Live in New York: The Felt Forum Concerts
The Doors were always more popular in New York City than they were anywhere else; the liner notes in the accompanying booklet to this box set attribute it to the more intellectual nature of Manhattanites. Whatever the case, after selling out huge venues in the big city for several years, the band returned to Madison Square Garden's relatively much smaller 5,000-seat Felt Forum to play four shows in early January 1970. Those shows have long been considered legendary, and large chunks of them showed up on Absolutely Live, the band's first and, arguably, best live document, as well as on subsequent live albums and box sets. It's interesting to note that the original cover of the Absolutely Live album featured a young, thin, still godlike Jim Morrison in neck-to-toe black leather ... when the shows actually occurred not long after his arrest for indecent exposure in Miami and right before the release of the band's Morrison Hotel, their second-to-last album. All of which means it was a bloated and quite different Morrison who took the stage in New York. Nevertheless, he was still at the height of his dark "Lizard King" powers here, while the band was as hypnotic as ever at times. Problem is, though, there may be too much on these six CDs, which capture the entirety of all four concerts. Even the band members tuning their instruments and long interludes of audience applause are included ... and they sometimes seem to go on and on and on. A little editing might've helped. There are a lot of repeats of classic songs — they opened all four shows with "Roadhouse Blues," and "Light My Fire" was, of course, performed every night. Thankfully, the band did change things around from show to show, and that variation is quite welcome. Although he has some remarkably comedic moments (people tend to forget how funny Morrison could be), over the course of six CDs, one also begins to get a sense of those complaints that he was also sometimes much too pretentious, especially when it came to his poetry. At an expensive $89.99 list price, this collection is obviously for Doors fanatics only. At one point, Morrison tells the excited NYC crowd: "This is being recorded ... for eternity." But one still has to wonder if he had every single second of it eventually being released in mind at the time. —Bill Holdship
The Rolling Stones
Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out: The Rolling Stones in Concert — 40th Anniversary Box Set
Although there are certainly other strong contenders, this document of the Stones' New York City Madison Square Garden shows, which were the closing nights of one of the greatest rock 'n' roll tours in history (the opening acts alone included B.B. King, Ike & Tina Turner, Chuck Berry and Terry Reid, who'd recently turned down an offer to sing with a new band called Led Zeppelin) stands as the greatest live rock 'n' roll album of all time. It was the height of the "Woodstock Nation" era — and the final concerts before the band's fateful December 1969 "free concert" tragedy at Altamont. The pristine and beautifully remastered version of the original 1970 album in this four-disc collection only confirms that, yes, even after all these years, it simply is the best live album ever ... and, unlike KISS Alive and tons of subsequent "in concert" releases, it was all live, ladies and gentlemen, including probably the finest Chuck Berry and Robert Johnson covers ever recorded. This is a great band at the height of its onstage powers, with new guitarist Mick Taylor driving Keith Richards to even grander heights, no longer just a great punk rock guitarist but now a great rock guitarist, period. And this was long before Mr. Jagger became the least bit annoying; in fact, many of his statements here — "Think I busted a button on me trousers"; "Charlie's good tonight, innit he?" — are now part of the rock lexicon. The additional material on the other three discs, including two audio and one DVD, may make this worth its hefty $59.98 list price, featuring as it does a disc of the opening sets by King and the Turners, as well as a disc of five previously unreleased tunes from the NYC shows. And the outtake footage on the DVD — compiled by the legendary Maysle brothers (who, of course, filmed the Gimme Shelter Altamont documentary), also featuring those five previously unreleased live songs — is wonderful, including such iconic images as a visiting Jimi Hendrix jamming backstage with Keith and Janis Joplin wildly dancing at the side of the stage throughout what's arguably the greatest version of "Satisfaction" ever recorded or filmed. (Some have complained that this should have included a DVD of the Maysles' Gimme Shelter film to make this box set complete and perhaps more deserving of its $50 price tag — but after viewing this, its omission makes perfect sense: This is a celebration of the Stones in '69, with no mention of the bummer that would be Altamont anywhere.) The accompanying hardcover booklet is pretty deluxe too, with some nice essays, including Lester Bangs' original Rolling Stone magazine review, and a lot of photos that serve as a prelude to official tour lensman Ethan Russell's groovy new Let It Bleed book (see "Rock Read" column elsewhere in this issue). A little pricey but still a must for fans of these guys when they truly were, as the stage manager terms them here, "the greatest rock 'n' roll band in the world." —Bill Holdship
Where the Action Is — Los Angeles Nuggets: 1965-1968
