Monday, October 15, 2012

Diggin' on Dylan

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As most Bob Dylan fans know only too well, there are a lot of Dylan covers out there! Too many, some might say. Everyone has done Dylan. This is far from coincidental; his immense body of work has managed not only to stay current and relatable for more than half a century, but has earned him fans in nearly every demographic sociologists can invent. There really is something there for everyone.

So, it’s only natural that other musicians want to record and perform his songs. Yet, the very thing that makes Dylan so great, so unique, so able to express the ineffable is the thing that winds up destroying most other artists’ renditions. Very few have the talent or perspective needed to access what lies at the very center of the song. For every Jimi Hendrix, there are 10 (or more) bargain bin throwaways. At best, forgotten, at worst, well, let us not go down that dark path. Dylan fans have been subjected to a lot.

So, when I say to you that, on Oct. 16th, a new album of Bob Dylan songs hits shelves, sites, and iTunes, you’re probably not at the edge of your seat w/ anticipation. I don’t blame you.

Pick it up though. Download it from iTunes. Hit “add to cart.” However you buy music, give this one a shot. Trust me, it deserves a place in your collection. W/ any luck, it will be sitting on the same shelf as the rest of your Dylan records before you know it.

From the start, there are a few things that set this record apart from the myriad of mediocre attempts. First, it’s completely instrumental. Dylan songs. W/o lyrics. What, on paper, might seem like taking a blind man to a Picasso exhibit, is actually one of the collection’s best attributes. Secondly, it was conceived and released by Denny Freeman, a five-year veteran of Dylan’s touring band. Out of all the musicians working today, Dylan personally selected Freeman to play his songs night after night, year after year, around the world. That would not have happened unless he was confident Freeman understood more about the songs than just the chord progressions.

Sounds a bit more interesting now, doesn’t it?

When Freeman first told me about this project a couple of years ago, I honestly didn’t know what to think about it. On the one hand, it was probably THE single greatest idea I could fathom... in my world, at least. It included, quite literally, every reason I had followed Bob Dylan on tour across the country several times over, while simultaneously excluding everything about those travels that can wear on a person. Things like waking up early after 3 hours of sleep in order to get a decent seat for a show, only to have the website crash 48 seconds before they went on sale. Or spending an entire day outside in extremity-numbing, sub-zero sleet. Or 110 degree rubber-melting heat. The sleep deprivation, the diet of truck stop coffee, the strange film coating the steering wheel and the stiffness in your lower back that just wont go away. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything, but not having to do that, and still hearing Freeman’s guitar weave through songs like Tangled Up In Blue is about as close to heaven as I could get while still breathing.

But, on the other hand, I had some serious doubts about whether this was the right choice. Not that Freeman couldn’t pull it off, (anyone who has ever heard him pick up a guitar knows that is never the case) but something like this could potentially open the floodgates to those who feel they need to pester Freeman about what kind of cornflakes Dylan likes, or what such-and-such a song really means, or how to correctly interpret a glance during  a performance 6 years ago.

And, perhaps more significantly, a record like this threatens to permanently cement the qualifier “Bob Dylan’s guitarist” to Freeman’s name. Certainly, it is a tremendous honor to be asked to play in Bob Dylan’s band, and an accomplishment to be extremely proud of.

But as a musician, he is so much more than that. The four previous records out under his own name, the two w/ seminal Austin band The Cobras, and the countless appearances on other’s albums, in nearly every genre, are the beginning, middle, and end argument of how a guitar should be played. (Who else appears on records by Bob Dylan, Taj Mahal, James Cotton, Percy Sledge and Ron Rogers?) His style proves difficult to accurately describe, but impossible to forget if you are paying any attention. His tone, phrasing, and melodic instinct are impeccable, making him equally impressive playing like Chuck Berry or Kenny Burrell.

