April 3rd: Bill Withers, RIP

So sad to hear of the death of Bill Withers, life guide and fine songwriter. Here’s a reprint of a couple of Five Things about Bill.

Bill Withers onstage in 1973.

The things you learn…
Sent on a small Bill Withers journey by The Immortal Jukebox, I came across the interesting tale of his first album on the mix site, written by Barbara Schultz. There’s the fascinating story of Wally Heider’s studio in the piece, which is basically an interview with the great engineer Bill Halverson. And how many articles about recording studios feature the word “soffit”? “Withers was eventually signed to Sussex Records, and the great Booker T. Jones was enlisted to produce the new artist’s debut album, Just as I Am in 1971. Also on the session were two members of the MGs – drummer Al Jackson and bass player Donald “Duck” Dunn – plus singer/songwriter Stephen Stills on guitar. The recordings were made in Wally Heider’s Studio 3, then situated in L.A. at the corner of Cahuenga and Selma. The engineer was Bill Halverson, whose credits at that point included such essential records as Crosby Stills and Nash’s massive self-titled debut, Cream’s Badge, Tom Jones Sings She’s a Lady and CSNY’s Déjà Vu.

“It was Stephen Stills’ studio time that we were using,” Halverson recalls by phone from his home in Nashville. “I was working with Stephen on his first solo record, and he came to me a couple nights before this and said, ‘I’ve got this guy who needs a night of studio time.’ Stephen was hanging with Rita Coolidge, and Booker was marrying [Rita Coolidge’s sister] Priscilla Coolidge, and somehow Booker asked Stephen for some studio time. We just spent the one night.” On Withers’ session, Halverson placed Jackson’s kit near the control room glass, under an overhanging soffit – an emulation of United Western 3 [a fabled room in LA Studio lore — ed] – that held the studio playback speakers. “If you tucked the drums as close as you could under that overhang of the big speakers, you were out in the room but you had really good isolation,” Halverson says.

“When Bill Withers showed up,” Halverson says, “he comes walking in with his guitar and a straight-back chair, like a dining room chair, and asks, ‘Where do I set up?’ I showed him right in the middle of the room, and then he left and he came back in with this platform, a kind of wooden box that didn’t have a bottom. It was about four inches tall, and was maybe 3 foot by 4 foot; it was a fairly large platform, and he set it down in the middle of the room. Then he put his chair on it and got his guitar out, and he’s sitting on top of this box. So I miked him and I miked his guitar, and then I was doing other things – getting sounds together. But then he calls me over and he points down to the box and says, ‘You gotta mike the box.’ Well, the way I was trained, you serve the artist, whatever the artist needs. So I got a couple other mics and I miked the box, the place down near the floor, next to this platform.
 
“And now, when you listen to “Ain’t No Sunshine,” you know that all that tapping that goes on [while Withers sings] ‘I know I know I know’ all through it, actually, that’s him tapping his feet on the box, which is actually more intricate than the guitar on that track. He had evidently rehearsed that in his living room, maybe for years.”

I found the great documentary, Still Bill, directed by Damani Baker and Alex Vlack, complete on YouTube. I wrote a little about it in 2012:

It’s Bill Withers’ World: we just live in it… the Wonderful Still Bill
Everyone is hereby urged to see this fine, fine piece of work, less a music documentary than a meditation on how to live a life. Best human moment: Bill’s visit to an educational project helping kids who stutter (Withers did until the age of 28). Best musical moment: a toss-up between Raul Midón and Bill on the telephone, and at a tribute concert, Bill watching Cornell Dupree glide ’n’ slide through Grandma’s Hands, talent undimmed by illness (even though he has an oxygen tube on). Bill steps onto the stage and sings a verse, but then, as Barney Hoskyns’ wrote: “as if concerned not to upstage the ailing but grinning Dupree—one of soul music’s greatest guitar players—he almost immediately sat down beside him, continuing to sing but deferring to Dupree.” And with his hand resting on Cornell’s knee.

If you haven’t seen it, rectify that omission soon. The Cornell Dupree version of “Grandma’s Hands” is at 1 hr 6 minutes.

