Friday, March 7, 2014

New Takes on Old Songs

I waited to watch the Showtime special Another Time, Another Day until after I had seen the movie that motivated the concert, Inside Llewin Davis so I would not be disappointed (as in reading a book after seeing the movie). I should not have waited. The movie pales compared to the concert put together in New York City to promote the film
and showcase the era.

The concert was fresh and uplifting with energetic performances. The movie was dour and plodding seemed an endless loop of struggling young artists in the early 1960s. The concert showcased the timeless virtue of classic songs like, “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” “Midnight Special,” and “Which Side Are You On?” The movie used a cat and couch hopping for a plot. It’s hard to believe both were produced by the Coen brothers.  Maybe the difference was T Bone Burnett who clearly ran the music show.

As in the old stock broker commercial, when T Bone talks, everybody listens (and shows up for the gig). When one of The Milk Carton Kids explains that if Burnett calls, it’s a no-brainer to come quickly, the other pipes up, “Yeah and I am going over to mow his lawn next week.”

The television show was taped over several days in a knotty pine recording studio, before an audience  at New York’s Town Hall and in the basement of the concert hall where the artists warmed up in the tunnels or did on camera interviews. Burnett wandered around the rehearsals like an eminence grise, saying little and carrying what looks like a fat stick of burning incense. Like the Archbishop from Avignon, he occasionally blesses a group’s choice of song or instrument.

The behind the scenes takes offer some fun and insights and evoke the early sixties sense of community.  As Chris Thile of the Punch Brothers put it, “we wanted to create an experience that could be found around a campfire and for the folk movement in the 60s,  downtown New York was America’s campfire.”

Some minor moments are memorable. Jack Ashford doing an all-too-short riff on his tambourine.  Marcus Mumford taping a Kleenex box to a wooden stool, which he played with drum brushes for a song with Joan Baez. (“I had never heard of the song when she asked but she’s f---- Joan Baez).  It seems every group had a member playing upright bass, including a chrome-plated one in Jack White’s group.

Of course there were flaws. Lots of big names did not make the final cut for Showtime, perhaps to give more time to younger, more bankable groups like Mumford & Sons, Punch Brothers and the Avets. And although it was fun to see the songs segue seamlessly from rehearsal to stage, often the rougher practice sessions got more airtime than the polished show.

Still there were plenty of nice suprises...David Rawlings, Willie Watson and Gillian Welch on “Midnight Special.”  A Boston pop group called Lake Street Dive. Oscar Isaac (without the long hair) doing a very sharp solo of “Green, Green Rocky Road.” And the Punch Brothers (with Marcus Mumford) doing some great a capella songs, including a version of “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” that sent me to the basement in search of my Sons of the Pioneers album.