Live from New York?

Saturday Night Live and DreamWorks Records team up for two not-ready-for-prime-time compilations

For the most part, however, the hits that he and Ostin selected are too old to be capitalized on, resulting in a pair of discs that feel as though they should have been released in 1995. If Saturday Night Live and DreamWorks wanted to put together a compilation of current chart-toppers that would pay for the rest of the series, they would have been better served sticking to the last year or so. It's the same trap that similar discs from Late Night With Conan O'Brien and The Late Show With David Letterman fell into in recent years, shying away from more obscure -- and far more fulfilling -- performances in favor of mainstream artists struggling to stay afloat. But Shiraki contends that the performances are still meaningful even if the artists no longer are.

"I think there are some particularly interesting stories from the discs," he says. "The Counting Crows doing 'Round Here' was the first television performance from this band ever. We put them on the show before they'd even charted. They were virtual unknowns. They came in on January of '94 and basically debuted themselves for the nation on SNL, and then exploded a couple of months later. Annie Lennox doing 'Why' was her first solo performance in the States. As far as that goes, Nirvana doing 'Rape Me,' was their only live performance in support of In Utero before Kurt Cobain's death. These are important performances."

The familiarity of the songs wouldn't be as glaring if Shiraki and Austin had selected hits from more than one decade. The Musical Performances gives the false impression that Saturday Night Live first hit the airwaves sometime around 1990, ignoring the first five years of the show, or rather, the time period when most of the best guests appeared on SNL. Only Elvis Costello's landmark 1977 rendering of "Radio, Radio" (begun after he abandoned the tamer "Less Than Zero" only a few seconds in), Billy Joel's "Only the Good Die Young," and The Grateful Dead's "Casey Jones" (both in 1978) survive from that era.

Saturday Night Live: The Musical Performances couldn't live without Elvis Costello's "Radio, Radio."
Saturday Night Live: The Musical Performances couldn't live without Elvis Costello's "Radio, Radio."

Of the discs' 30 songs, 24 of them are culled from performances that happened in this decade, which makes you question why SNL and DreamWorks bothered to tie the compilations to the show's 25th anniversary; they cover a fraction of that time period. The Musical Performances, then, could have been released at any time. The only thing the set really celebrates is the sharp decline in SNL's musical guests over the past 10 years.

SNL used to take risks, giving musicians such as The Specials, Tom Waits, Kinky Friedman, Betty Carter, Devo, Fear, and Captain Beefheart rare chances to perform on live network television. It's not much of a risk to book Jewel and the Dave Matthews Band. Or the Backstreet Boys (twice!), Sheryl Crow, Bush, Mariah Carey, Barenaked Ladies, Ricky Martin, Everlast, Blues Traveler, Crash Test Dummies, or any of the flavorless flavor-of-the-minute acts that have popped up on SNL's stage in recent years. Not much of anything you couldn't see on any late-night talk show. Even Rosie O'Donnell has had most of those bands on her show.

Shiraki, obviously, doesn't agree, believing that the show's vision has remained intact over the past 25 years, that the bands SNL books now are every bit as interesting and engaging as they were in the show's infancy. He's still convinced that SNL is the only show that matters when it comes to live performances, and that most bands that have appeared on the show would agree with him.

"The CD is really testament to that," he says. "We book artists on the show who can perform live, who are great live performers. That is the primary criterion for a musical guest. They have to be able to perform live and captivate a live audience. And then, you want to keep the show's roster eclectic, from the Backstreet Boys to Portishead. That's always been the philosophy of the show, to feature different kinds of acts. We only do about 20 shows a year, so each musical guest is chosen with very careful consideration.

"And I think most people [on the discs] were really flattered and more than happy to be included on something like this," he continues. "It's almost like a historical document of the late 20th century and music on television. All of these artists are really proud to be represented here. It wasn't a big ordeal to get them to be on it. I think the biggest ordeal was trying to figure out who should be on it."

Maybe next time, they will make the right choices. That is, if there is a next time.

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