The boys of summer
Seasonal testosterone fixation disorder? Maybe not, but the summer of ’06 brings a slew of significant DVD releases, some much-anticipated, focusing on legendary guys with instantly recognizable first names — Gram, Neil, Sir Doug, Willie, Muddy, Chuck, and (for many around here, anyway) Jay. No girls walking by dressed in their summer clothes, though there are a couple of exposures to Keith Richards.
Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel (Rhino) is Gandulf Hennig’s long-percolating bio-documentary on the gifted, charismatic, reckless, frustrating and short-lived country-rock innovator. It certainly gets the turbulent southern Gothic rich-kid background of the man, his personal excesses, and his complicated musical and personal relationships well enough and truthfully enough; and it’s admirably free of romanticizing. It’s easy to come away from the film liking the man who made the music a whole lot less.
Parsons is shown arriving on the rock scene and rising to the limited level of fame he achieved in his lifetime with a trust-funder’s sense of entitlement about status without regard for achievement. He needs constant reminders that it might be time to get organized and maybe get back to work by friends and colleagues (Emmylou Harris, Chris Hillman and Keith Richards among them, all on-screen here), while he plays at life so fast and loose that his own respect for his very considerable talent is suspect as well.
For those new to the artist, and those trying better to grasp the nature of this talent, there are gaps here. There simply isn’t much footage of Gram making music, and what’s used is scattered and broken up, so that the strongest possible argument for his ability and impact –showing it — is very limited. (Time for my regular refrain with bio-doc DVDs: This version would have been the perfect occasion to add on the uninterrupted, full-filmed performances with the Flying Burrito Brothers and, however crudely videoed, with Emmylou; they’re not here.)
Neither does Sid Griffin’s script take much time with the context of Parsons’ moment to provide a sense of how far estranged blue-collar honky-tonk and the counterculture and Hollywood flash all were from each other, as Parsons worked on a synthesis that would bind them.
I’ve been a fan of Parsons’ music since back he was still around; my sense is that if he’d had the years Townes Van Zandt had, he would have produced, some way or another, a much greater number of finished and lasting songs than Van Zandt did. (They both become subjects of documentaries released on DVD this year; their buddies Chris Hillman and Guy Clark — disciplined, creative, alive and working — did not. And so it goes.)
This well-made but somewhat narrow look at the man, not so much the artist, left me riveted especially on the story not of the elsewhere overmythologized star, but on Gram’s little-known younger sister, left behind to deal with the same background and a lot of the issues he had, alone.
Jonathan Demme (Stop Making Sense, Storefront Hitchcock) makes concert films as knowingly as anybody in movies, and from a cinematic point of view, he does it again with Neil Young: Heart Of Gold (Paramount), the quickly planned and executed document of Neil and band’s first performance — at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium — of the music from his 2005 disc Prairie Wind. It’s exhilarating to watch Demme hold still, the one thing bad videos and concert films seem incapable of doing just now; much of this music is laid-back, and so is the camera.
As the songs progress, there’s an involving sense of a story being told by Young and Demme alike, though it’s derived from the showing and playing, not from any central narrative theme to the Prairie Wind songs themselves (or from the other “Heart Of Gold”-style countryish hits Neil sings after the new material). Backstage rehearsal and “making of” documentary footage buttress this version.
There’s maybe a bit too much of the Hollywood “we’ve visited Nashville so now we get to define it” stuff in the talking part, and typical visitor misinformation is promulgated. (No, the Opry was not started in 1943 at the hallowed Ryman, but decades before, elsewhere in town.) But as a musical film catching Neil as an acoustic performer and bandleader today, this is a winner. It will make a lasting home double-feature with Jim Jarmusch’s Year Of The Horse, which captures the more Crazy Horse-raucous side of Young’s work.
A guy who taught lots of people how to be laid-back and funky at the same time is filmed on the road — the first time he’s allowed that in 35 years — in Jorg Bundschuh’s To Tulsa And Back: On Tour With J.J. Cale (Time Life). Especially compelling is Cale’s return to Tulsa’s legendary Cain’s Ballroom, onetime home base for Bob Wills, to perform with his band, in the town where Cale, Leon Russell, Carl Radle, and Delaney & Bonnie all grew up before heading to Los Angeles. (That was one rhythmic, soulful set of Caucasians in that neighborhood.) Cale, captured over a few weeks on tour, emerges as a thoughtful, charming, honorable guy — a potential rock star type who instead has known when he wanted to say no to bad propositions, and has. It’s good to hang out with him.
New West’s fast-growing Live From Austin TX DVD series, which expands on old “Austin City Limits” broadcasts, is really coming into its own now, with three very well-selected outings from key acts. A 1981 Sir Douglas Quintet show finds Doug Sahm and Augie Meyers accompanied by Alvin Crow on fiddle and guitar, all of them tearing into “Is Anybody Going To San Antone?” and “96 Tears” and “Who’ll Be The Next in Line?” as well as the self-penned Sir Doug hits. A 1990 broadcast finds Willie Nelson already locked into much of the set list that’s so standard now, but he’s still singing really well, jazzing the songs, not just going through the motions. His band is augmented by the great Nashville “A-Team” guitarist Grady Martin, who’s as fluid as Chet Atkins but less remote from the music. And this very young dark-haired blues singer named Shelby Lynne joins him for two songs at the end — more than a decade before country music decided she was a newcomer again! Finally, in the 1981 Kris Kristofferson episode just out, Kris shows his old growly but efficient rock vocal dexterity, and delivers his songs, mostly the best-known ones, with a hot band that includes Billy Swan, Stephen Bruton and Donnie Fritts.
Other new ones of interest:
6 String Belief: Son Volt Live (Sony/BMG Legacy/Transmit Sound). Offstage here, Farrar is uncharacteristically forthcoming and even a little lighthearted about his career, work and music. Onstage, a strong show in Asheville, North Carolina, by the new Son Volt lineup is featured, with 32 songs from all the Son Volt years, and earlier.
Muddy Waters: Classic Concerts (Hip-O/Chess). A must-see, if even just for the rarely seen, uncut version of the Chicago blues king’s pivotal show at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival — incendiary enough that it set off the ’60s electric blues revival. Add to that a 1968 Copenhagen show with Otis Spann again on keyboards, and a 1977 latter-day sit-down Muddy show from Norway with Bob Margolin, Pinetop Perkins and his later band, and this is a strong document of a singular performer. Waters ages before your eyes, but he never withers.
Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll (Image). Keith Richards salutes the master, fights with him, tries to put up with him, and it’s not easy. But the St. Louis concert is good for the ears (Linda Ronstadt, Etta James and Robert Cray are participants), Little Richard and Bo Diddley add to the historical aspect, and some bonus interview material is added on the two-disc version of this much-seen Taylor Hackford documentary. Apparently there’s also a four-disc super-deluxe version that features a conversation between Berry and Robbie Robertson. Odds are, from previous evidence, Chucks talks about money.
The Last American Roadhouse (www.thelastamericanroadhouse.com) offers an affectionate, almost home-movie-style salute to the Flora-Bama Lounge, the southern beach and boogie joint that’s been a musical magnet and fixture of the Florida-Alabama border seashore for decades.