Blu-ray Review “The Doobie Brothers: Live at Wolf Trap”

The Doobie Brothers: Live at Wolf Trap
Blu-ray (also available on DVD, CD, and vinyl)
Eagle Vision
Total Running Time: 166 minutes (including extras)

Our Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

From the opening motorcycle revving to the closing bows, “The Doobie Brothers: Live at Wolf Trap” makes a solid two-hour case for why the Doobies stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the greatest bands of the classic rock era. The two-hour show is packed with iconic hits that never seem dated: “Long Train’ Runnin’”, “Take Me In Your Arms”, “Jesus is Just Alright”, “Black Water” – the list goes on and on. Filmed in 2004 at Virginia’s Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, the band immediately launches into a groove that combines elements of rock, country, bluegrass, blues in a way that is always appealing and flat-out fun. And, as the closing credits roll, one question is clear: Why aren’t the Doobie Brothers in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?  They’re looooong overdue.

The 2004 Tommy Johnston-led line-up draws almost exclusively from the band’s LPs from the 70’s that featured Johnston on lead vocals and guitar. Songs from the considerably mellower Michael McDonald era of the 1980’s are almost entirely absent – a respectable move given that McDonald’s “ya mo’ be there” vocal is such an inseparable earworm trademark. The sole McDonald track performed at the Wolf Trap – “Takin’ It to the Streets” – is handled vocally by founding Doobie, Pat Simmons, and the Brothers’ touring bassist, Skylark. The result is a live version that is equally as good if not better than the original version. It also provides the energetic bassist some center stage time that he so richly deserves. In fact, if there’s an intoxicatingly awesome performance to watch on this disc, it’s his.

Despite the fact that the concert is from almost a decade ago and has been available on DVD for  nearly as long, it truly shines on this first-ever Blu-ray issue given that the show was filmed using 10 high-definition cameras. While the overall program does suffer some from rapid-fire editing, the picture is always crisp and clean and the colors are perfectly balanced. The disc defaults to a LPCM stereo audio track that often buries the lead vocals so much that they’re almost inaudible in various spots. Switching over to the vastly superior DTS Master HD mix provides a much more even mix that utilizes the surround channels very effectively.

The disc also suffers from other technical issues that should have been corrected before this disc made it to market. The biggest problem is the extreme difference in sound levels between the live concert itself and the bonus features that are included, which include “backstage pass interviews” (which is more-or-less a sampler from the “Listen to the Music” documentary released late last year) and interactive links that appear during the concert that allow the viewer to jump into interview segments that directly pertain to the song being performed. While this audio glitch isn’t a big deal for the former, it’s hugely frustrating to have to crank up the volume to hear what Johnston and Simmons are saying and then, as a result, return to the concert footage now at deafeningly-loud sound levels. Some simple equalization and basic mixing would have gone a long way. It’s also somewhat annoying that the distracting talking head icons that appear at the bottom left corner of the screen to indicate the availability of the in-concert interview clips can’t be turned off completely.

Technical issues aside (they’re the only reason I’m docking this one by a full star), this is an amazing disc that showcases a legendary band in peak form. Now 40+ years on down the track, the Doobie Brothers’ long train is still runnin’ as strong and as powerful as ever.

Blu-ray Review “The Doobie Brothers: Let the Music Play -The Story of the Doobie Brothers”

Starring: The Doobie Brothers
Distributed by: Eagle Vision
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Release Date: November 13, 2012
Total Running Time: 148 minutes (including extras)

Our Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

With a career spanning over 40 years, over 40 million albums sold, and 25 band member line-up changes, the Doobie Brothers are a band that’s a ripe subject for an amazing documentary that chronicles their highs and lows and downs and outs. Unfortunately, “Let the Music Play” isn’t that documentary. While it does satisfy the prerequisites through band member interviews and archival footage and stills, it doesn’t really grab hold of the reigns and become something that is completely engaging or memorable.

The film establishes its pattern from frame one: talking head > concert footage/stills > repeat. While the stories each of the Doobies tell are fairly interesting, there are constant and tedious refrains of self-praise (“This is a band that could play anything!”) and stories of how a relentless recording and touring schedule burnt out so many members of the group. It’s pretty cut-and-dry stuff and, as a result, “Let the Music Play” never ascends above the level of a “Rockumentary 101” student’s final project.

How could the documentary have been a better one? For starters, the interview questions could have been a lot more probing and elicited more personal responses that shine a light on the band’s soul. We don’t get to hear any anecdotes or specific “There was this ONE time on the road…” stories that often make band bio films fascinating. It would be one thing if the Doobies were fairly droll individuals who weren’t articulate and interesting to listen to, but that’s far from the case. Throughout the entirety of “Let the Music Play”, we keep waiting for those stories that probably could and want to tell – the ones that we’ll remember after the end credits have rolled – but they’re never delivered.

The filmmakers would have done well to borrow some well-established motifs – and dare I say clichés – that are constantly used in the myriad of “making of classic rock albums” docs that have been released over the past decade. Legendary producer Ted Templeman factors into “Let the Music Play” quite frequently, shedding light as to what working with the Doobies was like, and accurately describes them as “Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young with leather jackets”.Given this, why not put him behind a mixing console so he can play some of the individual tracks from the multi-track studio mixes to highlight some of the three-part harmonies that made songs like “Black Water” unique and classic? It’s a huge missed opportunity that could have added the type of depth that the film as a whole lacks. And what about all of those guitars we see behind each of the guitarists while they are being interviewed?  Why not let them play them from time to time to demonstrate how some of the classic licks that the Doobies are famous for were created? Pat Simmons has a guitar in his lap whenever he’s talking to the camera!  Alas…another missed opportunity.

Perhaps the biggest shortcoming of “Let the Music Play” is that it really doesn’t let the music play much at all. It would be one thing if footage of great performances were scarce but that’s clearly not the case given that the disc’s sole extra is 48 minute worth of live performances. The nine tracks that comprise this bonus feature are presented chronologically and span a wide range of the years from longhair to mullet to grey. The opener, “Rainy Day Crossroad Blues”, shows lead vocalist and guitarist Tom Johnston and a handful of his band mates gathered in a circle around a hotel’s outdoor pool area. A single camera on a tripod captures Johnston chunka-chunking away at his acoustic guitar and singing the lyrical sections that he’s already come up with for the song and humming the rest. It’s a stop-and-start affair full of trial and error, but the net result is that we get front-and-center seats to see the miracle of life as a new song is born. Even though this home movie clip runs a mere four minutes, it’s more fascinating that the entirety of the 100-minute documentary that it’s been tacked on to. Adding it and a couple of the other live footage clips to the film would have allowed “Let the Music Play” become something special and worthwhile.

It’s a shame that the film falls so short of being the definitive documentary about a band that is so proficient and significant and whose music is often timeless. “Let the Music Play” should, when inhaled, provide a great high but, instead, only delivers a disappointingly weak buzz.