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Shout Factory presents
The Harry Smith Project: Live (2006)

"These five shows were five happenings. I'm sure you'll love some of it, I'm sure you'll hate some of it, but you'll be a different person once this is over."
- Hal Willner

Review By: Rich Rosell  
Published: November 06, 2006

Stars: Elvis Costello, David Johansen, Nick Cave, Beck, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Ed Sanders, Lou Reed, Beth Orton, Roswell Rudd with Sonic Youth, The Folksmen, Robin Holcomb, Todd Rundgren, Gavin Friday, Maurice Seezer, Philip Glass, Eric Mingus, Gary Lucas, Petra Haden, Richard Thompson, Eliza Carthy, Bob Neuwirth, Geoff Muldaur, Steve Earle, David Thomas, Hal Willner, Syd Straw, DJ Bonebrake, Mary Margaret O'Hara
Director: Rani Singh

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 02h:08m:57s
Release Date: November 07, 2006
UPC: 826663100105
Genre: music


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A- A-B+B+ C+

DVD Review

Note: This review is for the single DVD release. If you're interested, there is also a deluxe two-CD/two-DVD set entitled The Harry Smith Project: The Anthology of American Folk Music Revisited.

It's not unusual for musicians to band together to pay homage to another artist or songwriter, but it's a very unique situation when that same level of honor is paid to a guy like Harry Smith, a textbook jack-of-all-trades (filmmaker, writer, occultist, artist, archivist) who ironically was never known as a musician or songwriter. Smith, who passed away in 1991, is best known for a 1952 compilation of 1920s/1930s Americana roots music called The Anthology of American Folk Music, assembled from his old collection of rare 78s. The decades-long influence that Smith's anthology of raw folk emotion had on musicians to come has become the stuff of legend, as they say.

Producer Hal Willner staged five concerts in 1999 and 2001 as part of a tribute to Smith, and this single-disc release from Shout Factory features 26 performances by a diverse set of musicians—including Elvis Costello, Lou Reed and Beck—all offering heartfelt renditions of classic American music. Willner states openly at the outset that it's unlikely anyone will like each and every performance, and that's probably an accurate statement, because while the songs themselves still carry their original beauty, occasionally a particular take wanders astray. Cool for those willing to take the trip, but not always something you can tap your feet to. Case in point with avant-garde jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd pairing up with the alt-feedback of Sonic Youth to uncork a stark, discordant take on the 1929 vocal-and-banjo tune Dry Bones; it's an experience.

Beck does a straight take on a Robert Johnson chestnut, Nick Cave swaggers in full preacher mode for John The Revelator and Elvis Costello not only gives The Butcher's Boy new life, but he teams up with Kate and Anna McGarrigle to add a new Costello-penned addendum to the sad story of Ommie Wise. Lou Reed is still Lou Reed no matter what song he does, and David Johansen moves far beyond The New York Dolls/Buster Pointdexter era with two no frills blues-edged tracks. A Mighty Wind's fictitious The Folksmen (Harry Shearer, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean) stop by, and their spin on the sing-a-long fun of Old Joe's Place makes it easy to forget they're not a "real" group. There's also a spoken-word remembrance from Ed Sanders, and experimental composer Philip Glass introduces three short equally experimental Smith films, which he accompanies on piano.

Names pop up on screen to help identify the supporting players, as an assortment of musicians do back-up duty, like X's DJ Bonebrake helping out David Johansen or Syd Straw singing harmony on Beth Orton's Frankie, in what is probably the most haunting performance on this entire disc. For pure, simple emoting, Orton nails it, but Petra Haden's comes a close second with her fragile interpretation of Single Girl, Married Girl, and of course that's only because Elvis Costello and Nick Cave are just on another plane altogether.

Performances:
Elvis Costello: The Butcher's Boy
David Johansen: Old Dog Blue
Nick Cave: John The Revelator
Beck: Last Fair Deal Gone Down
Kate & Anna McGarrigle: Sugar Baby
Ed Sanders :One Hot Summer Night with Harry Smith
Lou Reed: See That My Grave Is Kept Clean
Beth Orton: Frankie
Roswell Rudd with Sonic Youth: Dry Bones
The Folksmen: Old Joe's Place
Robin Holcomb and Todd Rundgren: The House Carpenter
Gavin Friday with Maurice Seezer: When That Great Ship Went Down
Philip Glass: Etude No. 10
David Johansen: James Alley Blues
Eric Mingus with Gary Lucas: Oh Death, Where Is Thy Sting?
Petra Haden: Single Girl, Married Girl
Richard Thompson with Eliza Carthy: The Coo Coo Bird
Bon Neuwirth with Eliza Carthy: I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground
Geoff Muldaur: Poor Boy Blues
Don Byron, Percy Heath, Bill Frisell: This Song of Love
Kate and Anna McGarrigle with Elvis Costello: Ommie Wise Pt. 1 & 2 (What Lewis Did Last...)
Steve Earle:Prison Cell Blues
David Thomas - Fishing Blues


Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: All the performances are presented in 1.33:1. There's no flashy stage lighting to gunk up the works with potential for smearing, just simple spots that illuminate the performers cleanly. Image sharpness is excellent throughout, and even during poorly lit acts like Lou Reed or Gavin Friday, it's possible to pick out all manner of facial detail. Colors look natural and bright at other times, with Beth Orton and Petra Haden seeming particularly lush. No nicks or dirt to be found, with just some occasional grain.

Image Transfer Grade: B+

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital
5.1
Englishyes


Audio Transfer Review: Good work from Shout Factory on the Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix, a pleasant, full-bodied presentation that is the preferred choice over the other option, a slightly more compressed 2.0 stereo blend. All the instrumentation nuances and the rich vocals come through much more warmly via the 5.1 mix, giving things an appropriate live feel. Rear channels get used for mostly for the polite applause, which also lends itself to that intimate, in-concert vibe.

Nice.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+

 

Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 23 cues and remote access
Music/Song Access with 23 cues and remote access
2 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Dirty Dozen Brass Band: What's Going On, Solomon Burke: Nashville
1 Documentaries
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: This single-disc release is cut into 23 chapters, and includes trailers for a couple of other Shout Factory titles, as well as a mini Smith primer called Excerpt from the Old, Weird America: Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music (05m:55s). It's sort of a cross between a promo for the material on the DVD, information about the influential 1952 Folkways Records set, some comments from Alan Ginsberg and footage of Smith's special 1991 Grammy award.

If you want more extras, look for the two-CD/two-DVD set.

Extras Grade: C+

 

Final Comments

If you think that there are few things cooler than watching a gaggle of talented musicians and performers breath their own kind of life into other people's music, here's a collection of American folk music as interpreted by the likes of Nick Cave, Elvis Costello, and Sonic Youth. The songs are all full of age-old pent-up anger or forlorn emotion, and the journey is an uplifting and moving experience on a lot of different levels.

Highly recommended.

 


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