Talk about value: The Abattoir Blues Tour includes four discs (two DVDs, two CDs for under $30!) with relatively little duplication of tracks (when songs appear on both formats, the mixes differ)! While the performances span at least three dates over two years, the concept itself fits neatly in the modern release paradigm of "record once/release many." There's no wasted effort. Cave and The Seeds get double-duty from their favorite dates, collecting the gate on the spot, then re-selling the tour to fans down the road (whether they caught the shows or not).
Initially I missed the printed booklet, but I later found it tucked into a side sleeve of the elegant, eight-panel/tri-fold digipak. Its contents are light on text and credits, heavy on photos and it's tiny, so it's easily overlooked. No matter: the DVDs tell the real story better anyway. The inclusion of conventional music videos (labeled as "Promotional Videos") on "DVD2" is much appreciated, as is the short film Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus. Both provide greater insight into the artists' intentions for the tour and the albums it was based upon.
Concert video DVDs can be problematic for many reasons, starting with the sound and carrying over to visuals. These DVDs feel very natural and manage to deliver something close to a concert vibe in your living room. The organic nature of the music and the rich arrangements make this easier to accomplish, but the mixes and presentation never bother to mimic studio sound or minimize the audience. In fact, there are moments when the audience is turned up to add more ambiance. The opening moments of "Babe You Turn Me On" benefit from this, bringing the audience and hall into the songs.
Another key decision was to limit each CD's contents to a single tour, and each DVD to a single night's performance. This gives each disc cohesion and its own personality, helping us suspend disbelief. Similarly, the live light show plays a major role in defining the look and texture of the live video The band's timeless look and sound are represented in a palette of classic, antique colors.
DVD authoring is a more subjective art than CD mastering. The format's broad capabilities require design to manage all the options and provide a natural, direct path to the music. Music DVDs have handled this problem in many different ways. Some labels essentially re-invent the wheel for every title. This is nuts, especially when compared to other musical experiences, like CDs or iTunes playlists, which give the listener real control. The Abattoir Blues Tour is better than most current releases, resisting the temptation to tack on un-skippable commercials or a cryptic menu. There are two simple options: You can either listen to music or you can select which mix version you prefer (and then listen to music). When you pick a track, it plays forward like vinyl or a CD, tracking through to the end of the disc after playing your selection. Very nice.
Before going over the top I'll confess that no release is perfect and live records are generally much less so. While the sequencing is good and the songs flow nicely, the DVD was mastered like a modern CD. That's a nice way of saying it lacks dynamics (contrasting loud and soft sections) and the ballads are often as loud as the rockers. This heavy-handed treatment is the norm on major-label CDs, but most DVDs resist the temptation and stick to more moderate levels (especially on the surround tracks). Not here: The levels are loud on all three DVD formats (2.0 PCM stereo, Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1), so this DVD forces the listener to reach for the volume knob if they've been watching TV or movies.
Like other live records, there are minor performance issues throughout (for instance, intonation is off in the vocals in the soft parts of "Easy Money"). But in spite of the compression, the energy of the songs always comes through. While the DVD mixes might be better with less room sound and more definition on the low end, the CD tracks are generally more defined. This is a good creative decision, since it gives each a unique identity, in tune with the respective formats. The venue shown on the DVD is large and open, matching the reverb-heavy mixes. The CDs are more direct, often sounding like high-voltage versions of the album tracks. If you like Nick Cave, you'll need both.
I've heard Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds for years, but never really "got it." It won't surprise readers of this column that I gravitate to more contemporary sounds. I always liked the songs and appreciated the playing of Cave and the Seeds, but the sound never hooked me emotionally. The added dimension of performance, presented in a natural but very fresh way, has opened that door for me. If you missed it like me, The Abattoir Blues Tour set will help you uncover Nick Cave and The Bad Seed's place in contemporary music.
DAVE DAVIS makes records and designs new media at Sound Images.