Wasn’t that a Party
We turn to film and video to show us what we never could have seen, to take us where we never could have been, and to learn how it all looked. It’s easy to forget the pleasures of sheer documenting and vicarious viewing when discussing the latest DVDs, even performance DVDs. The talk tends to focus on whizbang technical achievements and extras.
Just how little eye-and-ear-popping extravagance can matter is underscored by the launch of the new At Town Hall Party DVD series from those wondrously completist perfectionists at Bear Family. Culled from the celebrated live 1950s Southern California country and rockabilly television shows broadcast each weekend from the Compton Town Hall, all of the footage derives from “off broadcast” kinescopes filmed from remote TV monitor screens.
It’s often fuzzy, sometimes dark, glitschy black-and-white, subpar by any engineer’s estimation — and none of that matters a damn. These are peak performances, caught at just the right moment, and there’s nothing else like them. Four discs have been released initially, each focusing on a regular visitor to the Party, and running at an hour-plus.
The Johnny Cash shows of winter 1958 and summer 1959 are especially potent treasures. He’s just relocated to L.A., in the process of switching from Sun to Columbia, young and wilder than we’re used to seeing. The Cash style is in place, as are the original Tennessee Two — Marshall Grant on slap bass, and hangdog Luther Perkins originating the famed guitar riffs.
The audience (a study in period country and rock style) goes wild as the trio stampedes through the very fresh “Big River”, “I Guess Things Happen That Way” and “I Got Stripes”. Johnny mixes some gospel numbers he’d added since exiting Sun with hard Cash country, and western songs such as “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town” are so new that he asks people to phone in whether they think doing such stuff, or “folk tunes like Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers did,” is maybe a good idea!
The second Cash appearance on Johnny Cash At Town Hall Party is a high-energy wonder, with extra backing from Sun’s Jimmy Wilson on keyboards and Mike Fury on drums, topped off by a frantic, funny, precious impersonation of “a rock ‘n’ roll singer imitating Elvis” on “Heartbreak Hotel”, complete with flying hair, bumps and grinds and grunts.
Of the more rockabilly-oriented Town Hall DVDs, the Eddie Cochran performance is the most compelling; he comes off as a cool, aggressive, room-shaking rocker, and quite a presence, on his hits “C’mon Everybody” and “Summertime Blues”. A sax-fronted R&B band offers lively backing.
Asked in an extended interview by country journeyman Johnny Bond whether this rock ‘n’ roll business, just a turn on rhythm stuff ’40s country boogie artists and Jimmie Rodgers had played with years before, can last, Cochran projects that “rock ‘n’ roll will still be around for quite some time” — but probably not the rock ‘n’ roll “as we know it today.”
The initial Gene Vincent performances with his full-dressed Blue Caps will appeal to big beat fans for their very rarity — but he also comes off as an odder duck than histories mention. Hobbled by a leg injury, he’s forced to stand still, clutching the mike stand, emoting facially and leaning in hard — like some early incarnation of Johnny Rotten. He does handle ballads, even the soulful “For Your Precious Love”, with considerable skill. And, yes, he does “Be-Bop-A-Lula”, plus rockabilly versions of Hank’s “You Win Again” and Bill Monroe’s “Rocky Road Blues”.
The fourth offering, on Bob Luman, is pretty much for specialists. Luman comes off as a precursor to Fabian-era pretty boys, and is forced to repeat numbers just to fill. Looks already got you on TV then, but couldn’t make you interesting. (Guitar players have other reasons to be interested, though, since Town Hall regulars Joe Maphis and Merle Travis step up to take the electric leads.)
As if to prove that pure visual quality and directing excellence can count for something, there’s the new DVD release of some of the remarkable — and gorgeous — hard country films shot in Nashville in the early to mid-’50s by Albert Gannaway. These were half-hour shows that in some act of prescience were filmed in the best 35mm color quality available.
The result is hours of footage of classic honky-tonk stars, seen from time to time on television in the years since, some released previously on VHS. Shanachie/Yahoo video has begun to bring collections from these shows out on tune-selectable DVD as The Country Music Classics series, on a by-artist (rather than by-program) basis. Joining an earlier Webb Pierce and Chet Atkins DVD are new entries from Ernest Tubb and Marty Robbins and from Ray Price and Jim Reeves (with some extra Tubb numbers on the last as well).
As toddlers wander around the barn set, and members of other bands and nameless civilians keep time with pat-a-pat handclaps (in a fascinating array of poodle-skirt-era fashion choices), we get true keepsake performances that any fan of honky-tonk needs to see.
The incredibly blue-eyed Ernest Tubb is a charismatic presence, working his huge smile through big hits (“Walking The Floor Over You”, “Remember Me, I’m The One”), breaking into “They’ll Do It Every Time” to mutter “Rave on, brother, rave on!” and calling on Texas Troubador Billy Byrd for his patented single-string guitar leads.
Ray Price is resplendent in screaming Nudie suits during these ’54 shows, and obviously having a swell time, with the Cherokee Cowboys on hand. Partner Van Howard joins him for a smashing close harmony on “Crazy Arms”. Like Tubb, Price generally looks right into the camera and sings directly to you, in the variety of Texas styles he was then perfecting.
What Gentleman Jim Reeves sounded like without the Nashville Sound layering is shown off in his performances here. He’s folk-singer meticulous in diction and enunciation, but in fact it works pretty well with the plainer country fiddle and steel backing of these shows. Plus he sings a number called “Yonder Comes A Sucker”. How can you lose?
If Marty Robbins has plenty of filmed performances available from his later Big Hair Balladeer years, here he’s still clean-cut Mr. Teardrop, in a country glory suit or buckskins, ogling a pair of rural blondes on “Will You Be Satisfied?” and delivering rhythmic hits such as “Living The Blues” in fine form.
Speaking of the remote past recaptured, some will be stunned to realize that it’s now seventeen years since the cowpunk stalwarts were taped at their height, live in Los Angeles, but it is indeed a typically energetic sixteen-song February 1986 show that unreels on the new DVD The Long Ryders: Rockin’ A The Roxy from Classic Pictures.
With the heyday lineup of Sid Griffin, Stephen McCarthy, Greg Sowders and Tom Stevens, the band slashes and jangles through a set heavy on the fondly remembered Native Sons and State of Our Union albums, with that distinctive punk and twang sound and edge that really is, on the likes of “Capturing The Flag” and “Ivory Tower”, exactly halfway between the Byrds and Uncle Tupelo.
In addition to the hour video show (with stereo and surround-sound options), and flash card bio and information, this one adds a new half-hour acoustic Sid Griffin set with Paisley Underground reminiscences and commentary. “We wondered,” he recalls, “what if you had the Byrds/Lovin’ Spoonful harmonies and sounds along with punk-level energy? Well, that was our act!” Finishing off with the recent trip-hop/alt-country fusion of his band Western Electric, Griffin brings us right back to the present — and that never-ending effort to marry the tried and the true new.