The American Epic Sessions, a new award-winning film featuring an all-star roster of contemporary artists replicating early recording processes on an original 1920s electrical recording system is being aired in the UK tonight (9 June 2017) on BBC Four.
Produced and written by Bernard MacMahon, Allison McGourty and Duke Erikson, and with Jack White and T Bone Burnett also on board as executive producers, The American Epic Sessions is the result of what happened when artists such as Elton John, Alabama Shakes, Beck, Nas and Willie Nelson were given the chance to record like Jimmie Rodgers did in 1927, and marks the first time one of the oldest recording methods was successfully used for a project of this kind in approximately 90 years.
For The American Epic Sessions concert film, audio engineer Nicholas Bergh reassembled a direct to wax recording system from original parts as first used in the 1920s, and it is now the only one left in the world. The system consists of a single microphone, a towering six-foot amplifier rack, and a live record-cutting lathe, powered by a weight-driven pulley system of clockwork gears. The musicians have roughly three minutes to record their song before the weight hits the floor. In the 1920s, this was known as ‘catching lightning in a bottle.’ All the musical performances in The American Epic Sessions are live, and the audio heard is taken directly from the discs they were recorded to, with no editing or enhancements.
The soundtrack of the film will be released on CD and digital download through Columbia Records on 9 June and on vinyl via Third Man Records on 16 June, along with extra performances not featured in the film.
In one of the many memorable moments captured for the film, Elton John composes a new song on camera called Two Fingers of Whiskey, from lyrics that Bernie Taupin has just given him, and is accompanied by Jack White for the performance.
Alongside the film there is also American Epic, a three-part historical documentary film series that has just completed a three-week run on PBS in the US and concluded Sunday 4 June in the UK on BBC Four. It explores the pivotal recording journeys at the height of the ‘Roaring Twenties’, when music scouts armed with what was then cutting-edge recording technology captured the breadth of American music and discovered the artists that would shape our world.
As well as currently being available on BBC iPlayer in the UK, the series is now streaming via pbs.org/americanepic and the PBS apps for mobile and OTT devices, and will be out on Blu-ray and DVD on 13 June from PBS Distribution. The series will also be available for digital download.
Legacy Recordings, the catalogue division of Sony Music Entertainment, has also released American Epic: The Collection, a five-CD/100-song deluxe box set, and American Epic: The Soundtrack, a single disc anthology of 15 songs featured in the three-part historical documentary (1LP or 1CD).
See below for a video of Elton John and Jack White’s duet for the film, and watch out for an interview with Nicholas Bergh in the next issue of Audio Media International detailing his decades-long restoration work on the recording system.