Summer Reruns: It’s Oldies Time!
Do you remember rock ‘n’ roll television? Summer’s here and the time is right to lie back and get back — to those fabulous ’90s. (Also the ’80s, ’70s and ’60s.) A little light beach screening, folks — Americana Gold!
Actually, the first step on our summer time-reversing trip is not that light — and the quality lets us avoid nostalgia blindness from the outset. Odds are that more than a few reading these words recall the original Son Volt lineup’s appearance on Austin City Limits as the best video record of that band at that time. With Live From Austin TX: Son Volt, the next entry in New West’s series of DVDs from the ACL archives, the original half-hour broadcast of seven numbers is expanded to sixteen songs running more than an hour. Virtually all of Trace is performed, including a standout turn on “Live Free”. Additional tunes from the then-unreleased Straightaways CD (“Picking Up The Signal”) and, surprise, two Uncle Tupelo oldies (“Chickamuaga” and “True To Life”) are added. And you can watch for the documented moment, just before “Back Into Your World” strikes up, when Jay Farrar smiles and laughs out loud. No telling why.
Also just out in that Live From Austin TX series is a Lucinda Williams show from December ’98 show with Kenny Vaughan on guitar and Jim Lauderdale singing harmony. The emphasis is on songs from Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, with some steps back to “Something About What Happens”, “Sweet Old World” and a few other earlier classics. As is almost traditional for live experiences with Lucinda, there are moments of sheer electricity when artist, song and audience connect (“Metal Firecracker”, “Drunken Angel”, “Passionate Kisses” here), and others that seem to reflect momentary distraction. (If ever a performer would be well-served by having someone follow her through a tour to assemble a live collection of the best moments from a string of nights, this is the one.)
A third Austin City Limits DVD just out, a 2001 Richard Thompson performance, reminds us that he’s long been Mr. Consistency, on a high level. The songs are ones that dominate most of his shows, and a lot of the flavor of an RT show is captured.
Stepping back to the weighty ’80s, Townes Van Zandt, Houston 1988: A Private Concert (Varese Sarabande) retrieves a surprise taping of Townes just sitting there on a sofa in a Holiday Inn, singing his best-known songs and some others, adding his own commentary about them. This man was far from Mr. Consistency, of course, but they’ve found him here, in the middle of the night, in pretty good shape, so this is one of the better video documents of the late singer-songwriter at work, even if the surroundings are on the no-frills, even stark side. (A couple of his songs as done by singers Barb Donovan and Larry Wilson are tacked on at the end, for no clear reason but piggybacking, but there’s plenty of Van Zands himself to satisfy.)
X Live In Los Angeles (Shout Factory), taped at the band’s reunion concerts late last year, makes a good companion to the ’80s-era X: The Unheard Music video recently revived on DVD. The band remains incendiary, although a casual visual comparison of some bonus video featuring John Doe and Exene singing “See How We Are” — quite well — on a sofa circa 2004 with their similarly set-up Hank duet in the ’80s film should disillusion anyone who imagines punks don’t age at the same rate as everyone else.
Simple good news is the arrival of Elvis Costello & The Imposters: Club Date In Memphis (Eagle Vision), which captures this excellent recent Attractions-like rock tour in a small club setting, including five duets with Emmylou Harris. Their “Wheels” for instance, is wonderful; but so is the “The Blue Chair”. Everyone is in fine form.
Which takes us back to those unsettling ’70s, and the musical question, “Who was capable of more cynicism: marketers of the Sex Pistols or marketers of John Denver?”
First evidence: The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle, director Julien Temple’s would-be cynical, allegedly fictional portrait of the selling of the Pistols and Anglo punk, just released on DVD by Shout Factory. Portraying Mr. Rotten, Mr. Vicious and company as a strictly commercial sellout construct must have seemed a good way to appeal to their fans’ star aversion at the time; today, the blatant attempt to do that, undetected, seems peculiarly innocent. The music, when it arrives, holds up better than might be expected — particularly Sid Vicious’ takes on Eddie Cochran tunes, of all things! But the comedy that dominates the film is insufferably arch, and much of this now registers simply as a bore.
Which brings us, naturally, to A Song’s Best Friend: John Denver Remembered (RCA/Legacy). This footage may stun those of us who found the not-untalented songwriter’s 1970s performances unnervingly calculated, blank-faced affectless, and yet essentially icky-poo at the time; Denver performances of the era turn out to have been even more self-aggrandizingly sweeter-than-thou and kitsch-homey than may be recalled. The disc is largely made up of remembrances of friends and family who found the man the “equivalent of Frank Sinatra in the ’40s and the Beatles in the ’60s.” Uh, no, he wasn’t. But, interestingly enough, performances of his hits as revisited years later, which crop up from time to time on this disc, are considerably looser, more credible and effective than anything from his commercial heyday.