Extra! A Christmas Song

Normally, at this point of the year, I’d post a cover of a traditional Christmas song that I like. This year, however, I couldn’t find something that I felt like doing, so I looked through my back catalogue (!) and found something Christmas-centric. Eight years on I finished it off. Featuring David Miles on bass, and a list of the randomest place names I could find (that rhymed), here is “(I’m Trying to Make it) Home for Christmas”.

Baby, I’m writing you, just to tell you that I love you,
And I’m really trying hard to come home for Christmas.
Baby, I’m trav’ling from the Eastside to the West
And it’s a long winter’s march to get back home for Christmas.
… and it’s cold outside

Oh I might be in Kyiv or Tuscumbia
Carmarthen or Nepal
Wherever the hell I am in this world
I’m trying to make it home for Christmas…
I’m trying to make it home for Christmas…

Baby, I’m calling you, just to tell you that I love you,
And I’m really trying hard to come home for Christmas

Well I might be in Dubai or Columbia
Kandahar or St. Paul
Wherever the hell I am on this earth
I’m trying to make it home for Christmas…
I’m trying to make it home for Christmas…

You can find the other Christmas Songs here.

An Interlude: Bill Colyer

The marking of D-Day this year made me think of a trip I took with my dad and some other veterans in 2001 to the beaches of France. We hired a coach and headed to Sword Beach (which stretched from Ouistreham to Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer), near the town of Caen, the objective for the British 3rd Infantry Division. It was moving to walk and talk our way around a place that had such (still) vivid memories for them. So, thinking of those things, here’s something based on a reading that I gave at Bill’s funeral, about his experiences in the war and his enduring love of music, and those that made it.

Monday, December 24th

A Christmas Song for all the readers of Five Things…


The book of Five Things is available from Amazon here.

Front Cover

“He writes with the insight of someone who has inhabited the world of the professional musician but also with the infectious enthusiasm of someone who is a fan like anyone of us. It’s entertaining and inspiring in equal measure.” – from an Amazon review by Zuma

“What a treat! And it has the years before I discovered your blog…” – Dan Franklin, Publisher

“A terrific book, stuffed to the gills with snippets of news items and observations all with a musical theme, pulled together by the watchful eye of Martin Colyer… lovingly compiled, rammed with colour photos and interesting stories. Colyer has a good ear for a tune, an eye for the out-of-ordinary and he can write a bit too.” – Steve Carr, everyrecordtellsastory.com

“I’ve been dipping with huge enjoyment since it arrived” – James Walton, writer and presenter of Radio 4’s books quiz, The Write Stuff, and the R4 pop quiz All the Way from Memphis.

Extra! Daniel Kramer’s year with Bob Dylan

Written for Pulp magazine last year.

5-coverBob Dylan: A Year and a Day. Photographs by Daniel Kramer

Edited by Nina Wiener / Art Direction by Josh Baker / Design by Jess Sappenfield
Published by Taschen, hardcover in a clamshell box, edition of 1,965 (cute!)

“In retrospect, it’s clear that Bob was in the process of winding up a very large spring. I didn’t know then 
how much of that spring would be let loose in the coming months.” – Daniel Kramer

On July 20th 1965, Bob Dylan, the star of the Greenwich Village Folk Boom, exploded onto the pop charts. America’s first modern singer-songwriter, Dylan, in the six minutes and thirteen seconds that it took for the epochal “Like a Rolling Stone” to be debuted on US radio, virtually created grown-up rock music. But Dylan’s spectacular reinvention of himself and his music had not just happened overnight – it had been brewing for a while. At the beginning of this astonishing, game-changing period – the like of which had previously been the preserve of fine artists such as Matisse and Picasso – photographer Daniel Kramer found himself, through a mixture of talent, persistence and chance, in the position of recording the highs of an extraordinary year in the life of Bob Dylan.

Having first seen Dylan on Steve Allen’s variety show in February, 1964 (“It was the kind of sound I always liked. It reminded me of a voice from the hills… like a voice that had been left out in the rain and rusted…”) Kramer decided that he had to photograph this performer who was brave enough to play songs about social injustice on a mainstream tv show. He called Dylan’s management: “Naturally I was told Mr Dylan was not available. And so it went. I would call, and they would say no.” Eventually, Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, picked up the phone. “By this time he knew why I was calling. I convinced him that I was a reasonable, completely sane, published, professional photographer. I was caught by surprise when his almost immediate answer was, Okay, come up to Woodstock next Thursday. You can have an hour. Just like that… just like that!”

