Tag Archives: Bob Dylan

King of the Georgia Blues

22 Jan

Blind Willie McTell

“Nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell” wrote  Bob Dylan back in 1983 (although he didn’t actually release the song, ‘Blind Willie McTell‘ until 1991).

I didn’t buy this six CD box-set just on the basis of Dylan’s recommendation – I’d been aware of him for a long time before, not least through Ralph May who so admired the man’s guitar playing that he incorporated it into his own stage name, Ralph McTell in homage!

This package, released in 2007 on Snapper Music as part of a wider project (‘Complete Blues – the Works) designed to showcase the work of several dozen vintage blues musicians is clearly a work of love.  Although it doesn’t include every last note of music recorded by Willie McTell , born ‘McTier’ (1901? – 1959) it does include more than 100 tracks spanning the period 1927  to 1949.

Arranged chronologically, the package includes a well-produced biographical essay and full details of the recordings (dates and personnel).

The material includes  includes some religious tracks (‘Ain’t it grand to be a Christian’  and ‘Old Time Religion, Amen’ for example) and spoken monologues as well as secular blues. These include ‘Statesboro Blues’ which was  covered by the Allman Brothers Band and ‘Lord, Send Me An Angel’ which was covered by the White Stripes.

My own favourites include ‘Southern Can Mama’, ‘Georgia Rag’  and ‘Dirty Mistreater’ on which he’s accompanied by Curley Weaver.

What these and the other tracks showcase is McTell’s light, clear tenor and fluid guitar work on a range of his own songs plus traditional and other material.

Despite the fairly basic quality of some of the recordings, the musicianship shines through.

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Enjoy Every Sandwich

20 Jul

Sandwich

Issued on Artemis Records/Rykodisc (RCD17304) in 2004, I picked this up last year for a ridiculously cheap price on Amazon. It’s a posthumous tribute to the songs of Warren Zevon, who died of mesothelioma in 2003.

The title is Zevon’s laconic response to an interview question about what having this terminal disease had taught him.

It’s an interesting mix of songs and artists paying tribute – not all of which work – but when they do, it’s terrific stuff.  Perhaps the two most noteworthy contributors are Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. Both are live recordings – Dylan’s heartfelt take on Mutineer is let down by the sound quality but Springsteen’s version of My Ride’s Here is rather good.

Apart from those, my favourite track is The Wallflowers take on Lawyers, Guns and Money (such a great title and lyric) while Adam Sandler has a brave attempt at Werewolves of London which works well and although Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt don’t really add much to the original of  Poor, Poor Pitiful Me , it’s always good to hear them.

Others on the plus side are Steve Earle (Reconsider Me) and a poignant version of Don’t Let Us Get Sick from Jill Sobule while on the ‘not quite’ side are The Pixies and Pete Yorn.

If you see this cheap, my recommendation would be to buy it – but probably one for completists otherwise.

 

 

Planet Waves

12 Apr

PlanetWaves

I bought this Bob Dylan album from 1974 sometime between 1978 and 1981,  not as a conscious decision for this particular item but because it was discounted. (At that time  very few retailers discounted  anything much – and certainly not for big-league artists like Dylan)! I know this because during this period  I spent unhealthy amounts of time in every record store I passed, calculating what I could next afford. Honestly.

I always think of it as a curiosity from the strange interregnum when Dylan left the Columbia/CBS/Sony label before realising that this rather corporate company actually did a pretty good job for him. In addition to ‘Planet Waves’, this period saw the live ‘Before the Flood’ appear on Asylum (in North America) and on Island Records (ILPS 9261) in the UK. In addition, it always seems to me to be both under-rated and overlooked given the proportion of strong songs it contains.

There are eleven tracks on ‘Planet Waves’ including what is probably the best-known (and most covered) song Forever Young, which appears in two versions. A slow version closes side one of the disc and a more jaunty one which opens side two.  It’s a tender, warm, song from Dylan to his children and is one with which any parent can empathise. The first version (lasting nearly five minutes) is something of a dignified, hymn-like paternal blessing while the up-tempo, rockier version comes in at a little under three minutes. Both are great – and for anyone two likes understanding how a song takes shape, I’d also recommend a two-minute early demo take of the song which did not appear until 1985 (on the ‘Biograph’ collection).

