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.

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