5-dylanbook2

So Kramer drove two hours north of New York City on a bright August morning and spent the day following the 23-year-old musician as he read newspapers, played chess, and hung out with Sally Grossman (Albert’s wife) and his own wife-to-be, Sara Lownds. In the early Sixties, Woodstock was still a sleepy burg, a place where Dylan could keep the increasing intensity of life in New York at bay. The pictures are winningly relaxed and goofy, Dylan obviously finding Kramer a copacetic presence, and from that simple beginning, Kramer found himself photographing Dylan on thirty occasions over the next 365 days.

Kramer had come to photography early, aged 14, and later fell into a job working as an assistant at the studio of the fashion photographer Allan Arbus. “His wife, Diane Arbus, also did her darkroom work there – it turned out to be more than just a job. From Allan I learned to manage a studio, work with models, and run the business – and from Diane, I learned to open my eyes a bit wider, to think about my pictures in new ways.” His next gig was assisting Philippe Halsman, legendary Life magazine cover photographer. “From Philippe, I learned how to make light do your bidding, instead of the other way around, and how to choose a decent wine – and that photography could be a great adventure and a pathway to the whole world.”

5-dylanbook.jpg

From Kramer’s fascinating recollections in the accompanying text, we find that he becomes one of Dylan’s travelling companions. In this role, he’s given both space and time to produce meaningful work. It’s a hallmark of Dylan’s relationships with the producers, musicians and photographers who come into his orbit – once they are admitted, they are allowed to bring their vision with them. Only Alfred Wertheimer on his trips around the country with a young Elvis Presley had such access to a popular star, with similar results – to show the nuts and bolts of the music business and lift the veil at the moment that the cultural plates were shifting.

Listen to any of the session tapes of recent release The Cutting Edge (every single note of music Dylan recorded, complete with false starts and unused takes, throughout 1965, the year of Kramer’s book) and you’ll find that Dylan’s moulding of what’s happening is subtle and understated, only occasionally direct and demanding. And if you met his approval, his world was your oyster. Kramer takes full advantage, producing classic black-and-white reportage backstage, onstage, in cars and cafes.

The book, beautifully laid out, is broken into sections (Woodstock / Town Hall / In the Studio / Bob & Joan / Early ’65 / Forest Hills) by lyrics letterpressed onto heavy matt paper, with Kramer’s excellent narrative set in typewriter, an era-specific evocation of the prevailing technology of the time.

5-dylan2

The sheer size of the book lets you feel that you’re at a really well-curated exhibition, one where the scaling and sequencing of the images are perfectly judged. The detail drawn out of the gorgeous grain of the 35mm Kodak Tri-X film that Kramer used is wonderful, and the book is a much more satisfying way to see these photographs than as individual prints in a gallery.

The colour film that Kramer shot of Dylan, the cover session for Bringing It All Back Home, one of the two albums he would release in 1965 (the other, Highway 61 Revisited, also had a cover shot by Kramer) sits happily at the centre of the book, in a section called “Intermission”. Kramer’s studio shoots (including a meeting at Kramer’s New York studio that would provide the cover for Dylan’s first book, Tarantula) give a break between the reportage either side and show that his earlier experiences in the studio with Arbus and Halsman served him well.

5-dylan1

But first, he needed the persuasive techniques of Bob’s manager to make these shoots happen. After Columbia’s art director, John Berg, refuses to commission the (as he saw it) inexperienced Kramer to shoot the cover of Bringing It All Back Home, Grossman intervenes. “Mr Grossman took us [Dylan and Kramer] to the art director’s office, where he proceeded to make a series of predictions of what bad things would happen [to Berg] if I did not get this assignment.”

Having been present at the recording sessions, Kramer knew that he had to deliver something that related to Dylan’s new direction – and a technique he was working on for a fashion shoot with his 4×5 view camera seemed perfect. It enabled him to make “multiple exposures on one sheet of film while moving, blurring, or keeping sharp parts of any single exposure”, a world away from the fly-on-the-wall 35mm reportage that Kramer had been shooting up to this point.

