Sunday, July 28, 2013

Bob Dylan - July 24, 2013 - Virginia Beach, Virginia

He growled, he barked, and he wheezed.  It was another round of “Name That Tune – The Bob Dylan Edition.”  As he has done since he began his Never Ending Tour, His Bobness re-arranges his songs so that his fans have to pay close attention to what he sings.  Most of the time this approach works out ok – sometimes it doesn’t.  On this night it didn’t work so well for A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall and Blowin’ in the Wind.  If you want to see someone who makes their live stuff sound exactly like what is on their records, go see The Eagles [cue "The Dude" here…].  I prefer the Dylan approach.  That said, Dylan didn’t disappoint the hardcore fans [such that they were – the house was half-full], but those younger folks who were there mainly to see the opening bands, My Morning Jacket and Wilco, were a bit perplexed.  They weren’t sure if what they heard was great or if it sucked.  In my mind, Dylan performed to expectations.  I heard some songs I didn’t hear the last time I saw him, and I heard a couple I didn’t need to hear ever [A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall and Blowin’ in the Wind].  As I’ve told friends who aren’t fans, Dylan is an acquired taste.

The setlist:

Things Have Changed / Love Sick / High Water / Soon After Midnight / Early Roman Kings / Tangled Up In Blue / She Belongs To Me / Beyond Here Lies Nothin’ / A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall / Blind Willie McTell [Yes!!!] / Simple Twist of Fate / Summer Days / The Weight [Surprise!] / All Along The Watchtower / Encore: Blowin’ in the Wind

The band:

Bob Dylan - piano, harp  / Tony Garnier – bass / George Recile – drums / Stu Kimball - rhythm guitar / Colin Linden - lead guitar / Donnie Herron - violin, banjo, electric mandolin, pedal steel, lap steel

The opening bands:

There was an opening band, whose name I do not know and whose set I missed.  My Morning Jacket went on first.  I missed about half their set because of Hampton Roads traffic  [I had to work right up until showtime].  Someone always manages to stall their car in the tunnel portion of the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel – this day was no exception.  What I was able to see and hear of this band from Louisville, Kentucky floored me.  The first time I had ever heard this band play was for last years “Love for Levon” tribute.  I liked what I heard then, I loved what I heard this night.  I can’t name a single song of theirs, but after the concert was over I thought they were the best band of the evening.  I might just have to check out some of their work.  I like these guys.

Wilco followed My Morning Jacket.  Like the band that preceded them, I couldn’t name a single one of their songs if you put a gun to my head.  The first few songs they played I thought “hmmm…they’re pretty good.”  Then a few songs later I though “well, they’re just okay now.”  By the end of their set I started to ask myself “are they done yet?”  The young folks who were sitting in the same row as I was seemed to thoroughly enjoy Wilco, but the common complaint amongst them was that the band didn’t play enough songs [they played 12].  One surprise is when Wilco came out for an encore and they brought My Morning Jacket.  The two bands played a superior version of Neil Young’s Cinnamon Girl.  A note on the “kids” who shared the same row I did – they were extremely thoughtful and considerate.  I had an obscured view because there was a post between me and the stage.  One of the guys had a drink and a cup of fries and was standing in front of me, but then he saw he was blocking my view.  Since my view was already blocked I told him that he was fine and that he should stay where he was.  But he moved anyway.  Nice touch, that guy.  Another of his friends asked me who I came to see.  I told him I was old so I came to see the “old guy.”  He allowed that if he was older he probably would be as well, but he was there to see Wilco.  At the end of the show he asked me if I thought it was good, and I asked him if he got his money’s worth.  We both said yes and wished one another a safe and good night.

