A HALF-CENTURY-OLD TIM BUCKLEY CONCERT SURFACES
Nothing in my rather gigantic CD collection means more to me than the music of Tim Buckley; his soaring, arresting vocals and penchant for experimenting with the fringes of jazz-tinged folk/rock resulted in some of the most memorable albums of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Like his son Jeff decades later, Buckley died tragically and young: he overdosed at 28, when he’d released only a handful of albums. Happily, though, his Complete Albums Collection—an eight-CD box that includes a disc of works in progress—has proven to be far from the end of the line that its title suggests it to be: in fact, it now occupies considerably less space on my shelf than Buckley’s numerous posthumous releases.
The latest of those is Live at the Electric Theatre Co., an extraordinary, nearly 90-minute two-disc record of a 1968 Chicago performance in which Buckley is backed only by conga player Carter C.C. Collins and an unidentified bassist. Manifesto, the label responsible for this and quite a few other Buckley releases, says the gig captures the singer as he “works out new material,” which makes it sound as if these might be rough versions. In fact, while some of these performances differ significantly from renditions that later appeared on studio albums, they are polished, fully realized, and frequently stunning.
The program includes six Buckley originals: “Gypsy Woman,” which is much more concise but no less terrific than the version on Goodbye and Hello, his sophomore album; “Sing a Song for You,” which appeared on his great third LP, Happy Sad; “Happy Time,” which would be the title track on his fourth LP; “Danang,” which later evolved into a portion of Happy Sad’s “Love from Room 109 at the Islander”; the previously unknown (at least to me) and mostly instrumental “Look Out Blues”; and “The Father Song,” which also shows up on the aforementioned box’s works-in-progress disc.
Among the eight covers are three from the late Fred Neil: “Dolphins,” which Buckley performed often and included on his Sefronia LP; a rousing “Looks Like Rain,” which incorporates lines from Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me to Do” and sounds reminiscent of Goodbye and Hello; and “Improvisation on ‘Roll on Rosie’,” which runs nearly nine minutes. Other highlights include a nearly 17-minute rendition of the traditional “Wayfaring Stranger” and, somewhat surprisingly, Johnny Cash’s “Big River,” which proves that Buckley could put his own stamp on just about anything.
If you’re new to his work, you should probably start with The Complete Albums Collection. But after you’ve spent some time with that box, you’re almost certain to want his whole catalog. Whatever you do, don’t miss Live at the Electric Theatre Co. Though Buckley was still in the early part of his brief career when he gave this performance, he was already producing consistently stunning work.
CHUCK BERRY FILM COMES TO BLU-RAY
Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll, which first came out in 1987, arrives on Blu-ray this month looking better than ever—and sounding great too, with DTS-HD Master audio surround sound. The movie, whose centerpiece is a concert marking Berry’s 60th birthday, was directed by Taylor Hackford, whose credits also include Ray, the Ray Charles biopic. It finds Berry performing his biggest hits, including “Almost Grown,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Nadine,” “Memphis, Tennessee,” “Too Much Monkey Business,” and “No Particular Place to Go.” He shares the spotlight on songs like “Back in the U.S.A.” (with Linda Ronstadt), “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” (Robert Cray), “Rock and Roll Music” (Etta James), “Johnny B. Goode” (Julian Lennon), and “Wee Wee Hours” (Eric Clapton).
Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, the show’s musical director, accompanies Berry throughout, as does his longtime collaborator, pianist Johnnie Johnson. Berry’s voice is a bit rough—he had the flu on the night of the concert—but his guitar work and stage antics are terrific, as are virtually all of his accompanists. Also featured in the film are memorable interviews with such artists as Little Richard, Bo Diddley, and Bruce Springsteen (who tells a funny and revealing story about backing up Berry at a concert years earlier).
The two-hour movie does a great job of showcasing Berry’s talents as both songwriter and performer but—perhaps inevitably, since he served as coproducer—it only hints at his legal troubles and difficult personality. For details about all that, however, you need only turn to The Reluctant Movie Star, one of the bonus features on this two-disc collector’s edition: this documentary about the making of Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll fills in most of the blanks—the good, the bad, and the ugly—with variously humorous, disturbing, and astonishing commentary and anecdotes from the filmmakers and assorted Berry associates.
More often than not, when you watch a Blu-ray’s “bonus” material, you understand why it didn’t make it into the film. In this case, though, the extras—which run about seven hours (!)—are just as memorable as the main attraction. In addition to the aforementioned Reluctant Movie Star, they include long interviews with Sun Records’ Sam Phillips, Atlantic Records’ Ahmet Ertegun, and artists like Roy Orbison, the Everly Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Willie Dixon. Also here: nearly an hour of excellent rehearsal footage; a long discussion of rock’s early days by Berry, Bo Diddley, and Little Richard; and video of a meeting between Berry and the Band’s Robbie Robertson during which they flip through Berry’s scrapbook together and reminisce.
Elliott Murphy, Ricochet (Vintage Series – Outtakes & Orphans 1998-2013, Vol. 11). The great Elliott Murphy is back with his umpteenth album (I’ve lost count). As the subtitle suggests, this one collects assorted leftovers and outtakes from a 16-year period. Highlights abound, including fine covers of Bruce Springsteen’s “Better Days,” Bob Dylan’s “Dignity,” and Tom Petty’s “Angel Dream #2.” The originals shine too. Among the best of those are “Summer House,” one of Murphy’s most evocative songs; and the affecting “Navy Blue,” a down-on-his-luck sailor’s tale about his encounters with a prostitute. (In different versions, these songs appeared, respectively, on 1977’s Just a Story from America and 2001’s La Terre Commune (a joint project with Iain Matthews). Another standout is Murphy’s memorably titled “What the Fuck Is Going On?,” a hard-rocking live recording that would fit right in at a Bernie Sanders rally with its lyric about how billionaires hold all the cards while working people get the crumbs.
Gene Clark, No Other. No Other, a country-rock solo outing by the late singer/songwriter/guitarist and former Byrds member Gene Clark, garnered lukewarm reviews and few buyers when it first appeared in 1974. Over subsequent decades, however, it has attracted enough of a cult following to prompt the recent release of a box set that expands the original eight-song release to include, three Super Audio CDs, an LP, a Blu-ray that features a surround-sound mix and a film about Clark, an 80-page hardcover book, and more. For those who aren’t prepared to shell out about 150 bucks, there’s also the recently issued two-CD version that I have, which delivers a remaster of the original album plus an alternate version of each of its songs and a reading of “Train Leaves Here This Morning,” which Clark cowrote with the Eagles’ Bernie Leadon. (The song also appears on that group’s debut LP.) My take: on the one hand, fans who call No Other a work of genius and compare it to classics like Love’s Forever Changes and Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks are overselling it; that said, No Otherdoes deserve a whole lot more attention than it initially received. Well played and sung by a stellar lineup that includes Chris Hillman, Clydie King, Timothy B. Schmit, and Butch Trucks (to name a few), the album is consistently tuneful and engrossing. If you like the Byrds, the Eagles, and the Flying Burrito Brothers, you’re probably going to like this as well.
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.