky down-home content and sound is even more noticeable today — with numbers such as “Red Neck Woman” and “Swamp Rap” (the stuff of 2006 Nashville MuzikMafia shows) — than it was in 1980. It’s easily the best performance of this artist readily available.
The pleasures of the other two ACL shows just out on DVD are real enough as you’d figure, but somewhat less vital since they’re from much-chronicled performers. Merle Haggard has had so many fine appearances on ACL alone that they probably had a hard time choosing just one for DVD, but they’ve chosen wisely with a 1985 performance, almost exactly halfway through his career till today, with a fine band behind him (Ray Nichols on guitar included) and with an all-bases-covered show. There are solid versions of some hits (“Mama Tried” among them), barroom ballads (“Misery And Gin” is outstanding), and rousers (“I Think I’ll Just Stay Here And Drink”). In the middle, since it is Texas, after all, Merle gets out his fiddle, brings out the horns, and does an extended western swing set that well, swings — always the key test.
On the third ACL DVD, Waylon Jennings is captured in an April Fool’s Day 1989 show, as he’s returning to live performances post-drugs. There are pretty good renditions of “I Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This” and a “Suspicious Minds” duet with Jessi Colter, for instance, but it’s largely a hits show, and not necessarily with the electrifying energy of the so-called “Lost Outlaw Performance” tape in circulation from the 1970s. Still, he’s looking great, his remarkable voice is in solid shape, and pretty good Waylon is still a lot stronger than most performers on their best day.
An Austin institution of another sort is lovingly chronicled on Antone’s: Home Of The Blues (Koch Vision), a lively, performance-studded look at the club that played a central role in the blues revival of the mid-’70s and early ’80s, spawning stars of its own. The stars that Clifford Antone and his gang brought to the venue in its various locations — Sunnyland Slim, and Jimmy Rogers, Albert Collins and James Cotton, Hubert Sumlin, even Willie Nelson — are all shown in action, as are the locals who together and individually caused a national stir: Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan, Marcia Ball and Lou Ann Barton, W.C. Clark, and so on.
And for once, the talking-head material matches the rare performance footage. There’s a real sense of the community and interaction that’s been built around the storied club, the best I’ve seen since the memorable Station Inn: True Life Of Bluegrass, about Nashville’s bluegrass mecca, a fine film that’s not yet reached DVD format. Dan Karlock’s Antone’s documentary is commendable also for its frankness about the less sanguine side of the story, such as the much-loved host’s multiple marijuana-dealing busts, which are handled with honesty and understanding that adds to the appreciation of Antone the man, his motives, and his legacy.
Some legacies can catch you by surprise. I was an unmitigated fan of Marvin Gaye’s music, but I didn’t expect Marvin Gaye: The Real Thing, Live In Performance 1964-1981 (Motown/Reelin’ in the Years) to bring tears, as seeing him in this ample collection of uncut TV appearances from his prime did for me. There was simply no one cooler and smoother this side of Sam Cooke (despite everything), and these performances show it: “Can I Get A Witness”, “Ain’t That Peculiar”, “Grapevine”, “Ain’t No Mountain” (with Tammi Terrell), right on through to the “Let’s Get It On” era. Talk-show segments with Dinah Shore and Dick Clark and (jeesh) Lloyd Thaxton show the deep thoughtfulness behind the all the sleek and sexy stuff.
Which reminds me: A video label calling itself Sexy Intellectual would probably have to be in the U.K. (well, French maybe, too). The cheeky firm has out now two thoughtful, provocative looks at careers that turned pop music inside-out: The Velvet Underground: Under Review and Captain Beefheart: Under Review.
The VU examination includes file footage and interviews with Mo Tucker and Doug Yule, offering insights into such matters as the origins of “Sunday Morning” and the tonal/rhythmic construction of “Heroin” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties” and “White Light/White Heat”. Talking heads debate which of the first three LPs was The Great One.
On the Beefheart, drummer John “Drumbo” French and others (Clinton Heylin speaks on both DVDs; Robert Christgau is on this one) guide us safely on Don Van Vliet’s trip from the blues turn with Ry Cooder of Safe As Milk to the fragmentation of Trout Mask Replica. While repeated viewings of critical rock discussions won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, these discs do as good a job of trying to make that a video form to keep as I’ve yet seen.