Unlike past tours where Dylan would vary his setlist from night to night, Bob has played pretty much the same setlist in this tour.  He’s on his third guitar player in the last three week.  First, Charlie Sexton left on his own accord to other projects.  The blues legend Duke Robillard lasted only a few dates.  He was either fired, or he jumped before he was pushed.  Neither party is talking, not like it matters.    The Duke has since replaced by a man named Colin Linden, who BTW sounded pretty damn good.  But back to the setlist.  The only surprise on this part of the tour has been the encore – would he play Ballad of a Thin Man of Blowin’ in the Wind?  If he played the former I would stick around and listen.  If he played the latter I would leave early.  I left early.  The biggest surprise of the evening came when Dylan invited Jeff Tweedy [Wilco] and Jim James [My Morning Jacket] to the stage for a song.  The song turned out to be The Weight.  It was a nice tribute to Levon Helm [RIP].  I’ve said it before – Robbie Robertson wrote the song, but it belongs to Levon Helm.

The verdict:  despite my impatience to see Wilco get off the stage, they actually put on a pretty good show.   But, the night belonged to My Morning Jacket.  I don’t know if their records are that way, but they exhibited a jam band ethic that appeals to the Allman Brothers fan that I am.  These guys stole the show.  Bob Dylan’s live presentation seems to be going through some kind of de-evolution [please, don’t think “Devo”].  The band all wore gray suits and black shirts.  Dylan wore a dark suit and no hat, so he didn’t look like Zorro the Gay Blade like the last time we saw him.  He alternated between singing and playing the harp from center stage, to just singing and playing a grand piano.  He didn’t touch a guitar.  The older he gets, the older his music sounds.  The night’s presentation had the look and feel of an old-timey band from the late 1920s/early 1930s.  It was weird, kinda interesting, but still entertaining.  Bob still has a hell of a band.  It was a good show all around.

I’ve seen Bob Dylan twice now.  I think I’m done.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Neil Young Trunk Show

Warning:  if you are not a fan of loud guitars, this movie is not for you.  If you are a fan of Neil Young, Neil Young Trunk Show is a must-have.  Directed by Jonathan Demme [Philadelphia, Silence of the Lambs],  Neil Young Trunk Show is the second of three Neil Young concert films [Heart of Gold and Journeys being the other two].  This film saw an extremely limited run on movie theaters and film festivals, and was shown on TV.  It hasn’t gotten any kind of DVD or Blu-Ray release [WTF Neil?].  Filmed over two dates at the Tower Theatre in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, this is what Demme had to choose from to include in the movie:

 Dec 9, 2007
From Hank to Hendrix / Ambulance Blues / Sad Movies / A Man Needs a Maid / Mexico / No One Seems To Know / Harvest / Journey Through the Past / After the Gold Rush / Mellow My Mind / Love Art Blues / Campaigner / Cowgirl in the Sand / The Loner / Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere / Dirty Old Man / Spirit Road / Bad Fog of Loneliness / Winterlong / Oh, Lonesome Me / The Believer / No Hidden Path / Cinnamon Girl / Like a Hurricane

Dec 10, 2007
From Hank to Hendrix / Ambulance Blues / Kansas / A Man Needs a Maid / Try / No One Seems To Know / Harvest / Journey Through the Past / Mellow My Mind / Love Art Blues / Cowgirl in the Sand / After the Gold Rush / The Loner / Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere / Dirty Old Man / Spirit Road / Bad Fog of Loneliness / Winterlong / Oh, Lonesome Me / The Believer / No Hidden Path / Cinnamon Girl / Like a Hurricane / The Sultan

This is what made the cut for the film:
1.      Sad Movies [unreleased]
2.      Harvest [Harvest]
3.      Cinnamon Girl [Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere]
4.      Oh, Lonesome Me [After the Gold Rush]
5.      Kansas [unreleased]
6.      Mexico [unreleased]
7.      Spirit Road [Chrome Dreams II]
8.      Hidden Road [Chrome Dreams II]
9.      Ambulance Blues [Whoa! Something from On the Beach!]
10.  Mellow My Mind [banjo - Tonight’s the Night]
11.  The Believer [Prairie Wind]
12.  Like a Hurricane [American Stars ‘N’ Bars]
13.  Cowgirl in the Sand [acoustic - Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere]
14.  The Sultan [instrumental from first group, The Squires, found in Archives, Volume 1, 1963-72]

