DVD Review: Greg Brown...Last Night at the Mill


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*** out of *****

The DVD begins with just an outside view of the Mill. Then, the camera zooms into the packed bar and eatery, with the soft sounds of a guitar being strummed in the background. The camera continues to move, focusing on the source of the sounds.

Greg Brown and a band of middle-aged men perform their songs on the venue's stage. The audience sits in booths or tables facing the performers while casually drinking a Jack and Coke or eating a slice of pizza.

Greg Brown … Last Night at the Mill was made in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Mill in Iowa City. Local legend Brown is the central performer of the show, which features both old and new songs as well as poetry in honor of the occasion. Everything from the songs to people involved are directly connected to Iowa or Iowa City.

I'm a country fan and have never really listened to the blues. As soon as the music started I began thinking "What am I getting myself into?" Though it wasn't bad, the sound was different than what I'm used to fixing my ears on. But the more I listened, the more I began to enjoy the band's bluesy vibe.

Director Dave Olive has been making video and audio projects since the '70s. This videographer, editor, and DVD maker graduated from the University of Iowa with honors in 1976, and after spending many years in the industry, he established his own company, Vertical Inc., which created this film.

The DVD features 16 different songs, written by different people in a genre that can be best described as "country/blues." There are some interesting songs, such as "Suitcase Boogie," "Almost Outa Gas," and "China." These titles make the viewer wonder what the song is about. Brown's "China" describes how distance (both physical and emotional) plays a part in relationships and how it can seem like someone you love is all the way in China when things aren't going right. Other songs, such as "Roll & Tumble Blues," are about exactly what they say, rolling and tumbling through life.

A couple of songs, such as Brown's "Poor Back Slider" and "Fool Me Once," discuss the more serious topic of alcoholism. "Poor Back Slider" is very interesting because it's about an alcoholic dad who loses his family but the tune to the song is upbeat instead of mellow like one would think it would be.

Other songs, such as "Down at the Mill," "Ode to the Mill," and "Good Night Ol' Mill," are written specifically for the venue.

It's cool that the reason for this DVD is the celebration of 40 great years at the Mill, showing off the small-town, homey vibe of the establishment. It provides viewers with the opportunity to admire the distinct culture of Iowa City and having songs written specifically for the area and the Mill are also fun.

Though the film quality wasn't the best (several moments were shaky or awkwardly done), it still showed good footage of the band and the audience, which was mostly made up of older listeners intently paying attention to every word Brown sings. It's clear they are enjoying the performance as they smile, clap, and whistle.

After listening to Brown perform, it's obvious he has talent, but the DVD's sound quality doesn't necessarily showcase it perfectly. During some songs he pulls away from the mike, making it difficult for viewers to hear him sing. He also tries to make his voice have a certain sound effect, almost like a raspy country twang, but it doesn't necessarily work all the time. On more than one occasion, it simply sounds as if he's mumbling the words.

Overall, I'm glad I checked out what this DVD was all about. It's definitely not party music, but is perfect for when you want to enjoy a piece of Iowa City culture in your own home.

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