The familial theme continues in the album closer (Wedding Song) which is a love song – but one with typically Dylaneque twists of enigmatic ambiguity. If it’s not entirely an autobiographical song to his then-wife Sara, then there must certainly be some personal elements in it – and it’s performed by Dylan alone with his guitar and harmonica.

Backing elsewhere on the album is provided by The Band – members of which are on top-form throughout – particularly on the more out-and-out rock ensemble pieces (like the opening track On A Night Like This and later on You Angel You).

There are two other great tracks for me though. The first is Going, Going, Gone, a moody, bitter song of endings and partings where the lyrics blend anger, hurt and resignation and the  backing oozes a sense of foreboding and weariness.  It really is a remarkable, intense three and a half minute of music.  Dylan’s final verse runs:

I been walkin’ the road
I been livin’ on the edge
Now, I’ve just got to go
Before I get to the ledge
So I’m going
I’m just going
I’m gone.

I’ve always wondered, as someone who admires Dylan and Richard Thompson in equal measure, whether this lyric is answering the anthem Meet On The Ledge, written by a teenage Thompson for Fairport Convention’s second album (1969’s ‘What We Did On Our Holidays’) which has the lines:

The way is up along the road, the air is growing thin
Too many friends who tried, blown off this mountain with the wind

Meet on the ledge, we’re going to meet on the ledge
When my time is up, I’m going to see all my friends
Meet on the ledge, we’re going to meet on the ledge
If you really mean it, it all comes around again.

(OK, this is a speculative conceit – but Fairport DID include a cover of Dylan’s I’ll Keep It With Mine on the 1969 album!)

If Forever Young and Going, Going Gone are the stand out tracks, the understated gem is (and one of my Dylan favourites) is Never Say Goodbye. There are two reasons why I like this track. The first is a wonderfully melodic bass line from Rick Danko which introduces the song from 11 seconds in until the vocal begins at 26 seconds. I don’t quite know why but I just love it!

The second reason is the opening verse which runs:

Twilight on the frozen lake
North wind about to break
On footprints in the snow
Silence down below

I can’t articulate why, but it’s really evocative.
I really don’t get why this album is so overlooked – perhaps the the austere cover. Anyhow, go listen!

 

The Dylan Project

3 Nov

DylanProj

This evening I’m going to The Stables theatre in Milton Keynes to listen to the current incarnation of The Dylan Project play live so in preparation I’ve gone back to the original CD from 1998, on Woodworm Records (WRCD029).  This is credited to Steve Gibbons but is very much a collaborative project – and by the time of the second album, the following year, the album’s title had become the band’s name

Mr Gibbons is an unpretentious working musician (vocals, guitar, harmonica)  from Birmingham (England, not Alabama) who has been recording and touring steadily, but scarcely spectacularly, since the 1960s and whose main claim to fame came through charting with a cover of Chuck Berry’s ‘Tulane’ in the mid-seventies.   The genesis of the Project came out of his conversation with another Brummie, Dave Pegg  (the bass player from Fairport Convention). Both were Dylan fans and their thoughts turned to putting together a collection of their favourite songs.

If it were me or you of course, we might just draw up a playlist for our i-pod or burn a custom CD for the car – but these guys are professional musicians: Gibbons was an experienced band leader and Pegg, at this time, was the owner of a well-regarded recording studio and a boutique record label and  so what resulted was this album.

The pair each pulled one of their regular collaborators into the venture:  P.J. Wright was part of Gibbons’s main band (playing steel, pedal steel and slide guitars) and Simon Nicol (guitar/vocals) was Pegg’s bandmate in Fairport.  Though not featured on the sleevenotes or artwork, the drummer on all tracks was Gerry Conway (who was at this point just joining Fairport).

What they put together was a really listenable collection of fifteen tracks – fourteen by Dylan of course, but also an opener (‘Colours to the Mast’) by Gibbons. This is an expert pastiche but one which is an affectionate, celebratory, tribute rather than a parody – and which showcases how well Steve Gibbons’s gravelly voice can handle Dylan’s material. The sleevenotes are great too, as each of the four protagonists describes the circumstances by which the project came together and  their own reflections on what Dylan means to them.

