Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A Historic Concert? We Shall Overcome: The Complete Carnegie Hall Concert; A Memorable Live Album

The Good: Good length, Interesting historical document, Decent mix
The Bad: Musically and vocally limited, Some of the interstitials are dated and pointless.
The Basics: Excellent for the novelty of a listen or two, We Shall Overcome: The Complete Concert is a good album that has low repeatability.

I am the first to admit that I am unusually hard on "live" albums. My argument is pretty simple: most recordings lose the flavor and energy of a real live concert and as a result, the discs that come out of concerts tend to be flatter or inaccurate for the live experience. So, for example, I've never heard a live version of a Matchbox Twenty song where the instrumentals were produced so loudly above the vocals as to make it almost impossible to hear the singing. Yet, that was my live Matchbox Twenty experience years ago. I'm also not fond of the "live" conceits most live recordings have; the noises of the crowd which seem to be on the albums to prove to listeners that the event actually was recorded live. And finally, I think most live albums have low repeatability, not so much for the music (which can be a wonderful divergence from the studio recordings of the same songs) but for the stories artists tell in between tracks.

Thus, it might seem unsurprising that while others laud We Shall Overcome: The Complete Carnegie Hall Concert by Pete Seeger, I find it average and I recommend it solely because there is historical value to it. Pete Seeger is my Artist of the Month - God Bless The Grass is reviewed here! - and only the second album I've been spinning of his is the two-disc recording of the June 8, 1963 concert Seeger performed at Carnegie Hall. Seeger is undeniably an important folk singer in the history of American Folk music - American music in general, actually - but the importance of the 1963 concert is somewhat murky.

We Shall Overcome is a collection of contemporary (disc 1) and classic (disc 2) folk songs and the most prevalent themes are those of civil rights and antiwar sentiments. I applaud both of those concepts (I'm actively involved in the ongoing struggles against war and for civil rights) but Seeger performing in Carnegie Hall is not like (for lack of a musical comparison) Martin Luther King Jr. speaking at the National Mall in Washington, D.C.; King advanced his cause because it got national coverage and everyone in the nation and world had a chance to hear his words. Through that, King's message reached the indifferent and changed the minds of some who opposed him. Seeger is preaching to the proverbial choir; he's singing antiwar, pro-labor, pro-civil rights songs to a whole bunch of liberals who agree with him and like folk music. In fact, it is almost baffling that in "What Did You Learn In School Today?" Seeger gets a shout out from an audience member who does not realize that the line about "I learned that justice never ends" is ironic before the kicker line turns it.

I'm not saying We Shall Overcome isn't interesting; it is. But it is not distinctly Pete Seeger and its value is more as a historical document than a recording one might want to listen to over and over again. How can I say that? Well, the first count is objectively true; the first disc is designed to be a collection of works written by other contemporary (in the 1960s) folk-rock artists (Tom Paxton, Bob Dylan, Malvina Reynolds) and Seeger only co-wrote two of the songs on that disc. On the second disc, he is only credited as a co-writer on three songs as well as adding additional lines to "Sweet Potatoes." So, out of the forty tracks, Seeger is only partially responsible for creating six of them!

Still, Seeger sings all of the songs on We Shall Overcome and plays guitar and banjo alone on all of the tracks. As a result, he is more a performer here than a creator, save for his ad-libs and interstitials between songs.

Here, though, is the crux of my issue with the repeatability of We Shall Overcome. Seeger tells stories that are absolutely fascinating, like about a rally with Dr. King on the track "I Ain't Scared Of Your Jail." Those of us growing up after the main thrust of the civil rights movement will appreciate more stories like that and the thought of how many people lay down their permanent records and credit ratings and the like to force change. Seeger carries the song with energy and his enthusiasm in integrating the story and the song works beautifully. But amid that, there is Seeger urging people at the concert to come back for a fellow folksinger's concert in a few weeks, a story about how "Mrs. Clara Sullivan's Letter" was written and translations for the block of foreign-language songs on the second disc. The thing is, once you've heard those once or twice, you tend to get it and you want Seeger to get to the music already. Because this is a recording, though, obviously, he does not.

As a result, it is hard to justify the "complete" concert experience. It might have been better to have a "cunningly edited" concert experience. The noises of the audience, which take up over forty seconds of each disc before Seeger begins to sing might be authentic, but it's a bad listening experience.

That said, We Shall Overcome is an enthusiastic and intriguing mix of songs that captures an evening quite well. Seeger plays a number of recognizable songs - "Little Boxes," "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," "This Land Is Your Land," and "We Shall Overcome." Amidst those, he mixes a wonderful mix of antiwar songs ("Genbaku O Yurusumagi (Never Again The A Bomb)"), anti-boxing songs ("Who Killed Davey Moore?"), and civil rights anthems ("Keep Your Eyes On The Prize"). The songs have moments where they are graphic - on "Mrs. McGrath" the song is a reaction to a soldier returning from war without legs as a disabled veteran - but the language is direct and appropriate for all ages.

Interspersed with the political, there are a few songs just about life and growing up. "My Rambling Boy," "A Little Brand New Baby," and "Skip To My Lou" seem somewhat out of place amidst the political tracks.

Instrumentally, We Shall Overcome is very much one man and his guitar and banjo. The musical accompaniment to Seeger is appropriately stark and direct as the concert was one man singing and playing his own instruments. Seeger is adept and the playing of his instruments is flawless and expressive over the two discs.

Vocally, Pete Seeger tends to stay within his safe, smooth mid-range vocals. On the Dylan cover "Farewell," Seeger goes higher and the song is distinctive for that. Oftentimes, Seeger leads the crowd in following along with the song and "This Land Is Your Land" and "We Shall Overcome" are almost dominated more by the crowds than Seeger. Seeger's voice is largely clear and the audience seldom interrupts too much to be annoying, though the clapping can be annoying at times.

This is very much a complete concert and it is good for anyone who likes folk music. Beyond that, it is valuable as a historical document in that this truly captures Pete Seeger's concert at a time when what he was singing was still vibrant and alive (the references to voting that began the previous November is enough to get those who were born after the events to appreciate how new the codification of these rights for everyone actually are!) and the songs themselves are good and listenable. But it does not replay as well as many other live albums do, making for a much poorer listening experience over time.

The best tracks are "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" (disc 1) and "This Land Is Your Land" (Disc 2), and the low points are "Didn't He Ramble" (disc 1) and "Skip To My Lou" (disc 2).

For other live recordings of folk-rock artists, please check out my reviews of:
Dar Williams - Out There Live
Peter, Paul & Mary - Around The Campfire
Joan Baez - Ring Them Bells


For other music reviews, please visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

| |

No comments:

Post a Comment