James Taylor Live at the Beacon Theater On DVD

James Taylor. Directed by Beth McCarthy. Aspect ratio: 4:3. Dolby Digital 5.1 and 24-bit/48 kHz, two-track PCM. 109 minutes. 1998. Columbia Music Video CVD 50171. NR. $24.95.

What could be less controversial than a DVD music video of James Taylor recorded live in concert? Taylor's been making sweet music for over 30 years now, and although he has tackled some controversial subjects---the war in Vietnam, mental illness---he has dealt with them from the same gentle, personal, and decidedly noncombative perspective that shapes his view of most things (on stage, at least).

This lengthy and very entertaining set was recorded before an adoring audience at New York's Beacon Theater last May, much of which was broadcast live on PBS. Backed by a superb group of musicians, Taylor ably and warmly performs 25 tunes, including originals like "Your Smiling Face," "You Can Close Your Eyes," "Shower the People," "Fire and Rain," and "Mexico," along with some cover tunes he has made his own, such as "Handy Man," "How Sweet It Is," Buddy Holly's "Everyday," and Carole King's "Up on the Roof" and "You've Got a Friend."

So what's subversive? Sony spared no expense in the production of this first-class, dual-layer disc, supplying producer and Grammy–winning engineer Frank Filipetti with the finest audio/video gear, including the newest 48-track digital audio recorder and a bevy of digital video cameras. Before the concert, I asked Filipetti, a known fan of analog recording, about how he felt recording the concert digitally, then having to squeeze the results through the Dolby Digital meat grinder to create the 5.1-channel mix.

He responded by telling me about the new 24-bit digital recorder, which he was quite high on; then he grinned and said something about rising to the challenge of the multichannel mix. But the expression on his face told me he had something else up his sleeve, and he did: Along with the 5.1-channel audio mix, Filipetti and the other technicians managed to squeeze a two-channel, 24-bit/48 kHz stereo mix onto the PCM track.

If your DVD player provides 24-bit/96 kHz DACs, you can compare the high-resolution two-track mix (in both stereo and Dolby Pro Logic) with the heavily compressed Dolby Digital 5.1 version. You can hear for yourself what damage, if any (ha!), the compression does to a masterfully recorded and mixed signal.

Remember to use the analog outputs of your DVD player and not the digital out, or you won't get 24-bit/48 kHz performance---unless, of course, your processor is equipped with 24/96 DACs. I did the comparison using Panasonic's excellent A-110 player through Linn's $27,000 A/V system (currently under review). You won't be able to watch the video while listening to the high-resolution two-channel mix unless you reconfigure your system for your DVD player's analog output in a video mode.

In fact, Columbia Music Videos' normal default position is the two-channel PCM mix, which is intended to prevent non–Dolby Digital users from inadvertently listening to the DVD player's internal and clearly inferior two-channel Dolby Digital mixdown. Apparently, the choice is controversial in some circles, but I think it's the right one.

Although Dolby Digital is fine for film soundtracks and marginally acceptable for multichannel music-video DVDs, what I heard in this comparison only reinforced my feeling that it should never be allowed to become the standard for serious music applications. What's lost in order to gain the surround channels is simply unacceptable, especially where the 5.1-channel mix aims to give you only a tasteful, natural hall perspective (as it does here), using the surrounds for ambience and applause rather than flashy, unnatural surround hijinks. (Filipetti does sneak backing vocalists into the rear channels on a few tracks.)

The two-channel 24/48 mix has far better bass dynamics and definition as well as clearly superior image focus, solidity, and---ironically---stage depth. It sounds sweeter, more "musical," and possesses the rhythmic drive of live music, which the 5.1 mix sorely misses. Switching to the Dolby Digital mix dramatically opens up the soundstage and envelops the listener in an exciting, three-dimensional sonic perspective, but the front of the stage is spatially flat, ill-focused, bright, and hashy as an Amsterdam coffee shop. What's more, it feels musically lobotomized. I know, I know; you can't measure feelings, so they don't exist for some of you. Back here in the real world, they're connected to music.

And the music on this DVD is worth savoring. The young Taylor burst onto the music scene a fully formed and totally original vocalist and guitarist. He has both style and substance; in this performance, style triumphs somewhat over substance, but he wins you over with an easy, likable stage presence, even if the seemingly frozen smile on his face is sometimes painfully inappropriate for the tune at hand. On "Mighty Storm," for example, he grins his way pleasantly through a song about a hurricane that wiped out a city.

Taylor's voice remains remarkably unchanged after three decades of performing, and when his material syncs with his naturally affable persona, there's magic on the stage. This superbly recorded and produced disc brilliantly captures the evening's performance and delivers it whole to your home theater. I know because I was there to enjoy it live. The disc also includes a well-conceived backstage interview with Taylor and two music videos, "Copperline" and "Enough to Be on Your Way," all of which are on the PCM track only in 16-bit/44 kHz resolution. Once you've selected the interview or the music videos, you can't return to the menu using the remote's menu button; instead, you must hit Skip. Sometimes, I think DVDs need to come with instruction manuals.

There's also a particularly complete discography, including color album covers, label info, release dates, song titles, collaborators, and useful information for Taylor completists---like the fact that some of the songs on Greatest Hits from 1976 (a superb-sounding LP, by the way) are re-recordings, and one song, "Steamroller," is a live take. There are also bios of Taylor and his bandmates. The producers make use of DVD's subtitle capability, giving you the option of having the song lyrics displayed as Taylor sings them.

A first-class production in every way, James Taylor Live at the Beacon Theater sets the standard for how music DVDs should be recorded and produced. It is essential for Taylor fans and recommended as a music and sound demo disc.