Harry Smith's 1952 collection of American folk music inspired a whole generation of musicians in the '60s, but his influence didn't stop there younger musicians like Beck, Nick Cave, Elvis Costello, Wilco and older eminences like Lou Reed and Richard Thompson held a series of concerts in 1999 and 2001 to honor the man and the songs he rediscovered. The best performances from those concerts comprise the two CDs; then there's a DVD presenting performances from London, New York and Los Angeles plus three of Harry's experimental films, and a DVD featuring a brand-new documentary on the man himself. A 40-page booklet offers even more info. From Steve Earle's Prison Cell Blues to Geoff Muldaur's K.C. Moan , one discovery after another.
Revisionism can be as rewarding as rediscovery; indeed, they often make a compelling duo. Those sentiments drive veteran producer Hal Willner's tribute to pioneering musicologist Harry Smith
's documentation and preservation of American folk forms--music that was already an endangered species by the time he originally compiled them for Folkways Records in the early '50s. As he's done on similar tributes to musicians as varied as jazz giants Monk and Mingus, Italian film scoring legend Nina Rota, and songwriters Kurt Weill and Leonard Cohen, Willner puts together a group of musicians as intriguingly eclectic as the vintage songs they're covering. That Smith's own original efforts helped fuel the '60s folk boom that in turn inspired more than a few of the musicians here helps give the collection the warm sensibility of musical traditions coming full circle.
Spread across two CDs and a pair of DVD's are a rich slate of performances captured in Los Angeles, New York, and London in 1999 and 2001, as well as documentary material about Smith's own pioneering efforts that helped inspire them. Beck and Lou Reed spin spare, harrowing takes on blues godfathers Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson, respectively, while Elvis Costello, Wilco, Richard Thompson, Steve Earle, Van Dyke Parks, the McGarrigles, and others offer up covers characterized by varying degrees of reverence. But, as is typical of most Willner projects, it's the more unlikely musical pairings here that yield the greatest intrigues, be they Pere Ubu's David Thomas recasting "Fishin' Blues" in his forceful persona or Bill Frisell's distinctive jazz sensibilities--the latter also suffusing Gavin Friday's "Fatal Flower Garden" with ghostly elegance. A welcome sense of playfulness also surfaces throughout, one whose good humor even makes room for a relevant clip from Chris Guest's A Mighty Wind
folk mockumentary, as well as amusing recollections by some of the artists influenced by Smith's original musical archaeology. More than merely revering history, this is a collection that cheerfully revels in its reinvention. --Jerry McCulley