Never one to be content w/ where he’s at, his playing is always shifting, evolving, growing. Onstage, his focus is locked in, never taking his mind away from the guitar; if you didn’t catch the way he played that chord the first time, too bad, because he’ll be playing it a different way next verse. The old adage of never playing a song the same way twice was probably first spoken w/ him in mind. He is always fully engaged; the most standard 12 bar blues is never standard when Freeman is around.

So to only associate him w/ playing Rainy Day Woman and Tweedle Dee every night is a shame indeed. Then I heard it, and I knew: this record has to be released! It’s just too good for people not to hear these songs.

When asked why I was going through all the aforementioned trials and tribulations just to see a guitar player, instead of gushing out the previous paragraphs,  I would answer that Freeman was to the guitar as Dylan was to words. Both manage, using his instrument, to cut away all the excess of his craft and access the pure emotion at the center. Since it is generally acknowledged that writing about music is sort of futile, I hope that listening to this record will help folks understand what I meant. 

As diverse as his songs are the sidemen Dylan has used over the years. By now, every fan has their favorite, and this record does not claim or attempt to change or challenge any of that. However, those who were not particularly blown away by Freeman’s performance behind Dylan might be especially interested in this collection. After all, it is a different situation exploring the songs on your own, as opposed to being under the employ of someone else.

Taste is subjective; not everyone is going to love this record the way I do, and that’s not the point anyway. But it will raise people’s appreciation of Freeman’s musical abilities, in particular, his use of melody. It will probably take two listens; the first time you might be too busy singing along. 

The collection spans nearly Dylan’s entire recording career, from 1963’s The Freewheelin’, to 2006’s Modern Times, the only (other) Dylan record to feature Freeman’s guitar. Several songs build on their original versions; the darkness of Senor and Gotta Serve Somebody, and the catharsis of Knockin On Heaven’s Door are amplified, whereas almost entirely new spins are given to Don’t Think Twice and Dignity. Blowin In The Wind, arguably Dylan’s most famous song, is unlike anything Freeman has previously released.

Even those who love dissecting each element of Dylan’s songs can find things to discuss. For example, is the march behind opener Times They are A Changin still the youthful call to arms the lyrics suggest, or a look back through different eyes now that we stand on the other side of that change? If you can pose questions w/ an album of instrumentals, you’re doing pretty good.

While most of the instrumentation is Freeman’s (yes, that’s even him on harp), he receives help, alternately, from Jon Blondell or Jim Milan on bass, and Barry ‘Frosty’ Smith or Michael J. Dohoney on drums. Fellow Dylan band alum Elana James joins in on fiddle on select tracks, proving once again that Dylan has impeccable tastes when it comes to selecting supporting musicians.

This is a record of covers in name only. Unlike other artists who either didn’t understand or didn’t care about the original, Freeman treats each song w/ respect, and serves them justly. Much the same way Dylan took old folk songs and sang them so convincingly as to make them his, so to does Freeman interpret Dylan’s songs in such a way that they become his (Hendrix again comes to mind). This album and Dylan’s canon are NOT mutually exclusive. Each serves to expand the listener’s appreciation of the other.

So even if driving 4 hours in a car w/ no A/C or cruise control through Missouri, at 1.30 am, in the middle of August is not your thing, you can still hear one of the most unique guitarists’ take on some of the best American songs of the past 50 years. It’s more than worth it.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Tempest = Bootleg Series Vol 10?

To be honest, I never thought I would be listening to this record this early; certainly not BEFORE it’s official release. I was not explicitly seeking to avoid it, but since stumbling into the news back in January that it was being recorded, its progress reports have floated in and out of my life w/ less than no bearing. I can’t think of an instance where the phrase “couldn’t care less” fits better. I don’t say all that to put anyone down, only to illustrate my complete indifference. I figured I’d find it a few years down the road in the used bin, and take it home out of curiosity.

