Young, Tweedy top year's best DVDs


December 17, 2006


This column is overdue for a look at rock DVDs, which can be the perfect stocking stuffers for the music lovers on your holiday gift list. Here are some of the best releases of recent months.

First up is Sunken Treasure: Live in the Pacific Northwest (Nonesuch), a concert film that captures Wilco bandleader Jeff Tweedy on a solo acoustic tour early this year. Hearing the Chicago musician perform a wide range of material from throughout his career -- including songs by Uncle Tupelo, Wilco and his avant-garde side project Loose Fur -- in a stripped-down context emphasizes the evocative lyrics and powerful melodies, which are present even before the diverse arrangements contributed by his ever-evolving bands. Directed by "Burn to Shine" filmmakers Christoph Green and Brendan Canty, the moody look of the film perfectly mirrors the mood of Tweedy's delivery, and buying the DVD provides a link for free MP3 downloads of all of the songs.3 and a half stars

Speaking of "Burn to Shine," the latest installment in this unique series of concert DVDs is Vol. 3: Portland, OR 06.15.05 (Trixie), which features performances by the Shins, Sleater-Kinney, the Decemberists, Quasi, the Gossip and others. The concept finds Fugazi's Canty and his partner Green traveling across the country and organizing concerts in houses that are about to be demolished, and the destruction is included along with the underground house party. This disc is noteworthy for one of Sleater-Kinney's last gigs and the stellar turn by ork-popsters the Decemberists; earlier releases include 2005's "Vol. 1: Washington, DC, 01.14.2004" (featuring the Evens, Ted Leo and Bob Mould) and "Vol. 2: Chicago 09-13-2004" (Shellac, the Ponys, Wilco, Tortoise). 3 stars

Originally envisioned by Kurt Cobain as a chronicle of Nirvana's rise from the underground to become one of the most influential bands of the '90s, but finished by his bandmates as a posthumous tribute after his 1994 suicide, Live! Tonight! Sold Out! is making its first appearance on DVD, and it's been beefed up with a better audio mix and five previously unreleased clips from '91 (among them "About a Girl" and "On a Plain"). The chaotic, guitar-smashing live performances from the old VHS release are still equally and exhilarating and annoyingly difficult to watch at times, with the cameramen nearly as out of control as the musicians, and the backstage footage is more about goofy tomfoolery than the band's undeniable craftsmanship. Still, for fans who never saw the trio live, this remains a must-own. 3 stars

Already one of the best concert films I've ever seen, director Jonathan Demme's Neil Young: Heart of Gold (Paramount) is even better as two-disc DVD that adds one bonus track ("He Was the King"), six documentary featurettes (including revealing looks at Nashville through the eyes of Young and his musicians) and an historic treat in the form of the artist's 1971 appearance on "The Johnny Cash Show." The main attraction, however, remains Demme's straightforward but incredibly sensitive and emotionally gripping documentation of a 60-year-old Young onstage at the historic Ryman Auditorium, celebrating his recovery from a potentially fatal brain aneurysm by performing his "Prairie Wind" album in its entirety, along with a selection of older classics to form a running commentary on his life. This could have been an exercise in maudlin nostalgia, but the movie's strength is that Young seems so alive in the here and now, joyfully making music with a band that includes some his best friends: pedal steel guitarist Ben Keith, keyboardist Spooner Oldham, bassist Rick Rosas and backing vocalists Emmylou Harris and Pegi Young, his wife of 28 years. 4 stars

Harris also appears in Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel (Rhino), a riveting documentary about the career of the often-misunderstood and frequently mythologized godfather of alternative country, and the black-and-white footage of her singing with Parsons is one of the performance highlights. The focus is less on the music than on the story of Parson's arrested career, however, which was cut short by drug abuse and an early death in 1973. The tale is related via interviews with Byrds bandmate Chris Hillman, collaborator James Burton, Keith Richards (who seems to have made significant contributions to Parsons' downward spiral during the time they spent hanging out circa "Exile on Main Street") and others, and director Gandulf Hennig is a talented documentarian ably assisted by Sid Griffin, Parsons' biographer and former leader of the Long Ryders. It's a sad and strange tale, especially during the examinations of Parsons' Southern Gothic upbringing and the infamous cremation of his corpse at the Joshua Tree National Monument, but it's fascinating for fans of his music and curious novices alike. 3 and a half stars

Other recent DVD releases worth noting include Pink Floyd in Concert: Pulse (Sony), which is less valuable for the post-Roger Waters 1994 performance at London's Earls Court than it is for the extras, including the acoustic duet on "Wish You Were Here" by David Gilmour and Billy Corgan that followed the Floyd's 1996 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; James Brown: Live at Montreux 1981 (Eagle Vision), a relatively late-career concert by the Godfather of Soul, but one that finds him in energetic form nonetheless; Tupac Shakur, The Complete Live Performances (Eagle Vision), which is built around a fiery performance by the rapper at the House of Blues in Los Angeles in 1996, several months before his shooting death; Carlos Santana Presents: Blues at Montreux 2004 (Eagle Vision), which finds the legendary guitarist curating the celebrated blues fest and sitting in with performers Bobby Parker, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and Chicago's Buddy Guy, and Slipknot's Voliminal: Inside the Nine (Roadrunner), because nothing says "Happy Holidays" quite like a bunch of Iowa-bred buffoons in ugly masks delivering unrelentingly harsh and grinding nu-metal.