"I'm sure you'll love some of it," says Hal Willner, who conceived and organized the shows represented on The Harry Smith Project Live
, a collection of performances culled from five concerts (in London, New York, and Los Angeles) that took place in 1999 and 2001. "I'm sure you'll hate some of it." The average music fan, and plenty who aren't so average, will likely have never heard of Harry Smith, a musicologist, filmmaker, magician, and record collector who died in 1991. But musicians sure know who he was--especially those who were part of the '60s folk boom, as the dozens of commercial recordings Smith compiled and anthologized, first released in 1952 as The Anthology of American Folk Music
, inspired Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and many others. 23 of those songs are interpreted here by a disparate, intriguing line-up organized by Willner, who specializes in such things (cf. Leonard Cohen I'm Your Man
, another multi-artist tribute concert). All of this mostly-traditional material was originally recorded from 1927-34, and much of it is mighty grim: musically, there are lots of dark, single-chord dirges and drones, while the lyrics are laced with tales of murder and suicide, love and betrayal, shipwrecks and cruelty. But that results in numerous riveting performances. Some come from folks so perfectly matched to the material that they seem almost obvious, like Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Geoff Muldaur, Richard Thompson (joined by Eliza Carthy and the Band's Garth Hudson), and David Johansen (whose current, very un-Doll-like band is called the Harry Smiths). But others are more surprising, including Sonic Youth (backing trombonist Roswell Rudd with rocking intensity), Lou Reed, Todd Rundgren, and jazz bassist Percy Heath (who, with guitarist Bill Frisell, swings like crazy); and there is no one other than Willner who could successfully pair a former Captain Beefheart guitarist (Gary Lucas) with the child of a jazz immortal (Eric Mingus, son of Charles), let alone find a way to include the Folksmen, the hilarious trio featuring Spinal Tap stalwarts Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, and Christopher Guest. Various interview segments (with Willner and others) are scattered throughout the disc; there's also an excerpt from "The Old, Weird America: Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music
." Note: all 23 performances can be found in the four-disc (two CDs, two DVDs) box set The Harry Smith Project: The Anthology of American Folk Music Revisited
as well. --Sam Graham
2 1/2 hours and 23 performances featuring Elvis Costello, Beck, Steve Earle and more!
The Harry Smith Project Live DVD compiles the best moments from Hal WillnerÂs Harry Smith Project concerts in London, New York and Los Angeles, celebrating the eccentric collector and his influential GrammyÂ®-winning box set, Anthology Of American Folk Music. Drawing on this rich legacy, these landmark shows brought together a remarkable roster of artists performing their own unique interpretations of these classic songs.
From Nick Cave's cathartic take on spirituals, to Lou ReedÂs mesmerizing evocation of Blind Lemon Jefferson, these passionate reinterpretations (as well as performances by Elvis Costello, Beck, Sonic Youth, Steve Earle, Beth Orton and Richard Thompson, among others) connect the leading musicians of today with the greatest songs of AmericaÂs past.