Music in gift boxes

Bruce Springsteen fans have two new packages on their wish-list

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, December 5, 2003) – Bruce Springsteen fans have plenty to look forward to this gift-giving season. If they’ve been good – and they better have been good, for goodness’ sake – they might just receive a gift package consisting of “The Essential Bruce Springsteen,” a three-CD audio set, and ”Live in Barcelona,” a double-DVD capturing the Boss’s entire October 2002 Barcelona concert, and including a bonus featurette with interviews and live footage from concerts at Fenway Park and Giants Stadium.

The “Essential” set, Springsteen’s first ever, career-spanning collection, includes songs from every Springsteen album since his debut. The well-programmed set hits almost all the right notes, especially from Springsteen’s two pre-“Born to Run” albums, including a generous selection of favorites such as “Blinded By the Light,” “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” “For You” and “Rosalita.” The “Essential” set comes packed with a third CD of rarities and previously unreleased tracks that aren’t exactly “essential,” but that’s presumably what makes it a “bonus disc.” They do, however, make it essential that ardent Springsteen fans own this set, even if they have all the other previously-released material.

While the DVD cannot possibly capture the visceral thrill one experiences at a Springsteen concert, it is surprisingly good at relaying several aspects of his performances, including his charisma and charm, the camaraderie he shares with the members of the E Street Band, the dramatic highs and lows of his concerts, and the intense physicality of his performances. It also boasts a good representation of Springsteen’s overall body of work, especially his best work of the 1970s, including stirringly intimate solo piano renditions of “Spirits in the Night” and “Incident at 57th Street.”

They Might Be Giants

For 20 years, They Might Be Giants have been one of the most quirky, original and creative rock groups. Not just a duo, not quite a band, the team of John Flansburgh and John Linnell have been entirely unconventional on their way to writing underground pop hits and Grammy Award-winning TV theme songs. In the 1980s they anticipated so-called alternative rock by several years, and in the 1990s they were one of the first groups to make extensive use of the Internet.

“Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns” is a DVD that includes filmmaker A.J. Schnack’s one-and-a-half hour documentary by that name profiling the group, plus several hours of extras, including footage of live performances, five music videos, and interview footage not found in the documentary, which on its own does a brilliant job of capturing the genius and appeal of Flansburgh and Linnell, perhaps the most creative – and most unlikely, as we learn in the film – duo in rock since Lennon and McCartney. For fans, definitely, but also for anyone slightly curious about American pop culture.

Miles Davis’s proto-jam-rock

The deluxe, five-CD “Complete Jack Johnson Sessions” (Columbia/Legacy) box set that comes handsomely packaged with a 120-page book bound in a sleek metal sleeve will undoubtedly appeal to Miles Davis aficionados in particular and jazz fusion fans in general. The original “Tribute to Jack Johnson” LP was taken from these early 1970 sessions, eleven in all that produced these 42 tracks, including 19 previously unreleased and 15 previously unreleased in their full form.

But with the growing popularity of jam-rock, this set should reach a wider audience, including musicians who aspire to combine the improvisational potential of jazz with the rhythmic underpinnings of funk and rock, and jam-band fans, who will probably be surprised to hear that over three decades ago the roots of the style were laid down by the trumpeter and composer in these sessions. They might also conclude that it’s been all downhill ever since.

The sessions variously included Ron Carter, Chick Corea, Jack DeJohnette, Steve Grossman, Herbie Hancock, Dave Holland, Keith Jarrett, Airto Moreira, Hermeto Pascoal, Sonny Sharrock, Wayne Shorter, Billy Cobham and John McLaughlin, making for something of a jazz-fusion all-star team. Cobham and McLaughlin went on from these sessions to form the popular, rock-oriented Mahavishnu Orchestra. But what happened here – for better or worse -- was the very codification of jam-rock by one of the great musicians of the 20th century.

There’s no replacing Paul Westerberg

The Replacements were probably the greatest American rock band of the 1980s. The missing link between first-generation punk-rock groups and so-called punk-rockers of the ‘90s like Nirvana, they disbanded in a haze of drunkenness and recriminations in 1990, just as the alternative-rock movement they helped fuel was set to explode. Leader Paul Westerberg has carried on as a solo artist since then, and his latest effort, “Come Feel Me Tremble” (Vagrant), captures the ruffled rocker in all his belated glory with his figurative pants down. The DVD is a low-budget, cinema verite-style documentary, catching Westerberg in the recording studio, on stage, in between shows, and waking himself up by dumping ice cubes down his pants; the CD features studio versions of the songs he performs live on the DVD.

The global jukebox

For the last 10 years, the Putumayo label has been a leader in spreading the gospel, as it were, of world music, with excellent themed collections like “Brazilian Groove,” “Global Soul” and “Music from the Tea Lands,” plus CDs devoted to particular artists, including Oliver Mtukudzi and Habib Koite. To celebrate its first decade, the label has issued “Putumayo World Music 10th Anniversary Collection 1993-2003,” a handsome two-CD set that comes with a 52-page booklet featuring extensive notes, photographs, and guides to world music festivals, magazines, websites and more. Also included are enhanced CDs with videos that can be played on home computers.

But the main draw are the two-dozen lively tracks, a veritable survey of contemporary, pop-influenced world music, from Algeria to Zimbabwe, Congo to Cuba, and Brazil to blues, with many stops in between. Familiar names like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Angelique Kidjo and Eric Bibb share space with lesser-knowns like Blekbala from Barunga, Madeka from the Ivory Coast, and Jussara Silveira from El Salvador. The Putumayo set makes an excellent introduction for those just becoming interested in world music – or if they aren’t already, they will be after hearing this set.

Coldplay live

English rock band Coldplay makes dreamy rock music that ebbs and swells – the sound of late night crescendos and early morning decrescendos. The Grammy Award-winning group’s dynamic, organic presentation, variously reminiscent of the Rolling Stones, the Band, the Beatles, Pink Floyd, U2 and Radiohead, is presented to great effect on “Live 2003” (Capitol), a two-disk, DVD/CD package that includes a concert film, a 40-minute tour documentary and a live concert recording.

Anarchist pop from Chumbawumba

Quotations from Langston Hughes, Tristan Tzara, Jean Arp and Ani DiFranco in the booklet accompanying “Readymades and Then Some” (Koch), the new album by English anarchist-pop group Chumbawumba, hint at the group’s politics and obsessions.
The antiwar song “Jacob’s Ladder” does for Harry Cox’s “Pretty Ploughboy” what Gavin Bryars did for an anonymous tramp in “Jesus’ Blood,” and “Without Reason or Rhyme (The Killing of Harry Stanley)” is a contemporary version of the timeless art of the folk murder ballad. The CD comes packed with a bonus DVD featuring excerpts from a film about the group.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on December 5. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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