Film Review: Greg Brown’s Last Night at the Mill

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Greg brown1upBack in 2003, when Greg Brown’s label issued his If I Had Known anthology, it bundled the disc with a DVD bonus: Hacklebarney Tunes, a documentary about the artist that included performance clips. The video was excellent but also a little frustrating. Partway into every clip of Brown doing his thing, the film would cut away to a talking head. Virtually everyone had something interesting to say but after a while, I started wishing they’d just let the guy sing without interruption.

I get that wish on Last Night at the Mill, a 94-minute, widescreen DVD that preserves a June 2003 performance marking the 40th anniversary and closing of a popular Iowa City restaurant/performance venue. The video–which picks up steam after the first couple of tracks–includes spirited readings of a few of Brown’s best compositions (“China,” “If I Had Known,” “Your Town Now”) and such rave-ups as the set closing “Almost Outa Gas” and “You Got Me Dizzy.” There’s enough great guitar work by Bo Ramsey to leave no doubt why Brown has partnered with him for so long.

The emotions surrounding the Mill’s closing are front and center throughout much of the set. Brown and his four-man band perform two songs about the place (“Down at the Mill” and “Good Night Ol’ Mill”) and a local figure briefly visits the stage to read an “Ode to the Mill.” The facility’s co-owner, whom Brown mentions in one of the songs, even joins in on harmonica. (After all this, I was surprised but pleased to find a Web site for the venue where I learned that it reopened under new management only a few weeks after it closed and is still in business today.)

This isn’t the ultimate Greg Brown performance video. Though the sound is excellent, his vocals aren’t always as strong as they are on record and the audio mix sometimes doesn’t help. Moreover, while the image quality is impressive, the video has a bit of a bootleg quality to it: people occasionally walk in front of the camera and there are some oddly framed shots. Its highlights notwithstanding, moreover, the set list is uneven.

But while you’re waiting for a three-hour Greg Brown blu-ray with lossless, surround-sound audio and a track list to die for, this should keep you well entertained. It captures what appears to have been a special night, with Brown kicking back in front of an adoring audience that looks to consist of no more than 100 people. Thanks to this DVD, you can be #101, with a front-row seat, no less.

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