Sometimes you just have to say thank you for the fact that Public Broadcasting exists in North America. Aside from the fact they have provided parents with the built-in baby sitter known as Sesame Street since the early 1970s, there is the multitude of special interest, public affairs, and entertainment shows they have broadcast.
Where else could we in North America have been introduced to the joys of British historical Soap Operas on the scale of Upstairs Downstairs if it wasn't for Alistair Cooke and Masterpiece Theatre? Can you honestly imagine any of the big three stations broadcasting any episodes of Monty Python's Flying Circus? For one thing, how could you have fit commercials into either one of those shows designed to run uninterrupted for fifty minutes?
Of course the music programming wasn't anything you were about to see Friday night on CBS or CBC for that matter, either. Broadcasts live from the Lincoln Center of anything from jazz to opera, opera performances from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, and concerts by the Boston Pops Orchestra, to name only a few. I'm sure at some point in time they must have had a broadcast from every major performance hall in the United States.
But the good thing about Public Broadcasting in the United States was they realized the public was made up of more than just people who wanted the "finer" things in life, and there might just be some beer drinkers in their audience. Station KLRU in Austin, Texas designed Austin City Limits for that segment of the demographic.
Every week they stage a live concert in their studio that they edit down to fit into their available time slot. (The last time I checked, the show was still on the air.) Willie Nelson did their first ever show and it's been full steam ahead ever since. The line-up of performers who have appeared in front of their cameras reads like a veritable who's who of American country, bluegrass, blues, and rock and roll performers.
New West records had the brain wave to gather up all the old tapes, re-master them digitally, and release them as DVDs for home viewing. Heroes are getting up off the floor and giving live performances even though, like Johnny Cash, they've been dead for a while and grizzled looking veterans of the rock and roll wars are looking young and fresh faced again.
In 1986 one such young and fresh faced guy was Steve Earle, still flushed with the success of his album Guitar Town. With his brash attitude and his country rock music he fit the classic mould of the Nashville rebel, and was considered the successor to Waylon, Willie, and the whole Luchenbach, Texas crowd.
Plunging into his first song of the concert "Sweet Little '66," an ode to his beat up old car, he shows himself having far more in common with the music of the Flying Burrito Brothers than what you'd find on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. For the next sixty-five minutes, Earle proves why he caused so much excitement when he burst onto the country music scene over twenty years ago.
In the mid-eighties the roots/traditional revival was still over a decade away and the majority of country music was trying to pretend it didn't know who George Jones or Tammy were. Randy Travis may have given the crooner side some integrity, but Billy Ray Cyrus singing "Achy Breaky Heart" was enough to have Hank Williams spinning so fast in his grave he was drying out.
Steve Earle was more than a breath of fresh air — he was the twister that ripped up the trailer parks and mobile homes. There was nothing polished or suave about him; he was the original wide-eyed country boy looking to grab the world by the tail and hang on for the wild ride.
You can see the almost feverish excitement in his eyes on this DVD as he plays his music, but with hindsight you can also hear the fear and desperation that it could vanish just as easily as it showed up. Watching, I wondered if he was using when they shot this movie, or was heroin still in his future? He's been honest enough to talk about how he had to fight that monkey on his back, so I know he had been an addict, just not when.
I wouldn't normally mention stuff like this in a review, except that although his performance was spot on, there was something decidedly off about him as a person that night. I got the same feeling I sometimes get when I watch old clips of Janis Joplin, like I'm watching something that shouldn't be seen in public.
Shit, I don't know, maybe I was reading too much into things, but it started to become a distraction for me while watching. It's to Steve Earle's and the band's credit that most of the time when they settled into a song they could make me forget about those thoughts and enjoy the performance.
As usual the folks at New West have done a remarkable job with the old video that was shot of the concert. There's not much you can do to make twenty-year-old video better than it was to begin with, but they've done a fine job of preserving what integrity it did have. It's the music where they really shine however, as once again they've restored and re-mastered the sound so the mix is spot on.
It's so rare to ever watch something that was recorded for television twenty years ago and be impressed with the sound. Not just as in, "Wow that sounds great for something that old", but "That sounds great, period." They've somehow managed to separate everything into its individual tracks, breath new life into them, mix it all over again, and end up with an amazing sound.
New West Records' releasing and re-mastering of the old Austin City Limits concert tapes is kind of a mixed blessing. There are some truly remarkable performances, like this one of Steve Earle, that should not be hidden away in some vault but deserve to be seen by the public. Watching them, however, can on occasion be bittersweet. In the case of Steve Earle Live From Austin TX there is at least the consolation that you know the troubled young man on the screen will find his way out from under the weight he's carrying on stage with him that night. Perhaps that's what makes these discs so special as well, preserving moments in time so we can better appreciate where someone's been and where they are now.