Arranging Dylan in a room set at Grossman’s Woodstock house, with Sally Grossman draped decoratively on a sofa, Kramer adds elements to make his technique work. “We scoured the house and basement to find things to put in the picture so there would be things to ‘move’ when the camera back was revolved. I wanted to say that Bob Dylan was less a folksinger and more a prince of music. So there in the centre of the turning record is Bob Dylan without an instrument, in this beautiful room, seated with a beautiful woman in a red dress… we were lucky to get one exposure with the cat looking into my lens.” Kramer can’t resist telling us that he and John Berg were nominated for a Grammy Award for best album cover photograph…

5-dylan4

Around this time, a new Dylan snaps into view, as the pages turn from images of joking around with old friends to those of Dylan with an early hero, Johnny Cash. Dylan is about to play one of his last acoustic shows and has morphed from the chubby-faced Chaplinesque troubadour to a more angular and focused presence. Over dinner with Cash, he seems to be burning with a particular intensity, fixing Dan Kramer and Cash both with a piercing gaze.

The next stage is about to begin in earnest, and it will lead to the alienation of Dylan’s loyal fanbase. His artistic horizons are widening to take in Pop Art and filmmaking – from Greenwich Village to the Warhol factory was only a matter of a few downtown NY blocks, but in 1965 it was an artistic chasm. On one side, the gruesomely authentic folksters, on the other, the achingly hip (yet blatantly commercial) scenesters. As Dylan moved inexorably across from one to the other, the air was thick with cries of Sell Out! and worse. Kramer finds himself shooting from the inside out.

A show at Forest Hills with electric backing will plunge Dylan into a maelstrom that the world of rock has rarely seen, as a performer’s desire to follow his muse sees him branded a Judas and pelted with objects. Visually, Dylan’s look begins to assume the sharp outlines of an icon – even in a close-field blur, with Albert Grossman far away in the stands of the Forest Hills stadium, Dylan is instantly recognisable, entering the period where he would be drawn by Milton Glaser as a rainbow-headed visualisation of the grooviness and excitement of the middle sixties.

5-dylan forest

And that concert signals the end of Kramer’s travels with Bob. The last shots are of Dylan at one remove from his audience, backlit by blinding spotlights as someone invades the stage, chased by cops. A tour of the US and Europe awaits Dylan, his world accelerating until it culminates in a motorcycle accident that will remove him from the public glare for the following years.

Daniel Kramer moves onto a long and successful career straddling editorial, advertising and motion-picture work, and never photographs Dylan again. And Dylan? Well, he’s still “on the road, heading to another joint…”, not stopping long enough to be pinned down. But we, luckily, have this epic production to linger over, reliving that remarkable year when the times were truly changing.

If you’re receiving the email out, please click on the Date Headline of the page for the full 5 Things experience. It will bring you to the site (which allows you to see the Music Player) and all the links will open in another tab or window in your browser.

The book of Five Things is available from Amazon here.

Front Cover

He writes with the insight of someone who has inhabited the world of the professional musician but also with the infectious enthusiasm of someone who is a fan like anyone of us. He also comes at the subject from an entirely personal, slightly sideways perspective, with no agenda and no product to sell. It’s entertaining and inspiring in equal measure.”

“A terrific book, stuffed to the gills with snippets of news items and observations all with a musical theme, pulled together by the watchful eye of Martin Colyer… lovingly compiled, rammed with colour photos and interesting stories. Colyer has a good ear for a tune, an eye for the out-of-ordinary and he can write a bit too.”

