With just a few days to go before Christmas arrives, you might need some assistance to get the perfect gift. With that in mind, here are some recommended DVDs and Blu-rays for the major music enthusiast on your shopping list. Most titles are available at major music retailers like amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.
Artist: Depeche Mode
Title: Live in Berlin (Columbia)
The Lowdown: In 2013, the veteran British synth-rock act toured around the world in support of 13th studio album Delta Machine. Shot over the course of two German concerts at 02 World Forum late that year, this deluxe lift-off box set encompasses 2 DVDs and CDs plus a 5.1 mix on Blu-ray of the album (there is also a standalone 2CD package).
Directed by longtime visual collaborator Anton Corbijn, the 2 hour+ gig opens with the musicians in a group huddle and giving high fives as they prepare to go onstage. Lithe singer Dave Gahan, clad in shiny black leather, pirouettes across the stage to the fittingly ominous strains of “Welcome to My World.” He hops around and lifts the microphone stand skyward on “Walking in My Shoes” as transfixing shapes flash on the big screens. Gahan’s deep voice is sonorous as ever, while Martin Gore’s chugging electric guitar work make 1986’s “A Question of Time” among many highlights here.
Others include “Black Celebration,” “Enjoy the Silence” (a disturbing contortionist pileup is projected on the screens), an electrifying “Personal Jesus” (with Gore’s slow teasing guitar and a shirtless Gahan totally giving it his all), a sparse, cinematic “Halo” (accompanied by austere images), “Just Can’t Get Enough” and the usual main show closer: an extended “Never Let Me Down Again,” where the guys onstage are obviously having a good time.
DVD2 is titled “Alive in Berlin” and consists of a version of the same show combined with 15 band interviews and fan feedback (several followers say their whole life revolves around DM) and behind-the-scenes footage. The bonus material is a real trip: Gore plaintively sings “Condemnation” and “Judas” accompanied by Peter Gordeno on piano at Salon Bel Ami, an old brothel in Berlin. A mysterious bored-looking woman watches. The regular album mix on Blu-ray is crisper than on CD.
Title: Back to Front: Live in London (Eagle Vision)
The Lowdown: Having caught the Southern California stop on this tour at the Hollywood Bowl in 2012 (one of my top 10 shows of that year), I was very curious to see if London was equally stunning. It was.
No stranger to elaborate, mind-blowing staging dating back to his 1970s time in Genesis, Gabriel rarely disappoints. Directed by Hamish Hamilton and co-produced by Done+Dusted, this 2 hour, 15 minute show was filmed at over two nights at the 02 in Oct. 2013 and features 21 songs. The opening minutes find Gabriel doing a voiceover about how he has a “persona I adopt when I’m up there, which is different than my offstage persona. In some ways, it’s a mask…a means to open up and express myself.”
Gabriel takes the 02 stage and likens the show to a fine three-course meal, with acoustic and electronic-based sets followed by the entire 1986 multi-platinum album So – performed by the original band. Playing piano, Gabriel and company put enticing new spins on “Shock the Monkey and “Come Talk to Me,” while the plugged-in “Digging in the Dirt” and “Solsbury Hill” are made even more stunning by innovative lighting. Once “Red Rain” begins, the previous gray tones turn to vibrant color. Everything is a joyous (“Sledgehammer,” “Big Time”) and intriguing (“Don’t Give Up,” “Biko,” where the band gradually stops playing one by one) ride from there.
Bonus material includes The Visual Approach, a six-minute interview with Gabriel and tour production/lighting designer Rob Sinclair, who explain how they used a lighting rig from the original So tour (Gabriel apparently stores all his old tour gear in garages) and more details.
Title: Three Sides Live (Eagle Vision)
The Lowdown: The original 1982 Three Sides Live holds a special place for me since it was the first Genesis release I owned on cassette in junior high. This past fall, the five original band members were interviewed in a room together for the first time since 1998 for BBC documentary “Together and Apart.”
A segment dealing with the late ‘70s period after Peter Gabriel and then Steve Hackett left and the remaining trio start to hit the pop and rock charts was especially interesting. That’s where Three Sides Live comes in. Shot at various venues on Genesis’ 1981 North American tour, the set list mostly focused on material off Duke and Abacab.
The concert film - available for the first time alone on DVD and for the first time ever on Blu-ray - has now been fully restored. Clocking in at 83 minutes, ample gig preparation and interview footage is shown between live songs. Phil Collins takes listener calls from a NYC radio station; he also fields in-depth questions from a journalist with Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford. As for the music: there are top-notch performances throughout.