Then that atrocious single, Early Roman Kings, found it’s way into my inbox. NOW I more or less WAS actively avoiding the record. That song is quintessential example of how to play blues POORLY; the reason that riff works on so many old blues records is because things are happening!!!!! The musicians are allowed to PLAY, there’s an excitement, energy, a spirit in the air that is so close to being tangible that it can’t help but come through in the playing. The music is ALIVE!!!! Pardon the pun, but this track is as dead as those early roman kings. (groan, I know)

 It’s also about twice as long as it should be. Unfortunately, I am not exaggerating; I could not make it through the track in one sitting. I had to stop it about halfway through, go do something, anything else for about 10 minutes, then come back and resume it. As it turns out, the second half IS just a boring as the first. It seems Dylan forgot that those old blues recordings had to fit on 45s, and are 2-3 minutes long. And they’re lively! Please, leave us wanting more, not taking 15 minutes to struggle though one single.

 So, expecting the rest of the record to sound very much the same, I figured I was all set on this one for a very long time. Then a link to the whole thing showed up, and w/ the curiosity of someone who’s stumbled upon what they believe will be a gruesome train wreck, I inched forward.....

 And I must admit, I was pleasantly surprised for a lot of it. Duquesne Whistle (Toucan Whistle, it sounds like) is actually a very tight, beautiful song when the bizarre visuals of the video are removed. I really liked what each instrument was doing, (great guitar tone, great brush recording) really liked the whole final product, and, actually, really liked the lyrics and the color of the vocals. And, it was the perfect length, which, looking back now, is a bit of a miracle.

  Hmm, that wasn’t horrible at all! If this sets the tone, this record is gonna be good!
And, just like that, Soon After Midnight appears, ushered in on a beautiful tried and true progression that makes the cut sound like it was pulled right out of the 50s. I personally love that stuff, but the wider effect gives the song a familiar feel, you’ve heard it all your life, it’s always been there, in the back of your conscious somewhere. While some of the lyrics make me roll my eyes, overall, they kept w/ the mid-century feel, while also never losing sight of the smirking darkness that is Dylan. My only complaint w/ this one is that it is too short, unbearably short, almost.

 So, two tracks in, just when I’m starting to really like the record, along comes Narrow Way and tramples my newly raised expectations. I’m sorry, I tried to be a good critic, but I cannot make it through this thing in its entirety, for the same reasons it took two goes at Kings; too long, too stale. The lyrics are negligible, the delivery rushed, the band is kept on too tight a leash and made to repeat an uninteresting phrase w/ little variation. So, of course, I have the horrible feeling that this is going to get played ad naseaum in future shows. It sounds a lot like an outtake from the TTL record, which isn’t really a compliment.

 Doing what Jack Frost should have, and cutting Narrow Way short, I now find myself at Long and Wasted Years, which gives me the idea for this record’s motif; that is to say, it sounds more like a Bootleg Series release than a album of similar material. The soundscape of this one certainly seems to recall TOOM sessions (or era, perhaps more aptly), which IS a compliment. Especially in the verse, as the instrumentals seem to grow more powerful as the lyrics (finally) arrive on a direction. Before that, however, it is mighty apparent that this is a sketch of a song; the lyrics seem to wander aimlessly in every direction. They have something to say, but they’re not sure how to go about doing it yet, and each of the other aspects are still feeling their way along. Don’t get me wrong, I actually enjoy this song, as I like many of the unreleased, underdeveloped, exploratory songs that make their appearance years later on BS releases. But ultimately, that’s how it should have been presented, as a song in development. Something for the scholars and fans to enjoy and dissect, and compare to the superior, finished version. This song, unfortunately, is still a work in progress.

 Pay In Blood, despite the title, is quite inoffensive/unremarkable. Not good, but not too bad either. Unbelievably average, it no doubt will entrench itself in live setlists for years to come as well. Soundwise, its not too terribly related to the TTL songs, but in overall forgetability, it ranks right among most of them.

