Thursday, November 19, 2009

Two Nights of Bob Dylan in New York City

In the spring of 2005 Bob Dylan hired some new guys for his band. Nothing unusual there; Dylan tends to switch around his band every year or so. Except then, for the next four and a half years he didn’t change a thing. Since that spring fans grew a little more tired of those same five people with each passing leg of the so-called Never-Ending Tour. Were these guys the second coming of The Band or something, fans might have been more forgiving, but soon this lowercase-“b” band turned every song into a mid-tempo jazz shuffle, Bing Crosby without the voice. Throughout his career fans have followed Dylan around the globe like the second coming of Jerry Garcia, but as each show began sounding just like a previous show (or previous year) the phrase “jumped the shark” began coming up.

This fall, after four-
and-a-half years of slow decline, Dylan finally switched things up. He made just one substitution, but replacing old one-note-solo Denny Freeman with guitar-prodigy Charlie Sexton is a hell of a substitution. Sexton previously played with Dylan from ’99-‘02 (making him the first musician to leave the band and later return) during what many fans think of as latter-day Dylan’s best years and in the seven-year interim he hasn’t missed a trick. During the first two nights of Dylan’s United Palace Theater stand Sexton stole the show more than once with hotrod solos that never held back for fear of stepping on The Legend’s toes.

In fact, The Legend raised his own game to keep up with Sexton’s confident swagger. Though in recent years he has spent each show sulking behind a keyboard, this fall he has taken to performing 4-5 songs each night center stage with only a microphone and harmonica, bringing out a showman unseen since 1975’s all-star Rolling Thunder Revue. On “Ballad of a Thin Man” both nights he stood astride center stage, a larger-than-life vigilante striking a series of Zorro poses silhouetted on the curtain behind him. For night two’s “Workingman’s Blues #2” he wailed out more self-assured harmonica solos than fans have heard in years, swaying back and forth as the harp voodoo took hold.

Too obstinate to veer anywhere near a greatest-hits act, about half of both night’s tunes came from Dylan’s twenty-first century output (though nothing from his recent Christmas disc). Though casual attendees often come away irritated with the lack of solo-guitar “Blowin’ in the Wind”-style nostalgia and hardcore fans may grumble that in the course of two nights he played only one song from the ‘70s or ‘80s (1989’s “Man in the Long Black Coat), the post-Y2K material suits his latter-day croak. The warbly rasp complement the fading-light regret of “Forgetful Heart” and one-last-change hope of “I Feel a Change Comin’ On” (both from his 2009 album
Together Through Life) and a deranged organ-grinder arrangement of 1997’s “Cold Irons Bound” turned Bob into a sinister carnival barker.

His forays into his early material (what few there were) were less successful. You could practically see the band’s energy evaporate away during lackluster encores “Like a Rolling Stone” and “All Along the Watchtower,” playing the crowd-pleasing choices in a half-assed way that pleased nobody. On night one Bob didn’t even bother enunciating half the words of “Rolling Stone,” perhaps expecting the audience sing-along to drown him out anyway. Only problem was the half-hearted delivery meant that many there didn’t even know he was playing his biggest hit, and those that did didn’t care. He only gave a sixties classic the care it deserved on the aforementioned “Ballad of a Thin Man,” turning the signature organ riff into a wailing Charlie Sexton guitar line that practically singed the hair off your eyebrows.

The folk material fared even worse in the transition to Oscar-the-Growler Bob. “It Ain’t Me, Babe” attempted a wholly inappropriate bass-heavy crunch to match his barren holler and the swirling imagery of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” proved overpower for a voice not as nimble as it once was. “Some people, they tell me I’ve got the blood of the land in my voice,” Dylan sang in “I Feel a Change,” but the bloody-land approach turns a song like “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” from mournful to grating.

If Bob Dylan is no longer a sixties rocker or folk strummer though, at least he is once again something other than an apathetic songwriter rasping his way to the next hotel. Sexton’s guitar work injects a dose of adrenaline in the music and Dylan’s newfound Frank-Sinatra-meets-Tom-Waits frontman persona does the same to the performance. In almost fifty years of performing Dylan has never been much good at mailing it in, so thank goodness that after four years of steady decline one prodigal-son guitar badass has returned the fold to reignite the spark.