Demme alternates NY as the aging acoustic hippie [who now wears a suit jacket instead of a denim shirt] and the godfather of grunge.  The setlists from the show do this, but not every other song as the film depicts.  I suspect Demme does this because the cuts of No Hidden Path and Like a Hurricane take up almost a half hour by themselves.  That’s ok when you see him live, but it is a little tedious to put up with when watching this in a theatre or in your house.  The band that accompanied NY on the tour to promote Chrome Dreams II [see below] was described by NY as giving him a variety of sounds to choose from, unlike a solo acoustic show or a show with Crazy Horse.  Ben Keith [RIP] played a variety of instruments that wouldn’t quite fit into the Crazy Horse scheme.  NY said some of the songs would work great with the Horse, but not all of them.  So what we get is a more eclectic Neil rather than all acoustic or all feedback-driven guitars.

Song selection:  NY plays some rarities that are so rare I had never heard them until I saw this movie [Sad Movies, Kansas, Mexico] – and I thought I knew them all [guess again, Tony…].  The presence of Ambulance Blues was a big surprise.  The Sultan was one of the first songs NY ever wrote.  He reached ay back into the Archives [literally] for that one.  It was neat to hear live. 

The Band:
Ben Keith [The Stray Gators] – guitars/organs/pedal steel guitars
Rick Rosas - bass
Ralph Molina [Crazy Horse] – drums/vocals
Pegi Young – vocals/vibes
Anthony ‘Sweet Pea’ Crawford [The International Harvesters] – vocals/piano/bells

Eric Johnson as “the painter”
Cary Kemp as “The Sultan” – gong on “The Sultan”

I have no idea why there is a “painter” on-stage.  If NY had included The Painter [from Prairie Wind] in his set I might get why this character was there.  But without the song I’m forced to ask the question:  WTF?

Friday, July 12, 2013

Neil Young - After the Gold Rush

When Carol and I started dating many years ago, we realized we had some musical tastes in common.  One of those things was Neil Young.  The first Christmas gift I ever got her was a copy of After the Gold Rush.  Why did we like Neil Young so much?  He wrote a lot of good songs, but they weren’t all good or great.  He’s had his share of misfires and experiments gone wrong.  He doesn’t have the world’s greatest singing voice.  He’s a bit nasally, oftentimes he’s quite whiney.  Sometimes his guitar style is just a bit too manic.  But in the thirty-plus years that I’ve been a fan, I noticed that he does have a great way with words without being wordy.  He can be the aging acoustic folk hippie one moment, the “godfather of grunge” in another instant, and be absolutely comfortable moving between those two caricatures of his music.  It’s cliché that he alternates between those two musical guises, but as one examines the body of work, by and large his chameleon-like character holds true.

Tell Me Why – This is one of several songs on After the Gold Rush that can trace its origins to NY’s time with Crosby Stills & Nash.  The Archives set has a live version of this song with NY on solo acoustic guitar, Stephen Stills on double bass, and Crosby & Nash singing. When NY put together Decade in the late 1970s, this song should have been on it. 
After the Gold Rush - The title song from Neil Young's 1970 album After the Gold Rush is a version of the apocalypse -- either from the consequences of environmental neglect or nuclear holocaust. Based on the title of a screenplay written by Young's friend, actor Dean Stockwell, all cinematic similarities end there. The surreal imagery in the lyrics is among what would fill Young's songs for the next 30 years: archers (arrows), spaceships, and the sun. Singing in his most desperate, melancholic tones and accompanied only by his piano and a French horn, the song has an overwhelming sadness about it. This is one of two songs from ATGR that he played when I saw NY do a solo acoustic show at McNichols Arena in Denver [1983].

Only Love Can Break Your Heart – This is one of the best songs NY ever wrote.  NY claimed he wrote this one for Graham Nash, who had just broken up with Joni Mitchell.  He said he could have written it for David Crosby but he was “too happy.”  Drugs will do that…  This song foreshadowed things to come on Harvest.

