Extra! Bob Dylan & his band, RAH, 21st October

“Why can’t I be more conventional
People talk
People stare
So I try
But that’s not for me…”
– “Why Try to Change Me Now”, covered on Shadows in the Night

These things we know: that Bob has a great band, from the rock steady rhythm section, equally at home with brushes and bows as sticks and fingers – to the dazzling front line of guitar and pedal steel; that he has an unsurpassed choice of songs to sing; that he won’t respond to requests no matter how many times the audience shouts out their particular favourite song; that he will always be his own man, ploughing his own furrow.

This we didn’t know: that he could sing, live in concert, timeless songs of the 40’s and 50’s with a believable, vulnerable – but above all careful – voice.

It made him less cavalier with his own songs, too, and the contrast of the pedal steel and brushes-driven Sinatra songs gave his 21st century blues numbers more snap and bite – “Pay In Blood” was terrifying, phrase after phrase flung from the stage like Muddy Waters backed by Johnny Winter; “Long and Wasted Years” becoming a second cousin of “Brownsville Girl”, both in melody and narrative delivery.

He pays homage to the American music that still fuels him in the way he chooses to walk onto the stage. The first half kicked off with guitarist Stu Kimball playing an acoustic piece of western folk (think the “Pat Garrett“ soundtrack, or “Red River Valley”) as the rest of the band filed on. For the second half Kimball played an electric country blues, Mississippi via Chicago, for the band’s entrance. As he said in Chronicles, “Highway 61, the main thoroughfare of the country blues, begins about where I began. I always felt like I’d started on it, always had been on it and could go anywhere, even down in to the deep Delta country. It was my place in the universe, always felt like it was in my blood.”

I also thought of this quote, said when he was 21 and talking of the tradition that he wanted to work in… “I don’t carry myself yet the way that Big Joe Williams, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Lightnin’ Hopkins have carried themselves. I hope to be able to someday, but they’re older people. You see, in time, with those old singers, music was a tool – a way to live more, a way to make themselves feel better at certain points.”

And even at his most forward-thinking, smashing the conventions of popular song, there would always be the blues: “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat”, “Highway 61”, “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”. You wonder what his 1966 self would make of him singing Sinatra at the Albert Hall in 2015. I bet he’d be fine with it. He was 1966 in 1966, and he didn’t need to be that again. He’d be pleased that he still honoured his roots every night that he plays, whether it’s Crosby and Sinatra, Wolf and Waters, or Williams, Holly and Berry. And, as he encored – with a wonderfully rolling and tumbling, piano-led version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” that was almost-country (but mostly Bob), and a coruscating “Love Sick” – I kept coming back to that verse from “Why Try to Change Me Now”. It struck me as both the fulcrum of the night’s set, and of his entire enormous, chaotic, poetic, mind-blowing, career.

Wednesday, April 8th

VISUAL OF THE WEEK

Dylan DeanBob Dylan watches Dean Martin, at home in Woodstock, Summer ’64, from a great set of photos by Douglas Gilbert. “In July of 1964, one year before his music changed from acoustic to electric, I photographed Bob Dylan for LOOK magazine. I spent time with him at his home in Woodstock, New York, in Greenwich Village, and at the Newport Folk Festival. The story was never published. After reviewing the proposed layout, the editors declared Dylan to be “too scruffy for a family magazine” and killed the story.” [Thanks, Bob G].

HOLD ON THERE A MINUTE!
Yes, we all laughed when Peter Bradshaw sent Grace of Monaco up at the Cannes Film Festival. “It is a film so awe-inspiringly wooden that it is basically a fire-risk. The cringe-factor is ionospherically high. A fleet of ambulances may have to be stationed outside the Palais to take tuxed audiences to hospital afterwards to have their toes uncurled under general anaesthetic”. And it’s a very funny review, but having actually seen Diana, with Naomi Watts, a film he uses as an unfavorable comparison, I have to disagree about his heirarchy. Grace may be an undemanding watch, but it’s nicely shot and has a great cast of dependables (Langella, Jacobi, Parker Posey, and Kidman herself). Yes, the plot is nothing (rich people trying to keep their gilded colony afloat), but it actually looks like The Magnificent Ambersons in comparison to Diana. Maybe the music is somehow to blame – Christopher Gunning’s score sounds like Hollywood-orchestra-by-the-yard stuff, and it doesn’t suit the rather cool shooting style of the film, and, at times, drags it into near-melodrama.