Extra! Protest Songs No.2: “The Danger Zone”

Songwriter and singer Percy Mayfield was a scribe for the loveless and lost, but also for the man railing against the possibility of Armageddon. Even in the most plaintive and beautiful lovesick ballad, his apocalyptic bent creeps in. Here’s “Please Send Me Someone to Love”:
“Show the world how to get along
Peace will enter, when hate is gone
But if it’s not asking too much
Please send me someone to love…”

“River’s Invitation” conjoins his missing sweetheart with thoughts of suicide:
“I spoke to the river
And the river spoke back to me
It said man you look so lonely
You look full of misery
And if you can’t find your baby
Come and make your home with me”

Even a visit home was no fun. “Stranger in My Own Hometown”, cut famously by Elvis, finds the singer bemoaning his lot…
“I came home with good intentions
About 5 or 6 years ago
But my hometown won’t accept me
Just don’t feel welcome here no more…”

5-percymayfield

His most famous song was for his mentor, Ray Charles – “Hit the Road, Jack” was a monster hit in 1961. But on the B-Side, cut at the same session, was “The Danger Zone”, blessed with one of Ray’s greatest ever performances. Here’s a lovely piece about the song, and its relation to Leonard Cohen’s “Almost Like the Blues”, at thebluemoment.

5-dangerzone

Its refrain has been running around my head for the last few months, to the point where I had to record a version of it. So forgive me the gall. Here it is. [removed for remixing]

 

 

If you’re receiving the email out, please click on the Date Headline of the page for the full 5 Things experience. It will bring you to the site (which allows you to see the Music Player) and all the links will open in another tab or window in your browser.

 

Extra! All best for the holiday season…

rushingxmas

Next week, before the year ends, I’ll attempt to write about Josh Ritter at Shepherds Bush Empire (stunningly good), the American Pie Classic Albums on BBC4 (no Rob Stoner, not enough Paul Griffin), David Lynch’s Twin Peaks scene sountracked by Otis, and Guitarmaggedon (Matt Umanov’s on Bleeker Street closing, guitar sales down).

This week, though, a Christmas card from Jimmy Rushing and family, sent to my dad in the late 50s, and my take on another* Christina Rosetti Christmas song. Apologies for the unmixed state of it, but you know Christmas and deadlines… Thanks for reading over the past year, and best wishes to all.

 

* A couple of years ago I recorded “In the Bleak Midwinter” as an eight-minute soundscape. using the Teisco Baritone guitar that I had recently acquired [you can listen to it here]. The bari is back this year, wrestling with twitchy drummers and a ghostly choir (thanks, Mimosa!).

Extra! 55 Hours in Berlin

Richard Williams has been the Artistic Director of the Berlin Jazzfest for the past three years; 2017 is his last year and I wanted to make up for missing the first two. So, picking up tickets for three performances (the rest were sold out) and buying seats on three trains, I packed my poor knowledge of contemporary jazz and a small bag and headed to Berlin.

berlin-jazzfest

I arrived a couple of days after the festival started, but as the train pulled into the station, Richard texted with tickets to that evening’s programme. So started my time in Berlin, a wholly enjoyable blur of astonishing musicians, attentive, clued-up audiences and great coffee. Some highlights:

ONE TYSHAWN SOREY
My introduction to the festival was the artist-in-residence’s Trio, with Cory Smythe on piano, and Chris Tordini on bass. Sorey prowled around a small city’s worth of percussive devices and instruments (including a drum kit, a parade drum, vibes, keyboards and a large gong) accentuating the music at one moment, driving it the next. It was impressive but I didn’t feel entirely engaged.

berlin-tyshawn

However, the next day featured Tyshawn in a supporting role (although I don’t think it can really be described as such). Playing a conventional kit in a trio with the powerful Angelika Niescier on saxophone (she was the recipient of this year’s Albert Mangelsdorff Prize) he was flatly astonishing. I’ve never seen a drummer make such a thundering, roiling noise with such clarity. Simultaneous rolls with each hand, a pumping bass drum, and slashed cymbals combined in an exhilarating performance where he was always alive in the music but never grandstanding. A mobile phone had gone off in Sorey’s previous appearance and one went off here, too. Richard said that had never happened before. I posited the theory that it was something to do with Tyshawn’s unique energy field…

TWO MÔNICA VASCONCELOS
The World Service producer and presenter, with her longstanding band, played her recent album of songs about living in Brazil under the military government, The Sao Paulo Tapes. Produced by Robert Wyatt and featuring songs written by some of Brazil’s greatest, the projected backdrop of photographs from that period added an unsettling element to her midnight set in a theatre space off the main concert hall.

berlin-monica

Her warm, lovely voice sat on a fantastic bed of bossa rhythms, expertly played. With two basses (double and electric), great guitar from Ife Tolentino and Ingrid Laubrock’s sax to the fore, it was a perfect jewel-like performance.

