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Posts tagged ‘Bob Dylan’

Patti Smith at the Albert Hall

When she was 15 or so, the woman said, she’d dreamed about a certain boy, about walking down the street holding his hand. And now here she was, performing at the Royal Albert Hall for the first time, and she was going to sing one of his songs. And at the end of a most elegant version of “One Too Many Mornings”, Patti Smith said quietly: “Bob Dylan.”

The last time I’d seen Patti was in 1995 at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia, when she and Dylan were touring together. She came on to sing “Dark Eyes” with him during his acoustic section, and then she joined him in the encores for “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”. It was nice to be reminded last night of the history they share, and she honoured it beautifully on the very stage where, 55 years ago, he sang “One Too Many Mornings” with another band.

But that was just one highlight in a night crammed with them, starting with the lyric to “Piss Factory”, the B-side of her first single in 1974, which she declaimed unaccompanied to start the 90-minute set. That was electrifying, and at the end of the evening my only regret was that she hadn’t done more reading.

But would I have swapped that for the lovely “Grateful”, the driving Velvets drone of “Dancing Barefoot”, the collective exhilaration of “Beneath the Southern Cross”, a most surprising and tender mid-set version of Stevie Wonder’s “Blame It on the Sun”, Lenny Kaye’s dedication of the Stones’ “I’m Free” to Charlie Watts, the cathartic “People Have the Power”, which Patti wrote with her late husband Fred “Sonic” Smith, or the thunderous closing run through “Not Fade Away”, when the instruments cut after the last “I’m gonna tell you how it’s gonna be”, allowing Patti, the band and the entire pan-generational audience to bellow “You’re gonna give your love to me”?

What I also admired was the way she and the band — Kaye and Jackson Smith (guitars), Jesse Paris Smith (piano), Tony Shanahan (bass guitar) and Jay Dee Daugherty (drums) — put on such a well calibrated show while keeping their garage-band rawness and honesty. Jackson Smith’s raga-rock solo on “Dancing Barefoot” was a beauty, as was Daugherty’s ability — probably learnt from reggae drumming — to leave spaces within a bar without losing power.

But I wasn’t really taking notes. I was on my feet, with everyone else.

Dylan in the shadows

I’d read that Bob Dylan had liked Girl from the North Country, the musical by Conor McPherson based on his songs which transferred from the West End to Broadway shortly before the pandemic closed everything down. The proof was in tonight’s streamed 50-minute concert, Shadow Kingdom, in which a baker’s dozen of his early or earlyish songs were subjected to the kind of treatment devised for the stage show by its musical supervisor, Simon Hale, who assembled a small acoustic band to play in a hotel bar.

That was the mood created for Shadow Kingdom: low-key, intimate, respectful of the songs. Acoustic and lightly amplified guitars, mandolin, accordion, double bass or (on a couple of songs) bass guitar and harmonica were lightly woven around Bob’s voice in three or four different settings, all in deep monochrome chiaroscuro and mostly approximating the ambiance of a funky roadhouse: the audience drinking, smoking, and dancing to one or two of the tunes.

It was all mimed, of that I’m pretty sure because the fingers didn’t always quite match what we were hearing and a microphone mostly obscured the singer’s mouth. But it didn’t matter at all — to me, anyway. Dylan has arrived at an ensemble style which suits songs from every one of his eras, and it’s a joy to hear. When he sat down to sing a beautiful “What Was It You Wanted”, it might have been taken from Rough and Rowdy Ways. That was a highlight for me, but so were a most elegant “Queen Jane Approximately”, a lazily swinging “When I Paint My Masterpiece”, a full-bodied “Pledging My Time”, a Mexicali “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and a rubato “Tombstone Blues”. The codas and intros linking the sings were a delight, and the whole thing would certainly justify an album release.