CROWDFUND ONE MUSO DOCUMENTARY…
And you come across the radar of a lot of other people trying to crowdfund muso documentaries. “Hey, My name is Steve Duddy and I’m the executive producer of a brand new documentary titled Porcaro: A Band Of Brothers. The Porcaro family is one of the most prolific and iconic families in music. Jeff, Mike, Steve and Joe Porcaro helped shape pop and rock music as we know it today.” All true, but I’m just not convinced there’s a two-hour documentary in it.

HUSH NOW, DON’T EXPLAIN
For me, Billie Holiday was a singer from childhood Sunday mornings, remembered as sun-drenched and suffused with warmth. Too young to appreciate the complexity that she bought to anything she sang, there was still a sense of melancholy and yearning that was half-understood, and put away until one could fully appreciate it. You never hear any popstrels wanting to be Ella, do you? It’s always Billie. That kind of pain travels across time and distance, so the sweet-voiced singers lose out. And, hey – sad songs probably travel better than the happy ones. So, now it’s the centenary of Billie’s birth and Radio 4 have author Julia Blackburn and singer Rebecca (runner-up of the seventh series of The X Factor) Ferguson talking about her. Blackburn’s book, With Billie, was beautifully reviewed in The Guardian by filmmaker Mike Figgis, back in 2005:

“Billie was part of my life growing up on a council estate in Newcastle. My father was obsessed with her and her one-time accompanist, Teddy Wilson. There were two LPs that became central to my understanding of Billie. One was The Billie Holiday Memorial, on Verve records. In her book, Blackburn describes hearing Billie for the first time, while listening to this album. The first track is “I Cried for You” and has Johnny Hodges on alto sax introducing the song. The LP was a compilation of some of her finest tracks and ended with her devastatingly sad version of “For All We Know We May Never Meet Again”. I know every track by heart, every click and each moment where the needle would stick. Blackburn seems to have had the same experience.

When I first started collecting albums myself it was difficult to find any I could afford that my dad didn’t already own, so I would look at cheap editions of LPs. Most were not so good, but I did find one that my dad didn’t have. One of the tracks was “Fine and Mellow”, and I later learned that it was taken from a TV show called The Sound of Jazz. It is my favourite Billie track of all time and I know every note by heart. She is accompanied by Ben Webster, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Gerry Mulligan and Roy Eldridge. Blackburn talks about this track in her book, but I would like to add a different slant. Years after first encountering the LP, I saw a documentary about Billie which included the complete TV footage of “Fine and Mellow”. It was the most profound experience to see how the music was animated: the way the musicians and Billie interacted with each other, the way she moved her head when Young was playing his solo. I’d go as far as to say it is my favourite piece of film of all time. There is no other jazz footage I am aware of that comes even close to this in describing the beauty of jazz improvisation.” Wonderful.

I also found these reminicences: “Jazz critic Nat Hentoff recalled that during rehearsals, Billie Holiday and Lester Young kept to opposite sides of the room. During the performance of “Fine and Mellow”, Hentoff recalled, “Lester got up, and he played the purest blues I have ever heard, and [he and Holiday] were looking at each other, their eyes were sort of interlocked, and she was sort of nodding and half-smiling. It was as if they were both remembering what had been – whatever that was. And in the control room we were all crying. When the show was over, they went their separate ways.”