Collins does a spirited delivery on “Turn it on Again” and “Abacab,” shaking maracas on the latter as Daryl Stuermer makes guitar jabs. Other standouts: the horn–laden “No Reply at All,” “Me and Sarah Jane” (the footage is from a smaller gig at NYC’s The Savoy)” and “Misunderstanding.” The bonus content includes seven audio only tracks, including three not in the main feature: “One for the Vine,” “Fountain of Salmacis,” “Follow You Follow Me.”
Title: Songs from Tsongas: 35th Anniversary Concert (Eagle Vision)
The Lowdown: The last major Yes tour featuring founding vocalist Jon Anderson was among their best (I can attest since I saw it at San Diego State University in 2004). Originally broadcast on PBS-TV as part of the Soundstage series, this impressive 2DVD release was filmed at UMass-Lowell’s Tsongas Center that same year. The lineup of Anderson, Steve Howe, Chris Squire, Rick Wakeman and Alan White performed a technically brilliant, two-hour, 24-minute show.
A professorial Howe vigorously plays pedal steel on “Going for the One” and displays nimble guitar work on “Yours is No Disgrace” and Anderson’s vocals are enchanting as always during a celebratory “I’ve Seen All Good People” (dispatched early).
There is some good-natured banter between the musicians and frequent crowd shots. Several ‘70s prog rock classics like “Long Distance Runaround,” “Wondrous Stories” and “Roundabout” (where Wakeman’s piano playing shines on the Chicago blues shuffle revamp) work surprisingly well in the acoustic set.
Bonus material includes a nearly half hour performance of “Ritual” and a seven-minute 2004 interview with MSN Music about Roger Dean’s inflatable stage design. “It’s about creating an abstract world,” he says.
DVD2 encompasses a 2004 gig at the Lugano Jazz Festival in Switzerland. The rainy, outdoor 79-minute set is done sans Dean’s props and most notable for Squire and Howe’s light touch instrumental showcase on “The Fish.”
Artist: Alabama & Friends
Title: At the Ryman (Eagle Vision)
The Lowdown: Old school country fans were excited (and justifiably so) when Alabama reunited in 2011 following an extended hiatus. After doing selected gigs, the group – minus drummer Mark Herndon - finally toured outside its native South and did a solid co-headlining set at Stagecoach Fest ’12 in Indio, Calif. The all-star tribute album Alabama & Friends album came out last year.
This companion DVD was filmed at the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. The picture is so sharp that you almost feel like you’re at the show. Seriously. The 90-minute set saw guests Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, Trisha Yearwood, Florida Georgia Line, Jamey Johnson and The Eli Young Band all reprise their album roles live. Lead singer/guitarist Randy Owen is in a real good mood. Guitarist/fiddler Jeff Cook, on the other hand, seems like he’d rather be anywhere else.
Sublime Yearwood-assisted ballad “Forever’s As Far As I’ll Go” prompted this astonished response from him: “That was the first time I forgot the words to my own song!” Bryan seems nervous during “Love in the First Degree,” but pulls it off. Johnson proves a good fit on “My Home’s In Alabama.” Owen lets the guests have the spotlight and revels in watching them. An exuberant “The Closer You Get” with The Eli Young Band is the best. Other standouts include the smooth harmonies in “Dixieland Delight/Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” audience participation amid “Song Of The South,” the poignant newer tune “All American” and romantic “Take Me Down.”
Bonus content – some of which was shown on CMT – includes “The Songs and The Stories,” “Influence and Inspiration,” “The Magic Of Alabama Live,” “Performing at the Ryman,” “The History and The Night,” “The Making of Alabama and Friends” and “Alabama Is…” with informative chats with the musicians and guests and behind the scenes footage.
Artist: Whitney Houston
Title: Live: Her Greatest Performances (Legacy)
The Lowdown: Hard to believe, but the superstar soul/pop singer never put out an official live release during her lifetime. This DVD/CD collection - culled from 17 TV specials, talk and award shows (plus a bonus music video) spanning 1983-2009 - partially fills that void.
The DVD opens with Houston mentor/record company head Clive Davis briefly talking up his new discovery on The Merv Griffin Show in 1983 before the already-posed 19-year-old sings “Home” from The Wiz. Even Johnny Carson is struck by Houston’s beauty while holding up an LP cover on The Tonight Show in 1985 prior to “You Give Good Love.”
