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Live capture 

What do Talking Heads, Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan and Joel Plaskett have in common? Kickass concert DVDs. Carsten Knox listens in on the trend.

“It wasn’t like, ‘Now’s the time to make a DVD,’ it was, ‘Now’s the time to document something.’”

Joel Plaskett is discussing the philosophy behind releasing his band’s new live DVD/studio EP package Make a Little Noise on the phone from a hotel room in Philadelphia. He’s touring the States with labelmate Kathleen Edwards, though he’ll be in Halifax this weekend for the Juno Awards, where he’s been nominated for Songwriter of the Year.

The documentation of a live concert is no easy task. Make a Little Noise required multiple cameras, sound mixers and editors, takes footage from three different shows, and yet this is a reasonably modest production. Watching all the performance footage without being hyper-critical was difficult for Plaskett, and it led him to pluck certain songs from his set rather than just releasing a whole show.

“Y’know, to make a full-on concert movie would be great, but there are very few that are amazing even if you shoot it on film,” he says. “I think The Last Waltz is a real achievement, but every scene is treated differently, and all those soundstage things done after the concert. I gather a lot of it was overdubbed. We didn’t do any of that, we left it in warts and all.”

It’s hard to beat the The Last Waltz when it comes to concert movies. Rumoured overdubs notwithstanding, the film shows The Band, the country-rock stalwarts who once backed up Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan, giving a great final show with their original line-up at Winterland in San Francisco on American Thanksgiving, 1976. They revisited the best of their own material and welcomed a few guests, including Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison and Eric Clapton. Songwriter-guitarist Robbie Robertson had his friend Martin Scorcese fly in to shoot it all. The result is a great moment in music history captured for anyone who wants to see what all the fuss was about.

Jazz on a Summer’s Day may be the first great concert film of the rock era, though Chuck Berry is the only on-stage representative of the upstart musical form. The film documents the 1958 Newport, Rhode Island festival in vivid colour and beautiful, crisp sound. The pristine film quality suggests it was shot in the 70s, until you see the late-50s fashions in the audience and the performers include Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Anita O’Day, Dinah Washington and Mahalia Jackson. Stop Making Sense, the Jonathan Demme-shot 1984 film of three Talking Heads performances, captured the art-rockers at the peak of their imaginative power, both in their visual stage show and in their music. Tom Waits’ Big Time, from 1988, sadly unavailable on DVD, is also memorable in that it weaves, if not quite a narrative, then brief theatrical moments that bring to life a few of the oddball characters who populate his songs, like Frank, who got on the Hollywood freeway heading north, and could never stand that dog.

It’s hard to find too many more concert films that really shine in their entirety. Though many so-called cultural events like Woodstock don’t really hold up, there are more and more rare performances now available. “The cool thing about this DVD culture, a lot of things are getting reissued,” says Plaskett. “I know if I went looking I could spend a shitload of money.”

He’s right. Rashes of concert DVD releases, both old and new, have hit the market in the past few years, as the music industry struggles to adapt to changing technology and give fans another way to appreciate their favourite bands, as well as to make an extra buck or two. Some concert films have even received theatrical releases, albeit in a limited run, such as Dave Chapelle’s Block Party, Neil Young: Heart of Gold—directed by Jonathan Demme—and Awesome, I Fuckin’ Shot That!, a concert film the Beastie Boys put together from footage shot by 50 cameras supplied to random audience members.

For Plaskett, the achievement of documenting his live show was both a technical and a professional one, as he insisted an EP of new music be included in the package, so it wasn’t all about looking back at former glories. “I’m not ready for a greatest hits,” he says. “It was a real challenge to make the editing and the sound, the choice of songs feel how I imagined, how I like to present what we do.”

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