Southern Man – In his handwritten liner notes for the compilation Decade, NY wrote "This song could have been written on a civil rights march after stopping off to watch "Gone With The Wind" at a local theater. But I wasn't there so I don't know for sure."  The symbols of Bible-thumping Southerners, burning crosses, cotton fields, black people screaming and cracking bullwhips don’t paint a pretty picture of the American South.  NY said that he wrote this in the dressing room at the Fillmore East either before or after a CSNY show.  It became a CSNY concert staple.  It was one of the long guitar songs [Carry On being the other] in the band’s last electric set of each show.   NY kept it for himself.  That’s Nils Lofgren banging away on the piano while NY does his spear-in-the-back guitar soloing.  A stomping electric rock song amidst many country-folkish type songs, Southern Man is a certified classic rock radio classic.  Much has been written about this song and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s reposnse to it [and Alabama from Harvest].  Nothing more needs to be said about that.

Till the Morning Comes - A sprightly, low-key two-step, this brief song reminds the listener once again of Neil Young's strong country leanings. Sounding not unlike an obscure standard, it features a French horn and some excellent background harmonies, particularly by guest Stephen Stills.

Oh Lonesome Me – This is a rare cover for NY.  Don Gibson wrote and recorded this country music #1 in the late 1950s.  I have no idea why this song is here, except that NY was going through a divorce at the time.

Don’t Let It Bring You Down – This is another song that can trace its roots to CSNY.  The first time I heard it was on CSNY’s “live” document Four Way Street.  "Here is a new song, it's guaranteed to bring you right down, it's called 'Don't Let It Bring You Down'. It sorta starts off real slow and then fizzles out altogether."  A good song, but I like the Four Way Street version better, probably because he played that arrangement the first time I saw him in concert in 1983.

Birds – Ever since I owned a cassette copy of After the Gold Rush, this song has always been one of the standouts.  He recorded two versions before this one, both of which can be found on the Archives box set.  The first version was recorded with Jim Messina and George Grantham for the Neil Young album.  The second version is with Crazy Horse, recorded for the Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere album.  Still it wasn’t quite right.  Then he did it by himself with just a piano for After the Gold Rush, and on this version he nailed it.  This version captures the sorrow and melancholy missing from the previous versions.  Danny Whitten and Ralph Molina provide the beautiful background chorus vocals.  It’s a break-up song, with NY using birds as a metaphor for “flying away without you.”  And when he sings “it’s over” it’s as if he’s slamming the coffin lid shut on that particular relationship.  

When You Dance I Can Really Love – This is the second of only two full-band electric songs on After the Gold Rush.  The only song on the album with the full Crazy Horse outfit [complete with Jack Nitzsche on the piano], this was the last gasp before Danny Whitten completely went off the rails into full-blown drug addiction.  This is Neil Young and the original Crazy Horse in their “ragged glory” for the final time.  I’ve read tales of the recording of ATGR in the basement of NY’s Topanga Canyon house, and hearing all these guys at once made me wonder how they all squeezed into such a small space to make such good music.  This one is a gem!  My only complaint is that it’s too short.  I never tire of hearing it.  Maybe someday I’ll learn how to play it.  I like to hear Birds, this song, and Ohio all together in that order.

I Believe in You – This is another one with Crazy Horse, but unlike When You Dance, this one is a lot quieter.  I usually skip this one.

Cripple Creek Ferry - A brief singalong, campfire-type song that closes the powerful After the Gold Rush album, "Cripple Creek Ferry" is deceptively deep and effective. Utilizing the metaphor of a rough boat trip, Young seems to possibly be commenting on fame and his career to date, which had just finished the huge success of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. A slight edge of terror or paranoia surrounds the piece, which is slightly amusing considering the lighthearted nature of the music and performance.

