DVD:Various Artists

December 1, 2003

In 1962, two gutsy German concert promoters flew a host of top African-American blues musicians overseas to perform a string of shows in France, West Germany, Scandinavia, and England. The package tour was so successful it became an annual event that ran until 1970. For four years—1962-1966—these concerts were televised by S¨dwestfunk, one of Germany’s broadcast networks. Using state-of-the-art cameras and audio equipment, S¨dwestfunk producers taped performances by Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, T-Bone Walker, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, Lonnie Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and a passel of other greats. Unseen for 40 years, these well-preserved tapes were recently rediscovered, transferred to DVD, and released as a two-disc set, The American Folk Blues Festival 1962-1966.

Viewing these DVDs is like stumbling into a time warp: Rarely—if ever—did these musicians perform on American TV in the ’60s. Consequently, there’s precious little domestic footage of these giants coursing through the data stream. In fact, most blues fans have never actually seen Sonny Boy Williamson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, or Howlin’ Wolf work their mojo. But now we can, thanks to these discs.

Some highlights: The poised and urbane Lonnie Johnson, who started recording in the mid-’20s, performs a swinging blues accompanied by a young Otis Spann on piano and the masterful Willie Dixon on upright bass. Backed by a piano trio, T-Bone Walker delivers a stunning version of “Don’t Throw Your Love on Me So Strong.” His playing is packed with the trademark phrases and fat, archtop tones that set the standard for electric blues guitar in the ’40s. It’s exciting to watch Otis Rush— armed with an Epiphone Riviera and looking sharp in his suit, skinny tie, and shades—fill “I Can’t Quit You Baby” with fluid, reverb-drenched lines. A 29-year-old, Strat-wielding Buddy Guy makes several appearances in one of the killer house bands. Howlin’ Wolf turns in three supremely intense performances with a young Hubert Sumlin on lead guitar. As Sumlin wrenches quivering bends and stinging vibrato from his P-90-equipped goldtop Les Paul, we hear the sounds that Eric Clapton would build on two years later in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers.

One of the most amazing performances comes from Mississippi Fred McDowell, who plucks wicked slide riffs on an weathered acoustic archtop in “Going Down to the River.” McDowell was 61 when this song was taped, yet his tight vibrato, razor-sharp intonation, and burning eyes prove he was in peak form. Thumbing his thinline electric and staring intently into the camera, John Lee Hooker unleashes a menacing boogie, “Hobo Blues.” We can only imagine what the good burghers in TV-land thought about Hooker’s carnal rhythms. Sonny Boy Williamson spins a chilling tale of betrayal in “Nine Below Zero,” and then joins alpha-bluesman Muddy Waters and his band in a rousing “Got My Mojo Working.”

Half the performances in this collection were shot in front of a live audience—a group of enthusiastic, but very proper young Germans—in a formal concert hall. It was a novel arrangement: Many of the listeners had never before seen live blues or even African-Americans, and most of the musicians were more comfortable wailing in smoky clubs and noisy juke joints than entertaining rows of attentive spectators. It’s amazing to watch both parties use a mutual love of music to bridge their superficial differences.

The remaining performances occur on elaborate stage sets— some evoking Chicago streets, others rural roadhouses. Seen from today’s perspective, these theatrical backgrounds can seem strange, quaint, or even patronizing. But in early-’60s Germany, such visual enhancements were likely necessary to emphasize the cultural aspect of this exotic and compelling music.

In addition to the many marvelous songs culled from four years of the S¨dwestfunk broadcasts, we’re treated to some incredible bonus footage from 1969. On the first disc, Earl Hooker does a hilarious parody of hillbilly music in the dressing room, and then goes berserk onstage with his Univox Les Paul copy through a Sound City half-stack. On the second disc, Magic Sam borrows Hooker’s rig to rip through “All Your Love” and lay down a grinding boogie. Both discs contain a gallery of photos shot by Stephanie Wiesand during the various tours, and are packaged with informative and well-illustrated liner notes. We learn fascinating background details, including how during WWII the Gestapo arrested Horst Lippmann—one of the festival’s two promoters—for publishing newsletters on the forbidden topic of American jazz.

