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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » A Bloody Show: John Wesley Harding & Friends Live at Bumbershoot 2005
A Bloody Show: John Wesley Harding & Friends Live at Bumbershoot 2005
Other // Unrated // November 21, 2006
List Price: $19.97 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Jamie S. Rich | posted July 12, 2007 | E-mail the Author
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THE MOVIE:

John Wesley Harding is a cult star who rose through the music scene beginning in the early 1990s, recording several albums of his self-styled "folk noir," a sort of wry take on the traditional genre as filtered through a diet of early '80s singer-songwriters. I've been a big fan since his first major label album, Here Comes the Groom, and have seen him play multiple times as a solo artist, just himself and a guitar. He's the type of guy you go and see as much for his between-song stories as you do for the music.

Jump cut to 2001 and Harding's album Awake. On it was a song called "Miss Fortune," the Victorian tale of a male orphan raised as a girl by a rich benefactor. A compelling story, to be sure. Compelling enough to linger long enough for Harding to turn it into a novel. Published in 2005 under his real name, Wesley Stace, Misfortune is an entertaining book that fleshes out the "Miss Fortune" story, illustrating the potboiling plot with traditional English ballads, the kind of songs that preserve the mythology of society's ills while lampooning its excesses. Murder, poverty, wealth, rebellion, punishment, more muder, and love--it's all fodder for these rhyming narratives.

Naturally, Wesley Stace the novelist was going to hand this material over to John Wesley Harding the musician, and he put together the Love Hall Tryst (the name refers to the central location in the novel) with singers Kelly Hogan, Nora O'Connor, and Brian Lohmann. They recorded songs from the book or tangentially related to it, singing in a traditional Victorian vocal style. The Tryst toured (minus the pregnant O'Connor), accompanied only by Harding's guitar.

That is, until October 2005 and Seattle's annual Bumbershoot arts and music festival. Rather than playing a regular concert, the Love Hall Tryst threw both of Stace/Harding's hats into the ring and created a full show using both the prose and the poesy as part of Bumbershoot's Literary Stage. The result is a A Bloody Show, a much larger production complete with string sections, interstitial readings, and even a little blues rock.

The set still draws largely from the Love Hall Tryst album, Songs of Misfortune, but now Hogan, Lohmann, and Harding are joined on various numbers by different configurations of musicians. For a handful of the songs, they use an assembled string quartet under the name JWH's Harmoniemusik, and on two more--"Do Not Fear the Dark #2" and "Lord Bateman"--by the pre-existing medieval rock combo Minstrel in the Galleries. "Shallow Brown" additionally gets added vocals from Scott MacCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, R.E.M.) and Robyn Hitchcock.

It's a big show. Musicians move on and off at regular intervals, and in between songs, we either get off-the-cuff Harding banter or excerpts from Misfortune. Sometimes these are read by the author, other times Hogan and Lohmann act out the internal dialogue of the main character, but more often, guest narrator Robyn Hitchcock provides the links. Though Harding explains in the package's liner notes that it was all put together rather quickly, the performance moves swiftly and without a hitch. The singers and storytellers are in fine form, and the music sounds great. It's not necessarily a rocking concert--though they do get down on "Lord Bateman"--but more of a recital, something to listen to. It's about the stories being told. The songs tend to cover macabre subjects, lots of murder and hangings and dark turns of phrase signifying darker twists of fate. Given the full presentation, though, A Bloody Show avoids being a stodgy PBS production or a kitschy throwback. Its roots are in the folk tradition, but its seeds are planted farther back than even that. In addition to the traditional numbers, we also get a cover of Leonard Cohen's "Joan of Arc."

The actual film production is a little lo-fi. There are multiple cameras, but they are fixed in place, and it looks like it was edited live. It's not poorly done nor is it distracting, just don't go in expecting some huge rock show with sweeping crane shots and fireworks. A Bloody Show is very much a homegrown effort.

After the main show, Harding does a two-minute encore of sorts, singing Adam MacNaughton's "Hamlet" (a distillation of the play into one wordy pop song) and his own "Sussex Ghost Story." Though both songs fit in well with the rest of A Bloody Show, their modern twists make them a fitting finale.

The full song list:
Miss Fortune
Do Not Fear the Dark #1
Joan of Arc
Lord Lovel
Female Rambling Sailor
The Sanguinary Butcher
Shallow Brown
Lambkin
The Lady Dressed in Green
Do Not Fear the Dark #2
Lord Bateman
The Abandoned Baby
Hamlet
Sussex Ghost Story

THE DVD

Video:
As noted in the main body of the review, A Bloody Show is not a massive video production, but rather shot on the fly and put together without fancy camera tricks. The picture is full frame, and the stage-lighting has a natural appearance that might be a little fuzzy-looking to our high-def eyes. This isn't one you're buying for advances in film technology, however, and if you're digging the show, you shouldn't mind.

Sound:
Like the video, very basic, and recorded live. This means levels do change, and sometimes when people are talking, their own volume and their proximity to the microphone will dictate how well you can hear them. The music sounds warm and full, though, and that's what counts.

Extras:
The first 5000 copies of A Bloody Show are a numbered edition (mine is #1957) with a bonus CD of the 14 demos Harding recorded for the Love Hall Tryst album. It's just him and his acoustic guitar (with the occasional added instrument), and fans of the man's music will definitely want to snatch up this early edition.

As far as the regular extras, the DVD comes in a clear plastic case with a double-sided cover. On the inside are the song credits and Harding's liner notes about this one-off show.

On the DVD itself is a 10-minute behind the scenes documentary cobbling together footage from the single rehearsal session with the string quartet.

FINAL THOUGHTS:
Recommended. Though not the most innovative concert film as far as actual filmmaking goes, A Bloody Show: John Wesley Harding & Friends Live at Bumbershoot 2005 is not like any other you are likely to stumble across. A combination of literature and music, celebrating traditional English ballads, folk songs, and a general love of language, the cult musician and novelist Harding draws together a talented band of people to give an evening's entertainment. Storytelling celebrated in spoken word and song, sometimes written down and sometimes off the cuff, full of humor and macabre narratives. A Bloody Show is bloody good.

Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.

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