THREE AMBROSE AKINMUSIRE
During a fantastic suite of music commissioned for the festival, based on the four songs that Mattie Mae Thomas left the world when she was recorded in Parchman Farm in 1939, guitarist Marvin Sewell played an achingly moving blues, intense and soulful. His buzzing slide sounded like the grooves of a 78 come to life, before he switched back to playing the oldest pattern of the blues, setting up a throbbing pulse as Mattie Mae’s voice ghosted into the tune, sampled, cut up and looped. At the same time, vocalist Dean Bowman worked around and off her performance.

As it developed, composer and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire stepped in, his beautifully burnished tone pulling the music from the farm to the city with a moody five-note melody that sounded angular and sophisticated in contrast. The music built and built on the piano and trumpet until Sewell came back in to match Akinmusire’s explorations, sounding almost like Larry Carlton with Steely Dan. The band’s groove stayed strong, never losing sight of Mississippi, even as the guitar and trumpet played like cat-and-mouse over the top. It was astonishing to think that they had played this piece only once before, at their rehearsal together the previous day. “How in the pocket was that!” Richard exclaimed at the concert’s end, his first tentative thoughts of Ambrose using Mattie Mae Thomas as a starting point triumphantly realised.

FOUR RENÉ URTREGER AT 83
To the Maison de France for a showing of Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, Louis Malle’s first film, which famously has a Miles Davis soundtrack. The last surviving musician from the band that recorded it, René Urtreger, gave a solo recital after the screening. His talent was barely dimmed by the passing years. He had become a pop arranger for Claude François and a film composer for Claud Berri before returning to his first love, jazz, in the late 70s.

berlin-rene

In conversation with Richard, René was mischievous and spry: “I become friends with Miles Davis, we share the same room. And now I can tell it, it’s 60 years after – he had an affair with my sister. Okay. My sister has Alzheimer’s, she has forgotten everything (awkward audience laughter). Sorry, that’s life… I ask her about Miles, she says, who?

FIVE NELS CLINE LOVERS
Nels Cline is a master of so many guitar genres it’s dizzying. Quite a few (even the rock ones) were on display here, as he played his album of standards and oddities (like Henry Mancini’s “The Search for Cat” – a short cue from the Breakfast at Tiffany’s score and Sonic Youth’s “Snare Girl”). Conductor and arranger Michael Leonhart guided the brilliant chamber orchestra, partly made up of talented German music students – there was even a harp, always great to see.

berlin-nels

Moving from the noir of New York to the bleached-out tones of sunny California, Nels altered his style in response to the songs. Not one of nature’s front-men, he remained mostly seated behind a workbench covered in pedals and boxes and a lap steel (used to wonderful theramin-like effect on “I Have Dreamed” and “Why was I Born?”). From the naggingly beautiful blues of Jimmy Guiffre’s “Cry, Want” to the dissonance of Annette Peacock’s “So Hard it Hurts/Touching” this was a shape-shifting treat. And the last song, “The Bond”, a simple melodic riff that built into a hypnotic, sweeping soundscape, may just have been the best.

AND FINALLY… DR LONNIE SMITH
If Nels was the heart, Lonnie must be the soul, and it does your own soul good to watch him, a man so in command of his oeuvre (the funky Hammond writ large) that the audience is at one with him from the off. Looking for all the world like Zoltar the Fortune Teller in Tom Hanks’ Big, he lets out a howl of joy as he comes across some amusingly cheesy melody or plays a lick that he really likes. The Leslie speaker behind him was a throbbing, whirling presence of its own, and he worked his way through a barnstorming and crowd-pleasing set, his pedal bass-playing locked tight into Johnathan Blake’s hyper-attuned drumming. The guitar of Jonathan Kreisberg, who covered the bases from Wes Montgomery to James Brown, was the icing on the cake.

What a great place to end my Berlin adventure. I’d heard wailing improvisations, hushed, subtle orchestrations, blistering musical conversations and glorious melodies. The silence of Berlin on the Sunday morning after the Saturday night made it all seem dreamlike – the result of seeing ten concerts in 55 hours, perhaps. Whatever, it was fantastic to be immersed in such a creative space for such an intense period, and to see so many great collaborations work across boundaries of geography, race, language and culture.