It’s fair to say that these folk blues festivals altered the course of popular music, and especially guitar. Jimmy Page, Brian Jones, Mick Jagger, and Keith Richards were among the many young British musicians who sought out their blues gods when they rolled into England as part of an AFBF tour. The Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, and Animals are among the many British R& bands that sprang directly from these encounters. We’re lucky to have such an emotionally satisfying chronicle of this pivotal moment in blues and rock history. Hip-o.

—Andy Ellis

Zakk Wylde’s Black Label Society

Boozed, Broozed &Broken-Boned

There may be no more feral, liquor-fueled macho rock spectacle than Zakk Wylde and mates in full roar. They look and act like bikers, they literally attack their instruments, and the noisy groove thing they conjure definitely connects with bad boys and other sub-genres of out-of-control youth. And then there’s the man himself—perhaps one of the most frightening technicians in hard rock. Wylde’s speed, note choices, bends, and tricks are awe-inspiring, and everything he does is loud, rude, and combustible. The Norse warrior image is way overused when describing the bearded guitarist, but when you see him with his back to the audience, riffing away while spreading his legs seemingly miles apart, you can only think of one phrase: Rock God.

Boozed captures all of this menace with excellent camera work, and a stunning 5.1 mix that will fill every corner of your room with sweat and noise. Bonuses include a lesson (where Wylde breaks down the solo he took on Ozzy’s “Miracle Man”), an acoustic set, shots of Wylde performing the National Anthem at an L.A. Kings hockey game, a poorly edited—but hilarious—interview, and a sweet video of Wylde singing with his infant daughter. If you’ve been wondering where all of rock’s strut and bluster went, believe me, this DVD will put a blissful hurt on ya. Spitfire/Eagle Rock.

—Michael Molenda

Peter Green

An Evening with Peter Green Splinter Group

As one of British blues-rock’s lost boys, Peter Green has been the subject of myth (due to his fat lines and transcendent Les Paul tone with the ’60s-era Fleetwood Mac) and sad mystery (because of his subsequent, lengthy mental breakdown and exit from public life). To first see Green—eyes down and hunched misshapenly over a red Stratocaster—as this DVD opens is scary. But never fear, when the cat cuts into his slide lines, you’re hearing a man overflowing with feeling, and obviously enraptured to be one with a guitar again. If you didn’t know the history, you’d simply think you’re watching an introspective, but phenomenal blues player.

The Splinter Group—lead by Nigel Watson, who nursed Green back to the guitar and some semblance of mental facility—backs the cult legend with tight, quiet authority. This isn’t a rave up, it’s a slow burn. The camera work jumps around a bit too much for my taste, but you do get some closeups of Green’s fingerings, and the sound is articulate, if a bit dry. The surround mix is also subtle—there’s the feeling of ambience, but you’re not fully enveloped in sound.

Extras include an interview with Watson and Green (don’t watch it if you’re squeamish about damaged folks; Watson does most of the talking, as a distracted and occasionally incoherent Green drifts in and out), an acoustic set, a meandering tour film, and a bizarre video of “Real World”—where the usually distant Green suddenly mugs and “acts” for the camera. It’s kind of a scary clown moment. Eagle Rock.

—Michael Molenda

The Pretenders

Loose in L.A.

If you want to see why Guitar Player selected Chrissie Hynde as a Tele titan in its May ’98 issue, just watch her drive the band in this exquisitely filmed DVD. Although her rhythm doesn’t roar out of the box, or push the players from the top, it sits deep in the mix and adds that indefinable essence of punch and groove to the Pretenders. Take it out, and the band simply wouldn’t hit as hard. It’s a lesson in the power of subtle command.

This set spotlights a band that still knows how to rock—albeit with the tightness and control of veteran musicians. (Guitarist Adam Seymour is a cagey player who does cool and interesting things without ever overwhelming the singer or the song.) The surround mix is exciting and multi-dimensional, and it sets a standard I wish most concert DVD mixers would follow. The crowd noise in the rear speakers actually sounds as if it was recorded from the back of the hall (rather than a “front” perspective simply mixed to the rear), which truly puts the listener in the center of the auditorium. Then, the ambient mix is EQ’d to bring out the sharp timbres of the guitars, cymbals, and vocals—you actually hear the sounds decay and snap in the back of the room. Crank everything up, and it really seems as if you’re at L.A.’s Wiltern Theatre grooving to the band. Extras include some backstage footage and interviews, but the concert itself is the real draw here. Artemis/Eagle Rock.

—Michael Molenda


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