Arranger and bandleader Ray Ellis: “I would say that the most emotional moment was her listening to the playback of “I’m a Fool to Want You”. There were tears in her eyes… After we finished the album I went into the control room and listened to all the takes. I must admit I was unhappy with her performance, but I was just listening musically instead of emotionally. It wasn’t until I heard the final mix a few weeks later that I realized how great her performance really was.”

On Woman’s Hour, Rebecca Ferguson does a fine version of “Don’t Explain” – she doesn’t overly over-soul [or should that be over-jazz?] and there’s a lovely grain to her voice – hear the way she sings “You are my joy… and you are my pain”. It’s remarkable to hear her speak in a quiet, almost dour Liverpool accent, then sing like this.

JUST LOVELY
This wonderful remincence of Muddy Waters by John Moore, on The Guardian’s music blog: “A couple of weeks into guitar lessons with a lovely schoolteacher called Jill, who had written a song for Rags, the Blue Peter Horse that was broadcast on BBC1, I was able to play “Oh Where, Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone?” – a sad lament to a lost pooch. As I strummed it for Peter, hopefully, I felt sure it would earn his approval. It didn’t. He was polite enough, of course, but as my parents beamed with pride at their six-string wunderkind, he asked if this was really the kind of thing I wanted to play.

Come to think of it, no, I replied. Then the suburban epiphany began, and the devil’s music came to Wokingham. The man in the sharp suit, with the cigarette glowing in the side of his mouth, picked up my guitar and began to play.
“Gypsy woman told my mother, before I was born/You got a boy child comin’, gonna be a son of a gun…”

The words, and sheer brutality of the riff, almost broke me in two.

And that’s when it started, year zero: from teenybopper to bluesman in one evening. As far as I was concerned, the little dog could stay lost, all I wanted was a John the Conqueroo, and a black cat bone – which, with our own midnight black, ancient moggy, was a distinct possibility.

Hearing a 12-year-old boy with a chorister voice, growling that “He’d Just Like To Make Love To You”, was enough to make our next-door neighbour Joan cry with laughter. I went electric soon after this, and she wasn’t laughing then – and I got called much worse than Judas. My love of Muddy Waters has stood me in good stead. At secondary school, it earned me the protection of the school psychopath. He’d learned that a boy in the first year had been blowing a blues harp on Winnersh station as the downhome train came in. He loved Chicago blues, and until he was expelled for arson, I was untouchable.”

SOMETHING I LEARNED

Sharon
That Sharon Robinson, great Leonard Cohen collaborator, is not a front person; some people work best in the engine room. Coming into the front room that is west London’s Bush Hall, we’re treated to the kind of performance that requires ‘notes’ – from a musical director, promoter or friend, whoever will say: “Don’t play that song, rehearse that one some more, don’t cover the electronic keyboard with a shawl that makes it look like she’s trying to reach the dead, do away with the pre-recorded drum tracks that bring John Shuttleworth to mind and hire a percussionist instead, don’t be exposed up there while your son doesn’t really cut the mustard as accompanist, with erratic timing and lack of articulation…” The trumpet player was great, but there needed to be more sonic variation.

Also, if Leonard’s songs take up fifty percent of your set, you really need to tell illuminating anecdotes of your time working with one of music’s finest and most interesting lyricists. Something about the working relationship, with a sense of detail that will make an audience feel special. Sharon Robinson has a wonderful voice, and sings with conviction but lacks the killer instinct of the true performer. It was not unenjoyable (in fact we may have been the only people to not love it – the audience were pretty ecstatic) but it would have been so much better with a great rhythm section at an intimate club like Ronnie’s.

In a week of such nostalgia (not even mentioning Linda Grant’s lightly cringe-inducing piece on the potential passing of Joni Mitchell by, in effect, saying  “You may be saddened by Joni dying, but I will be the most saddened person ever. I will, I promise – the most saddened person in the whole of the world. She wrote my life – did I tell you how sad I’d feel?”) here’s hoping next week’s blog will be a little more forward looking.

