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Robert Christgau on 'American Epic,' Americana, and an Epic

The Dean of American Rock Critics reviews the five-CD 'American Epic' set and a pricey but brilliant new Ornette Coleman collection, plus live albums from The Grateful Dead and Van Morrison.

Robert Christgau

Image via Wikimedia Commons

The self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics," Robert Christgau was one of the pioneers of music criticism as we know it. He was the music editor at the Village Voice for almost four decades where he created the trusted annual Pazz & Jop Poll. He was one of the first mainstream critics to write about hip-hop and the only one to review Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water with one word: "Melodic." On top of his columns, he has published six books, including his 2015 autobiography, Going Into the City . He currently teaches at New York University. Every week, we publish Expert Witness, his long-running critical column. To read more about his career, read his welcome post ; for four decades of critical reviews, check out his regularly updated website.

American Epic: The Collection (Lo-Max/Third Man/Columbia/Legacy) The Anthology of American Folk Music isn't just a hard act to follow, it's an impossible act to follow, because its 84 songs do literally constitute a canon. But the 100 selections on these five discs make for quite the sequel. Replicating only 11 Harry Smith picks, including several—"James Alley Blues," "Peg and Awl," "Down on Penny's Farm"—that I never ever mind hearing again, they also nab essentials Smith let slide: "Old Dan Tucker," "Sallie Gooden," "Blues in a Bottle," "Sittin' on Top of the World," "Walk Right In," "'Taint Nobody's Business if I Do." Robert Johnson and Jimmie Rodgers are here, Geeshie Wiley's "Last Kind Word Blues" and Emmett Miller's "Lovesick Blues" and Washington Phillips's "Denomination Blues." Irresistibles that were news to me include the Dixieland Jug Blowers' "Banjoreno," Whistler's Jug Band's "Foldin' Bed," Burnett and Rutherford's "Ladies on the Steamboat," the Massey Family's "Brown Skin Gal (Down the Lane)," Lydia Mendoza's "Mal Hombre," Lane Hardin's "Hard Times," and Truett and George's "Ghost Dance." Though disc three falls short however righteous the multilingualism that is one reason why, the other four overreach with attitude. The audio improves markedly on Anthology's. The liner notes are solid where Smith's were fanciful. Lyrics are included. So what are you waiting for? A

Celebrate Ornette (Song X) "The Deluxe 5 Disc Gatefold" version at ornettecoleman.com comprises three CDs, two DVDs, a poster, an informative 26-page booklet, and a 10-page program from Ornette Coleman's memorial service. It will set you back $100. The $275 version adds 180-gram vinyl and a program signed by Denardo Coleman. Either way that's real moolah for most of us. The memorial performances—by Pharoah Sanders, Henry Threadgill-Jason Moran, Geri Allen-Ravi Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, and Jack DeJohnette-Savion Glover, among others—were presumably more compelling in their contextualized moment than on their CD, although I couldn't get through enough of the DVD to make sure. And I admit that my rave for the two-CD farewell concert, performed free at Prospect Park a year before Ornette died in 2015, reflects my memory of being transported by it in person. Nevertheless, I say it's an amazement. Ornette himself, frail and failing mentally—he would never play in public again—performs as free as it gets for 20 minutes at the outset, hesitantly at first but with heartbreaking lyricism nonetheless as Antoine Roney gently steers him into the beloved "Ramblin'." Throughout the jazz is stunning—Henry Threadgill at his omnivorous, unflappable, legible best, Ravi Coltrane channeling his dad right, Geri Allen flexing her muscles, Blood Ulmer returning to his harmolodic roots. With kudos to Flea and the Master Musicians of Joujouka, the non-jazz is less so, but nonetheless enriches Coleman's pervasive commitment to felt innovation. And throughout the glue and guiding genius is his son Denardo, miraculously evolved into one of the greatest drummers in jazz history. And even if you're not convinced by the CDs, don't skip the Prospect Park DVD, a different version of the same event that's one of the few music films I've ever been moved to share with people I don't live with. Overpriced? Maybe. But a document I treasure. So if you can afford it... A MINUS

Grateful Dead: Crimson White & Indigo (Rhino) Old and on their way, they jam in the Fourth on July 7, 1989, with a miraculously or pharmaceutically pepped-up Jerry launching a searing "Iko Iko"-"Little Red Rooster"-"Ramble On Rose"-"Memphis Blues Again" sequence before receding into grotty but engaged desuetude ("Iko Iko," "Knockin' On Heaven's Door") ***

Van Morrison: ... It's Too Late to Stop Now... Volumes II, III, IV & DVD (Legacy) Three concerts within just two months of 1973, 45 songs total, only seven repeated, none thrice—nifty package, considering ("Since I Fell for You [IV]," "Come Running," "I Paid the Price") **

Grateful Dead: Cornell 5/8/77 (Rhino) Cleanly executed, Weir-heavy, proto-Americana three-CD concert that I bet owes its inflated rep to the total absence of "Space" and "Drums" ("St. Stephen/Not Fade Away/St. Stephen," "Brown Eyed Women") *

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