The tagline for Channel Four’s Live from Abbey Road: Best of Season One in the United Kingdom is ‘Making Music History’. In the United States, where the show airs on the Sundance Channel, it carries a different slogan — ‘Up Close and Musical’. These marketing approaches succinctly represent the two key interests of producers Michael Gleason and Peter Van Hooke and director A.J. Jankel.
On one level, the series is an attempt to unite musicians and performers at different stages of their careers at the historic Abbey Road Studios in London. But the other impulse of the show is to provide a window into musicians at work. As a 60-minute television program, Live from Abbey Road uses interview and live performance footage of up to three songs per artist to successfully blend iconic atmosphere with intimate access to the recording process. However this compilation DVD set, which collects highlights from the first season, distorts that balance with a greatest hits-style succession of songs that covers a lot of popular musical territory but rarely achieves the comprehensive approach of the televised series.
In a diluted way, the breadth of artists represented in this collection reflects the producers’ penchant for combining an established star, a singer/songwriter, and a current hit maker in each episode. For example, episode 11 originally featured Primal Scream, Paul Simon, and Corinne Bailey Rae. This is a wise, audience-friendly organizational strategy, because the series thus appeals to a wide range of consumers, from casual viewers tuning in to catch one favored artist to entrenched music enthusiasts seeking to compare and contrast the different influences and incarnations of popular music and its messengers. By featuring 25 artists across two discs, the DVD collection retains the show’s potential to reach a large audience.
Though to its detriment, the collection rearranges the order in which the artists first appeared on the series, omits some artists altogether, and most significantly abridges the interviews and performances. This is a measure that ensures a diverse showcase of talent but restricts that talent to one representative song apiece. Some performances flourish via this talent show approach, while others cause the viewer to wonder if something more compelling was edited out. From a production standpoint, the look of the series shifts with each artist rather than use a uniform shooting and cutting style. The combined effect is to associate with each artist a certain sound, a fixed style of performance, and a specific visual aesthetic.
The most enjoyable performances here are just that — ‘performances’ rather than simply ‘takes’ – that unite a solid pop song with a charismatic delivery and unique production values. Natasha Bedingfield makes a particularly winning appearance with “I Wanna Have Your Babies”. Unlike many of the other performers, Bedingfield directly acknowledges the camera, at times with a playful sense of seduction. Although she is marketed as a solo artist, here she becomes locked into a tight unit with her backup singers and band. The mobile cameras pan, tilt, intensify and track to include multiple band members in single shots. The footage is cut to match the verve of the song and the contributions of both the singer and her accompanists. Overall, this visual context is a perfect fit for the song’s bouncy, jubilant qualities.
Jason Kay of Jamiroquai benefits from the combination of his interview with illustrative performance footage. Sweat dripping from his hair throughout the post-performance interview, Kay reveals an enthrallment with the possibilities of pop music composition. Excitedly explaining how he guides his band to find the right ingredients for a song, Kay seems like a man in love with the work of making music as opposed to his public image as a fabulously wealthy, funny hat-wearing front man. Presciently, Kay criticizes the one-song-per-artist approach that the original series avoided but this DVD collection takes. With jamming as his band’s namesake, he decries as dire the experience of going on television for just one number. Jamiroquai manages to transcend that rigidity here because “Love Foolosophy” has been extracted from a cracking live jam that accurately represents the band’s live show.
Wynton Marsalis also stands out. His interview covers the political and social culture of jazz, and his performance of “You and Me” is expertly shot with precise, still compositions that emphasize the taut and energetic playing of his band, particularly Carlos Henriquez on bass. Other highlights of the collection include Craig David, Gnarls Barkely and The Good, The Bad & The Queen, the latter of whom add production design elements (red flags) and costumes (top hats), fully embracing the visual component of the project.
Less impressive are Corinne Bailey Rae, Damien Rice and Ray LaMontagne. Rae’s delivery of “Put Your Records On” is innocuous, but the way she is lit, shot and constantly onscreen at the exclusion of her live band suggests a standard network television show performance rather than an installment of a series concerned with musicianship. Rice and Lisa Hannigan turn in a lifeless rendition of “9 Crimes”, a song that fundamentally fails to develop and provides little inspiration for a visual presentation. The most disagreeable by far is LaMontagne, who uses the interview segment to petulantly rail against his record contract and talk about his tortured existence as a singer-songwriter. This is a hard act to swallow from a man whose career trajectory has taken him from working at a shoe factory in Lewiston, Maine to performing a solo set at Abbey Road Studios. His performance of “Trouble” is strangely insincere for an artist who claims to be so genuinely tormented.
As would be expected in a best-of set, this release meets high visual and aural standards. The clean though sometimes overly bright 5.1 Dolby and DTS Surround mixes honor Abbey Road’s unmatched reputation as a recording studio, although the cameras carefully avoid giving away too many of the space’s secrets. Bonus features include a brief behind-the-scenes featurette and extended artist interviews, which provide additional context for the project and performances.