Though his name may no longer be synonymous with the '70s punk rock reality he lived through, Willy DeVille is a true musical artist, as Judge Bill Gibron experienced as he watched this excellent concert DVD.
Down and Dirty in the Netherlands.
Though he's often posited right along side the rest of the rock acts that rose up from CBGB's stage in the 1970s, Willy DeVille (and his band, Mink DeVille) was much more than the surrounding three-chord wonders. A troubadour in every sense of the word, DeVille was a music historian, referencing the entire catalog of creative sound styling as part of his performances. More rockabilly and R&B than heavy hardcore harangue, this well-meaning musician had the hard luck of arriving just as punk put the New York scene on its ear. Since he wasn't referencing the revered New York Dolls, and didn't mutate his love of '50s finesse into the Ramones style of pop slash and burn, DeVille ended up struggling…a regarded entity without the genre influence to guarantee his legitimate legacy. When his original band finally dissolved, DeVille merely got new musicians and began his days as a traveling trader in songs. Some 30 years later, he still graces the stages of our bars and clubs, bringing his own iconic interpretation of the music that's marked his entire life.
Taken from a show at Amsterdam's Paradiso, Willy DeVille: Live in the Lowlands is 90 minutes of soul-cleansing sonic lucidity. Like Tom Waits steeped in tequila and Tex-Mex mannerism, not just the standard gin and juke joints, DeVille makes for a mesmerizing image onstage. Seated on stool, guitar poised in his clawlike hands, he performs with a gruff voice filled with lamentable life lessons that comes pouring out over the microphone. Much like the crooners of the '40s and '50s, he doesn't dive into his back catalog and play all his hits. Instead, DeVille delivers songs he loves in a style all his own. Much of the music here comes from his 2004 album Crow Jane Alley, but there is a great deal of cultural crossover going on. From infectious covers to blasts from the past, the show honors DeVille's desire to explore the fringes of popular sound. Included here are the following terrific tunes:
• "Low Rider"—cover of the War song
The first thing you notice about the set list above is that it is overripe with DeVille originals. For someone who sounds completely at home inside other people's tunes, his own offerings are equally stellar. Divided between pieces from his past (including the excellent "Savoir Faire" and "Can't Do Without It") and his most recent rockers ("Muddy Waters Rose Out of the Mississippi" and "Chieva" are mesmerizing), DeVille's DVD delivers a potent prescription of roots rock for the amiable Amsterdam audience, even mixing in some salsa and zydeco for good measure. Indeed, another amazing aspect of this performance is DeVille's band. Many have been with him for years, and you can tell. They gel with a loose-yet-logical liveliness, turning each and every song into an expression of musical merriment. Yet many find DeVille's delivery strongest when he's interpreting other people's songs…and Live in the Lowlands has some standouts. While Bryan Ferry's original is a soft dance classic, Willie's reinvention of "Slave to Love" sells the lyric's nostalgic sadness in an incredibly moving manner. Additionally, when working through the Spanish-tinged classic "Come a Little Bit Closer," DeVille inhabits the song's Latin lover lothario sentiment flawlessly.
Not all the covers work. "Hey Joe" sounds like a warped "La Bamba" as played by a Hendrix-obsessed lounge act, while the forced finale "Let It Be Me" is unexceptional. However, these are minor qualms in what is, overall, a fantastic foray into musical style. Indeed, not many artists today have a truly personal approach. Many manufacture music based on trends and marketing treatments. DeVille instead lives these songs, lets them get under his skin and soak down deep. As he pours them through his wealth of worldly experiences and they finally lodge themselves somewhere into his soul, he gives up a little bit of himself and leaves his mark on and in them. That's why, even when doing Mink DeVille tunes from 30 years ago, the material continues to sound fresh and invigorated. Every time he takes the stage, DeVille modifies their meaning. That rich history becomes the patina that makes these amazing moments shine. Even if you've never heard of the man before or think he's just some nominal nostalgia act looking for some manner of modern accolade, you should check out Live in the Lowlands. It represents what's best about music as an art form, and Willie DeVille as an idiosyncratic icon of same.
Eagle Vision once again comes through with a sensational DVD package. The concert here can be viewed as a series of songs only, or with accompanying inserts of band conversations and touring montages. Either way, the experience is engaging and enlightening. If you choose to incorporate the Q&A material, you've more or less seen the sole bonus feature. Though it is called "interviews," it's really just backstage cavorting with some occasional DeVille insights. As for sound and vision, Live in the Lowlands has some awesome tech specs. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image has a definite HD feel, though the disc is not really a high-definition production. The image is crisp and clear, with lots of defining detail and hue-enhanced ambiance. Sonically, the showcase is marvelous, with Dolby Digital Stereo 5.1 and DTS tracks adding to the performance. Stick with the latter two, since they both offer a killer home theater experience that's as close to the actual concert as you can get in a digital presentation.
Though he's far from the mainstream of the music business, DeVille demonstrates why so many people are drawn to song craft as an aesthetic. Art offers the ability to see reality in a total different and direct light, and Live in the Lowlands provides proof that craftsmanship comes in many diverse, and delightful, packages.
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