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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

YouTube offers music-philes aural nirvana

Published: March 5, 2010
Section: Arts, Etc.

Imagine being a music lover ten years ago.

Seeking out recorded live performances by your favorite artists must have been nerve-wracking. Searching vainly for out-of-print videotapes and trolling the bootlegs in record stores would only yield the occasional gem. Hundreds of obscure musicians would exist only in your fantasies or in the one or two times you were able to catch them in person.

So how grateful are you to live in the YouTube age?

Entire libraries of rare performances are accessible completely free, on demand and at your fingertips. I’ve frittered away hours in front of the computer screen discovering new music and finding reinterpretations of old classics, and I’m sure many of you have as well. Any given artist probably has a treasure trove of available recordings, many of them professional quality. It’s a great way to get new insight into your favorite musicians, and nothing beats the pleasure of seeing a virtuoso putting his entire mind and body into what he does best.

The following is a short list of my favorite live YouTube clips. I intentionally selected a wide range of music to show the incredible diversity available, but they all have at least one thing in common: I can’t help revisiting each over and over. Check ‘em out, and then find your own favorites to enrich your musical life:

“My Favorite Things” by John Coltrane

In 1961, Coltrane recorded a tremendous version of the standard that made him a name to be reckoned with for critic Ralph Gleason’s show “Jazz Casual.” Only Jimmy Garrison is missing from the Classic Quartet, and Eric Dolphy joins with the flute to add another soloist. Elvin Jones’ busy drum-work prefigures the free-jazz directions the group would soon explore, and the fluidity of Coltrane’s glistening runs is absolutely breathtaking.

“Dancing in Your Head” by Ornette Coleman

A 1986 version featuring Ornette in a dapper purple suit is one of the most emotionally intense performances I’ve seen. Starting with the bouncy main theme, it soon descends into utter free-jazz madness that features the great man taking his turns on the violin and trumpet. It’s fun to see shots of the audience looking utterly baffled, but seeing the passion written all over Coleman’s face reminds you that he found nirvana in even the most chaotic moments.

“A Survivor from Warsaw” by the Bamberg Symphony

Composed by Arnold Schoenberg in 1947, this heart-wrenching cantata tells the story of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II. Hermann Prey narrates this version, imbuing each word with the pain of a disoriented prisoner who has just seen his friends and family brutally slaughtered. As he rises to a great crescendo, the chorus bursts from the silence, as the occupied Jews remain loyal to their faith even in their lowest moment by singing the Shema Yisrael. Before hearing it, I never believed atonal music could be so staggeringly powerful.

“It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” by Christina Aguilera

Before the 2007 Grammy Awards, I considered Aguilera just another twee, talentless pop idol, but this tribute to the recently-deceased James Brown showed me otherwise. She belts out the soul number majestically, and my hair still stands on end every time I watch it. Ignore the outdated, chauvinistic lyrics, and ignore the lack of substance in everything else she’s ever done – these three minutes alone validate Aguilera’s entire career.

“Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash

Recorded during his famous concert for inmates of California’s San Quentin State Prison, Johnny Cash’s signature song comes to life in front of a wildly appreciative audience. Cash’s band-mates are almost ridiculously stoic on stage, but the Man in Black has enough vigor for all four of them. He seems ready to burst with emotion as he wheels around the stage, pounding out the boom-chicka-boom rhythm he made famous and yelling out to his band between verses.

“Chocolate Jesus” by Tom Waits

Pull a Satanic preacher out of 1925 and have him sing about a confectionary Savior, and you’ve got the closest approximation to what Waits looks and sounds like during this 1999 Late Show performance. He runs his grizzled voice through a megaphone, his limbs contorted in erratic spasms, and he spends instrumental breaks strutting across the stage like a man possessed and flinging sawdust into the air. As great as his studio albums are, you can’t fully appreciate the guy until you’ve seen Tom Waits perform.