Judge Neil Dorsett once had love, and it was a gas, until he condensed it into a liquid and moved it on the street for a cool $180 a gram.
Return of the war child.
Coming at you live on Arts &Entertainment Television by your phone-in request, it's Blondie! The venerated punk-cum-disco (and otherwise) CBGB icon reassembled for a new album in 2003, and part of the whole shooting match was this live performance on A&E, aired May 7, 2004 from the John Jay Theater in New York. With original members Deborah Harry, Chris Stein, and Clem Burke joined by the newer members Paul Carbonera, Leigh Foxx, and Kevin Topping, Blondie is set to rock and still in form. The band delivers enthusiastic performances of several classic hits, a few classic album tracks that didn't hit so big, and a selection of the authentic-sounding new tunes from the comeback release, The Curse of Blondie.
The setlist includes "Dreaming," "Hanging on the Telephone," "Accidents Never Happen," "Tide is High," "Good Boys," "Undone," "Rip Her to Shreds" (by request from John Waters, who directed Harry in Hairspray and some other movies), "One Way or Another," "Rapture," "X Offender," "Call Me," "Union City Blue," and of course the unstoppable "Heart of Glass." The band stuck around for an unbroadcasted encore, which includes "The Dream's Lost on Me," "End to End," "Hello Joe," and "(I'm Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear," which I believe are all from the Curse of Blondie album. I've got to admit to not being what you'd call a fan of Blondie—more like someone who is aware of them as a good rock band of their type, but with little knowledge of the songs or the ins and outs of the band. I know the biggies—"Call Me," "Tide is High," "Heart" (of which, only "Tide" fares particularly well in this show; the band seems a bit tired of those numbers)—and a couple of others that I've picked up fairly recently, but am by no means an aficionado or expert on this band. I can't comment extensively on the performance of each song or anything. I did notice that some of the tracks lacked a bit of the oomph from the studio versions, and some have attributed that to Debbie Harry's voice deepening with age, but those tracks were probably sweetened a little in the studio anyway (the shout of "CALL ME!" for instance) and doubtless always sounded different live. I thought "Rapture" and "X Offender" were particularly good, and of the new tracks, "Undone" was a real standout.
One thing I never dig about TV rock specials like this is the lighting. Television studio lighting, whether it is in an actual studio or a concert venue such as this, is never quite as flattering to a rock band as the smoky darkness of a club. When the band is a twenty-five year icon, throwing a lot of light around can be downright dangerous. Luckily this presentation avoids too much of that phony TV vibe—something that can overwhelm even the most vibrant and authentic live performances on TV, but it would still have been well served to ramp down the overheads a little. Overall, the show presented is colorful and reasonably dynamic, with the band not doing a whole lot visually (Debbie bears the brunt of this and is not all that active herself physically, concentrating on the vocals) but the standard complement of concert camerawork fills out the visuals fairly well. The show is interrupted periodically by hostess Jules Asner, who is rather annoying, to take requests and do a sort of casual interview segment. It's more energetic and fun when this doesn't happen and Blondie is simply allowed to continue uninterrupted, although this means the song will be a new one. That's okay though, because the songs from Curse of Blondie fit right in with the rest of the band's catalog. Unlike the attitude of some rock reunions, Blondie reformed with the intention of doing Blondie material.
The picture is vibrant and strong, but unfortunately there's a price to pay for that—it's clear that the encoder was optimized for picture detail at a certain cost to the motion clarity. Camera moves are often staggered with motion problems, and anytime you see Clem drumming the image of his sticks just turns into this solid blur that doesn't look like motion at all. It looks like the blur overwhelmed the surrounding motion frames and made the whole thing stick in time. More than a little bit distracting. Since the disc covers only 5.66 of the available eight gigabytes, it's a problem that could have been addressed with more careful mastering. A bit of examination revealed that the problem wasn't what I thought it was—the high-resolution 60fps signal overwhelming the bitrate—but instead something boneheaded: an embedded 3:2 pulldown. While this means that the video image is of a crisp 24fps source nature, it also means that there's duplicate information which can eat bitrate and make motion stuttery, particularly on computer displays or HDTVs that can't do a smart pulldown removal. The pulldown is necessary for NTSC display, but DVD players can provide it on their own if the disc is encoded in the preferred progressive mode. Viewers who use NTSC sets will not notice the pulldown itself, but the bitrate consumption is still an issue, especially with two gigs just going to waste. The actual source video is quite strong. But of course we're really here for the sound. Unfortunately, I can comment only on the Dolby Digital tracks, both of which are dynamic and enveloping with the 5.1 track having a slight edge. The instruments were spread effectively in the soundfield and the audience was not intrusive. The DTS track may have a further edge, but I have no equipment to test it. Of course I say the audience wasn't intrusive to the audio, but when it comes to the video it's a different story, and this I again blame on the lighting. The audience seems self-conscious, too aware that they're on display, and this contributes to that whole TV studio flavor. I don't guess it can really be helped, but it just doesn't seem like rock when it looks like early afternoon. Outdoor venues notwithstanding.
Extras are okay. In addition to the encore, there's a small photo gallery of Blondie, and the music video of "Good Boys" from The Curse of Blondie. The video seems odd to me, but it's probably the first rock video I've seen in about eight years, so what do I know. It's a black and white send-up of circus cliché, with occasional cuts of Harry in full color looking about eighty. In a program which otherwise showcases her as fairly well-preserved, these shots are disconcerting, which was perhaps the intent. The disc's menus are a simple, attractive replica of the show's opening titles.
So how does this rate next to the average rock performance video? And how does it rate against the various other Blondie releases on DVD? That I cannot say. But what I can say is that this package delivers what it promises: Blondie, Live by Request. Although the definition of "Live" is a little looser on DVD than TV.
Blondie is free to go. Jules Asner is ordered to 100 hours of community service as a Price is Right model. A&E is encouraged to produce more Live by Request shows, but for godsakes turn the lights down a little.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BMG Music
• Encore Segment with Four Additional Songs
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