After the Gold Rush is a must have for any Neil Young collection.  It was an excellent follow-up to Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.  Better than CSNY’s Déjà Vu, better than Harvest, on par with On the Beach.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Bob Dylan - Oh Mercy

The 1980s were not kind to Bob Dylan.  He ended the 1970s having made a good album (Slow Train Coming – 1979) after his conversion to Christianity.  The rest of what followed wasn’t so good.  He recorded six more albums [Saved (1980), Shot of Love (1981), Infidels (1983), Empire Burlesque (1985), Knocked Out Loaded (1986), Down in the Groove (1988)], only one of which was any good [Infidels].  He toured with the Grateful Dead in 1987, from which emerged an album [Dylan & the Dead] that wasn’t very good either.  But during this time Bob Dylan injured his hand in what he called a freak accident.  He had lost inspiration.  He didn't feel any connection to his own songs.  He wanted to retire.  He never expected to write any more songs.  In 1988 there was a flicker [and a very funny one at that] of Dylan at his best.  It came in the form of a very funny spoof of Bruce Springsteen on the first Traveling Wilburys album – Tweeter and the Monkey Man.  Then one night, alone at his kitchen table, the muse found him.   He started to write twenty verses of a song called "Political World."  It was the first of about twenty songs [by his estimate] he would write.

Before he knew it, Dylan had a bunch of songs.  One night while having dinner with Bono, Bono asked Dylan if he had any unrecorded songs.  He showed Bono what he had, and told him he wasn't sure if he was going to make any more records because doing so didn't come as easily to him as it had in the past.  Bono recommended Daniel Lanois to Dylan.  Lanois had done some pretty remarkable records – Peter Gabriel’s So, U2’s The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree, Robbie Robertson’s self-titled solo debut.  Lanois liked to work in New Orleans.  He recorded his own Arcadie there.  He did the Neville Brothers' Yellow Moon there.  That album had two Dylan songs - With God On Our Side and Hollis Brown.  Dylan heard his songs done the Neville way, as recorded by Lanois.  He liked what he heard and hired Lanois.  When it came time to record Oh Mercy, Lanois set up a little studio in a Victorian mansion near a cemetery in New Orleans.

Dylan described the recording of What Was It You Wanted in great detail in Chronicles.  He wrote a lot about that particular song, but what he said about it could be applied to all of Oh Mercy - "The way the microphones are placed makes the atmosphere seem to be texturally rich, jet lagged and loaded - Quaaludes, misty.  It starts mixed and cooked in a pot like a gumbo, right from the downbeat, dreamy and ambiguous.  Danny's sonic atmosphere makes it sound like some mysterious, silent land.  The production gyrates and moves with all kinds of layered rhythms..."  It definitely doesn’t sound like a 1980s album [electronic drums, synthesizers, no bass, etc].  There’s a lot of reverb on Oh Mercy, but at least it’s applied to real instruments played by real musicians.

Political World - This was the first song he wrote for Oh Mercy.  It originally had twenty verses.  It's a one-chord vamp (Fm#) with no chorus, no bridges.  Each verse starts with the phrase "we live in a political world..." and then he lists everything that he sees is wrong with this political world.  It starts Oh Mercy with a fairly fast tempo, but after listening to the rest of the album it turns out to be only one of two songs that don’t wallow in Daniel Lanois’ murk.

Where Teardrops Fall - This ballad is a three-chord country waltz.  It has a slide guitar part that sounds like George Harrison [it isn't him - it's Daniel Lanois playing a lap steel].  Rockin' Dopsie and His Cajun Band recorded this one.  It has a surprise ending - a saxophone solo!

Everything Is Broken – The other up-tempo song on Oh Mercy, this is a list of broken things in Dylan's world.  "I thought of all the best things in the world, the things I had a great affection for.  Sometimes it might be a place, a place to start an evening from and go all night, but then these places become broken, too, and can't be pieced back together… Something just breaks and gives no warning.  Sometimes your dearest possession.  It's beastly hard to fix anything."

Ring Them Bells – Dylan goes to church.  This is something I would have expected him to do during his Christian period [i.e. before Infidels].  But this one song is better than his three Christian albums put together.

