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The Harry Smith Project (2 CDs, 2 DVDs) Review

One thing struck me immediately when I began watching the concert DVD. The sound on the concert DVD is incredible. I truly felt like I was there watching all these performances. It certainly is a sweeping collection of music with performances by Beck, Sonic Youth, Elvis Costello, Lou Reed, and many others. A lot of the performances are very spare with the singer stationary in front of the microphone. Beth Orton has one of the spare performances including her acoustic guitar, bass and a backing vocalist. Beck and his band give another sort of stark performance of Robert Johnson's "The Last Fair Deal Gone Down." It's one of my favorites on the disc.

Another one of my favorites is "This Song of Love" performed by Don Byron, Percy Heath and Bill Frisell. Bon Byron introduces the song by saying that when he first heard it, he couldn't understand the vocals because they were in a language he didn't know. As he listened closer, he realized it was a gospel song in which at least the chorus was in English. Long story short, these three gentleman made it into a jazzy instrumental tune that is just outstanding.

One of the funniest things on this DVD is the introduction of "Fishing Blues" by David Thomas. He says the song is about a man lying in bed hearing the men and women in the streets shouting at each other and the man thinks, "I want some of that." Then he takes a kind of awkward pause and sips from his flask.

This DVD includes some strange continuity things. One track is a non-sequitur of Harry Smith on the telephone in 1986. Eventually, he says they're making his legs too big and needs to get off the phone.

Another thing that struck me as unusual was the placement of The Folksmen (Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, and Christopher Guest) singing "Old Joe's Place" right after Roswell Rudd and Sonic Youth's version of "Dry Bones." It's a pretty odd sequence, don't you think? Going from the discordant sounds of Sonic Youth to simple folk and comedy of The Folksmen. I never would have thought to put those together.

What's impressive about this concert DVD isn't just the performances of so many different legends. The sweeping scope of this project is also pretty impressive, particularly since all the songs compiled by Harry Smith were written and released between 1927 and 1934. This feels like a comprehensive history of American folk music. I will say this much. When you sit down to watch this DVD, make sure you've got a good block of time. The DVD runs a little longer than two hours, but it will take longer than that to absorb it all.

And the concert DVD is one of two DVDs in this collection. Another DVD provides the backstory of Harry Smith and his legendary folk anthology. This DVD provides clips of performances from the various concerts that comprise this collection, performances from old-time performers like Son House and commentary about Harry in general and the music he compiled.

One very interesting thing on the DVD was Harry Smith talking about how he learned to look for records in Bellingham where he lived. It may not seem like something that requires explanation, but it's an interesting story. He would seek out stores that were going out of business and pore over their records, looking for records that "sounded odd." More than that, he wanted to challenge convention and get people to listen to things that might sound different or tackle difficult subject matter.

In this DVD, various people say that Harry loved looking for quirky performances of traditional music. I think that's exactly what has been accomplished with this collection of CDs and DVDs. This is a collection that Harry Smith would probably be proud of because it does challenge the listener and certainly goes beyond the realm of the music that fills the airwaves today.

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The Harry Smith Project (2 CDs, 2 DVDs)

Label:Shout! Factory

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