Judge Dave Ryan's got his soul shoes on his feet.
"To thine own self be true."—Polonius
"Don't bother with the local girls."—Graham Parker
Since his debut in 1976 with the now classic Howlin' Wind, Graham Parker has been one thing, and one thing only: himself. Nowhere will you find a more resolutely individualistic musician; one who has steadfastly recorded the music he liked to play, commercial tastes be damned. This has led, of course, to where such things usually lead: relative obscurity. Even though he placed two albums in Rolling Stone's Top 100 Rock Albums of All Time list, the average rock and roll fan has probably never heard of him.
Not that Parker seems to particularly care about such things anymore. He hasn't exactly starved over his thirty-five years of life in the music industry—Parker has a small but very loyal fan base, and many of his albums still sell fairly well today as catalog titles. The "angry young man" of his youth has matured into a bemused and contemplative, if ever so slightly bitter (to this day he seems to believe—probably correctly—that Elvis Costello "stole his act" and pulled the rug out from under him commercially) old man. But while the music isn't quite as edgy and bristling anymore, and the lyrics aren't quite as cutting as they used to be, it's all still clearly and definitively Graham Parker music. And he wouldn't have it any other way.
For much of the early '90s, Parker had moved away from the more straightforward pub rock and R&B of his time with his original backing band, the Rumour, into a more contemplative, folk-ish almost country groove. His creative union with the Figgs, a neo-punk band that hails from near Parker's adopted home of Woodstock, N.Y., began in 1996. According to Parker, it was a marriage partially out of necessity—while the fact that the band was a fan of his music and could play much of it already was a plus, a much more important aspect of the Figgs for the non-major label-supported Parker was "they owned their own van." For his fans, though, the addition of the Figgs brought Parker back to the hard-driving rock of his youth. Parker/Figgs shows were strewn with revitalized versions of GP & The Rumour classics that would tear the roof off of the small bars and theaters that housed them. (For further proof, I recommend the live album The Last Rock & Roll Tour, recorded on the 1996-7 Acid Bubblegum tour.)
This disc is, to my knowledge, the first official concert film of Parker's career. Filmed at a small, intimate venue in Fairfield, Conn., the set list focuses mainly on Parker's 2010 Imaginary Television album—a sort-of concept album in which Parker wrote "theme songs" for non-existent television shows of his own devising. (Parker, it should be noted, is also a published author, with three novels to his credit.) To that extent, it may disappoint some of Parker's hardcore fan base, who probably would have preferred a more backwards-looking set. Additionally, the overall energy of the set isn't quite up to past Parker standards. The songs aren't as crisp and tight as Parker's past tours. I wouldn't go so far as to say that the songs feel "mailed in"—Parker is better than that—but there's a definite loose feeling to some of the tracks here.
On the whole, though, it's a good, solid 21-song set. The new songs are interesting enough; Parker's stage chatter is interesting (and he strikes the right balance between too much talk and too little); and the Figgs are as solid as usual. It's not the best introduction to Parker's music for a neophyte (unless you've only discovered him via Imaginary Television), and it's not quite what diehards might have hoped for, but it's certainly a fair and accurate representation of Parker's musical chops.
One thing definitely needs to be highlighted with this DVD: the sound. The DTS surround track is, unquestionably, the best audio track I've ever heard on a concert DVD. Surround sound always promises the "You Are There!!!" effect—this track delivers it. All channels are in play—both rear surrounds get a workout, the bass is suitably thumpy, and the balance between the front right, center, and left channels is just about perfect. This is, literally, the first time I could close my eyes and actually fool myself into thinking that the artist was there in the room with me. It's just that good. I don't know what mojo went into recording this track, but whatever they did, they nailed it. There's also a Dolby surround track as well, which isn't a bad track at all—but it noticeably lacks the punch and clarity that DTS sound brings. The anamorphic widescreen picture is crisp and detailed, although this isn't a particularly exciting concert visually.
A small bonus for fans is the sole extra on the disc, an "interview" with Parker himself. It's not really an interview, though—it's just Parker, talking about his life and his music. Parker is always entertaining when he speaks, even when he's relatively serious (as he is here). He talks about the concepts behind the Imaginary Television album, which is interesting, but the treat for hardcore fans is his in-a-nutshell story about how he got started in music. The full "interview" clocks in at about half an hour. There's also an included CD that features 19 of the 21 songs performed in the show. I'm seeing more and more of these add-in CDs included as bonuses with concert DVDs—it's a trend I wholeheartedly and fully support. Unfortunately, one of the two songs that the CD doesn't include is the rarely played "Life Gets Better," which was the highlight on the set list for this long-time Parker fan.
Graham Parker & the Figgs Live at the FTC isn't the definitive Graham Parker live performance, and is it not really the best introduction to Parker's music. It is, however, a good show with a jaw-dropping audio track, and that alone is enough to recommend it. Plus, free CD with purchase!
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