Extra: Girl from the North Country

NOT FARGO, FARRAGO
I decided to spend an afternoon traveling in the North Country fair but sadly wished that I’d never taken leave of London Town. (To see what prompted my going, see Five Things Extra: That Dylan Play, where two friends with opposing views write about it).

Honestly, upfront I have to say that there’s more nuance and depth of character in a silent movie than there is in Girl from the North Country. Yes, I speak as a slightly reluctant attendee, but not because I was proprietorially feeling How dare they… or snottily assuming critical feelings about a work in another medium purloining Bob’s songs to its own ends. I’m not even sure that I would have been offended by Ben Elton scripting a play based around these songs, as he had done for Queen. And – also honestly – the music, arranged by Simon Hale, is delivered beautifully, with sensitive guitar, piano, bass, and fiddle accompaniment that manages to mostly stay away from a Mumford hoedown, and deliver true heft behind some good singing.

But, dramatically speaking, well… Nothing here made me feel that the writer, Conor McPherson, had any understanding of these people and their problems in this small midwestern town. The plot seemed laughably dated, cobbled together from offcuts of Steinbeck, O’Connor, and O’Neill. Slow-witted lunk? Check. Old rich man who thinks money can buy him the love of a poor but pretty girl? Check. Con man masquerading as a bible salesman? Check. Boarding-House owner with debts and a mistress? Check. Black convict trying to escape… I could work my way through the cast, but you get the drift.

There’s an almost offensive use of dementia as a dramatic device, with Shirley Henderson having to play the afflicted wife of Nick, the Boarding House owner. From the back of the stalls she looks too young (even if she isn’t in life) and plays her as a sexually incontinent, gratuitously swearing Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Really. Bits of business at the boarding house ( in a variety of clunky American accents) get interspersed with musical moments that are meant to round out character and story, but for every line that fits, there are two that seem tangential or just plain weird. “Sign on the Window” and “Went to See the Gypsy” (with its mention of “that little Minnesota town”) work at the start, but “Señor” (“Señor, señor, do you know where we’re headin’? Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?”) seems to carry a heavier apocalyptic load than these flimsy characters can bear.

And while it was great to hear songs from, say, the Empire Burlesque period, where Dylan’s own versions have weak or unlistenable production, some decisions didn’t come off. Especially in the case of “I Want You”, sung in counterpoint to a reprise of “Like a Rolling Stone”. Slowing the song’s essential skipping beat to a funereal pace and disastrously over-enunciating the lyrics (Musical Theatre Alert!) rendered those beautiful rolling and tumbling lines (“The guilty undertaker sighs/The lonesome organ grinder cries/The silver saxophones say I should refuse you”) dead on arrival. It also contained the unfortunate call and response of…
“How does it feel…” (LaRS)
“So bad…” (IWY)

I thought Bronagh Gallagher the most impressive singer (she also played very tidy drums on a few songs) especially on “Sweetheart Like You”/True Love Tends to Forget”, but I found myself more than once involuntarily leaning forward and putting my head in my hands. I didn’t want to ruin anyone’s enjoyment of the performance so I had to stop myself emitting weary sighs, but by halfway through the second half, I felt my patience being stretched thin, as thin as the dramatic arc of the story.

Thinking about the success of the play (it’s transferring to the West End soon), and the standing ovations at the finale, I wondered if there are people who go to see every musical in the West End, regardless of type. I heard the people behind me say that they must go home and listen to this Dylan guy, and I don’t mention that as a criticism. What I do think is that the bar is set too low if this farrago gets five stars from Michael Billington in The Guardian.

As I walked back to my car, I scanned through my iPhone for some music to clear my head. Brian Ferry irreverently blasting out “Hard Rain” fitted the bill as I pulled out from the Cut and onto Waterloo Bridge. When, a few songs later, Lou Reed’s “Dirty Blvd.” burst out of the speakers, I pulled over and listened, powerfully struck by the fact that he paints – with shocking detail – a fully rounded and realised story in the three and a half minutes it takes to play out. Dreams, inequality, racism, celebrity, poverty, politics, and violence. All vividly brought to life. Three and a half minutes. The last two and a half hours is just wasted time.