The players were masked. Their names were given in the credits as Alex Burke, Janie Cowen, Joshua Crumbly, Shahzad Ismaily and Buck Meek. The director was Alma Har’el and the DP was Lol Crawley. You can catch it again over the next 48 hours, until Tuesday night, at http://www.veeps.com.

His tongue on fire

Bob Dylan turns 80 today. I commissioned this ink drawing for an issue of Time Out celebrating Dylan’s arrival to play at Earl’s Court in 1978, his first London shows in a dozen years. Ralph Steadman chose to make his image out of Bob’s words. When I left the editorship a few months later, the staff very kindly acquired the original from Ralph and gave it to me as a leaving present. As you might imagine, it’s a precious possession, although not quite as precious as all the songs Bob has placed in the common memory over the past six decades. Many happy returns to him.

Bob Dylan in Surbiton

Here’s a building that deserves one of English Heritage’s blue plaques — if, that is, the story about Bob Dylan putting in an appearance at Surbiton Assembly Rooms in the first week of January 1963 can ever be verified.

Mentioned 25 years ago in Clinton Heylin’s Bob Dylan: A Life in Stolen Moments (Day by Day 1941-1995), the alleged performance also gets a brief reference in a new book, Bob Dylan in London: Troubadour Tales, by Jackie Lees and K. G. Miles, an account of the singer’s various engagements with the British capital, from that first visit in the winter of 1962-63, when he appeared in the long-lost BBC TV play Madhouse on Castle Street, learned songs from Martin Carthy, displeased the hard-line traditionalist folkies and fell out with Nigel Denver, through the Albert Hall concerts of 1965 and ’66 and the Earl’s Court comeback of 1978 to his most recent performance in Hyde Park, sharing the bill with Neil Young in 2019.

It’s a slender paperback — you can read it in a couple of hours — with some useful background information and enjoyable descriptions of events such as the filming of the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” clip by D. A. Pennebaker in the snicket called Savoy Steps in 1965 and the session in a Camden Town café with the photographer Ana María Vélez-Wood that produced the cover shot for World Gone Wrong in 1993.

Much of it will be familiar even to amateur Dylanologists like me. But there’s the occasional nugget of wisdom, too. I particularly liked the observation that Dont Look Back, the Pennebaker documentary of the 1965 tour, was not an example of cinéma-vérité — as it is usually taken to be — but a performance.

As for Surbiton, the glancing mention made me curious, possibly because I live in that direction. A bit of research turned up the information that the Wednesday-night sessions of the Surbiton & Kingston Folk Club were started in 1962 by the singer Derek Sarjeant, who had just moved to the area to take a job with the South Eastern Electricity Board. The opening night was on January 14 that year; three weeks later the first guest night featured two visiting Americans, Carolyn Hester and Richard Fariña, who were married to each other at the time. Both had Dylan connections, having met him in Cambridge, Massachusetts the previous summer. Hester’s first album, produced by John Hammond for Columbia Records in the autumn of 1961, featured Dylan’s first recorded appearance, contributing his harmonica to three tracks.

Dylan’s visit to Surbiton seems to have taken place on either January 2 or the following Wednesday, the 9th. Sarjeant died in 2018, aged 87, and no written record of a Dylan performance at his club appears to exist. But we know that Fariña was in London at the same time; he, Dylan and their friend Eric von Schmidt (from whom Dylan had learned “Baby Let Me Follow You Down”) performed at the Troubadour in Earl’s Court on January 12; on January 14 and 15 they recorded tracks for a Fariña/von Schmidt album for Doug Dobell’s 77 Records in the basement of Dobell’s Jazz Record Shop on Charing Cross Road, with Dylan — contracted to Columbia — guesting under the alias Blind Boy Grunt. It seems highly likely that the three of them would have made it to the Assembly Rooms.

The book’s subtitle is a reference to the venerable Troubadour club, where Dylan played on several occasions during that first British visit and where the authors now co-curate a permanent Dylan Room, opened in 2013.

* Bob Dylan in London by Jackie Lees and K. G. Miles is published by McNidder & Grace (£12).