The cover tracks include some of my favourite songs – (‘Simple Twist of Fate’; ‘I Want You’ and ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’) and also some which I’d not appreciated sufficiently in their original incarnations (‘Ring Them Bells’ and, especially, ‘Dark Eyes’). In all of them the backing arrangements are sympathetic – but not in awe of  the originals. More importantly, you get the feeling that all involved were having a thoroughly enjoyable time working on material they knew and admired.

Yes, it’s ‘only’ a tribute album by a bunch of old men and of course it’s not the same as watching Mr Zimmerman play his own songs. Since Bob Dylan is as unpredictable as ever though, it’s unlikely you will hear more accomplished  live performances of some of this material, played by their writer, with familiar arrangements, in small to medium venues.  Clearly others feel the same way – which is why The Dylan Project continues to tour regularly.

(PS The Woodworm label is no more but the Dylan Project’s recordings can now be found on  Road Goes on Forever records at:  http://www.rgfrecords.demon.co.uk/current_releases.htm ).

Street Legal

27 Oct

streetlegal

It’s been a while since I’ve featured Bob Dylan, so from 1978 comes ‘Street Legal’. I bought the vinyl while at university but that’s currently in storage so I’m listening to a CD on Columbia (COL 494788 2) bought for the bargain price of £3 when Northampton’s finest independent music store had its closing down sale.  A label on it tells me that its a Sony Music nice price issue, ‘Remixed and remastered! Restored to Original Packaging!’.  Since I am not (quite) a Dylan obsessive, I’ve no idea whether the hard-core afficionados rate this  remastering in the pantheon of recordings!

This was utterly unlike any other Dylan album I’d heard (Spector-ish backing vocals, big horn section) but I rather liked it because the songs were strong and the production was accessible and radio-friendly. The musicians included a couple of veterans of the previous studio album (‘Desire‘) so, even though I’d come to terms with the idea he might not ever work with The Band again, a bit of continuity was welcome.

There are nine tracks on this album and four of them are, for me at least, Dylan classics :

Classic 1: ‘Changing of the Guards’: The album opens with a big, Big, saxophone riffing at the front of the mix and a lyric that seemed to anticipate change, to herald impatience and to be dissatisfied, I guess that this  seemed to be about Dylan’s need/wish to re-focus after a turbulent time in his personal life. Possibly my favourite track in the whole collection.

Classic 2: ‘Is Your Love in Vain’. This came in for a bit of stick from some of my feminist friends for the lyrics: “Can you cook and sew?/Make flowers grow?/Do you understand my pain?/ Will I be able to count on you/ Or is your love in vain?” Hmm. However it was the first stanza that did it for me (written by a bloke in the middle of a messy divorce and uncertain of himself): “Do your love me, or are you just extending goodwill ?/Do you need me half as bad as you say, or are you just feeling guilt ?/I’ve been burned before and I know the score/So you won’t hear me complain/Will I be able to count on you?/Or is you love in vain ?

Classic 3: ‘Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)’ is the track that best encapsulates the uncertain, ominous,  threatening vibe of the album for me:  ‘Señor, señor, do you know where we’re heading’?/ Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?’. This track seemed to resolve itself in the following album (‘Slow Train Coming’) for which it is a curtain-raiser.

Classic 4: ‘No Time To Think’. I don’t know anyone else who likes this song as much as I do – but the lyrics are among the most Dylanesque of all in that they could have been written by no-one else!

Overall, a collection that is often overlooked but one to which I return regularly. In part that’s because it was in July 1978, that I travelled with a group of friends to Blackbushe Airfield in Hampshire, for the one-day Picnic festival with a bill that included Dylan, Eric Clapton, Graham Parker and Joan Armatrading. And damn good it was too!

Bootleg USA

2 Jul

Bootlegusa

From 1999 by British acoustic guitarist Martin Simpson, this is not an unauthorised bootleg, more an artist-approved boutique issue! My copy (with this cover) is on the imprint of High Bohemia Records of New Orleans. The same 10 tracks are available nowadays  from Mr Simpson’s  own website ( http://www.martinsimpson.com ), with a different cover and on his own Simpsonian label.