The latest in Rhino's series of box sets based on Lenny Kaye's original and now legendary mid-'70s Nuggets compilation of obscure garage, protopunk and psychedelic bands from the wake of the Beatles and Stones, this four-disc set concentrates solely on Los Angeles during the years indicated in its title, a golden period when the city of angels was one of the major hubs of pop-rock studio action and glory. Chances are even the most savvy rock aficionado and historian won't recognize probably 80 percent of the titles listed on the back of this box, although most people will certainly recognize many of the featured artists, which range from the Turtles to the Mamas & the Papas. But since this is primarily made up of rock rarities for the discerning archivist, even the best-known artists featured — be they the Doors, Beach Boys, Buffalo Springfield or the Byrds — are represented by radically different takes of some of their best-known material. More often than not, however, the compilers have never gone with the obvious — and in doing so, they've succeeded in drawing a correlation between the Byrds, Arthur Lee's Love, Sonny & Cher and the Monkees, if not the "psychedelic" side of Gary Lewis & the Playboys. There are certainly some definite duds here, as there are on a lot of compilations of this sort. But there are also many treasures to behold, some by bands you've possibly read or heard about but whose music you've never actually heard before. Material ranges from one of the most "traditional" things Captain Beefheart ever did to a pre-Little Feat psychedelic Lowell George; teenage Warren Zevon's first band; the Association doing Dylan; Jackie DeShannon backed by the Byrds; the wonderful and eternally underestimated West Coast Experimental Pop Band; and the Rising Sons, featuring young Taj Mahal, doing a distinctly different version of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart's "Take a Giant Step," later a hit for the Monkees. Somehow, this eclectic mix of material ends up working for the most part. And, again, it all fits together in an interesting way. For instance, there's an early track by the great and unmistakable Lee Hazlewood, who also pops up here as the writer and producer of showbiz kids Dino, Desi & Billy's "shoulda-been-a-hit" version of "The Rebel Kind" (featuring a riff totally borrowed from Joanie Sommers' "Johnny Get Angry"; again, this is a rock archivist's wet dream). There are a ton of obscurities that probably shouldn't have been obscurities as well. Ever heard of Sons of Adam? Neither had I ... but they're fucking great! And if you love bubblegum pop with a punch and have never heard "Yellow Balloon" by the Yellow Balloon ... well, then, you need to do yourself a favor, friend, and check this out. —Bill Holdship
Live at Reading (DVD)
Given the tragic nature of the Kurt Cobain saga and its Courtney Love-coordinated aftermath, it's sometimes hard to keep in mind that Nirvana was, quite simply, a great pop-punk band, with hooks and sonic noise to spare. Anyone who's forgotten that will surely be reminded of the band's greatness via this document of Nirvana's Aug. 30, 1992 performance at Britain's annual Reading Festival. This oft-bootlegged show has long been described by those who were there as legendary and even "life-changing" — and while the latter may seem like overstatement to someone who wasn't actually there, it's easier to understand after seeing the trio wail through material from Nevermind, Bleach and In Utero. Cobain's entrance in a wheelchair and long blond wig is kinda corny in retrospect — but when they start playing, it's a still-vibrant rock band in all its naked glory. (It's especially intriguing to watch young Dave Grohl as nothing more or less than a great drummer.) This critic has often described the Replacements as America's last truly great rock band, only because that band always made you laugh about things that Kurt seemed to always want to cry about. But when Nirvana opens "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by first playing "More Than a Feeling," comically displaying the similarities their hit has with Boston's anthem, it demonstrates that the band surely did have a sense of humor before drug damage and decay began to set in. There's very touching footage of Kurt talking to an exuberant, chubby little British fan right after the set. —Bill Holdship
Motown: The DVD
Well, the title basically says it all, as the DVD captures some of the greatest artists from Detroit's greatest record label in all their power and glory. There are a few vintage interviews, primarily with Berry Gordy and Smokey Robinson, as well as one with a very young Martha Reeves (who announces the Vandellas recently left Detroit for New York City), but most of this is just pure music, running from 1959 (the Marvelettes' "Please Mr. Postman") through the early '70s (including the Miracles doing a live "Tears of a Clown" on Ed Sullivan in 1970). The best part of this is that, although there are clips from such well-known programs as Sullivan and The Mike Douglas Show, the majority of it is made up of obscurities from regional, lesser-seen programs like Hollywood A-Go-Go, Teen Town, Shivaree, Britain's Beat Club and the nationally syndicated Lloyd Thaxton Show. In other words, these are much like those clips one can occasionally discover on YouTube, sometimes never even imagining such footage existed. Some of the performances are lip-synched (as was the case on a lot of these shows back then), but the best stuff is the totally live material, especially a dynamic rockin' performance by the Four Tops in Belgium that's guaranteed to take your breath away. Special features include footage of an early '70s Motown picnic-softball game in L.A., with players/attendees ranging from Marvin Gaye, Smokey, Diana Ross and the entire Jackson family (including adolescent Michael) to Scatman Crothers dressed like a cowboy with a hot young thang on his arm. Classic stuff. As talk show guest Allen Ludden says to Smokey in one clip: "You changed the car town into music city, haven't you?" Future volumes of Motown: the DVD are sure to follow, I bet; UME reps are probably scoping out YouTube as this is being
