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The Harry Smith Project - Live

4.0 out of 5 stars 2 customer reviews

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(Nov 07, 2006)
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Editorial Reviews

Product Description

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 Willner’s Harry Smith Project concerts in London, New York and Los Angeles, celebrating the eccentric collector and his influential Grammy®-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 ReedÂ’s 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 AmericaÂ’s past.


"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

Special Features


Product Details

  • Format: Closed-captioned, Color, NTSC
  • Language: English
  • Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only. Read more about DVD formats.)
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rated:
    Not Rated
  • Studio: Shout Factory
  • DVD Release Date: November 7, 2006
  • Run Time: 150 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • ASIN: B000F6ZPIQ
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #185,664 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)

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Format: DVD
Harry Smith was an artist, filmmaker and record collector who in the early 50s issued an anthology of American folk and blues music originally recorded as 78s in the late 20s and early 30s. These recordings had a great influence on the folk boom and particularly on Bob Dylan who covered some of the songs and let the tales of "old, weird America" inspire his own song writing.

In 1999 Hal Willner had the idea of bringing together a group of contemporary musicians and singers to interpret the songs from the anthology. (Willner has also done similar `various artist' concept albums/films with sea shanties, Disney songs and Leonard Cohen songs.) He says at the start "I'm sure you'll love some of it. I'm sure you'll hate some of it but you'll be a different person when it's over." Not sure I am a different person but the love and hate was certainly true!

There are some wonderful musicians involved - Bill Frisel, Van Dyke Parks, Percy Heath, Garth Hudson and I liked the no gimmicks staging and the short film clips that separated some performances. I'd guess that just by looking at the cast list you can see what is going to work, who is going to treat the material with respect and who is going to piss all over it. For me the real stars were Richard Thompson (with Eliza Carthy and Garth Hudson), Elvis Costello and the McGarrigle Sisters but then again I already liked these artists. I also enjoyed Bob Neuwirth and Eliza Carthy, Beck singing Robert Johnson and Petra Haden, who I'd never heard of before. Two nice surprises were Nick Cave doing "John The Revelator" and David Johansen's two songs. It was also a nice relief to hear the Folksmen - (the Mighty Wind folk version of Spinal Tap).
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Format: DVD
In a recent CD review of "Harry Smith's Anthology Of American Folk Music" I made the following comments that apply to this well-done concert (or rather concerts, done in 1999 and 2001) film documentary based on that anthology, some of Smith's own creative work and some Fugs, an off beat old time folk/rock group, material. I will comment on some individual performances from the concerts below. Here is the CD review:

"It is no secret that the reviewer in this space has been on something of a tear of late in working through a litany of items concerning American roots music, a music that he first `discovered' in his youth with the folk revival of the early 1960s and with variations and additions over time has held in high regard for his whole adult life. Thus a review of musicologist (if that is what he though he was, it is not all that clear from his "career" path that this was so) Harry Smith's seminal "Anthology Of American Folk Music" is something of a no-brainer.

Since we live in a confessional age, however, here is the odd part. As familiar as I am with Harry Smith's name and place in the folk pantheon, his seemingly tireless field work and a great number of the songs in his anthology this is actually the first time that I have heard the whole thing at one sitting and in one place. Oh sure, back in the days of my ill-spent youth listening to an old late Sunday folk show I would perk up every time the name Harry Smith came up as the "discoverer" of some gem of a song from the 1920s or 1930s but to actually listen to, or even attempt to find, the whole compilation then just didn't happen.
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