YouTube pretty much cracked open the world of rare music footage. Shortly after it was the video-sharing site launched in 2005, concert clips and hard-to-find TV appearances and ultra-obscure rehearsal films — the kind of stuff people used to track down on wonky bootlegs and foreign documentaries — were all available at a click. The Stones, Eric Dolphy, Molly Hatchet, Beck, Can, the White Stripes, Maria Callas, Duke Ellington, Buck Owens. All of a sudden it seemed like everything hidden had been found. But there are still lots of film and video gems that haven't made their way onto YouTube. For a glimpse of some seriously rare gems spanning much of Neil Young's wildly varied career, head to Stamford's Avon on Thursday, March 1 for an installment of Legends of Rock Live. The show, which is featured each month at the Avon (and at a spot in Long Island), showcases footage assembled (and in some cases filmed) by film archivist Bill Shelley.
Shelley's shows feature, as the title suggests, rock legends. He's done the Stones, the Beatles, Bob Marley, the Grateful Dead, and lots of others. Instead of your typical music documentaries — which Shelley says get it backwards, featuring more people talking than music — the Legends of Rock Live shows are basically a series of live clips stitched together, mostly chronologically.
"You get to see the artist in his youngest days, and then grow old," says Shelley, who spoke to the Weekly by phone. "It's a visual documentary —- there's no talking, just music."
Shelley is a film archivist and a researcher by day, and his shows serve as a kind of commercial for the work of preserving old film stock and video footage. (He gets permission from the artists and labels, which isn't difficult, he says, because he's often worked with them on other reissues and archival projects.) If he didn't save this stuff, much of it might vanish. So he likes to press the audience with the value of preservation.
"It's Important to me, because we need to save all these films from rotting," says Shelley. "A lot of these films are turning to smelly dust, shrinking or the nitrates are turning into goop."
Some of these old rockers are shrinking and turning to dust, too. So it's a nice chance to catch them in their glory days. The Neil Young show will include early footage from 1967 when he was a member of Buffalo Springfield, and from the tour for 1970's After the Gold Rush record, as well as early Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young clips and later concert footage from the early '80s when Young entered a wildly eclectic period during which he released country, rock, electronic and rockabilly records.
"We pull all this footage together and then we have to look at it all," says Shelley. "In the case of Neil Young it was about 60 hours of footage. It takes weeks and weeks to look at these things."
Shelley had an early taste of the importance of archiving in 1983 when he was working as a gopher for a sound studio, cleaning out the Brill Building in New York, which had been the workplace of some legendary early 60s songwriters and performers, like Neil Diamond, Carole King, Lieber and Stoller, and others.
"I got to open these doors after years and years," says Shelley. "I saw all the original records, contracts and sheet music — and my boss said 'If you don't take it, it's going in the garbage.' I managed to fill a U-Haul and haul it all back home."
Neil Young: Rare Clips (1967-1985)
Legends of Rock Live, Thurs. March 1, 7:30 PM, Avon Theatre Film Center, 272 Bedford St., Stamford, (203) 967-3660, avontheatre.org
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