It was the first Martin Simpson album I bought,secondhand from Pied Piper Records [now gone] in Northampton, and it showcases why he’s such a fine acoustic guitarist.

It’s essentially just a bloke and guitar, recorded live at three concerts from 1998 and 1999 when he was based in the USA, plus one studio track  (‘Fool Me Once’) with the additional accompaniment of Jessica Ruby Simpson on vocals and Doug Robinson (bass and vocals).

I first came across Mr Simpson as an accompanist to the mighty June Tabor so it’s apt that the opening track is a song (‘Plains of Waterloo’) from her repertoire. The next is an inspired pairing of songs from John Tams (‘One More Day‘) and the Dylan number ‘Boots of Spanish Leather’. These are combined with real sensitivity.

Track five is one of my favourite Richard Thompson songs, ‘Strange Affair’, from the composer’s most overtly Islamic period (also covered by Ms Tabor)  and this is probably why I bought it. And  track 8 mixes ‘Highway 61’ with Bob Dylan’s ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, again with a lightness of touch and instrumental ability.

If you like hearing great guitar playing, Martin Simpson is a reliable exponent – but I guess the reason I keep playing this is because of his choice of songs.

 

P.S. Listening to the rest of the album post-posting (if you see what I mean), I’d forgotten how good the track ‘Icarus‘, by Ann Lister is.  And how well Martin Simpson interprets it.

Penguin Eggs

28 Jun

NicJones

Issued on Topic Records in 1980, ‘Penguin’ Eggs‘ was the final album made by Nic Jones before his career as a professional musician was ended in 1982 by an horrendous road traffic accident which left him comatose and broken.

Up until that time, he was a rising star on the British folk scene, guesting on several albums in my collection and I’d even got a fairly rare album he’d made in 1978 as part of an outfit called Bandoggs. But then, seemingly, that was it.  Much of his seventies material has never been properly re-issued (nor paid him any royalties)  because of legal disputes and, apart from this recording (which to my knowledge has never been out of print) the only way you’d have heard about him is via old live performances released by his wife.

But then, in 2010, he joined former bandmates to sing three songs at the Sidmouth folk festival which was holding an event in his honour. And last year he played just a few gigs. So it was, on August 3rd 2012, that I was at Wadebridge Town Hall in Cornwall to hear a concert for which I’d waited thirty-two years!

It was incredibly emotional to see Nic Jones on a stage, supported by his son Joe on guitar and Belinda O’Hooley on piano, both of whom also contributed vocals . Although Nic’s injuries and enforced absence mean that you can only guess how he would have been in his prime, it was still a privilege to see that he can still summon  a performer’s professionalism. His voice may be weaker but he can still carry a song – and an audience – indeed in January 2013, the BBC Radio 2 folk awards named him as singer of the year – an essentially sentimental but wholly sincere recognition of the affection in which he is held.

There are just nine tracks on ‘Penguin Eggs‘, which was folk album of the year in the UK when it was released. Most are traditional,  all are good and three are simply outstanding, featuring Nic Jones’s distinctive guitar style or fiddle with minimal additional instrumentation.  Although the opener (‘Canadee-i-o‘) is traditional, the arrangement is pretty much replicated by Bob Dylan on his’ Good As I Been To You‘ album in 1992 and by Blair Dunlop on his debut EP in 2010.’ Flandyke Shore‘ is of similar origin and Mr Jones’s arrangement is credited by the Albion Band whose 1993 album ‘Acousticity‘ opens with it.

The third wonderful track is the one which closed the show I saw last year. It had the audience, many of whom were in tears by this time, singing along with Nick . Written (or brought into the tradition I don’t know)  by Australian Harry Robertson, ‘The Little Pot Stove‘  is about whaling ships and contains the lyric that gives this album its title:

“We labored seven days a week, with cold hands and frozen feet.
Bitter days and lonely nights making grog and having fights
Salt fish and whalemeat sausage, fresh penguin eggs a treat
And we trudged along to work each day through icy winds and sleet.