Coming soon…


November 17, 2009
1. Cat's In The Well (Bob on keyboard, Donnie Herron on violin)
2. It's All Over Now, Baby Blue (Bob on guitar)
3. Beyond Here Lies Nothin' (Bob on keyboard, Donnie on trumpet)
4. A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall (Bob on keyboard, Donnie on electric mandolin)
5. Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum (Bob center stage on harp)
6. John Brown (Bob center stage on harp, Donnie on banjo)
7. Summer Days (Bob on keyboard)
8. Po' Boy (Bob on keyboard and harp)
9. Cold Irons Bound (Bob center stage on harp)
10. If You Ever Go To Houston (Bob on keyboard)
11. Highway 61 Revisited (Bob on keyboard)
12. Ain't Talkin' (Bob on keyboard, Donnie on viola)
13. Thunder On The Mountain (Bob on keyboard)
14. Ballad Of A Thin Man (Bob center stage on harp)
15. Like A Rolling Stone (Bob on keyboard)
16. Jolene (Bob on keyboard)
17. All Along The Watchtower (Bob on keyboard)

November 18, 2009

1. Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again (Bob on keyboard)

2. It Ain't Me, Babe (Bob on guitar)

3. Man In The Long Black Coat (Bob on guitar)

4. It's All Good (Bob on keyboard)

5. Spirit On The Water (Bob on keyboard and harp)

6. High Water (For Charley Patton) (Bob center stage on harp, Donnie on banjo)

7. Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine) (Bob on keyboard)

8. Forgetful Heart (Bob center stage on harp, Donnie on violin)

9. Cold Irons Bound (Bob center stage on harp)

10. I Feel A Change Comin' On (Bob on keyboard)

11. Highway 61 Revisited (Bob on keyboard)

12. Workingman's Blues #2 (Bob center stage on harp)

13. Thunder On The Mountain (Bob on keyboard)

14. Ballad Of A Thin Man (Bob center stage on harp)


15. Like A Rolling Stone (Bob on keyboard)

16. Jolene (Bob on keyboard)

17. All Along The Watchtower (Bob on keyboard)

(pictures via Frank Beacham)

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary 10/30/09

Normally the reviews on this site strive to be like a review you might read in a newspaper. Objective. Impartial. Unbiased. And, most of all, no first-person! This one’s going to break the mold. By virtue of necessity, it’s both a review of Friday night’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary show and a review of my personal experience at said show.

The reason for this break from form is that I got a fre
e ticket through the marvelous, a site that gave away obstructed view seats behind the stage. Given that some regular seats in Madison Square Garden went for $2500, this was a hell of a deal. However, throughout the night both the sound and sightlines for those of us behind the stage were so shaky I can’t justify trying to give an “objective” view of the concert. I can, however, talk about experiencing a one-in-a-lifetime show from the cheap seats.

Though we were behind the stage, and behind a partition that blocked some of the performers from sight (generally just the drummers), distance-wise the 750 1iota ticket-holders were closer to the bands than many people who paid for tickets. As an added bonus, we got to watch the musicians hanging out backstage when they weren’t performing, hugging, chatting, giving interviews, waving to us.

Having two stages on a rotating platform eliminated changeover time. A brill
iant move for a show with a lot of artists. One artist finishes, the stage rotates, and the next is ready to go. Then the crew set up the other stage for the next one, out of sight of the audience (except for us, of course).

Tom Hanks introduced the proceedings, but as te
nded to happen whenever anyone spoke, we in the back could not understand a word he said. In fact, the sound was so crazy-muffled for many acts (Jeff Beck being an enjoyable exception) it took a while to recognize even the most familiar songs. Generally it seemed the larger the band, the harder it was to hear.

As he did the previous night (where Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Simon & Garfunkel and CSN headlined), Jerry Lee Lewis got the music going with “Great Balls of Fire.” As he did when I saw him at Farm Aid a year ago, the Killer killed it. He walks slower than he used to – he is 74 after all – but his fingers can still fly across the piano. And though a little rough around the edges, his voice still has the unmistakable rockabilly twang.

