Although this DVD is over two years old, I think it’s still the best live performance music DVD out there. What makes it so good? Not only are the production values top-notch, but the performances are varied and interesting.
It takes a lot of guts and brains to put Yo-Yo Ma and Sinead O’Connor on the same program and have it work.
Perhaps there are a few isolated readers who haven’t seen or heard of PBS’ “Sessions at West 54th Street” TV series. It’s like a New Yawk version of Austin City Limits. But instead of a fake skyline and alt-country music, “Sessions” features a techno-studio background and AAA format rock, folk, and pop acts.
This best-of DVD has Wynton Marsalis, Suzanne Vega, Richard Thompson, Shawn Colvin, Ani DiFranco, Nil Lara, Rickie Lee Jones, Daniel Lanois, Emmylou Harris, Ben Folds Five, Keb Mo, Sinead O’Connor, Yo-Yo Ma, Patti Smith, and Jane Siberry. My personal faves are The Shawn Colvin cut, where you can watch Stuert Smith smoke on his Stratocaster, and Sinead O’Connor’s selection which features a scorching guitar solo featuring a guy actually playing a ’52 Les Paul with its original trapeze tailpiece – and he doesn’t even look like he’s suffering!
Since this was shot for TV on standard video-tape it has a 4:3 (TV shape) aspect ratio and is not as sharp as if it had been done on film or Hi-def video. Still it is sharp enough that you can read the music on Wynton Marsalis’ music stand if you are so inclined. The sound is the real star here. You have your choice via the main menu of either Dolby surround with derived rear channel information, or a full-fledged discrete 5.1 channel Dolby Digital soundtrack. I’ve had a running discussion with a couple of fellow reviewers over which version is superior. Michael Fremer, an old friend and fellow contributor to Stereophile’s Guide to Home Theater, prefers Dolby surround, arguing that it sounds more natural and less gimmicky. I opt for the discrete multi-channel tracks because they have greater detail and some neat spatial effects. For example on the Ani DiFranco cut the camera pans slowly around the group. The Dolby Digital soundtrack sound follows the camera. At first the drum set is in the right rear channel. It slowly moves from the rear right to the rear left, and finally comes to rest in the left front channel. I can’t help but admire the courage it took to deviate from the standard “don’t move anything” philosophy that predominates on music videos.
My only complaint with Best of Sessions at West 54th is that there is only one DVD. With all the great shows they’ve done, “Sessions” has a virtual mountain of great material begging to be released. I want more, and I want it yesterday. The Best of Sessions at West 54th merely whets my appetite for all the great performances that I could be watching on my big front screen projection system. But for now, this DVD will have to do. If you don’t have any live music DVDs in your collection, you must have this disk to start off your collection right. See www.sessions atwest54th.com.
This review originally appeared in VG‘s Mar. ’01 issue.