Among the highlights on the David-produced discs: a reworked, piano only version of “The Greatest Love Of All” (from That’s What Friends Are For: Arista Records 15th Anniversary Concert,1990), the triumphant “The Star Spangled Banner” (Super Bowl XXV, 1991), which became an unexpected hit, a supremely soulful take on Leon Russell’s “A Song For You” (Welcome Home Heroes, 1991), the stunning Broadway and film medley of Medley: “I Loves You, Porgy/And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going/I Have Nothing” (Annual American Music Awards, 1994), “I’m Every Woman,” with young girl dancers and fireworks (The Concert For A New South Africa, 1994) and her best known number – “I Will Always Love You” (The Concert For A New South Africa, 1994) looking resplendent in African headdress.
Artist: Elton John
Title: The Million Dollar Piano (Eagle Vision)
The Lowdown: The Million Dollar Piano DVD and Blu-ray was shot in early 2012 over several nights of Elton John’s long-running residency at the Coliseum at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. The Million Dollar Piano DVD and Blu-ray is a rousing nearly two-hour romp through decades of hits and a few surprises.
Taking the stage to “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the Piano Man emerges in a silver cape and sparkling black outfit as his longtime band – including bassist Bob Birch, who passed away later in 2012 - immediately rocks out to “The Bitch is Back.” From there, John does a dramatic “Levon” and “Tiny Dancer” backed by string players and soulful female backing vocalists. He provides a little background on the specially built, one of a kind piano, then recalls writing “Your Song” with Bernie Taupin and “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” about New York City.
“Better off Dead,” from “Captain Fantastic…” and “Indian Sunset” prominently feature percussionist Ray Cooper (a frequent tour fixture over the years). Other standouts include “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” and “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” where fans are invited onstage.
Bonus material includes a fascinating 23-minute documentary “The Making of the Million Dollar Piano,” which details how Yamaha started developing the $4 million instrument idea in 2008 and all the steps to design it. Also, a 20-minute segment with four hit songs from a 2012 concert in the Ukraine tells the story behind concerts, shows close ups of fans singing along and dignitaries watching the festivities.
Artist: Rolling Stones
Title: From the Vault: L.A. Forum 1975 (Eagle Vision)
The Lowdown: Part of a new series of restored archival concert releases with sound freshly mixed by Bob Clearmountain, From the Vault: L.A. Forum 1975 comes in a variety of formats: DVD, DVD/2CD, DVD/3LP and Digital Video.
The Stones were touring in support of “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll” when they hit the Fabulous Forum in ’75. It was first tour with new guitarist Ronnie Wood. Billy Preston, who appeared on the LP, was also along for the ride and provided keyboards/backing vocals on tour. This gig came in the middle of a five night summer stand at the venerable Inglewood arena.
Running 2 ½ hours, the DVD finds the British legends in ok form. Pre-show activities start with promoter Bill Graham and a costumed Chinese dragon (!) twisting about. Suddenly, a glam Mick Jagger – clad in bright pink jacket and wearing eye shadow - appears atop a folding pyramid stage for “Honky Tonk Women.” All the guys share vocals on the slinky blues “You Gotta Move.” Wood does a rippin’ solo during an extended “Gimme Shelter” and Jagger playfully pushes him amid “Tumbling Dice.” Keith Richards is sloppy on his own spotlight, “Happy.” By the seemingly never-ending finale “Sympathy for The Devil,” Jagger is in crazed vocal mode and invites fans onstage for a conga line. There are plenty of hits in between.
View a video of "Star Star" from L.A Forum - Live In 1975: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ou90MPHZzXs
Also available: From The Vault – Hampton Coliseum – Live In 1981 (this one is in SD Blu-ray as well).
The Lowdown: If you’re interested in post-Mick Jones, Cut the Crap-era Clash, this 96-minute documentary from 2012 fills in some of the details.
There are latter-day interviews with Jones (droll as ever), erstwhile drummer Terry Chimes as well as members from the final 1983-86 incarnation: Nick Sheppard, Pete Howard and Vince White. Much of the narrative is focused on how manager Bernie Rhodes succumbed to megalomania and eventually ruined the band. Chimes says the guys toured too much. Jones describes the band as “a bunch of idiots thrust into the spotlight.” Southern California fans will revel in footage from a troubled appearance at the US Festival ’83, where a fistfight ensued and Jones never played with them again.
Title: Vinyl (Shout! Factory)
The Lowdown: Vinyl is a fun British music comedy about a seasoned down-and-out punk rocker that gets back together with his old bandmates for a jam session. They record it and listen back, thinking there’s a hit diamond in the rough. Since all the record companies only want to sign hot young things though, the guys recruit some in their place and watch everything take off.
