Review: The American Epic Sessions

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The American Epic Sessions is a documentary that aired on PBS in the US on June 6, 2017. It is part of the larger American Epic three part series that is narrated by Robert Redford. The series attempts to rescue the lost history behind the boom of American music in the 1920’s. The American Epic Sessions is a 2 hour film that was led and produced by Jack White and T Bone Burnett. The film was produced by Bernard MacMahon who describes the film as:

AMERICAN EPIC is a love letter to the United States. It’s the story of one of the great moments in American history – when the voices of working people, minorities, and rural people throughout the country were first heard. It celebrates all I admire about the country – its rich culture, technological innovation, entrepreneurism and its freedom of speech.”

There are really two main themes to this film. The first main theme is the history and the story behind the equipment used in the film. The second theme centers on the actual music artists who perform during the film. It really is hard to say which theme within the film was more interesting. You would assume that the musical talent would far outweigh a history lesson on musical recording equipment, but that is where you would be wrong. I found the story behind the machine to be fascinating and the music performances inspiring.

 

The Recording System

As mentioned, the first theme that I want to relay is the actual recording equipment. The American Epic Sessions explains the decade long journey taken by engineer Nicholas Bergh to assemble the system. The recording system is the first electric lathe for recording live by cutting records. This system has not been used in over 80 years according to Bergh and his recreation is the only working 1920’s style record lathe in existence. Many of the parts and pieces he had to collect over the years and some had to be reconditioned or machined. The film explains many of the inner working parts of the machine which include the use of a single microphone in a recording studio. In addition to the microphone, there is the record cutting lathe, a 6 foot amplifier rack, and a 100+ pound geared pulley system that powers the system.

Essentially, Bergh sets up the system and then Jack White along with T Bone Burnett invite artists from all genres of music to come and record on the equipment. The result is an amazing experience for the viewer as well as for the artists themselves. Some were even brought to tears as they recalled the stories behind the early days of American music and recording studios.

 

The Recording Sessions

The American Epic Sessions

An interesting thought behind the sessions themselves was that the recording system would only record for approximately three minutes and there was no editing or “do-overs.” One artist explained this type of recording as going to church on Sunday. You dress your best and prepare to be the best version of yourself. In that same way, artists had to come prepared to record because they only got one shot at it and any mistakes would be captured forever on the record. So, it was a very different recording experience than today’s modern digital studios. The sound was much more honest and genuine. That genuine sound really comes through in the performances by the artists.

All of the music on the film is taken from the actual record recordings from the sessions unedited. Below is the list of artists who performed on the film and then I will talk about a few of my favorite performances.

  • Alabama Shakes
  • The Americans
  • Ana Gabriel
  • Ashley Monroe
  • The Avett Brothers
  • Beck
  • Bettye LaVette
  • Bobby Ingano
  • Elton John
  • Frank Fairfield
  • Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton
  • The Hawaiians
  • Los Lobos
  • Lost Bayou Ramblers
  • Nas
  • Pokey LaFarge
  • Raphael Saadiq
  • Rhiannon Giddens
  • Steve Martin and Edie Brickell
  • Taj Mahal
  • Jack White
  • Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard

Favorite Performances

I wanted to call out three of my favorite performances from The American Epic Sessions. Of course, I will tell you why they are some of my favorite moments from the film. I will also say that every single performance is amazing. There were genres of music that I do not prefer and languages I do not know, but the music was still incredible. So, while I could talk affectionately about Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard who were amazing, I want to focus on 3 others for 3 very different reasons.

 

Nas

The American Epic SessionsI grew up in Southern California and I listened to a lot of hip-hop and rap. I know exactly who Nas is and I remember his first album well. What I loved about Nas’ performance was that he rap/sang the song with an accompaniment of stringed bluegrass style instruments that essentially played a beat for him. He performs On the Road Again, a 1920’s song by Memphis Jug Band. The mixture of musical instruments with his lyrics were fantastic. What I loved even more was what he had to say in the interview after the performance because it sums up the film so well. He said:

“When you hear me saying it, you might think I wrote it, because it sounds like something today. These guys are talking about carrying guns, shooting something, protecting their honor, chasing after some woman who’s done them dirty…it’s the same as rap music today, so it just tells you something about American culture, American music…It didn’t start with hip hop, it started a long time ago.  It started with America.”

Elton John

Sir Elton John killed it as anyone might expect. However, the way in which he went about killing it was pure genius. First, Elton sees the machine, learns that it only records for 3 minutes, and makes a sex joke about it. We were off to a great start. Next, he goes into the studio and sits behind the piano. Then, he is given a sheet with lyrics that he has never read or sung before and he creates the music and puts everything together right there in the studio. It was mesmerizing to see a musical genius at work like that.

At one point, Jack White sits next to him and Elton invites him to join him on the track. The two of them work out the melody and harmony of the song and start recording. Elton plays the piano and sings while Jack plays the electric guitar and provides back up vocals. It was by far my favorite performance and gave me chills to watch such amazing talent at work.

The American Epic Sessions
Elton John and Jack White

Beck

My third favorite session was from Beck. What was amazing about Beck’s performance is that he brought a small choir to sing with him, about a dozen people. So, Beck is playing his guitar and singing along with 12 other singers all crammed into a small studio. What makes it better is that they are recording on very sensitive equipment with only one microphone. They actually had to try 13 different set ups with the positioning of the singers and the level of volume from Beck and his guitar before getting it just right. Once they did, they combined for an amazing sounding track.

 

Final Thoughts

I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed this film. You really must go watch it for yourself. Luckily, it aired on PBS so you can actually go to their website and watch it online for free. I have recommended this to so many people. My kids even sat down and watched it with me. They were amazed by the music and what it took to record it. I highly recommend sitting down and watching this film as well as the others in the series. It is one of the coolest documentaries I have ever seen and well worth the 2 hour watch time.

 

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If you’ve seen The American Epic Sessions, let me know what you thought in the comments below. What was your favorite performance? Remember, don’t forget to comment on your favorite author’s work. It encourages them to provide you with more lessons in Nerdology! Remember to follow Malice-Corp on twitter. You can follow Malice-Corp on Facebook. Please check out our YouTube channel and subscribe! Thank you as always for your support.

– BCON, Editor 

@BCON_MaliceCorp

 

 

 

 

 

One thought on “Review: The American Epic Sessions

  • June 25, 2017 at 10:09 am
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    God, I love this. Didja know the Jamaican music scene still uses records? Your records are played for one or two weeks in the clubs, and if they aren’t a hit, they get melted down to be made into the next guy’s record.

    Reply

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