Various Artists:The American Folk Blues Festival (1962-1966), Vols. 1 and 2(Hip-O Records)
How appropriate that the so-called “Year of the Blues” ends with the release of these extraordinary DVDs, culled from long-neglected early and mid-'60s European television programs based around the annual American Folk Blues Festival tours that were organized by a pair of German blues enthusiasts, Horst Lippmann and Fritz Rau. This is the real stuff: some of the greatest blues artists America ever produced, playing at their best, captured in crisp close-up (in glorious black and white) with incredible sound. If you love the blues, it doesn't get any better than this; what a gold mine! The highlights are many and varied. Volume One starts out with a pair of tunes shot in 1962 on an imaginative “Southern” stage set: T-Bone Walker and Shakey Jake wail on “Call Me If You Need Me” outside a humble housefront as a young woman sits nearby, knitting; then, Walker turns a “corner” and introduces Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, who perform “Hootin' the Blues” for a crowd of dancing, casually dressed black couples in front of an elevated porch — it's sort of a country blues American Bandstand; wonderful stuff! Most of the other performances are taken from more formal concert settings, but there's still a very relaxed air about the proceedings, as the legendary Sonny Boy Williamson introduces Lonnie Johnson, Victoria Spivey introduces Otis Spann, Big Joe Williams introduces Willie Dixon, etc. Personally, I was most blown away from seeing Sonny Boy Williamson (whom I'd never even seen on film before): He has a completely captivating presence that's hard to describe. But every second of both discs is mesmerizing: Howlin' Wolf gets his due with three songs; Mississippi Fred McDowell shows his mastery of fingerpicking in a 1965 performance; Otis Rush's spine-tingling “I Can't Quit You Baby” predates Led Zeppelin's stab at that song by three years; John Lee Hooker's “Hobo Blues,” shot almost entirely in extreme close-up, is the blues at its most primal; and on and on, 18 tracks on each disc. All in all, it's an astonishing pair of discs. I can't recommend them highly enough!
Producers: David Peck, Jon Kanis, Janie Hendrix, John McDermott. Audio restoration: Eddie Kramer
— Blair Jackson
Johnny Cash: A Concert Behind Prison Walls(Eagle Rock Entertainment)
The opening scene of this 60-minute DVD shows a huge, foreboding Victorian-era prison and shots of cells, guards with guns and barbed-wire, while a voice intones over a growing rumble of tympani: “And now, from the gymnasium of the Tennessee State Prison — behind prison walls — our special guest star, Johnny Cash.” Immediately, the scene cuts to a rather slick concert stage setup and the Man In Black launches into a spirited performance of his classic Sun Records hit, “Folsom Prison Blues.” Carl Perkins, a former Sun Records label-mate of Cash's, helps out with lead guitar duties. Throughout this 1977 concert Cash is in his element, clearly having a great time as he throws himself into a medley of “Hey Porter” and “Orange Blossom Special,” romps through “A Boy Named Sue,” dances around the stage, plays harmonica and tosses out a humorously cocky monologue about a run-in with the law. Roy Clark hams it up on “Rolling In My Sweet Baby's Arms” and shows off his considerable chops as a guitarist and banjo picker; Foster Brooks delivers the concert's low point with a tedious drunk-man comedy routine and stiff singing. Besides Cash, this DVD's highlights are provided by Linda Ronstadt, who turns in excellent performances of “You're No Good,” “Silver Threads and Golden Needles,” “Love Has No Pride” and “Desperado” in front of a crack band that includes Andrew Gold on lead guitar and piano. The latter two tunes alone are worth the price of the DVD. Ronstadt's cute country girl look and criminally short miniskirt and Mary Janes must've driven the inmates crazy. All in all, A Concert Behind Prison Walls captures a wide range of country-related talent and offers a great reminder that Cash was a lot more than the stony, dark persona that was his trademark. Cash fans will find this a worthwhile addition to their collections.
Producers: Jim Owens and Charles Ison Jr. Director: Dick Carson. Audio: Doug Decker Audio. Remix: Michael Davis, Digital Audio Post & Emerald (Nashville). Technical Facilities: Pacific Video, Opryland Productions, Northstar Studios.
— Rick Clark
Jimi Plays Berkeley(Experience Hendrix)
At just 49 minutes, most of it not particularly well shot, this slight 1970 Jimi Hendrix concert film — out on DVD for the first time — nonetheless deserves its cult popularity: It captures Hendrix on a very good night, when the guitarist is both full of fire and also feeling spacey and expansive. There are great versions of “Johnny B. Goode,” “Hear My Train A-Comin',” “I Don't Live Today,” “Voodoo Child” and, most impressive of all, “Machine Gun,” which is intercut with footage of riots on the UC Berkeley campus. The sound for the concert portions was mixed by Eddie Kramer and is crisp and clear. A bonus is that the DVD also contains a superb audio-only track of one of Hendrix's two concerts in its entirety that night in Berkeley. Probably for Hendrix hardcores only, but still cool.
DVD production: Janie Hendrix, John McDermott. Engineering: Eddie Kramer at Clinton Recording (NYC) and NRG Recording (North Hollywood). Mastering: George Marino/Sterling Sound (NYC).
— Blair Jackson
Monk in Paris: Live At the Olympia(Thelonious Records)
You'll find this one in the Monk section of your local record store, as it's mainly a fine live album of Monk in Paris from March 1965, with the brilliant pianist/composer fronting a group that includes tenor player Charlie Rouse, bassist Larry Gales and drummer Ben Riley. The quartet moves easily from Monk originals to standards, with solos passed around generously, but Monk is clearly in charge. The set-closing “Epistrophy” is a knockout. A special bonus DVD shot a year later with the same group in Oslo, Norway, lets us see Monk and Co. in action on three songs (none of them on the Paris set), including a fine take on “Blue Monk.” It's wonderful seeing Monk's idiosyncratic style in full flower on the nicely realized and well-mixed DVD. A great double-shot of one of the greats of modern music.
Music disc producer: Joel Dorn. Mastering: Gene Paul/DB Plus Digital Services. DVD Producer: Victor Sheldrake. DVD Authoring: Randy Hudson at Broadness (NYC).
— Blair Jackson