Sunday, October 12, 2014

Front and Center Presents: Richard Thompson - Must See TV

First, a disclaimer. I've not watched television for many years. I own a television, but it's been in a storage facility for about eight years. Somewhere between living my life, and my becoming intolerant of the endless madness and brainwashing that has become so much of the mainstream media, I had checked out, and canceled further reservations. As a result, or at least in part, I had never heard of public television's Front and Center.

Each week, Front And Center presents an artist, much in the tradition of the show's forefathers, Soundstage, and Austin City Limits. Even now, I'm late to the party, and the first two episodes of the show's new season have already aired, but when I finally got around to checking out the promo episode I've been sent, I must say that I am completely blown away. It turns out that this show is a great example of what television should be, and could be.

The guest for this episode is Richard Thompson, as great a guitarist as there is on the planet, and an equally adroit storyteller. This piece could easily be a love letter/review of he and his fantastic band, but I'm writing about the show, so I'll make a swipe at an attempt to stay on point.

The production of Front and Center is stunning - let's start with the audio since we are talking about a show that presents musicians playing live music. I'm rather, shall I say, picky about how I listen to music. Once it leaves my computer (if that is the source), the signal hits an ancient low wattage, but remarkable soulful Marantz model 1030 console stereo amplifier which in turn feeds the signal into a pair of equally ancient Radio Shack Nova 8B speaker cabinets - lest the name Radio Shack makes you skeptical, these beauties were built in the company's custom shop in Japan in the mid-seventies, and they are as sweet as they are hefty (38 pounds each). This low budget setup cost me about $150, but I've yet to find a system that sounds better for anything less than about five grand. Suffice to say, I care a great deal about the quality of audio I am hearing, and to the point, Front and Center sounds truly amazing.

Richard Thompson has never sounded better - you can hear every inflection in his voice as clear as a bell, but what comes across even more surprisingly is the sound of his guitar, a coral pink Fender Stratocaster that was assembled from several different instruments by Thompson's road manager and guitar tech, Bobby Eichhorn. You can hear the strings windings connect with the guitar's frets as the guitarist bends and pops notes with his sublime pick and fingers hybrid picking style. You always hear the distinctive twang of Fender single coil pickups, but here we're hearing the beautiful bloom of the bass notes, and the warm midrange that separates great Strats from merely good examples. The engineers of Front and Center have reproduced his tone as well as any producer in a studio could, and that is no small feat. Certainly you know the difference between a band on a late night talk show, and what they sound like on an album, but here you are hearing very, very close to what those in the front row at The Iridium, one of New York City's most venerated venues, where this episode was filmed.

Thompson is not the only guy sounding great here, either. Bassist Taras Prodaniuk, and drummer Michael Jerome are equally represented, and any student or fan of good music will appreciate the sonic brilliance that comes across so sensationally. You can hear the difference in tonality of every cymbal, and you can even perceive where on the snare he is making contact, and that's no mean feat. Prodaniuk's bass is crystal clear and wonderfully warm, and when he goes up to the microphone to sing a harmony, you can very audibly hear when he gets close and hits it hard, or when he backs away to soften up. This is sound done with love, children, and it's not easy, it's not cheap, and it's easy to fool the public, if that's your trip - it is clearly not the trip of the technical staff of Front and Center.

OK - how does it look?

Well, it looks as good as it sounds. The multiple cameras don't miss a thing and the shots from above Jerome's drums is one of the best angles I've ever see. You can both see and hear the tiny tambourine perched at the top of his hi-hat cymbal stand, and I caught myself a few times trying to delineate the dynamic difference when he would hit his cymbals, and I'll be darned if I couldn't. Now that's audio accuracy, and again, you have to be in love with your work to do it that well, to that degree of authenticity and precision.

The colors and contrasts are superb, the direction never allows you to become bored, and it's pretty much exactly what I would want whether I was watching or making the show. Yes, I can't imagine how they could improve what they're doing here. This is the state of the art, and Front and Center almost makes me want to go out and buy a new television. That says an awful, awful lot, and I'll admit that I didn't feel that way going in.

Front and Center started their new season on September 30, and they'll be running ten new episodes between then and December 2. Do yourself a big favor, and check it out. Here's a list of this season's episodes:

Counting Crows                    (September 30)
John Hiatt                              (October 7)
Dierks Bentley                       (October 14)
Joe Satriani                            (October 21)
Lady Antebellum                   (October 28)
Keith Urban                           (November 4)
Paul Rodgers                          (November 11)
The Fray                                 (November 18)
Richard Thompson                 (November 25)
Richie Sambora                      (December 2)

Check your local listings for air dates and times in your area.

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