Truckers & Tributes, Bluegrass & Rainbows
An aging adage still seems to be true, despite all the hot technology tossed at current DVD releases: The harder the band rocks, the tougher it is to squeeze them down onto a TV screen.
The Drive-By Truckers: The Dirty South Live At The 40 Watt (New West) uses a variety of tactics to deal with that. Film-style shooting lets you see more color tones in the darkened hall; focus is placed on the special electricity of an opening night of a tour for a new record marked by a return to their stomping grounds in Athens, Georgia, from days when few knew their name; and there’s some pretty serviceable camera placement and editing. But there’s still the sense that you’re getting more of the exact feel of the Truckers live when things calm down a bit for the likes of “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac” than on the screamers — though encores of “Careless” and Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died” just about get there.
With this band, you need to see both the wide and up-close interaction. When they step forward with that three-guitar attack, for instance, it’s like baseball — hard to see the whole field on TV. So as good as this is, your best shot is to see it on the biggest screen you can, and play it loud, and then catch the band live again.
It occurs to me that the Truckers will be ripe, sooner or later, for a saga documentary that will show their whole story, not just a snapshot — personnel changes, evolving aspirations and relationships, the works. How worthwhile such a southern rock soap opera could be is suggested by End Of The Century: The Story Of The Ramones (Rhino), a northern counterpart that’s simply one of the most effective and revealing band bios ever done, period. The Michael Gramaglia/Jim Fields rockumentary captures the wildly disparate and sometimes antagonistic Ramones members individually, chronicles their relationships over time, and explores the impact of the band. It’s necessary viewing, even if you’ve seen the earlier Ramones Raw package.
Return To Sin City: A Tribute To Gram Parsons (Image) shows that what may have felt like a moving live event does not automatically produce a lot of keeper performances. Guests who come up with decent (and better) takes on Parsons songs include Steve Earle, Jim Lauderdale, Raul Malo and Lucinda Williams (on “A Song For You”). But there are some real “what were they thinking?” moments here — choosing Keith Richards to attempt the “Love Hurts” duet with Norah Jones, who is forced to struggle valiantly to keep the number musical, let alone touching; having Jay Farrar handle the comedy number (“Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man”); taking Gram’s countryish turn on “Do Right Woman” and having Susan Marshall render it as a straight R&B number (what a concept!); and never doing a retake on a shockingly plodding “Sin City” from Dwight Yoakam. The full-cast closers descend into chaos, and not in a good way — which may mean, mainly, that like Gram and some of his bands, this gang never practiced much as a group. He seems to have been able to get away with it more.
An entire set by the reliable Lauderdale is captured, for the first time, on the German “Ohne Filter” series release Jim Lauderdale In Concert (Inakustik), including his dual tribute to Parsons and George Jones (“The King Of Broken Hearts”) and such regular show-stoppers as “Why Do I Love You?” and “Hole In My Head”. This is one of Lauderdale’s country-rock, soul and honky-tonk oriented shows, so don’t be looking for his bluegrass side here — but you can find much quality new bluegrass on view right now elsewhere.
Warmly shot, Ragin’ Live: Rhonda Vincent & The Rage (Rounder) finds Vincent and band back in her home state of Missouri, at the historic St. Louis Sheldon Concert Hall, for a show that documents where this act has been and some of the new places it’s been going. The numbers that have been Rage high points in recent years — “Drivin’ Nails In My Coffin” and “Kentucky Borderline” — are delivered with a full-tilt, high-energy attack, and Vincent’s version of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” is as compelling as anyone’s. Smooth renditions of the more pop-oriented ballads she has been adding lately are here as well, some not previously recorded.
There are two bluegrass-oriented releases among what promises to be an invaluable new reissue series on Shanachie: Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest, a mid-’60s educational television series which featured dozens of key roots-music acts. Among the initial offerings are a DVD combining appearances by the Stanley Brothers and Doc Watson, and another featuring the New Lost City Ramblers and the Greenbriar Boys.
The shows are low-budget, low-key affairs in which the guests come out and play and talk with Seeger a little, and he plays some, too. He’s very comfortable with the New York folk revival grasser acts’ combination of musical seriousness and college humor; his half-brother Mike and brother-in-law John Cohen were two-thirds of the Ramblers.
Seeger tends to intrude, attempting to contextualize every act on these shows his way, which not all the artists take entirely well (a fun part!). His folksier-than-thou, sometimes preachy manner in this period may be the hardest thing for today’s audiences to digest. Carter and Ralph Stanley simply ignore the folk-show conventions and go into full country vaudeville, leaving us with an endearing, rare record of their act.
A bit more awkward is a third installment featuring Seeger’s friendly encounter with Johnny Cash, June Carter and Roscoe Holcomb. High and lonesome old-time singer Holcomb seems a bit bemused to have his humble rural origins lionized to his face; elsewhere, the facts of the Carter Family’s origins are messed up, and June corrects them. But this is a singular chance to see Johnny and June as reconfigured for the folk audience, singing songs of our land alone and acoustic, all traces of commercial country performance gone.
That’s just one of three varied looks at Cash DVDs in what’s become a memorial onslaught. Johnny Cash Ridin’ The Rails (Rhino) revives a 1974 TV special on the history and lore of American railroads; it’s great for train buffs, with historical re-creations and train songs (including Cash’s takes on “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “City Of New Orleans”). Johnny Cash Live At Montreux 1994 (Eagle Eye) has its own fascination, catching Cash just as he’s turning to the new American Recordings material and style (“Delia”, “Bird On A Wire”). He’s much more moving with those stripped-down numbers than in somewhat de-energized attempts to keep his country-band sound going.
There’s no energy lag at all in two of the most memorable releases in Bear Family’s Town Hall Party series. A full July 18, 1959, show features eight of the earliest George Jones performances on film; “I’m Ragged But I’m Right” and “Who Shot Sam” are among the numbers, and it’s all highly memorable, even though the Possum was hoarse that day. And a new DVD with highlights from the October 11, 1958, and August 22, 1959, shows features Hank Snow introducing “I’m Movin’ On” and performing his hits, plus Lefty Frizzell stopping by to perform some ballads.
A couple other performers to note here: the late, and always crowd-rousing, Martha Carson, idolized by Elvis, is on both of these DVDs, and Jeannie Sterling (later Mrs. Bobby Bare and mother of Bare Jr.) adds a twangy pop performance to the July 1959 set, as she does with consistent excellence on a number of Town Hall Party releases. These shows transcend history, and kinescope quality. That’s some live music right there, folks.