An entirely different proposition, slipping back into remains of the ’60s, is Brian Wilson Presents Smile (Rhino Home Video). The two-DVD set combines a touching full-length documentary on the history of the seemingly doomed Beach Boys project from its 1966 conception to its 2004 rebirth with a full concert version of the workably restored rock suite by Wilson and his orchestral band. The story of Wilson’s returning ability to even deal with the legendary project is likely to induce tears, and much of the music turns out to have been worth the wait. It’s a sweeping piece of often thrilling Americana — and I use the term not just because “You Are My Sunshine” is now part of the whole. Over four hours of material here, and more than worth the time.
An unexpected DVD release delight is the arrival of three single discs delivering a total of thirteen 1966 color episodes of the now-legendary soul TV series The !!!! Beat (Bear Family). This is one of two series featured in the Country Music Hall of Fame’s “Night Train To Nashville” exhibition, for while it was shot in Dallas so it could be in color, the host (Hoss Allen) and the regular R&B band onstage were from Nashville, home of a particularly loose partying brand of soul. This is simply wonderful stuff, with guest appearances by Etta James, Carla Thomas, Joe Tex, Johnny Taylor, and even Louis Jordan. House band leader Gatemouth Brown plays everything from swing to country breakdowns on fiddle. More volumes are set to be released later.
One last ’60s-era treat — though it was recorded a bit later in glorious black in white in Melbourne — is Roy Orbison In Concert, Australia 1972 (Image Entertainment). It’s not the first Orbison show to reach DVD, but it may be the best. He’s backed by a local, enthusiastic band and, where he needs it for soaring purposes, an orchestra. The crowd is going nuts, with good reason; from the big “Running Scared”-era ballads to “Pretty Woman”, this is Roy really rocking full throttle and letting the big dramatic songs rip. It’s exhilarating throughout.
Outside of time but very much rooted in a place — the Mississippi hills, namely — is You See Me Laughin’: The Last Of The Hill Country Bluesmen (Fat Possum/Seventh Art), an excellent documentary on the lives and music of such latter-day blues heroes as Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside and T-Model Ford. This one would be worth it just for the scenes of the late Kimbrough’s juke joint in operation; its loss in a fire marked a turn in the history of this music scene, and the end of this film. Along the way, a reasonably full picture of these artists’ relations with the management of the Fat Possum label emerges. It’s a frank but essentially positive view, though there’s an admission that not everyone in the blues world was equally delighted by adventures such as Burnside’s work with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. The performance clips would be enough, but it’s a revealing picture, overall, of talented players surprised by late-breaking acceptance.
One of the subtler and more expressive practitioners of acoustic soul is Memphis rock legend Sid Selvidge, who offers a varied and sweet set on Sid Selvidge Live At Otherlands (Archer Records), which combines a live CD with the DVD. Selvidge shows his usual finesse with laid-back country (“Hobo Bill”, “Long Black Veil”), blues (tunes of Furry Lewis, especially), and songs of such direct blue-eyed soul predecessors as Eddie Hinton and Fred Neil.
While you’re in that mood, those who recall soul reviver Howard Hewett’s smooth vocals with Shalamar, and those who do not alike, could be equally swept up by the swooping, romantic highs and lows captured on the DVD Howard Hewett: Intimate (Shout Factory).
Given the extraordinary career of Bonnie Raitt, I’d like to be able to report that Bonnie Raitt: Live At Montreux 1977 (Eagle Eye) captures one of her better blues-and-pop-driven performances, but that’s not the case. We’re back into “on and off nights” territory for Raitt in this period, and she’s occasionally out of rhythm and dazed, even with such staples as “Good Enough” and “Give It Up Or Let Me Go” on the song list. In bonus performances from 1991 added at the end, she’s in markedly better shape, and the guitar playing is swell — and do I detect a theme here?
Finally, fans of the Telluride vibe will no doubt find Telluride Bluegrass Festival: 30 Years (Rounder) a representative festival showcase to nod along with. Among those on tap are newgrassers Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, and Bela Fleck, post-newgrassers Nickel Creek, and rootsy jam-banders Leftover Salmon and Yonder Mountain String Band. More of a surprise is an appearance by Kasey Chambers. Otherwise, this is territory more mellow than edgy. See, I told you we’d get to the laid-back summer part!