typed. ... —Bill Holdship
Elvis 75: Good Rockin' Tonight
It's not hard to imagine a 62-year-old Iggy Pop, a 68-year-old Bob Dylan, or a 75-year-old Leonard Cohen simply because we've seen all those. It's always been hard to envision an old Elvis Presley, though, not only because he died so damn young but mostly because he was the big bang behind America's postwar youth culture explosion and, thus, rock 'n' roll and the counterculture. And just as most every baby boomer would like to avoid the inevitable, an old Elvis Presley has always been unthinkable, even if he did exit the world a bloated, drug-addled version of his once great self. But, alas, the man would have been 75 this coming Jan. 8, so his lifelong and deathlong label is celebrating with yet another anthology, which spans from that first acetate he recorded for his mom in Memphis in 1953 through 2002's international No. 1 hit, "A Little Less Conversation." There have been a lot worse anthologies, to be sure, but there have been much better ones too. Former CREEM editor Billy Altman's notes are terrific, but while it's nice to see 1963's "Long Lonely Highway" (a sorely neglected buried treasure by Doc Pomus) and the King's cover of Dylan's "Tomorrow is a Long Time" (which Zimmy's once termed his favorite cover version), it seems very random that movie dreck like "Adam & Eve" is here at the expense of omitting "The Wonder of You" or even "Moody Blue," the latter the one that was on the radio the day he died. It's a great story and there is always a lot of great music to go with it — but no "The Wonder of You," "I Got Stung" or "Tryin' to Get To You"? All Elvis fans, of course, always second-guess this stuff in their own way. But damn! —Bill Holdship
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Live: DVD Boxset
This is definitely the one for the rock fanatic on your list. Even if you have problems with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and some of their induction choices (and this writer has a lot of problems with them), many of the moments on these DVDs are truly something to see, especially the ones from the early induction ceremonies that weren't meant to be televised ... so the assorted legends got drunk (the non-12-step ones, that is), dropped their guards and just had fun jamming. Beyond the musical moments, there are tons of other attractions, including Mike Love's insane Beach Boys acceptance speech, in which he blasts most everyone else in the room, from the Beatles to the Supremes and Billy Joel; sadly, Bob Dylan's later opening quip during his acceptance speech is included: "I'd like to thank Mike Love for not mentioning me." Nevertheless, it's just legend after legend after legend after legend here, many of them now gone. Even when the performance isn't up to par, like Ben E. King's impromptu "Stand by Me" (thanks to Dave Edmonds totally out-of-tune guitar), it's still damn near breathtaking when the stage is panned — and there's Dylan and George Harrison and Steve Cropper on guitars ... oh, wow, we didn't even notice Les Paul and Stevie Ray Vaughan there in the back. It's that kind of greatness. Jerry Lee Lewis rehearsing with Springsteen and the E Street Band. Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page and Joe Perry all jamming with the lumbering Metallica on a version of "Train Kept A Rollin'." McCartney and Dion stealing the show from Billy Joel on Ray Charles' "What'd I Say." It's truly priceless stuff. This is available as a three-DVD set ... but opt for the $119.96 nine-disc version, available via only Time-Life, if you can. To see stuff like Harrison's acceptance speech for the Beatles, joking "it's a pity Paul isn't here because he was the one with the speech in his pocket," and then adding: "But we all love Paul. And we all loved John. And we miss him. And it's sad to see that this is what's left of the Beatles. But that's the way it is" — well, it's genuinely touching enough to warrant its price, which really isn't all that expensive when you consider what you get. —Bill Holdship
Paul Newman: The Tribute Collection
20th Century Fox
Samuel Fuller Collection
For the film buff on your list, you can't possibly go wrong with the two best box sets released in 2009, Fox's Paul Newman: The Tribute Collection and Sony's Samuel Fuller Collection. The former, a veritable doorstop of material, collects 13 of the late Newman's films, from such mainstream breakthroughs as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to decidedly art-house dalliances, such as Robert Altman's Quintet. Though none of these movies are new to DVD, the marquee titles (The Verdict, The Hustler, The Towering Inferno) are two-disc remasters, and the collection is supplemented with a 130-page coffee-table book filled with criticism, history and exclusive images. At $62, it's a bargain.
