Public television’s Sessions at West 54th series has spent the last few years providing healthy doses of high quality, intelligent music in an intimate live setting. Where I live, it comes on right after Austin City Limits and there’s often no finer way to spend a Saturday evening. Sessions has featured artists from Los Lobos to Richard Thompson to Beck, and some of those performances are finally starting to trickle out on CD.
This first disc has several years of material to choose from, and it’s not hard to detect the constant shuffling and rearranging that went into this release. The accompanying press materials advertise a widely different track listing from the final product, and the DVD features a significantly different lineup of its own. One can almost imagine the producers switching tracks like most of us change channels with the TV remote. The approach seems roughly chronological, though, with all of Volume 1‘s tracks stemming from 1997 or 1998 performances.
Not surprisingly, virtually everything on Volume 1 is top-notch, from Elvis Costello’s collaboration with Burt Bacharach on “Painted from Memory” to Sheryl Crow’s lively rendition of “Everyday Is a Winding Road”. Overall, though, the song selection seems conservative, relying on time-tested acts like Natalie Merchant, John Hiatt, and Shawn Colvin. Again, that’s indicative of the show’s early days, before it really started finding its eclecticism. Still, gems shine through. Hiatt’s “Cry Love” is impassioned, with some raucous harmonies and mandolin strumming. Suzanne Vega’s acoustic take on “Caramel” is delicate and inviting, and Ben Folds Five offer a “Brick” that’s as sombre and gentle as the early-morning drive that starts the song. Sinead O’Connor’s vocals on “The Last Day of Our Acquaintance” are ethereal and haunting, of the sort that we somehow take for granted from her. The Mavericks, however, steal the show by shaking two decades of dust off of the outlaw country chestnut “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down” and really making it swing.
Ultimately, though The Best of Sessions at West 54th may be more prone than most other compilations to the “what about this song?” syndrome. The show gives its performers at least 30 minutes — often more — and viewers who caught the represented shows will undoubtedly have their own favorite moments that aren’t included here. As for the two or three years of performances yet to come, there are plenty of potential goodies: Gillian Welch and David Rawlings whipping ghosts through a goosebump-inducing “CalebMeyer”, Beth Orton’s brittle, transcendent set; or virtually anything from the star-studded Gram Parsons tribute, just to name a few.
If the Sessions at West 54th discs continue to come out, as it appears they will, it will be a series well worth keeping an eye on. Ignore it at the peril of missing some truly magical moments.