The story is inspired by true events: In 2004, The Alarm’s singer/guitarist Mike Peters put out the brash “45 RPM” as The Poppy Fields and fooled the UK record industry as the single charted at #24.
Phil Daniels (Quadrophenia, EastEnders, Blur’s “Park Life”) does a fine job in the lead role of Johnny Jones, as does Keith Allen (Trainspotting, 24 Hour Party People) as Jones’ reluctant former bandmate. Also noteworthy is a charismatic Jamie Blackley as the teenager front man. Both Peters and The Buzzcocks’ Steve Diggle have cameos. Director Sara Sugarman (Lindsay Lohan comedy “Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen”) was in a teenage band that Peters managed. The movie was shot around Wales.
Bonus material includes a five-minute featurette about the production, a music video, trailer and photo gallery.
Title: The Midnight Special (Time Life)
The Lowdown: Back in 1972, Grammy Awards telecast producer Burt Sugarman came up with the idea for a late live music TV show. Eccentric DJ Wolfman Jack was the presenter and frequent host on The Midnight Special, which aired at 1 a.m. on NBC following “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.” There were also rotating guest hosts, with Helen Reddy taking the mantle for nearly a year. The show ran until 1981.
This latest DVD compilation is available in different configurations: an 11-disc set and 32-page collector’s book, a 6-disc set and as a single DVD. Each has new bonus material.
The six DVD set has selected highlights from 1-3 episodes each. Primarily pop, soul and mainstream rock, the highlights include: Linda Ronstadt’s plaintive “Long Long Time,” Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers’ “American Girl,” “Listen to Her Heart,” a energetic Hall & Oates medley of “She’s Gone/Sara Smile/Rich Girl” (with the audience sitting cross-legged on the floor!), ELO’s “Evil Woman” with a string trio, Fleetwood Mac’s “Over My Head,” The Cars’ “Best Friend’s Girl” (Ric Ocasek sports cool shades), Aerosmith’s “Train Kept-A-Rolling” (Steven Tyler can barely contain his enthusiasm on the small stage), Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” (Debbie Harry gives her best come hither stare), Loggins & Messina’s giddy “Your Mama Don’t Dance,” The Hollies’ “Long Cool Woman” (at a soundcheck with hardly any audience), a young baby-faced Sammy Hagar on “You Make Me Crazy,” AC/DC, Alice Cooper, The Kinks, Bee Gees and many more.
A featurette on Wolfman has recent interviews with acts on the show and it’s interesting to see the camera work evolve from extreme artist close ups in the early years to more panoramic shots.
Artist: Justin Hayward
Title: Live at the Buckland Theatre, Atlanta (Eagle Vision)
The Lowdown: Last year, the voice of The Moody Blues toured in support of the solo album Spirits of the Western Sky – his first in 17 years. On this DVD, Blu-ray, CD, and digital release, Hayward explains the genesis of many songs onstage in Georgia as director David Minasian unusually intercuts the proceedings with archival photos.
The 98-minute show opens with sonorous 1960s classic “Tuesday Afternoon.” Backed by a trio of musicians, the British veteran performs from his vast catalog of hits, rock radio staples and pleasant newer folk-based tunes. A sprightly “Your Wildest Dreams,” idyllic English story “Forever Autumn” (a #5 European single from 1978), the galloping “Question” where the crowd claps vigorously, “Nights in White Satin” (Hayward has no problem with the high vocal bits) and “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere” are standouts.
Bonus material consists of an hour-long documentary with behind the scenes tour footage and fan interviews. Of the tour, Hayward says, “there’s a sweetness and sensitivity now that I’ve never been able to achieve with The Moodys…this is what I’ve always dreamed of. I can hear every nuance of the vocals. It’s the most satisfying thing I’ve done.”
Artist: Jason Isbell
Title: Live at Austin City Limits (Southeastern)
The Lowdown: Before watching this stellar ACL episode on PBS-TV, I had read about Isbell’s post-Drive-By Truckers solo work, but never actually heard any of it. That all changed afterward. I immediately sought out the Americana artist’s excellent award-winning 2013 album Southeastern and predecessor, Here We Rest.
Isbell’s 15-song ACL performance with his band The 400 Unit includes material from both those releases. It is at various times captivating, heart-wrenching and just plain rocking (especially the humorous “Super 8” and set capping take on the Rolling Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”). Highly recommended.