Music DVD Review: Jon Dee Graham Swept Away
Across North America there are probably thousands of men and women who every night strap on an instrument and go about the business of making music. None of them are famous, none of them make huge amounts of money, and very few of them have roadies to carry, set-up, and take down their equipment. Most of them have no illusions about becoming "stars", or any of the other brass ring type dreams that television shows like American Idol encourage people to believe is what matters when it comes to pursuing a life in music. They're just intent upon making a living at doing what they do best; at doing what they love.
Austin, Texas is best known as being the home of the South By Southwest (SXSW) music conference, where thousands of musicians show up every year to showcase their wares for the industry and the press in the hopes of attracting the attention of booking agents and distributors to further their careers. Austin is also home to its own thriving music scene, which, like Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, or any other large metropolitan centre, has its own fixtures; musicians who are talented and passionate about what they do, but don't seem destined to ever to break out of the bar scene.
Producer/ director Mark Finkelpearl of Treadmill Productions, in collaboration with Freedom Records, is set to release the documentary film Swept Away on DVD that tells the story of one of Austin's favourite sons, Jon Dee Graham. Jon Dee has been part of the Austin music scene since the seventies, and has progressed from band member, to sideman, to band leader over the course of his career. He was a founding member of the True Believers who were in the forefront of the alt-country movement and when they disbanded, moved on to playing with Texas luminaries like Michelle Shocked. In 1997 he released his first solo album and was subsequently signed to New West Records for whom he released three recordings. His 2006 release, Full, received critical acclaim, and the same year saw him being named musician of the year at the SXSW conference.
Yet in spite of what seems to be a career path that appears like it had the potential for at least national recognition, if not stardom, the story that's told in Swept Away is of a man, who while earning the respect of nearly everyone who's heard him play, has never managed to do much more than make a living with his music. While that may not sound so bad on the surface, the reality is that it means a life that's spent on the road in cheap motels, playing bars and small venues around the country, while trying to raise a family back in Austin.
Swept Away is part documentary and part concert film, as the camera follows Jon Dee around both on and off stage. There's footage of him in concert with the two versions of his band, one a trio, the other a quartet, at a couple of venues around Austin, and in the studio - Top Hat Studios - where he recorded his last CD. The initial impression of an intense, somewhat brooding, man, is lightened as the movie progresses and we get to see him with his children, but that initial undercurrent of introspection is never quite dispelled. At one point he admits to struggling with depression for most of his life, and takes a certain rueful pride in the fact that people think his music isn't what you'd call uplifting.
Yet, you get the feeling after spending some time with him and watching him perform his music that this is not a world weariness brought on by cynicism or being jaded because of his chosen profession. Instead it is the natural extension of a soul that struggles to express aspects of the human condition. In one telling piece of conversation he refers to the Eastern spiritual figure Kwan-Yin, and points to a small statue of her that shows her standing upon a dragon and holding a small vial whose contents she is pouring onto the dragon. The dragon, says Jon, represent the life force upon which we all stand, and in the vial are tears, because it is human sadness that feeds the life force.
This isn't just some causal bar band player, or session musician. He's an introspective, intense, and aware person who takes the time to consider what it's like to be human and attempts to communicate that through the medium of his choice, music. One of the people interviewed in the documentary, I believe it was Katherine Cole from an Austin radio station, summed up his music by saying it was for adults. While contextually that makes sense, thematically his music deals with subject matter far removed from the usual trivial fodder of most popular music, it ends up trivializing the breadth of feeling and life experience that goes into each of his creations.
One of Jon Dee's band mates describes him as being like a tiger or a panther on stage; his pacing back and forth only hints at the depths of energy and power lying underneath that could be unleashed at any moment. Others describe the incredible energy of his performances and how once you've seen him live you'll be hooked forever. If you think back to what Jon Dee said about Kwan-Yin, and think of it in terms of how an artist would translate that into creative energy and how that might appear to an audience watching him perform, you begin to see that there is more to this man than just another guy performing high energy, intelligent, Rock and Roll.
Although there is no way that anything captured on tape, be it video or audio, can fully recreate the experience of seeing a performer in person, the concert footage of Jon Dee Graham included in Swept Away gives a good indication of the level of intensity that he must reach during a performance. There's an indescribable quality permeating his music that generates a level of intensity that is not dependant on speed or volume. Musicians are at times described as having "soul" by those wishing to define this intangible, as it implies a level of commitment to the music that goes beyond the ordinary, but even that seems to be inadequate when it comes to Jon Dee Graham.
He's tapped into something that allows him to create music that defines experiences in such a way that not only do they ring true, but an audience can identify with them. Yet it's not just the content, it's the spirit behind the song that people recognize; they can see themselves and how they have felt in the situations he describes, like they are looking through the eyes of the song into their own lives.
Swept Away is more than just a documentary about a middle aged Rock and Roll musician, it's the portrait of an artist. Not only has director Mark Finkelpearl given us the opportunity to see some great music being performed through his filming of Jon Dee Graham in concert, but he offers a reminder of the cost paid by someone who has dedicated himself to the pursuit of creativity. There is nothing glamourous or pretentious about Jon Dee Graham's life. Like a great many of us he lives in a quiet residential neighbourhood with his wife, two children and his dog and probably worries about how he's going to stretch his money to cover the rising cost of everything.
Yet there is also something incredibly special about Jon Dee Graham, and the way he looks at the world and is able to communicate that view point to us through his music. Swept Away gives us the opportunity to meet a very special individual, and realize once again what it means to be an artist.
Swept Away goes on sale May 20th 2008 and can be purchased through Freedom Records. You can also purchase the soundtrack to the movie on CD from Freedom Records that features recordings of the tracks performed in the movie at the Continental Club, Mercury Hall, and Top Hat Studios. Either one would be a great addition to anyone's library, but I'd buy both of them if I were you. There aren't many people like Jon Dee Graham out there, and I don't see anybody ever being getting enough of him or his music.