Five Things I Saw & Heard This Week: Wednesday 11th July

Poliça/Dark Star
Reasons to Hate: Huge amounts of reverb. Achingly trendy/Hipster friendly. Arty Double tracked female vocal. Iconic Grateful Dead title. [Dangerous to pilfer Iconic Grateful Dead titles]. Reasons To Love: Wonderful live drumming with a huge open-room sound. Sometimes there’s nothing better than a pummeling four-on-the-floor (hey, even Take That’s Shine has a fabulous drum track, all Rak Studios, circa Mickie Most). Cracking tune. And the arty double-tracked vocal really works, weaving in and out of unison. It reminds me of Al Green singing around and off himself in How Can You Mend A Broken Heart? Add all this to some great twanging bass and slightly out-of-focus horns and it’s a winner. Granted, this could end up wearing thin over more than a few tracks, but Dark Star and Lay Your Cards Out (for another great melody and truly insane drumming) are absolutely terrific.

Seven Is The Magic Number
A review of a new version of Sophocles’ Antigone by Anne Carson (Antigonick) in the New Yorker printed this fine single-verse version of the siege of Thebes: “Seven gates/and in each gate a man/and in each man a death/at the seventh gate.” Seven is a very lyrical number— especially in country blues. There’s Muddy Waters, singing Willie Dixon’s Hoochie Coochie Man: “On the seventh hour/On the seventh day/On the seventh month/The seven doctors say/He was born for good luck/And that you’ll see/I got seven hundred dollars/Don’t you mess with me.” Or Dylan’s Ballad Of Hollis Brown: “There’s seven breezes a-blowin’/All around the cabin door/Seven shots sound out/Like the ocean’s pounding roar/There’s seven people dead/On a south Dakota farm/Somewhere in the distance/There’s seven new people born.”

Nora Ephron (and Susan Edmiston) interview Bob Dylan, Albert Grossman’s office, late summer, 1965
But negro rhythm and blues has been around underground for at least twelve years. What brought it out now?
The English did that. They brought it out. They hipped everybody. You read an interview asking who the Beatles’ favourite singer was and they say Chuck Berry. You never used to hear Chuck Berry records on the radio—hard blues. The English did that. England is great and beautiful, though in other ways kinda messy. Though not outside London…”
In what way messy?
There’s a snobbishness. What you see people doing to other people. It’s not only class. It’s not that simple. It’s a kind of Queen kind of thing. Some people are royalty and some are not.” Plus ça change…

Best Thing I Read About The Gracelands Controversy
Following Stuart Jeffries’ Guardian review of the 25th anniversary documentary, where he concluded that Paul Simon should have left the music alone:—“it gave the chance to hear unsullied the South African music that thrilled Simon 25 years ago. How lovely to hear, for instance, accordionist Forere Motloheloa laying down a groove without Paul Simon singing over it. If only it had remained the music Simon loved, rather than the music he, having loved, used.”*

Widlow, on the Guardian’s blog, answered with this: “Paul Simon clearly was a politically naive, contrary, slightly obsessive, perfectionist artist, who may have thought himself above such things as needing permission from the ANC. But what he produced was akin to Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics: a body of work that incarnated the exact opposite of the Apartheid philosophy, that sang out “Mixing cultures is good”, that proclaimed “These musicians are virtuosos and their culture is vibrant”, that put Black and White people into the same studio and had them eating and drinking together and using the same toilets and calling each other Brother…”

*This footage of the original 1985 sessions was extraordinary. There were children and babies sitting on the studio floor as the guitarists danced around the backing singers, vaulting their legs over their guitars (!) with the monumental bass and accordian lines of what became Boy In The Bubble booming out…

Leaving On A Jet Plane
Photo found in PA Photos: Britain in the 60s. British pop groups, bound for the USA on a tour which will yield half a million dollars. They are the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Eric Burdon and the Animals, The Alan Price Set and Eire Apparent. Eire Apparent?

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