Back on Highway 61

Generally speaking, I prefer Bob Dylan to make his own cover versions, just the way he’s been doing for the best part of 60 years. There are maybe not even a dozen exceptions, mostly the obvious ones: Presley’s “Tomorrow is a Long Time”, Jimi’s “Watchtower”, Stevie’s “Blowing in the Wind”, the Fairports’ “Si tu dois partir”, Ferry’s “Hard Rain”, Betty LaVette’s “Things Have Changed”. But now there’s a definite addition to the list: Dave Alvin’s version of “Highway 61 Revisited”, a highlight of From an Old Guitar, his new album of rare and unreleased stuff.

To be honest, I haven’t followed the career of the singer/guitarist from Downey, California who started out at the very end of the ’70s with the Blasters and more recently led bands known variously as the Guilty Ones and the Guilty Women. My bad, as the young people say. From an Old Guitar is full of great stuff, drawing on country, blues, R&B and, in Lil Hardin Armstrong’s “Perdido Street Blues”, old-time jazz, with other songs from Mickey Newbury, Earl Hooker, Doug Sahm and Marty Robbins.

Dylan’s parable is set to a low-riding shuffle beat, the layered guitars of Alvin and Greg Leisz howling, nudging and screeching from multiple perspectives as the magnificent verses are recited in appropriately biblical tones. Alvin’s voice is one that wears its bruises, scars and calluses lightly, weighting and timing every line perfectly, drawing out the dark humour, simultaneously absurdist and apocalyptic. The video is well assembled and cut, particularly the chase towards the end between a hot rod and a Highway Patrol car on a two-lane blacktop.

My other favourite is a song called “Peace”, credited to Willie Dixon. It bears no resemblance to a song of the same name that gave the title to a 1971 Dixon album, but it carries the hallmarks of the composer of “Hoochie Coochie Man” and “The Seventh Son”. The buried hook — the thing that makes we want to listen to it again, straight away — is a funky little chorded figure from Joe Terry’s electric piano: peeping through two or three times, it seems to want to take the song in a different direction before thinking better of it and withdrawing.

I can happily listen to this album from start to finish, and then over again. Even better, I imagine, would be to wander into some bar or other — Dingwalls, perhaps, or the old Tramps on 15th Street in NYC — and drink a beer or two while listening to Alvin and his band working their way through the whole thing. One day, maybe. But whatever, that “Highway 61” is going to stick around.

* Dave Alvin’s From an Old Guitar is out now on the Yep Roc label.

Bob Dylan’s ‘Murder Most Foul’

A combination of chopped-up newsreel and fever dream, “Murder Most Foul” is Bob Dylan’s most striking piece of work in years. This is the author of “Desolation Row” populating a 17-minute song with a lifetime of remembered cultural fragments, zooming out and panning back and forth from the single pivotal event of the Kennedy assassination, plucking references out of the heavy air.

The voice is sombre, the mood subdued, occasionally lit by flashes of the absurd. Images like frames from the Zapruder film — date, time, location, automobile, wound, wife — are gradually eased aside to make room for mordant couplets: “Hush little children, you’ll understand / The Beatles are comin’, they’re gonna hold your hand”, “I’m going to Woodstock, it’s the Aquarian Age / Then I’ll go to Altamont and sit near the stage”, “Tommy, can you hear me? I’m the Acid Queen / I’m riding in long black Lincoln limousine”, “What is the truth, where did it go? / Ask Oswald and Ruby, they oughta know.”

A mosaic of references emerges. “Wake up, Little Susie”. Ride the Pink Horse. Terry Malloy. Patsy Cline. It Happened One Night. Dealey Plaza. “Lucille”. Deep Ellum. Nightmare on Elm Street. “Take It To the Limit”. “Goin’ Down Slow”. Air Force One and Love Field. What’s New, Pussycat?.

