CD Reviews for 12/10/04 (DVD Roundup) by Dan Ferguson

Seems with every passing day that DVDs are becoming as much the medium of choice for music-related releases as their audio counterpart the compact disc. It also seems that labels, mostly those from the independent side of the tracks, are often including bonus DVDs in with new CD recordings. What with most home sound systems now doing double duty for both CDs and DVDs, fidelity is equally as good be it audio or video. This week Compact Capsules offers a round-up of recent DVD releases of the music variety.

Live from Austin, Texas

Leading the charge for this roundup is the newly hatched Live from Austin TX DVD series which features classic performances from the Austin City Limits television program. A collaboration between indie label New West Records and the Austin City Limits program, the series will draw from the 400-show back-catalogue of the PBS staple’s 30-year existence. Personally speaking, I can think of no program that has offered up as consistently as solid music programming as Austin City Limits has during its three-decade existence. To this day, I still cherish VHS recordings made of shows featuring the likes of Neil Young during his country one-off period, the trio of Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and Freddie Powers song swapping for an hour, and the late Waylon Jennings. (And here’s hoping each of those will find its way into this series.) The program reached the pinnacle of artistic quality in 2003 when it was recognized with the nation’s highest honor for artistic excellence, the National Medal of Arts, becoming the first television program to achieve the honor. Taken from full concerts that were originally whittled down to half-hour programs for TV broadcast, the Live from Austin TX DVD series introduces previously unreleased performances edited out of the original broadcasts. The re-edited performances include all of the songs that aired on the original Austin City Limits broadcast as well as never before heard or seen songs from the tapings. For fidelity fanatics, the DVDs have been re-mixed and re-mastered in 5.1 surround sound to provide the highest quality concert footage. In addition to the DVDs, CD versions of the audio from these performance will also be made available. The inaugural releases in the Live from Austin TX series feature performances from a slew of home state Lone Star boys including Steve Earle, Robert Earl Keen, and The Flatlanders to go with a performance from one of New England’s own in blues gal Susan Tesdeschi.
The Earle release (New West NW8001) hearkens back to a September, 1986 performance when the San Antonio native was a young buck just beginning to stir things up in Nashville circles thanks to hits like “Guitar Town” and “Hillbilly Highway”. A principal player in what was then dubbed the New Traditionalist movement in country music (of which the likes of Lyle Lovett, Randy Travis, and Dwight Yoakam were also charter members), Earle was the least polished of the lot while at the same time the edgiest of the bunch. Containing 17 numbers from that September performance, it is vintage Earle in all his youthful, twang rockin’ glory. Simply put, it is both sights and sounds to behold.
Also checking in at 17 tracks, the Keen DVD release (New West NW8004) captures a 2001 performance by the crafty singer/songwriter and his great backing band which for that August evening was a full-bore six-piece outfit. The collection moves between the serious (“Dreadful Selfish Crime”, “The Road Goes On Forever”) and the humorous (“Merry Christmas from the Family”, “That Buckin’ Song”) sides of the Keen songwriting persona. A fellow whose concerts are often marred by an obnoxious frat boy following that too often parties a little too hardy during his live shows, this up-close-and-personal live performance from the clean surroundings of the ACL performance space is devoid of any crowd shenanigans allowing Keen song’s and crisp band to take center stage.
The Flatlanders are the legendary trio of Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Butch Hancock. Begun in the early 1970s, it was a short-lived existence for the West Texas-based band that yielded a single eight-track recording before its members each went their separate ways. Whereas there were occasional, spur-of-the-moment get-togethers after the split, the trio did not officially reunite until early in this decade culminating in the 2002 recording Now Again. The Flatlanders entry in the Live from Austin TX (New West NW8003) DVD series captures the trio later that same year. From the relaxed demeanor of each fellow to the between-songs banter, it is obvious over the course of the 17 numbers comprising this DVD that the trio is relishing being back on stage as a unit once more. Add in some killer songs to go with some killer accompaniment and this performance is a certified keeper.
Rounding out the first batch of releases in the Live from Austin TX DVD series is a performer from right in our own New England backyard, blues woman and Bay State native Susan Tedeschi (New West NW8002). Knowing of the wealth of available material in the ACL archives, the inclusion of someone with as short a track record as Tedeschi in this first batch of releases seems a surprising choice. Perhaps it’s a signal to consumers that Austin City Limits is more than just twang central. The DVD captures Ms. Tedeschi’s 2003 appearance on the program and is a performance heavy on the slow burn side of her blues repertoire.
Additional DVDs in this series are planned for release early next year with even more coming in the summer and fall of 2005 and beyond.

More Keen

As if one wasn’t enough, the recent No. 2 Live (Koch KOC-DV-9826) gives singer/songwriter Robert Earl Keen two new DVDs to hang hit hat on. The 8-song, 39-minute No. 2 Live takes us to a rollicking 2001 performance at the annual Houston Rodeo. A note to those considering the double DVD dip of Mr. Keen, only three of the No. 2 Live selections overlap with the Live From Austin TX Keen release.

All*Star Bluegrass

Captured live at the famed Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and produced by legendary Austin City Limits architect Terry Lickona, All*Star Bluegrass Celebration (LickonaVision RLV-3001) is a gathering of some of the best in the business to celebrate this mountain music dubbed bluegrass. One of PBS’s most popular fund-raising specials upon its original airing, the show mixed legends with new bloods for what amounted to a full-flavored evening of bluegrass music heavy on the standards. With the likes of Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Vince Gill, Del McCoury Band, Alison Krauss & Union Station, Patty Loveless, hall of famer Earl Scruggs, Ralph Stanley, and newcomers Nickel Creek, the evening had the makings of a can’t-miss event. One viewing of this DVD documenting that evening and you’ll no doubt wholeheartedly agree.

Best for Last

We close out this DVD roundup by saving the best for last. Few bands can match the aromatic, Southwestern noir the Tucson-based group Calexico has dished out in its eight-year existence. The Mexicali mix of sounds found on its various CDs and EPs is a spaghetti western music lover’s delight with equally high appeal for adventurous types out there. The last few years has seen the band truly come into its own with evidence being the larger and larger rooms it has been playing. For those who have yet to encounter the live side of Calexico, there is no better first stop than the newly released DVD called World Drifts In: Live at the Barbican, London (Quarterstick Records QD93dvd). The DVD captures an 89-minute performance from November of 2002 when Calexico appeared as part of the Further Beyond Nashville alt country festival. Soundscapes of the border variety dominate the proceedings with the rhythmic interplay the band is renowned for reaching near trance-inducing levels. Usually a six piece, for this performance Calexico stepped it up a notch thanks to a surprise mid-set appearance by the eight-member Mariachi Luz de Luna as well as a guest spot by French diva Francoiz Breut. In addition to the concert footage, the DVD includes a slew of very tempting extras, 70 minutes worth to be exact, which by their lonesome are worth the price of admission. These include interviews with the band, a behind-the-scenes film documenting the making of Calexico’s last album Feast of Wire, the documentary The Soul of Mariachi directed by Calexico co-founder Joey Burns, and an on-the-road film diary called Shot and Mounted. As if that isn’t enough, the DVD also features three music videos by the band as well as the cartoon short “El Kabong Rides Again”. In all, World Drifts In is an incredible collection that comes highly recommended. (New West Records, 9215 Olympic Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90212, or; Quarterstick Records, P.O. Box 25520, Chicago, IL 60625, or www.tgrec.c…