 After just one listen, Scarlet Town is tied w/ Midnight for personal favorite. At first, I wasn’t really sure of it. It seemed like both the lyrics and the melody were trying too hard to force the listener into uneasiness; like dragging someone into a haunted house but forgetting to turn the lights off. However, as the song continued, the eeriness closed in, completely naturally. I cant put my finger on why it suddenly works, but at some point, it just does! And it’s good. For me, its not quite the all out unsettling feeling you get listening to Man In The Long Black Coat, but more akin to seeing Aint Talkin on a night when the 05-09 band was really on, really in tune w/ each other; ineffable. Sadness, pain, alienation, disassociation. You’re an outsider in a place where it’s a bit dangerous to be an outsider.

 But by far, the most unusual song on the record is Tin Angel. Even before a word is ever uttered, you hear this comically annoying oompa loompa beat, which is joined by an oompa loompa melody, and an oompa loompa cadence. That you’re actually being told this twisted parable further emphasizes this dark cartoon-scape. Originally I saw a Snidley Whiplash style of villain slinking scene to scene, but as the song went on, it became increasingly easier to see the character as someone who’s facial expressions and demeanor inexplicably resemble Romney’s.... Anyway, I listened w/ a permanent halfsmile, as I tried to figure out whether this was really cool, or just too weird. I still don’t know. One thing I do know, it is TOO long. This type of thing can be supported for about 6 min, maybe, this probably could have held 6 minutes, but who knows, because it drags on past the 9 minute mark. Again, know when to end.

 This song is the most religious, but there is a weird religious tone that runs deep throughout the whole thing. Though, to someone w/ admittedly almost no biblical knowledge, it seems to draw on a Faustian, Ichebod Crane type of mythology, rather then biblical fables.

 The title track is DEFINITELY something that should have ONLY seen the light of day on a Bootleg Series release. This is a truly epic undertaking, in all sense of the word, and is about as big a disaster as the one it describes. Think Joey, Lenny Bruce, Brownsville Girl, etc. Now, imagine them longer, more rambling, more boring. I know some fans claim they could listen to Dylan read the phonebook. Well, folks, this is not far from it. First, the source material is widely available for us to access ourselves. Second, this song offers NO new or unique insight to what is taking place. He basically just tells us what happens onscreen. Musically, its very similar to Cross The Green Mountain. However, in that one, the music helps us empathize w/ the soldiers. Here, the lyrics are so cold and matter of fact, I really don’t care a bit for anyone involved. Just sink already, so this song will end!!! I pray that this only took one take, because anything more constitutes torture for the musicians. As far as I can tell, I don’t really see a redeeming quality of this song, other than being used to get rid of people who’ve overstayed their welcome at a party.

 The final song, I’m sad to say, I also found to be a drag. I’m not a big Lennon fan, at all, but I was interested to hear this. Unfortunately, straight tribute songs are not Dylan’s strong suite. Again, think of Lenny Bruce. This one is just as awkward; musically, lyrically, everything. Had it not been the last track, I would have issued it no more thought, however, I do find its placement a tad interesting to think about.

 So much has been made over the fact that it’s called Tempest, he’s 71, he’s lived a, erm, full life.... it does seem logical to contemplate the ramifications should this be his last record. Now, I am not saying that I know (or even care) what he was thinking about, or what he had in mind while writing or making this record. In some sense, that doesn’t even matter, seeing how artists’ intentions and public interpretations/reactions to the art after it is unveiled can be completely independent of each other.

 So, if this is, in fact, the last song on the last record, it could easily be read as a farewell, not just to a friend lost years ago, but also to the impending loss of his own life. It seems natural for humanity to contemplate that. How do you say goodbye to yourself? How do you want to be sent off?

 (Thankfully) the only part of the song that sticks w/ me, is the oft-repeated chorus:
Shine a light/ Move it on/ You burned so bright/ Roll on, John

 It doesn’t matter what Dylan was or was not thinking when he wrote that. It doesn’t matter if he makes 15 more records and lives for 30 more years, I read that line as a older man, seeing more in the rearview mirror than on the horizon, and accepting that.

 Roll on, Bob.

 Only time will tell how this record fares in Dylan’s canon. Me though? I’m glad I opened it up. There are some really good little songs in there.