Music DVD Review: Unwigged & Unplugged: An Evening with Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer

Hi!

What can I say about Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer that hasn’t been said? These three comedian/musicians have been making people laugh and playing music together in some way or another since Spinal Tap made its first appearance in 1979. And in 1984, when the mockumentary This is Spinal Tap was released, they were forever imprinted on the cosmic consciousness as rock gods Nigel Tufnel, David St. Hubbins, and Derek Smalls.

Since then, the trio have appeared in multiple Chrisopher Guest-directed films such as Waiting for Guffman (1996), Best in Show (2000), For Your Consideration (2006), and A Mighty Wind (2003). The DVD features performances from the soundtracks of This Is Spinal Tap, Break Like The Wind (1992) (the second Spinal Tap album), and the A Mighty Wind soundtrack where the trio played as The Folksmen.

[amazon-product]B002G1X2WE[/amazon-product]What makes this performance so special is that they are playing all of these songs with acoustic instruments or a capella. The trio appears as themselves, not as their characters, and have a great time reminiscing as they play. They are joined by CJ Vanston (who helped them on their latest Spinal Tap project – Back from the Dead (2009)), Annette O’Toole (Michael McKean’s wife who appeared in A Mighty Wind, and Judith Owen (wife of Harry Shearer and a singer-songwriter with her own career).

All three are great comedians who have had wonderful movie and TV careers. Guest played Count Rugen in one of my favorite movies – The Princess Bride. My first exposure to McKean was as Lenny (of Lenny & Squiggy fame) on Laverne and Shirley. And Shearer of course has done voices on The Simpsons forever, including Mr. Burns, Waylon Smithers, Ned Flanders, Principle Skinner, and many more…

But then you add in their musical abilities and these guys can rock. Earlier this year I had an opportunity to review the first release from the Beyman Bros – Memories of Summer as a Child – of which Guest was a part of as well as David Nichtern and CJ Vanston. This was an amazing album for me first because it was great instrumental music which bridged Americana, bluegrass, and jazz genres and second because it showed the world just how great a musician Guest really is.

And now, in the 25th anniversary of the film This is Spinal Tap, these three amazing men are getting together to share their love of comedy and music with their fans. The stars and planets must all be aligning somehow, for this is truly a great show.

Just to hear them play some of the Spinal Tap tunes that previously were only played on extremely amplified (i.e. turned up to 11) instruments on acoustic guitars was great. Everything from “Hell Hole,” “Bitch School,” “Big Bottom,” and “Sex Farm” to “The Good Book Song” and “A Kiss At the End of the Rainbow” – they ranged far and wide through their large repertoire. And to bookend the concert between two verses of the a capella “Celtic Blues” worked beautifully to pull everything together.

All in all the group plays about 30 different songs from their time together. The concert footage is crisp and well shot, the concert sounds great, and by the end you feel like you really wanted to be there to see it all live.

If you like music from This is Spinal Tap or A Mighty Wind, you’ll love Unwigged & Unplugged: An Evening with Christopher Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer. Be sure to look for it at your favorite retailer when it’s released on September 1, 2009. For more about the DVD, check out the website Unwigged.com.

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up this DVD and others from the trio at Amazon below!

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Music Review: Spinal Tap – Back from the Dead (CD/DVD set)

Hi there!

David St. Hubbins, Nigel Tufnel, and Derek Smalls. Living legends of rock & roll. Members of Spinal Tap. Creators of such classic rock hits as “Hell Hole,” “Stonehenge,” and “Big Bottom.” And now, 35 years after St. Hubbins and Tufnel first started playing together, Spinal Tap is releasing their third album – Back from the Dead – to follow up Smell the Glove and Break Like the Wind.

For those of you not up on your Spinal Tap history, here’s a quick summary. In 1984, Rob Reiner directed a mock documentary film of Spinal Tap called This is Spinal Tap. The members included David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), Nigel Tuffnel (Christopher Guest), and Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer). I was introduced to Spinal Tap through the This is Spinal Tap movie in the late 1980s and have been holding a torch for the group ever since.

Spinal Tap music focuses on all the cliches of rock music. Creative yet stereotypical lyrics often about mystical, demonic, or sexual topics sung with the backing of a screeching/yelling lead singer, a tempermental lead guitarist, and a silent, almost Zen bass player. I’d mention the drummer, but Spinal Tap has always had an issue with keeping drummers alive and with the band. One died in a bizarre gardening accident, another choked on someone else’s vomit, and two died of apparent spontaneous human combustion while onstage.

With their latest release of Back from the Dead, I think they’ve outdone themselves. The CD includes 19 tracks, including a few jazz interludes, classic tracks such as “Sex Farm” and “Big Bottom”, and some newer tracks I hadn’t heard before such as “Celtic Blues,” “Back from the Dead”, and “Warmer Than Hell.”

What continues to amaze me about the band is that they’re actually quite good musicians and have a gift for writing comedic lyrics. McKean, Guest, and Shearer also portrayed the fictional band The Folksmen in the 2003 movie A Mighty Wind. They’re all accomplished actors, comedians, and to be able to play as they do is incredible.