Sony's Samuel Fuller set may not be the perfect collection of yet-unreleased Fuller work (How are Park Row, China Gate and Run of the Arrow not on DVD yet?), but it's pretty damn close. Actually, only two of the films — The Crimson Kimono and Underworld U.S.A. — are directed by Fuller. The rest of the seven-movie set comprises films Fuller only contributed to, as story conceiver, screenwriter or, in the case of Phil Karlson's Scandal Street, the book from which the film was adapted. Early screenwriting and story forays such as It Happened in Hollywood and Power of the Press lack Fuller's directorial brashness but provide an early peek at his pulpy dialogue and pessimistic worldview. There's even a dream-team collaboration between Fuller and Douglas Sirk: The great newspaper drama Scandal Sheet. This set is worth every bit of the $50 asking price for your B-movie-worshiping loved one. —John Thomason
The Best of Black President
Knitting Factory Records
Has there ever been another genre so closely identified with its founder? Nigerian Fela Kuti amalgamated African traditional and pop elements with American R&B — especially James Brown — and created something unprecedented in the late '60s and early '70s. Roiling horn choruses (anchored with double baritone saxes), hypno-riffing guitars and keys, funky bass and drumming on the bottom, choruses more chanted than sung, and, on top, Fela soloing on keyboards and sax, or delivering his lyrics (Nigerian pidgin English) in a style that's part song, part sermon, part soap-box politicking.
Fela, moreover, set himself as a voice of opposition to the establishment, going so far as to declare his musical compound an independent republic which brought on the military government's wrath in the form of harassment, jailings and an all-out attack by 1,000 troops. Sounds far-fetched, doesn't it?
And while Fela the man has been dead for more than a decade, the legend grows and the music goes on, sprouting more heads like a Hydra when the original was lopped off. Fela's sons Seun and Femi lead bands continuing his sound, as do bands in Africa, Europe and the United States, including Nomo and Odu in the Detroit area; Wikipedia lists 20 Afrobeat outfits across the three continents, and it's clearly a partial count. That's not to get into Afro-beat-influenced bands from Talking Heads to Vampire Weekend.
Meanwhile, the off-Broadway musical Fela opens this week, and Knitting Factory Records has slated a massive 2010 project reissuing Fela's complete 45-album catalog on vinyl.
The lead-off for this new Fela-ization drive is the CD/DVD set The Best of Black President. (See knittingfactoryrecords.com for digi-packs from $19.99 to $64.99.) Two CDs give an oeuvre overview, including 13 classics such as "Water Get No Enemy," "Zombie" and "Army Arrangement." The DVD contains excerpts from a Fela doc and live shows, plus informed commentary. The sleeve booklet is a fine introduction to Fela, but one could quibble that an annotation of the tracks is sorely needed to discuss, for instance, the work of other musicians (drummer Tony Allen or the guest spot for the Art Ensemble of Chicago's Lester Bowie, for instance) or that this is a different "Army Arrangement" from the Americanized-disco-ized '80s release, etc. But this is akin to a quibble about the lack of a printed menu at what is no less than a feast. —W. Kim Heron
Kenn Cox and Donald Walden
Duet at Kerrytown
The sound of Detroit jazz is what? "Earthy with intellectual overtones," the late baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams once said — or was it the other way around? However you want to characterize it, verbalize it, here it is in these duets between two masters lost in recent years. They were, among other things, scholars of Thelonious Monk, and their treatments of three Monk tunes here are worth the price of the album. In fact, the version of Monk's "Worry Later" alone may take the disc to the break-even mark. Cox hammers out the opening chords, shifting accents and varying the timing, inserting a Monk-style cascading run here, then giving a hint of stride piano. Talk about channeling the spirit of Monk! When Walden joins at around the two-minute mark, they play the same kind of rush-and-punctuate-pause games together before Cox takes the floor solo again. The record is a gift that gives doubly since profits go to scholarships in the names of Cox and Walden for deserving young musicians. (Available at Street Corner Music in Oak Park and at cdbaby.com.) —W. Kim Heron