Eventually Dylan calls on Wolfman Jack, the great radio DJ of the Sixties, to play one record after another: John Lee Hooker, Slim Harpo’s “Scratch My Back”, Dicky Betts, Stevie Nicks, even “Art Pepper, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and all that junk / All of that junk and all of that jazz / Play something for the Birdman of Alcatraz.” “Play ‘Misty’ for me and ‘That Old Devil Moon’ / Play ‘Anything Goes’, and ‘Memphis in June’. ” “Play me that ‘Only the Good Die Young’ / Take me to the place Tom Dooley was hung.” “Play it for the reverend, play it for the pastor / Play it for the dog that’s got no master.”

Its template is “‘Cross the Green Mountain”, the eight-minute song Dylan wrote for the soundtrack of the 2003 movie Gods and Generals, in which he put himself inside the mind of a dying Confederate soldier. In turn, that song followed the pattern of “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands”, verse succeeding verse like gentle waves seemingly without end. “Murder Most Foul” is a tempo-less ballad: its instrumental accompaniment — I’m guessing viola, acoustic piano, semi-submerged harmonium and bowed double bass — follows the cadences of Dylan’s speech, a slow rubato weave and ripple of sound almost imperceptibly shifting in intensity, joined after two minutes by a drummer playing freely with great subtlety.

Here’s how it ends: “Play ‘Love Me or Leave Me’ by the great Bud Powell / Play ‘The Blood-Stained Banner’, play ‘Murder Most Foul’.” Well.

Bob & Lily revisited

Bob Dylan Lily etc

It took me several weeks to overcome a disinclination to buy the Bootleg Series version of Blood on the Tracks. I’d been invited to a playback session last summer, hosted by Jeff Rosen, Dylan’s manager, and I wasn’t keen on what I heard. Of course the series as a whole represents a priceless example of a great artist permitting access to his own archives, but Blood on the Tracks is a perfect album and I don’t really need it in any other less perfect form. “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”, for example, is so precious to me that I really hated listening to a truly horrible early version with an arrangement that robbed the song of all its lilting heartbreak poetry.

I suppose the real value of the new release is in its implicit suggestion of why Dylan rejected the first (mostly) solo version of the album, recorded in New York. What he didn’t like was its “down” mood. When he re-recorded half the songs in Minneapolis with a band, he dialled the mood up a notch, letting a bit more sunlight in. And he got it right.

Notwithstanding all that, eventually I cracked and bought the single CD version of More Blood, More Tracks. Now I’m glad I did, for one reason: a version of “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” that tells us something about Bob Dylan’s skills as a performer.

It’s a track I’ve always loved because it has so much of Bob in it: a wild story, full of characters and humour and unexplained ambiguities and bizarre incidents, a slapstick take on “Desolation Row” relocated in Tombstone, Arizona. Has he ever written anything more romantic than the line “She was with Big Jim but she was leaning to the Jack of Hearts”? Has he ever brought off another shift of mood as adroitly and blood-freezingly cinematic as “But then the crowd began to stamp their feet and the house lights did dim / And in the darkness of the room there was only Jim and him”?

The version we know from the released album was recorded in Minneapolis in December 1974 with a six-piece band (two guitars, organ, bass guitar and drums) plus Dylan himself on guitar and harmonica. One of its joys is its hurtling momentum: a tempo of 64 bars per minute, a fast shuffle propelled by the slap of wire brushes.

Now Volume 14 of the Bootleg Series gives us Dylan’s solo attempt at the song in New York three and a half month earlier. It’s slower — 56 bars per minute — and lacks the deadpan effervescence of the later version. What it has in recompense is a freedom for the singer to treat the song’s structure — AABA, in eight-bar sections — and metre in the way the standard 12-bar blues form was treated by John Lee Hooker or Jimmy Reed, in other words with absolute flexibility.

