DVD Reviews: A Potpourri of Music DVDs

Culled from two performances at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in late October 1964, the legendary TAMI (Teenage Music Awards International) Show film—which was released theatrically in December 3/23/2010 12:54 PM Eastern

It’s been a while since we’ve checked in with some commentary on DVD releases, so let’s quickly play some catch-up!

Various Artists: TAMI Show Collector’s Edition (Shout Factory!)
Culled from two performances at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in late October 1964, the legendary TAMI (Teenage Music Awards International) Show film—which was released theatrically in December ’64, been excerpted often through the years for various videos about pop music, but never released in its entirety until now—is a fascinating glimpse of the teen music scene at a pivotal moment. It features representatives from the still-new British Invasion (Rolling Stones, Gerry & the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas), Motown (The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles), the SoCal surf movement (Jan & Dean, The Beach Boys), a rock ’n’ roll pioneer (Chuck Berry), a top pop singer of the day (Lesley Gore), and the (still young) King of Soul (James Brown). I remember seeing The TAMI Show at a rock film festival in the mid-’70s and being most impressed with Brown, The Stones and Marvin Gaye, and indeed when I watched the DVD, those are the acts that jumped out at me 35 years later. (It’s hard to believe when I saw it the first time it had only been about ten years since it was filmed—it’s such a document of a different, more innocent time; pre-hippies, pre-Vietnam War, a different generation of musicians, really, even though many enjoyed long careers after this. The go-go dancers behind the musicians—choreographed in part by Toni Basil—and the screaming girls are all quaint artifacts of the pre-psychedelic age.)

Chuck Berry kicks things off with fast versions of “Johnny B. Goode” and “Maybellene,” backed up by the huge house band—members of what would later be known as the Wrecking Crew, conducted by Jack Nitzche—and they give real heft to many of the acts here. Gerry & the Pacemakers pick up “Maybellene” from Berry, play a handful of their songs, including “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying,” and then trade off a couple more times with Chuck. It works surprisingly well. Smokey Robinson & the Miracles are smooth and soulful on a trio of tunes (the best is “You Really Got a Hold on Me”), and then Marvin Gaye (or “Mr. Soul” as he’s introduced) tears it up with four brief numbers, including “Pride and Joy” and “Can I Get A Witness.” What a singer! The middle part of the show sags a bit with six tunes by Lesley Gore—a fine singer saddled with mediocre pop material—and Jan & Dean (Beach Boys Lite). Then things pick up again with the Beach Boys (in their striped shirt era), who play rockin’ versions of “Surfin’ USA” (their nod to Chuck Berry), “I Get Around” and “Dance, Dance, Dance” but are most effective on “Surfer Girl,” which is warbled beautifully by Brian Wilson et al.

On the back half of the film, Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas are a pale Beatles rip and The Barbarians (who?) forgettable on their one number. But The Supremes (with ultra-large hairdos) sound fine during their segment (highlighted by “Where Did Our Love Go”) and then things get really interesting: James Brown is simply magnificent in his four-song set—he’s the most explosive singer, the best dancer, the best entertainer by far, and he and his group, The Flames basically lay waste to the Santa Monica Civic. “Please, Please, Please” features the classic JB shtick—dropping to his knees, having one of his singers put a cape around him, etc.—and it’s a crack-up, but also fabulous entertainment. And then he follows that showstopper with the dangerous, almost incoherent rumble known as “Night Train”—amazing! And a tough act to follow, for sure, but the youthful rough-and-tumble Rolling Stones are magnificent in their own way, opening with another Chuck Berry tune (“Around and Around”) and then rattling through (the now largely forgotten) “Off the Hook,” a plaintive “Time Is On My Side” (that gets the girls screaming and weeping… it doesn’t take much), Bobby Womack’s “It’s All Over Now” and closing with “I’m Alright,” Mick snakin’ about while shakin’ his maracas. Finally, all the acts and dancers join the Stones for a chaotic closing vamp: “Let’s Get Together” repeated endlessly (but with tremendous spirit, of course).

