Channel Four's Live From Abbey Road is an hour-long music performance program in the MTV Unplugged mode, where artists do a session at the legendary London studio, best known as the home of the Beatles. Each program typically features three artists (often an icon, a singer-songwriter, and an up-and-comer) performing multiple songs, captured by the show's talented camera crews and recorded live for top-quality audio, augmented by brief artist interviews.
It's a fine series, warm and intimate with a little something for everyone. But the DVD release of its first season (or "series", for you Anglophiles) is a disappointment, because instead of putting out the expected "complete first season" set, we've been only supplied with a two-disc Best of Season One. Who knows why; perhaps the rights for a full season of songs were too expensive to acquire, or some acts weren't willing to participate (some of the bigger names, including Paul Simon and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, are suspiciously missing from this "best of" set).
But for whatever reason, what we have runs about two and a half-hours total, and only features a handful of the season one artists, each performing only one song and appearing in a brief interview. These are the artists represented, and their songs:
-John Mayer ("Vultures")
-Corinne Bailey Rae ("Put Your Records On")
-Dr. John ("I Ain't No Johnny Mercer")
-Craig David ("Hypnotic")
-Damien Rice ("9 Crimes")
-LeAnn Rimes ("Can't Fight The Moonlight")
-Josh Groban ("February Song")
-Natasha Bedingfield ("I Wanna Have Your Babies")
-Wynton Marsalis ("You and Me")
-Nerina Pallot ("Idaho")
-Jamiroquai ("Love Foolosophy")
-Ray LaMontagne ("Trouble")
-Gipsy Kings ("Bamboleo")
-Norah Jones ("Thinking About You")
-David Gilmour ("On An Island")
-The Good, The Bad, & The Queen ("Nature Springs")
-The Kooks ("Naïve")
-Gnarls Barkley ("Smily Faces")
-The Goo Goo Dolls ("Iris")
-Iron Maiden ("Hallowed Be Thy Name")
-Kasbian ("Shoot The Runner")
-Primal Scream ("Rocks")
-The Zutons ("Valerie")
-Dave Matthews ("American Baby")
-Amos Lee ("Truth")
The eclecticism of the show's line-ups makes for a bit of a strange brew here; how many shared fans do LeAnn Rimes and Iron Maiden have? Even hardcore music aficionados may find themselves tapping the chapter skip button and moving on to the next artist. The greater problem, however, is that the set ends up amounting to a bit of a tease. Too often over the course of the two discs, we're simply left wanting more; we seem to move on from Gnarls Barkley or the Gipsy Kings just as they get cooking. (Ironically, Jay Kay of Jamiroquai spends part of his interview disparaging television appearances where you're only allowed to do one song; we're then shown his group performing one song.)
This is not to say that there aren't plenty of good performances in this disc; quite the contrary. Corrine Bailey Rae and Norah Jones seem particularly at ease within the mellow vibe of the show, their lovely voices and jazzy combos melding perfectly in the space. Damien Rice does a particularly solid turn, as does the always-reliable Wynton Marsalis. Jamiroquai damn near stops the show with their infectious funk (most of the artists bring a single instrument or a small combo; Jay Kay brings an orchestral ensemble--you know, just for flavor), as do the aforementioned Gnarls Barkley. Harder rock acts like the Kooks and Kasabian are impressively rough-edged and provide nice balance, while the series also provides able introductions for a few artists I confess ignorance of (including the very talented British songstress Nerina Pallot).
But, as mentioned, you're also bound to find an artist you don't care for in this bunch (why does my nemesis Dave Matthews keep popping up everywhere?), though some blend into the show better than others (I've never been a John Meyer fan, but his performance here isn't half-bad). You may end up skipping around a bit, but the Live From Abbey Road set is worth at least a glance.
This is an especially good-looking series, well-transferred; the series is shot on high-definition video cameras, with contrast and grain pushed to give the 1.78:1 image an entirely-intended "film look". Most of the performances have an autumnal lighting strategy, which augments the intimate vibe (though skin tones occasionally veer slightly into the yellow palate). The interview and behind-the-scenes segments are less controlled, but serve as a nice counterpoint to the smooth look of the performances.
Audio is also first-rate. The viewer is given the choice of 5.1 Dolby or DTS surround mixes, with interviews pushed to the center channel and performances spread across all channels. The songs have a nice, warm sound, while the spread is even and encompassing. The top-notch mixes put the viewer right in the room with the artists, making for a very solid audio experience.
Extras are pretty slim. We have eight lengthy Extended Artist Interviews (running 51:11 total), along with a very brief Behind the Scenes featurette (4:58), quickly summarizing the creation of the program and the production process. Those hoping for extra performances, or some of the artists inexplicably missing, will be disappointed.
Live From Abbey Road is a terrific music series, but the Best of Season One set does not do it justice. We're simply left wanting more, and hopefully the show's creators will take note and do the right thing when it comes time to put out the show's second season. Diehard fans of the included artists may want to pick this set up; everyone else should Rent It.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.