Man in the Long Black Coat Of all the songs on Oh Mercy, this one is the one that best evokes the atmosphere of swampy mystery that is Louisiana.  Not all is well where the song takes place.   This song is full of Southern imagery - Crickets are chirpin' the water is high… a soft cotton dress on the line hangin' dry…African trees bent over backwards from a hurricane breeze…There's smoke on the water…Tree trunks uprooted beneath the high crescent moon.  The music is as swampy as it gets on Oh Mercy.  Who was this guy, and why did the woman in the song run off with him?

Most of the Time - This is a song about an ex-flame from long ago that he still can’t get out of his head.  He tells his listener that he’s doing fine without her “most of the time.”  But is he really?  I don’t think he is.  The Oh Mercy version of this song sounds like it could be from a U2 album, which isn’t surprising given the Daniel Lanois connection.  There’s an alternate version with just guitar/vocal/harmonica on The Bootleg Series Vol. 8 – Tell Tale Signs: Rare and Unreleased 1989–2006 – I like it better.

What Good Am I? – Dylan’s examination of self-worth doesn’t really do much for me.  This song is at such a languid pace that I think Dylan discovered a cure for insomnia.

Disease of Conceit - According to Dylan, "events might trigger a song - sometimes they might start a motor."  The event in question here was Jimmy Swaggart getting caught with a prostitute.   It’s an “ok” song, but I could do without it.

What Was It You Wanted – Dylan wrote at length about this particular song in Chronicles - "If you've ever been the object of curiosity, then you know what this song is about.  It doesn't need much explanation…  Songs like this are strange.  They don't make good companions."  What do I think?  He could be asking his audience what they expect of him.  He could be asking a lover the same question.  The lyrics are ambiguous enough to keep you guessing to whom the question is being asked.

Shooting Star – This is a simple song about lost love, a theme Dylan returns to many times on subsequent albums.  It’s an excellent ballad, and pretty too.

Dylan had more songs for Oh Mercy than he needed.  Four songs emerged on The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs.  One is tempted to play Monday morning quarterback and judge for himself whether Dylan chose the right songs to comprise Oh Mercy.

God Knows and Born in Time - Early versions of these songs were recorded for Oh Mercy but later re-recorded for Under the Red Sky.  The outtake versions on Tell Tale Signs are very good.  Why Dylan didn't include them on Oh Mercy is a mystery to me.  Perhaps his problems with making records were so acute that maybe he knew he had an abundance of good songs for Oh Mercy and saved them for later.  That being said, these versions are better than what came out on Under the Red Sky.   

Dignity - demo first recorded with just Brian Stoltz, Willie Green and Malcolm Burn.  Numerous takes were done with Rockin' Dopsie and His Cajun Band.  The more they recorded it, the less satisfied Dylan and Lanois were with the results.  Dylan said "an ambience of texture and atmosphere" was what the song needed, but those qualities eluded them for Dignity.  "Whatever promise Dan had seen in the song was beaten into a bloody mess."  It's a shame they abandoned the song.  The finished version on Greatest Hits Volume 3 would have fit right in with the rest of Oh Mercy.

Series of Dreams - The catalyst for writing this song was the death of Pistol Pete Maravich.  This song has plenty of ambience created by four guitar players.  This also appeared on Greatest Hits Volume 3 as well as the first installment of Dylan's Bootleg series.  It too would have fit nicely on Oh Mercy.

At the time of its release in 1989, Oh Mercy was widely acclaimed by critics as a return to form.  But as Dylan said in Chronicles, good reviews are nice but they don’t sell records [I’m paraphrasing].  It’s a pretty good album, but I think with a couple of additions and deletions it could have been better.  What would I delete?  I would delete What Good Am I? and Disease of Conceit.  God Knows and Born in Time would slot fairly well in their place.  Dignity and Series of Dreams would be even better, but they didn’t finish them in time.  Series of Dreams could have been a good way to finish the album, but it didn’t.  If Dylan & Co. had finished those songs, Oh Mercy could be mentioned in the same breath as Blood on the Tracks or “Love & Theft.”  Instead, Oh Mercy is just Dylan’s best album of the 1980s.  It proved that creatively Dylan wasn’t dead yet.  It is worth having in your Dylan collection.