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Film at 11 - DVD review from Issue #43 Jan-Feb 2003

Let 'em roll

GILLIAN WELCH, The Revelator Collection (Acony, www.aconyrecords.com): Built on three staged videos and nine numbers filmed at live performances in Carrboro, North Carolina and Knoxville, Tennessee, this hour-long DVD reminds us how revealing this format can be. The Revelator Collection finds enough visual equivalents for the sound and lyric concepts of 2001′s Time (The Revelator) album to put one last exclamation point on that memorable and important project.

For those who have not seen Welch live, the instant revelation will be that guitarist David Rawlings is an equal partner and then some. His utterly original acoustic pyrotechnics can stun, and do here.

The videos were shot in the RCA Nashville studio where Elvis recorded “Are You Lonesome Tonight” and “Devil In Disguise” — a fact that inevitably adds a bit of frisson as their opening song begins, “I was thinking that night about Elvis.”

In immaculately lit, stylized, sharp black-and-white, Welch and Rawlings sit, slowly rocking, around a hanging mike, or stand at another, quietly bopping — until, every now and then, the video jerks and confusion breaks the visual and aural stillness, as the songs startle at their best.

The Time (The Revelator) CD, and much of the Welch/Rawlings act, is about lingering; through the centerpiece video of the epic “Revelator” song, the camera cuts to unveil a battered, desolate stillness amidst the studio chair legs and keyboards and mike stands and guitar cases. (The director is Mark Seliger, best-known for stylized celebrity still photos at Rolling Stone.)

The live-show footage includes the duo’s first released version of “Wichita” (recorded by Tim & Mollie O’Brien in 1994), plus performances of songs by a few hidden heroes — Bob Dylan’s “Billy”, Neil Young’s “Pocahontas”, a rare Rawlings vocal on Bill Monroe’s “I’m On My Way Back To The Old Home”, and a slow, then intense version of Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freightliner”.

The live material is presented as a series of isolated songs, mostly on the still side; there’s little sign of interaction with an audience we barely see, and little of the banter that generally gives this pair’s performances pacing and some comic relief.

The collection’s somewhat forbidding style, which may not wear so well for some through repeated viewings, is in fact a very good match for the main conceit of the CD — that this music comes from an old-timey acoustic act that has just discovered, a little warily, the potential thrill of rocking out.

Welch takes that notion to its logical conclusion here, and, it seems, also a dead end; the only place to go from here is to “discover” varied instrumentation, musical speeds, possibly even electrification and, most certainly, that new-fangled concept of color.

That High Lonesome Sound: Films Of American Rural Life And Music by John Cohen (Shanachie, www.shanachie.com): For a fascinating and somewhat ironic evening’s viewing companion to The Revelator Collection, this reissue gathering three of John Cohen’s historic 1960s Appalachian documentaries couldn’t be more perfect.

With the artlessness of a film newcomer with limited equipment and cash, Cohen’s rightly famous Harlan County film The High Lonesome Sound (a term first applied here to the music of Roscoe Holcomb and Bill Monroe, and then forever after) gingerly walks into the life of old-time amateur mountain singer Holcomb just as Gary U.S. Bonds’ “Quarter To Three” is invading his cabin home via the radio, while his kids are off at a sock hop doing the twist. Rock ‘n’ roll (and honky-tonk country) are intruding on old-timey music, and there’s no turning back.

In the second short film, The End Of An Old Song, Cohen, in his utterly unstudied, unobtrusive way, documents, among other things on the way out, the isolated mountain cabin of marginalized, genuinely lonesome old-time ballad singer Dillard Chandler, lingering over his few possessions — a chair, a bed, a blank wall. It puts that recent look at a “desolate” RCA studio in a different light.

For good measure — and in wonderful performances to match those of both Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys and Holcomb earlier — the final film catches Mother Maybelle and the retired Sara Carter in a last performance together, with Maybelle looking quite contemporary and Sara taking up the sleek new “guitarro” version of the autoharp. The distance this professional pair had traveled since their “amateur country folk” days is palpable, and the difference is in many ways a net plus. With its images and sounds of fast-disappearing mining and farm life, this collection, despite some passing technical deficiencies, is a must for anyone with an interest in that time, place and music.

NANCI GRIFFITH, Winter Marquee (Rounder, www.rounder.com): If the standard-issue taped concert has its well-worn cliches, it can also be plain serviceable for simply delivering a show as it was. That’s pretty much the case with this new DVD from Nanci Griffith, a companion to the audio CD of the same name.

Taped in May 2002 at Knoxville’s resplendent old movie palace the Tennessee Theater, with long drapes on long windows and red-orange lighting, the scene looks much like that of The Band’s The Last Waltz, with flowing shots to match — accidentally perhaps, but truly.

Griffith works that line between folk and country sounds people seem to get away with crossing in Texas more than anywhere else; she even offers versions of Pete Seeger’s “If I Had A Hammer” and Phil Ochs’ “What’s That I Hear”. Mainly, she pretty much stands benignly and strums before a serviceable band, sometimes with a few strings added for drama. Once something of a “chirper,” the maturing Griffith can sound a good deal like her friend Emmylou Harris, especially on a ballad such as “The Flyer”. Harris shows up to back her on Julie Gold’s immigrant daughter’s memoir “Good Night, New York”; Tom Russell puts in a guest appearance, too.

An odd coincidence: Like Welch, Griffith offers up both a Dylan cover (“Boots Of Spanish Leather”) and a version of Van Zandt’s apparently obligatory closer “White Freightliner”. This eighteen-song disc means to capture a typical Griffith performance — and that, it does.

BOB DYLAN, Live 1975 (Columbia/Legacy, www.legacyrecordings.com): Speaking of Dylan — the bonus DVD arriving with the new Live 1975 Rolling Thunder tour CD serves as a reminder of the importance of simply documenting key moments of a performer whose shows have varied as drastically as Dylan’s have.

Two lively numbers in which he’d appeared made-up “in character” in his Renaldo & Clara film are featured here. The screaming live “Isis” with Mick Ronson and Bob Neuwirth shows His Bobness in a reckless mode not seen since, even recalling his fabled 1966 arm-waving, face-grabbing dramatics.

If the experimental aspects of Renaldo and Eat The Document will never grab everyone (and haven’t even seen DVD release), a disc made up of live footage of Rolling Thunder and especially of uncut 1966 European tour performances of this quality would be its own video revelation.

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Originally Featured in Issue #43 Jan-Feb 2003

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