Guest recently (January 2009) had a new music effort released – the Beyman Bros’ Memories of Summer as a Child. A combination of jazz, folk, and celtic influences that worked together to create a meditative journey from the beginning of the album to the end. Guest played a variety of instruments (mandolin, mandocello, clarinet, and occasional guitar) and it blew me away.

So the trio doesn’t lack for talent by any stretch of the imagination. The three tracks on Back from the Dead that were titled “Jazz Oddyssey” I, II, and III were each unique and showcased the raw talent aside from their comedic journey as a band. The same holds true for “Celtic Blues”, though it has a comedy bent to it as well. A capella music requires skill, talent, and trust – and they make it work beautifully.

And then there are the traditional tracks. “Big Bottom” speaks of love for big, beautiful women (I’m paraphrasing here). “Hell Hole” shows the journey from nobodies to the top of their game and realizing it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s a quote that stayed with me since This is Spinal Tap – “You know where you stand in a hell hole / folks lend a hand in a hell hole…” Ah, the rock and roll lifestyle.

If you’re a fan of Spinal Tap, or just like mock rock, the music alone would probably be enough to get you to listen and possibly buy it. But they sweetened the deal. There’s also a DVD included in the new release. It’s a series of video segments of the band talking about the various tracks on the album. And it for me sealed the deal.

The original movie worked because it was a combination of music and mockumentary. This CD/DVD release has the same appeal. The video below gives a taste of it.

I can say without a doubt the Back from the Dead “goes to 11” as Spinal Tap would say. It’s great to see the guys back again. They haven’t lost a step. Visit their website SpinalTap.com and be sure to support their resurrection and pick up the album at your favorite retailer!

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up your Spinal Tap movies and music at Amazon!

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Music Review: The Beyman Bros – Memories of Summer as a Child

Hi all…

Christopher Guest has a permanent place in my DVD collection on This Is Spinal Tap, the premiere rock mockumentary of the 1980s. Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest, Harry Shearer, and Michael McKean will forever echo in my brain with the strains of Stonehenge.

So when I heard that he had a new music effort out, I was immediately drawn to it like a moth to a flame. And though Spinal Tap may not be playing on the album, the Beyman Bros have something just as cool to give the world — an amazing musical landscape. No voices, just instruments on Memories of Summer as a Child and these guys can play!

This group of unrelated musicians makes up the Beyman Bros – David Nichtern on guitars (acoustic and electric), Christopher Guest on a variety of instruments (mandolin, mandocello, clarinet, and occasional guitar), and CJ Vanston on everything else (accordion, synthesizer, acoustic and electric pianos). And it’s one heck of a collaboration.

It’s not what I expected. It seems sort of a combination of jazz, folk, and celtic influences jived together to create eleven tracks that don’t fall into the trap of becoming elevator music. They work in highs and lows, key changes, a bit of improvisation, and such a cool array of instruments that you can’t help but tap your toes. (Or at least I couldn’t help but tap my toes.)

The mix of styles and musicians is really what makes this instrumental album work for me. The “smooth jazz” album has grown a bit stale over the years for me. I enjoy a fusion of styles and an upbeat tempo more than the typical sleepy, bedroom jazz I tend to hear on jazz stations on local radio stations. As such, I find myself avoiding them.

But I watched a video of these guys playing together and was immediately entranced. It was the video of the group playing “Moon of Tunis” that threw me over the edge. Once I saw them enjoying themselves in this upbeat tune, I couldn’t stop tapping my toes. They get into a groove and don’t fall out. For me, nothing beats watching a bunch of musicians having fun. Live music beats anything recorded. But watching them play brought that “fun” out for me.

The album as a whole is an eclectic mix, but that’s what makes it so alive for me. It doesn’t just sit there and expect you to go to sleep. It has a pulse. Feel it beat?

And from the first song, “Tulong”, I fell into the groove and then just wound my way from track to track as they led me where they wanted me. After “Tulong”, “Triad” swallowed me up with eclectic electric guitars that lead to so much more… almost telling a story via the layers of instruments and styles. “Hidden Passage” made think of Spyro Gyra, one of my favorite jazz fusion groups growing up as a sax player. And “Awakening” serves as the mile marker at the end of the journey, as though I was in a meditative trance for the last 10 tracks, bringing me back up to the land of conscious thought.

It really does hit me like a trance album — a meditative journey. But not like any have heard in recent years. It’s nice to know that the pacing/arrangement of an album is still an art form.

If you like calm but energetic instrumental music, Memories of Summer as a Child from the Beyman Bros is an amazing entry. Not elevator music. Not smooth jazz. But something much more. Check out the video link above and get a taste for the rest of the album, but I think you’ll like it. Christopher Guest and the gang did an amazing job.

Track listing:

  1. Tulong
  2. Man of La Mantra
  3. Moons of Tunis
  4. Memories of Summer as a Child
  5. Triad
  6. Shelter Island
  7. Hidden Passage
  8. Interlude
  9. Hartland
  10. The River Ebro
  11. Awakening

Be sure to check this one out at Amazon or elsewhere… It’s worth it!

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up the album at Amazon here:

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