You’ve probably noticed by now that good things sometimes happen when American roots music acts and their Euro/Anglo admirers meet — face to face or in spirit. A summerload of new DVDs makes the point all over again.
I was among those who’d found Springsteen’s post-folk Seeger Sessions CD a bit on the forced and studiously rollicking side, but as the new DVD Bruce Springsteen With The Sessions Band Live In Dublin (Columbia) demonstrates, somewhere in the course of performing the collection of chestnuts for audiences away from home (and maybe less familiar with the material), the band gelled, horns included, and the music made is as good and loose as Bruce has come up with this decade. Particularly fresh and alive are transformations of a few of his own tunes. “Open All Night” becomes a jumping Louis Jordan number; “Growin’ Up” goes western swing. The camera gets up in among the big motley all-genre band to show the real interaction that’s there now.
A dose of British cheek and irony can add twists to American standards, which is what Bryan Ferry did back in the 1970s with his Warholesque, deliberately remoter than usual turn on Dylan’s “Hard Rain”. That old video is a bonus on Ferry’s new DVD Dylanesque Live: The London Sessions (Eagle Vision), an intriguing, entertaining new video of Brian and some soul backup singers taking, well, Ferryesque changes on aptly chosen Bob songs from “Positively 4th Street” to “Make You Feel My Love”. (His version of the latter is at least as sincere as those by fellow hipsters Billy Joel and Garth Brooks; discuss.) Ferry’s gift to Dylan’s music remains his ability to refocus attention to the sound an structure of the tunes, rather than, for the millionth time, the famous lyrics. It’s possible Bob later took some lessons from that himself.
Ferry didn’t rename himself after a Dylan song, but John Wesley Harding did, and this man named for a ballad takes up really, really old ones, Anglo folk tunes, in fact, interspersed with readings from his novel Misfortune inspired by them, on A Bloody Show: John Wesley Harding & Friends Live At Bumbershoot 2005 (Arcanum). It is a bit literary, folks, but the inestimable (and versatile) Kelly Hogan is there for harmonies on the songs, and Robyn Hitchcock aids in some of the readings. This might have been called “Like Steeleye Span Never Happened”; if you want to see a return to formal Anglo folk singing, this is your shot.
If you prefer formal Anglo casino singing, you can grab your tux and catch the unexpected musical combinations (or is it “implosions”?) on This Is Tom Jones: Rock ‘N’ Roll Legends (Time-Life). Culled from his Brit-produced prime-time variety series which ran on ABC from 1969-’71, the swaggering Welshman, who was competing for panty-tossing audiences with Elvis and Engelbert at the time, attracted some of the biggest names of the day — and also insisted on singing with them and working them into routines. These guests include Janis Joplin (“Little Girl Blue”), Aretha Franklin, The Who (“Pinball Wizard”), Stevie Wonder (“For Once In My Life”), Joe Cocker, and Little Richard. Yes, Jones always could and still can, in fact, sing in these varied styles with some credibility, but the incongruities of Vegas-meets-Woodstock-and-Detroit style are enormous, and were at the time. So here’s Janis boogying with Tom in a production number, Jones and Aretha dueting, and comedy from Richard Pryor, Peter Sellers, and the Committee. It is unusual.
In three previous releases, the Hip-O Records DVD series chronicling the 1960s tours across Europe (mainly, across Germany) of some of America’s greatest blues acts has already provided some of the best, and most respectful, footage of Howlin’ Wolf and T-Bone Walker and Lonnie Johnson and Otis Span existent. The fourth one, The American Folk-Blues Festival: The British Tours 1963-1966, continues that quality — only it’s from England, where the acts had such musical impact. Highlights are numbers by the dynamic, guitar-slinging Sister Rosetta Tharpe, some more Howlin’ Wolf, some Sonny Boy Williamson #2 (Rice Miller) harmonica, and, interestingly enough, Junior Wells taking on Brother Ray’s “What’d I Say”.
I want to mention here Nashville Stars Auf Europa-Tour, which is a new full-size discs-and-book Bear Family box tracking the tour of RCA Nashville Sound stars Jim Reeves, Bobby Bare, Chet Atkins and the Anita Kerr Singers across Europe at about the same time. There are live-show CDs and Euro-only records of the day, including Willie Nelson singing in German — but the highlight is probably the DVD, which shows the stars at work, including Bobby Bare’s “Detroit City” in jeans with the full backing a la the record on hand.
Compiled in the U.K. by jump-blues and swing enthusiasts but now available over here is Jumpin’ & Jivin’ Volume 1 (Acorn Media), which simply lines up, one after another, upbeat, fetching filmed performances of some of the great acts from the era when swing bands were doing proto-R&B jump. Whole — and good — numbers from Fats Waller, Louis Jordan, the Delta Rhythm Boys, Gene Krupa and Duke Ellington prove outright necessary, and are all in one place. There are a couple of third-level swing-band obscurities tossed in from old Soundies, but not enough to damage the totality.
And now for some things completely domestic:
Four American Roots Music Films By Yasha Aginsky (Vestapol). The talented documentarian looks at bluesman Sonny Terry, the Balfa family, and Cajun music, and most telling, profiles Mike Seeger and Alice Gerrard and friends (Elizabeth Cotten, Tommy Jarrell, etc.) circa 1980 in “Homemade American Music”.
Guy Clark: Live From Austin TX (New West). 65 minutes of sweet and peppery Guy on “Austin City Limits” in 1989. The repertoire of self-penned songs plus one from Townes is much like it still is today. All Clark hits are included; for this show, the backing is Stuart Duncan on violin and Edgar Meyer on bass. Everybody’s 18 years younger and lookin’ good, and it all sounds especially smooth.
Volunteer Jam Starring The Charlie Daniels Band (Eagle Eye). The first DVD release of the documentary billed as “the first full-length Southern Rock Motion Picture” captures Charlie’s second Volunteer Jam, the first big one, from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, in 1975. The sheer musicianship and joy behind all the blustery defiance still surprises, the original Marshall Tucker Band guys show up, and with additional guests (including Dickie Betts and Roni Stoneman) on “Mountain Dew”, you can’t go wrong. You may, however, continue to ponder exactly what that “it” is the south is gonna do again.
North Mississippi Allstars: Keep On Marchin’ (Songs Of The South). If you’ve dismissed them as another jam band, check out this live Vermont show. They have edge, chops, and know their deep blues and rock, like, for real.
For those who have ever fallen in love with playing guitar, or have sincerely faked it without benefit of niceties like lessons or an instrument, there’s a potential double feature in two new releases that arrive, coincidentally, at the same time: Wired For Sound: A Guitar Odyssey (MPI Home Video) and Air Guitar Nation (Docurama). The former is a Gibson-guitar-centric look at guitarists and their axes, with comments by everyone from John Lee Hooker to John Entwistle to Emmylou Harris to Chet Atkins to Dan Murphy. If lines like “Eric was using a 335” grab you, that one’s for you. If you want to see a well-made, funny and on-target document of Americans taking off for Finland to compete in the World Air Guitar Championship (and you should), there’s the latter. Out come the passports again.