Extra: That Dylan Play…

hibbing

IT SEEMS THAT I HAVE TO GO TO THE THEATRE…
…which is not my favourite thing to do. But as two friends have opposite opinions on the play that uses Dylan songs throughout, it’s going to be necessary. [Image above shows Hibbing’s High School, Dylan’s Yearbook picture, Dylan onstage with his first band, The Golden Chords, and North Country Girl Echo Star Helstrom].

So here’s Bruce Millar on Conor McPherson’s Girl from the North Country:

“The first inkling that something was not quite right came early on, as it became clear that the young female actor (20s, early 30s at a pinch) in the lead role was actually playing an aging woman with dementia – well, at least 60, and we are talking about the 1930s, when that age did make you old. Her husband was, appropriately, my age and similarly gone to seed. I know, this is acting, you suspend your disbelief – but as Tom said, is it really not possible to find a female actor of 60-odd who can sing a bit? They’re always complaining of a lack of roles, but here one comes along on the West End stage and it’s snaffled by a youngster. Anyway, for me the production immediately smacked of the school play, with a teenage Lady Macbeth…

The play itself, set in Duluth (the possibly spurious BD connection – I couldn’t make out any dramatic justification for it), seemed to throw in every cliche of American southern gothic literature – the nutter in every family, the sinister and manipulative Bible salesman, the subterranean sexual passions, the wastrel would-be writer son, the washed-up pro boxer – in a not very stylish or original manner, and a couple of thousand miles north of its proper territory.

And then, in a manner rather too reminiscent of Abba – The Musical, the cast burst into song every now and then. Some of the singing was good, and there was nothing particularly wrong with the interpretations, but it slowly dawned on me that this was a Crime against Art. Recorded or live, these songs, mostly from the 60s and 70s, are all very precise, but at the same time extraordinarily open-ended; they play on the imagination, suggesting multiple meanings, feelings and depths, in a way that few songwriters have ever achieved so consistently (which is probably why the Nobel committee gave Dylan the literature prize).

Shoe-horned into this derivative drama, each song seemed to have been limited, confined, diminished, flattened and emptied-out; there was no charge, none of the reverberation that I value in the originals. It was strange to hear these great songs transformed into something so small.

Over an interval drink, Tom and I decided to cut our losses and head for Dunkirk instead. I’ve got pretty catholic tastes and am both patient and mean enough to want to get my money’s worth – the last time I walked out of a film or play was 40 years ago (strange how some things stick in the mind). I haven’t seen what the professional reviewers make of Girl from the North Country – I’ll be particularly interested in Ann Treneman’s review in the Times (if she reviews it), given that she is an admirer of Dylan. My prediction is that lazy subs will probably run headlines saying For fans of Dylan only; I would reverse that, but even then advise against going.”

And here’s Mick Gold:

“It’s a funny beast but I recommend it. Twenty songs in search of a play? Stuck in 1934 Duluth with the Eugene O’Neill Blues again? Set in a Depression era rooming house in the city where Bob will be born in seven years time, McPherson’s play floats in a fragmented way on a sea of songs. The good news is the cast and the music are wonderful. Worth the price of a ticket just to see Bronagh Gallagher (of Pulp Fiction fame) play the drums.

When a falsely accused black pugilist enters stage left, you can guess what is coming, but when the inevitable “Hurricane” blows the audience away, it’s done with massive energy. To my ears some outstanding young singers in the cast (Sheila Atim, Arinze Kene). Jim Norton, who did a brilliant job of reading the whole of Ulysses for Naxos discs, plays a seedy old man.

“Jokerman”, “Slow Train”, “Duquesne Whistle”, “Like a Rolling Stone” and many more are all done with great artistry and emotional impact. There was the occasional tear in my eye. If this were a boxing match I’d score it Play 3, Bob 5. But the reason the music is so good is McPherson does have some strange and poignant ideas about not making the songs too obvious. And the rhyming of 1934 Depression-era Main Street USA and 2017 zero-hours UK is convincing.”

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