All in all it’s a pretty great concert. At times the loudness of the screaming girls overwhelms the music and I wished I could hear the music more distinctly, but it’s also a gas to see these fresh-faced L.A. teenagers being swept away by the music. That’s what rock and soul music is all about! Bonus features include trailers for the film and a commentary track by original director Steve Binder with music historian Don Waller (who also contributed the very informative notes in the illustrated 20-page booklet).

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Little Feat: Skin It Back (Eagle Vision)
Eagle’s “Rockpalast” series of late ’70s/early ’80s concerts taped for German television has been a real bonanza for rock lovers, and this title is easily my favorite to date. It captures the great L.A. band Little Feat at an undeniable peak in the summer of ’77—indeed this concert from the Grugahalle in Essen, Germany, was captured shortly before the group recorded its epic live album, Waiting for Columbus (released in 1978). The repertoire is similar but unlike the Columbus concert, this one features just the sextet; no horn players, and frankly that’s how I prefer my Feat! The crystal clear audio and video show the band at its best—rockin’ hard but with a funky edge, with one foot in New Orleans, the other in some magical Little Feat world of their own creation. Lowell George is magnificent on slide guitar throughout, but this has always been a true group of equals—they’re all virtuosos, and they lock in together like precious few bands can. (This is even true of the post-Lowell Little Feat, who are still amazing audiences coast to coast.)

Most of the “hits” (“favorites” is probably a better word for this band that never had a true hit) are here: “Skin It Back,” “Fat Man in the Bathtub,” “Dixie Chicken,” “Willin’,” “All That You Dream,” etc. I’ve always been partial to the instrumental “Day at the Dog Races” and that performed sensationally here. Basically, if you loved (or love) Little Feat, this is essential viewing. An added bonus is a handful of rehearsal tracks, which give a further look at this extraordinary band in action. Is it really possible this band is not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

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The Willie Nelson Special with Special Guest Ray Charles (Eagle Eye)
This hour-long TV special from 1985 finds two old pros in fine form. Willie gets to work it out with his always-excellent band on seven tunes, ranging from “Always on My Mind,” “My Window Faces South,” “Whiskey River” and (of course) “On the Road Again,” but the heart of this show is the collaboration wit Ray Charles, who sounds fantastic here as he trades verses with Willie, plays soulful piano and rolls through a handful of tunes, including the beautiful “Seven Spanish Eyes,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You,”  and “Georgia on My Mind.” Willie has always been loose (in a good way) and it’s nice to see Ray being so casual, too: When they get to “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” they figure out what key to do it in on the spot—so this is hardly a slick, over-produced concert. (Also included is a cool version of “Mountain Dew” that starts at the afternoon rehearsal and the cuts to night show version effectively. Other featured guests are guitarist Jackie King and fiddler Johnny Gimble.

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Louis Armstrong: Live In Australia (Medici Arts)
There are, not surprisingly, many DVDs featuring Louis Armstrong at different points in his career, but for money there can’t be too many—I always enjoy Satchmo, even when he’s singing a lot more than he’s playing (always the case in his later years). This black and white (and mono) concert taped for Australian TV in 1964, finds Armstrong fronting a solid quintet (clarinet, trombone, bass, drums, piano; they all get ample space to blow) rolling through such tunes as “Blue berry Hill,” “Mack the Knife,” “Sweet Georgia Brown” (a showcase for clarinetist Joe Darensbourg), “Now You Has Jazz,” and, naturally, “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Louis is a genial and funny host, and the group is every bit as relaxed as he is; still they play with a purposeful intensity, and Louis’ solo spots are uniformly hot. His singing is spot-on, too, whether he’s deliciously drawing out the syllables on a ballad, or joyfully scatting away. An unexpected treat is a pair of tunes sung a lovely young woman named Jewel Brown: “Did You Hear About Jerry” and “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” which, believe it or not, was still a new song at the time. Good stuff.

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