In place of the urgency that would be provided by the Minneapolis band, Dylan comes up with another way of providing that momentum: he shortens the eight-bar sections by clipping off a bar or half a bar and entering early with the first line of the next section. He can do this because he is alone with his guitar. And I don’t know many better examples of his command of phrasing, of his ability to manipulate asymmetry, making the bar-lines follow the melody, rather than the customary vice-versa. Here’s the man who honed his art alone on stages in the folk clubs and coffee houses of Greenwich Village, polishing devices that would hold an audience’s attention. Once you starting listening closely, it’s mesmerising.

* The photograph of Bob Dylan is from the booklet that comes with More Blood, More Tracks (CBS/Sony Legacy). It’s omitted from the otherwise comprehensive credits, but I think it’s by Barry Feinstein.

Bob Dylan in his own write

Mondo Scripto 1

I chuckled when I saw these bookshelves, installed on the stairwell of the Halcyon Gallery on Bond Street, accompanying an exhibition called Mondo Scripto: Lyrics and Drawings by Bob Dylan. Here is what appears to be just about every book ever written in English about Dylan, including my own extremely modest and inessential effort. The realisation of how many of these volumes are on my shelves made me pause for a moment to think about life’s priorities.

Anyway, the exhibition’s raison d’être is a new series of 52 handwritten lyrics, each framed with an accompanying pencil drawing. I happen to have a fondness for Dylan’s oil paintings, without feeling the need to make any great claims for them, but these sketches are extremely rudimentary. It’s the juxtapositions that make them interesting to a fan. Sometimes they’re surprisingly literal: a young woman behind bars with “I Shall Be Released”, a tank with “Masters of War”, a man alone high on a ridge with “One Cup of Coffee (Valley Below)”. Elsewhere any hint of shared meaning is, shall we say, elusive: a collapsed building with “Forever Young”, a sketch of a Chicago Cubs pitcher with “Hurricane” (which is, of course, about a boxer), a portrait of Jack Nicholson as the Joker with “All Along the Watchtower”.

A photograph on a wall shows Dylan, pen in hand, writing out one of the lyrics (they’re all inscribed on headed notepaper from something called the Black Buffalo on State Street in Dayton, Ohio, which — like the Abernathy Building, where he made his Theme Time Radio programmes — turns out not to exist). So I guess he did write them all himself, the calligraphy varying in a way that, like the occasional crossing-out, would probably be beyond currently available algorithms.

Personally, I’m moved by the sight of the words to “It’s Alright Ma” written out by their author. Or the third-person version of the “Tangled Up In Blue” lyric. The songs from Blood on the Tracks, in fact, are all treated to some fairly radical revision: apart from the first seven words and the title, this written version of “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” contains nothing from the original recording.

 

Mondo Scripto 2

No doubt somebody will tell me that it’s from one of the outtakes on More Blood, More Tracks, the latest volume in the Bootleg Series, in which I have yet to invest — partly because the terrible early version of “Your Gonna Make Me Lonesome” that I heard during a playback session a few months ago came close to destroying what is probably my favourite of all Dylan’s songs and put me off the idea of buying the £100 deluxe edition altogether. But it was enjoyable to read these verses to myself, with the melody and Dylan’s voice in my head.

The exhibition also features some of his iron sculptures, created by welding together old farmyard tools and bits of tractors (or possibly new ones: it’s hard to tell, since they’re all dipped in a thick paint). I got a lot of fun out of overhearing a member of the gallery’s staff, a smart young man in a suit and tie, trying to explain them to a potential buyer. Not a job I’d want to have.

* Mondo Scripto is at the Halcyon Gallery at 144-146 Bond Street, London W1S 2PF, until December 23. For those who might be interested, 10 of the lyrics/sketches are available as individual prints in editions of 495 at £1,500 unframed and £1,895 framed. Originals apparently start at close to £100K. Black Buffalo Ironworks seems to be the name of his metal sculpture project, but it’s not based in Dayton, Ohio, as far as I can tell. About the books, the gallery will tell me only that they are the property of a collector.

