|John McEuen and Jimmy Ibbotson - Nitty Gritty Surround|
|Music Disc Reviews DVD-Audio|
|Written by Richard Elen|
|Tuesday, 15 October 2002|
Nitty Gritty Surround (DVD-A),
AIX Records, 2001
| Performance 8 | Sound 8 |
While the bulk of DVD-Audio releases are from Warner Music Group, with a steady stream (or is it trickle) of new titles, virtually all of them, as far as I know, are remixes of previous stereo blockbusters. It’s the small companies that are being the most innovative, such as Chesky, SurroundedByEntertainment and, of course, DTS Entertainment, all showing what the new technology can do.
But nobody, to my knowledge, has taken innovation to the level of a new series of DVD Audio/Video discs from AIX Records, a small company in West Hollywood, Calif. Their initial releases cover a wide spectrum, from classical to jazz to ummm… country/folk/neo-bluegrass or however you would like to categorize the music. All of their albums are pristine new 24-bit, 96 kHz sampled digital recordings, not past classics remixed for 5.1. These recordings have been made specifically with surround in mind, performed essentially live, and the result is extremely satisfying.
There are three aspects to AIX releases: DVD-Audio (one side of the disc), DVD-Video (on the other side of the disc, along with set-up notes and basic test signals) and DVD-ROM (on the video side). AIX call this "Tribrid," but the formatting is not as unusual as the content. To begin with, there are several different mixes: a "Stage" mix that puts you in among the musicians (particularly appropriate in this case, where you have the impression of a performance "in the round"), an "Audience" mix, placing you in the best seat in the house (generally, a carefully-chosen live performance venue) and a stereo version. On the DVD-Audio side, the 5.1 stage mix is in MLP (not the audience mix as listed in the inlay – the labels on my disc were also transposed), with the stereo mix in PCM. On the video side, the audience mix is Dolby Digital and the stage mix is DTS. Also on the video side is a complete video presentation with different angles (generally two different video mixes or camera angles, plus one with session notes). Is this cool or what?
It is fully evident that AIX have done their very best to make the DVD-A/V experience as comprehensive and high-quality as possible, and they deserve a great deal of kudos for their efforts.
This album is one of the most interesting in the initial set of AIX releases. John McEuen, aka "The String Wizard," is an extremely influential artist in the bluegrass field, but his work has touched many other genres as well. Probably best known as Jackson Browne’s replacement in the Illegitimate Jug Band (later to become the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, a group that obviously has its name echoed in the title of this album -- McEuen was a prominent member for 20 years), McEuen is largely responsible for the respectability of the mandolin and even the banjo in modern popular music. With fellow Dirt Band member Jimmy Ibbotson, McEuen released the underrated album "Songs and Stories" in 1999.
For this original outing, the pair are joined by an impressive list of musicians. The star guest performer for many people will be the magical Jennifer Warnes who, apart from performing an elegant version "Too Late Love Comes To Me," of one of the most memorable tracks on her latest album The Well, also shows up with backing vocals and a wonderful version of "Somewhere Somebody." There are also several other names you may have heard before on this list, including Randy Tico, playing a very interesting acoustic fretless bass guitar, and Rick Cunha on guitar and ukelele.
The album is a satisfying "in the round" mixture of instrumental and vocal numbers (seven out of 12), with a certain bluegrass flavor and exceptional playing throughout.
On the video front, it’s a three-camera shoot, with tasteful lighting in the ambience of the stage at the Fox Theater, Hanford, CA. You can sit and watch these fine musicians in an evidently enjoyable session if you try the DVD-V side, or read track notes with the DVD-A version. The mixes are unpretentious and appropriate from an audio team including Mark Waldrep and Andrew Giacumakis. I have a preference for the "stage" mix, especially when coupled with the video, as opposed to the inevitably more distant "audience" mix, possibly made more distant by the inclusion of more feed from ambience mics in the empty theater.
On the DVD-ROM portion of the disc, you can find extensive liner and session notes and a bunch of interactive information.
Although these musicians hail from a bluegrass background, I hope this album will reach a much wider audience than McEuen and Ibotson have had so far. Not only does Nitty Gritty Surround present an excellent set of musicians in a flawless performance, but it is also a production that really defines the state of the art when it comes to value-added features in the latest high-quality audio format. Visit the AIX Records web site (www.aixrecords.com), where you can request a brilliant free sampler DVD that will give you an introduction to this inspiring little record company.
Keep an eye on AIX Records. I will.