In that little dark engine room,
Where the chill seeps through your soul,
How we huddled round that little pot stove
That burned oily rags and coal”.

If you haven’t heard this album, do seek it out and if you have, remind yourself how good it is.

The Criminal Under My Own Hat

23 Jun

TBoneCriminal

T-Bone Burnett isn’t an artist whose work I actively seek out – but I have several CDs with which he’s associated as a performer (starting with  Bob Dylan’s ‘Desire’) or, more commonly, as producer (starting with Los Lobos’ ‘How Will The Wolf Survive?’) and the appearance of his name in a review seems to be a hallmark for a quality project.  This is the only thing in my collection  released under his own name as putting out his own material doesn’t seem to be as much of a priority for him as producing soundtracks or the work of others.

‘The Criminal Under My Own Hat’ is from 1992 and issued on Columbia. Twelve tracks  – including three with occasional collaborators Bob Neuwirth and Elvis Costello and the musicians include Jim Keltner on drums and Van Dyke Parkes.  All intelligent adult rock music of which my favourites are the opening pairing of  ‘Over You’ and ‘Tear This Building Down’ but overall, there’s not that much of Henry Burnett’s personality coming across – and I’m left thinking that his most distinctive skill lies in helping others realise a musical vision

Desire

22 Apr

Desire

I’ve been thinking for a few days about how, when and what to include in this blog’s first Bob Dylan post and this seemed the right place for me.  Desire was my second Dylan purchase (I’d got the ‘Greatest Hits’ LP earlier to capture all those songs I’d absorbed into my personal soundtrack pretty much unconsciously!) but this was when I took the plunge for real back in 1976.

What tipped the scales was a piece written in a fanzine/unofficial school magazine called ‘Turdus’ which appeared for two or three issues when I was about 17 and to which I contributed in a tiny way by typing up stencils for the duplicator (this is how it was done before photocopying was cheap enough for a low-budget operation!). Written by someone who’s left my school one or two years before, it was an account of encountering the legendary Rolling Thunder tour which followed the recording of this album. This was clearly an event which inspired writers since I also own full-length books by Sam Shepperd (Rolling Thunder Logbook, Penguin 1977) and Larry Sloman ( On the Road with Bob Dylan: Rolling with the Thunder, Bantam Books 1978) – both recommended –  about  this period

Rolling Thunder appears to have been a weird but magical experience when Dylan was joined on a low-key tour of New England by ex- paramour Joan Baez, Mick Ronson,Allen Ginsburg, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and sundry others.

Although there are now other Dylan albums I enjoy more, was my favourite for several years and is still played frequently. One reason is the wonderful violin of Scarlet Rivera which gives the album a really distinctive sound. Another reason is the presence of Emmylou Harris on backing vocals (though on the opening track the voice is Ronee Blakely). The main reason, of course, are the songs, many of which are  (unusually for Dylan) co-written with theatre director Jacques Levy and which include several story-songs with a cinematic quality (listen for example to  ‘Black Diamond Bay’ to see what I mean).

There are just nine tracks on Desire – but two (the opener ‘Hurricane’ and closer ‘Sara’) are up there with Dylan’s finest. ‘Hurricane’ is an eight and a half minute protest song about the (wrongful) conviction of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter with Dylan spitting out a dense stream of poetic lyrics. It’s great! In contrast ‘Sara’ (by Dylan alone) is a diretc, aching lovesong to his then-wife and perhaps the most overtly personal song he’s done “(I can still hear the sound of those Methodist bells/I’d taken the cure and had just gotten through/ Staying up for days in the Chelsea Hotel/Writing Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands for You”) . The weakest tracks are ‘Mozambique’ (an in joke to find how many rhymes to find with the title apparently) and the second protest song (‘Joey’) which, rather unconvincingly, over-romanticisesthe career and death of a Mafia Don. Of the rest, I still like two ‘journey’ songs (‘Isis’ and ‘Romance in Durango’ which starts with the memorable line “Hot chilli peppers in the blistering sun.”

Overall, the collection hangs together rather well and the overall sound remains intriguing.