Betty Lavette, protest singer

Betty Lavette

Which activist was it who remarked, sometime in the early ’70s, that he’d forgive Bob Dylan everything if he’d just write one more good song against the Vietnam war? I forget, and it doesn’t really matter. Dylan, of course, never responded to the plea. That phase of his life was done. And I guess that when Patti Smith sings “Hard Rain” at the Nobel ceremony in the time of Trump and Putin, a 50-year-old song is as good as new.

So if we can’t have new songs that rail against injustice with the kind of resonance that Dylan’s early efforts achieved, then maybe revisiting the old ones is the best we can hope for. The fine soul singer Betty LaVette does that to an extent on her new album, Things Have Changed, where she and her producer, Steve Jordan, reinterpret a dozen Dylan songs of varying vintages.

Most of them are non-political, either early (“It Ain’t Me Babe”, “Mama You Been on My Mind”), mid-period (“Going Going Gone”) or more recent (“Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight”, “Emotionally Yours”, “Seeing the Real You at Last”). But the saw-toothed, low-slung version of the title track which opens the album sounds like an elliptical state-of-the-nation address delivered from the back table of some anonymous small-town bar, and it sets the tone and trajectory for what follows.

Much credit for the album’s considerable success must go to the guitar of Larry Campbell (one of Dylan’s most faithful sidemen), the keyboards of Leon Pendarvis, the bass guitar of Pino Palladino and Jordan’s drums, whose collective nailing of a kind of grunge-funk mode is discreetly compelling throughout. It took skill, imagination and guts to devise a new groove for “The Times They Are A-Changin'”, in which LaVette pays as little attention to the sheet music as Dylan himself would, cutting herself loose from the melody to locate what she needs within such a well-worn song. “Political World” rides on a lean displaced-backbeat riff that nods to War’s “Slippin’ into Darkness”, which suits me fine, and the exquisitely restrained treatment of “Going, Going, Gone” lifts it straight into the upper reaches of my list of favourite Dylan covers.

Now I come to think about it, there’s isn’t actually much explicit protest in this album — certainly not as much as in Mavis Staples’ recent If All I Was Was Black. But somehow the mood still feels insurrectionary. As Bob wrote and Betty sings, “This is a political world, where peace ain’t welcome at all / It’s turned away from the door to wander some more / Or put up against the wall…”

* Things Have Changed is out now on the Impulse label. The photograph of Betty LaVette is by Mark Seliger.

 

Sam Shepard 1943-2017

Sam ShepardIf you want to convince someone — even yourself — that Bob Dylan is a great singer, a place to go might be “Brownsville Girl”, an 11-minute epic from the otherwise threadbare 1986 album Knocked Out Loaded. More specifically, attend to the first line of the penultimate verse, at 8:51. “Strange how people who suffer together have stronger connections than those who are most content,” Dylan sings in a ruminative and rueful tone, delivering the line in a single breath, exhaling the sentence in such a way as to create a complete design, the internal rhythm gently coiling with a sing-song inflection and a slight but telling deceleration on the last four words, making the sense of it linger after the sound has moved on.

The chances are that the line which inspired that miniature masterpiece of phrasing was written by Sam Shepard, who composed the song jointly with Dylan and whose fingerprints are all over its wonderfully strange storyline and the details of character and incident with which it is studded. They were friends, and no library of books about Dylan is complete without Shepard’s The Rolling Thunder Logbook, originally published in 1976, the year after the tour it describes took place.

Shepard’s death, at his home in Kentucky at the age of 73, was announced today. About 20 years ago I went to hear him read his short stories at the Battersea Arts Centre. It was all there. The voice, the looks, the presence. After the reading had finished he remained on stage, talking quietly to someone, while the audience started to leave. As we reached the lobby there was an exchange between a handsome couple, a man of about my age and his wife, who was looking back over her shoulder. “Oh, all right, then,” he told her, in a tone of fondly amused tolerance. “Just go back and have another look.”