A Motown video montage led into Aretha Franklin taking the stage. With her enormous band, hers was the worst sound of the night, but from what we could tell it seemed like her voice was still excellent. The crowd who could hear certainly acted like it was. She brought out Annie Lennox of Eurythmics to duet on a blistering “Chain of Fools” and Lenny Kravitz for a sassy back-and-forth on “Think.” I look forward to viewing the video of this set more than any other, to see what I missed with the terrible sound.

Arriving with a three-piece band (including bass prodigy Tal Wilkenfeld), Jeff Beck provided a sound the backstage speakers could handle. His solos came through hot and pure, shredding out the proof that he was a worthy last-minute replacement for an ailing Eric Clapton. Not a singer himself, Beck stuck with instrumentals except with the guests came out. A heavily-bearded Sting first joined the Yardbird on stage, belting out “People Get Ready” with a vocal power unheard in his recent years with the reunited Police. The gospel cries coming out of this aging Brit shocked the crowd, many of whom declared it a highlight.

With Jimi Hendrix long gone, the only guitarist who could truly match the licks Beck was unleashing was the legendary Buddy Guy, who soon brought his axe out for a searing “Let Me Love You.” Guy’s underrated vocals almost stole the show from the dueling guitars though as he crooned and helped his way through the twelve-bar staple.

Guy was followed by Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top
, the man with the biggest beard in rock and roll. After barreling through ZZ Top’s “Rough Boy” he led the crowd through “Foxy Lady” while a large image of Hendrix lit up a recently-descended screen behind the band. While this blocked the view completely for us fans, it only came down rarely, and we still had monitors to watch. Beck’s jazz-rock improvisation through “A Day in the Life” capped things off.

The only band that could top Beck’s distortion-blare was on next: Metallica. The legendary metal quartet alternated their own tracks like “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “Enter Sandman” with rolls as backing musicians. They roared through the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane” and “White Light/White Heat” with Lou Reed. The heroin-hipster valiantly kept up, delivering a better performance than his abysmal live reputation would have predicted. Nothing stunning, but Kirk Hammett’s guitar solos were worth even the most average delivery. Reed agreed, delivering a rare treat from the cranky punk: a smile.

James Hetfield introduced the next singer as “the crazy guy
who epitomizes the rock and roll singer.” It couldn’t be anyone but Ozzy Osbourne. The reality star roamed the stage performing Black Sabbath classics “Iron Man” and “Paranoid,” yelling at a complacent audience to get on their feet and participate. No bats were eaten after Ozzy’s family-man makeover, but the mystique remained strong.

Finally came the most unexpected guest of the set: Ray Davies of the Kinks, “one of the original punks.” Metallica faithfully performed a loud and fast “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All Night,” resisting any urge to metal-fy these riff-heavy classics. Davies delivered a boho-cool performance, one hand in his pocket as he delivered some of the most famous lyrics in rock and roll. Which no one could hear anyway, as the crowd was yelling them even louder.

A Queen cover and “Enter Sand
man” later, U2 took the stage. Things kicked off in high gear with “Vertigo,” and “Magnificent didn’t kill the momentum too badly. Any slow-song boredom was soon shed though when Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith came out to perform “Because the Night” (a Smith hit they co-wrote) for only the second time ever (video). Since this review is first-person personal anyway, I’ll say this was the best concert moment I have ever witnessed. As Bruce soloed and Patti sung the bridge, they butted heads in a mini-duel while Bono laughed behind them.

As this once-in-a-lifetime performance rolled along (with Roy Bitten handling the piano part), many in the crowd hoped it would never end. So imagine the excitement when, for the only time the whole night, the band decided the first run-through had been too sloppy for TV. They had to do it again. Cue died-and-gone-to-heaven swooning.

Springsteen stuck around to duet with Bono on “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Loo
king For” bringing some much-needed passion to this lite-FM staple. Hugs all around and the Boss has left the building!

“Mysterious Ways” led into a cover of the Black Eyed Peas’ “Where Is the Love.” Except, oh wait, it was no longer a cover when the Peas themselves ran onstage. With this many mics the sound again turned questionable, but Will.I.Am dominated center stage while Fergie dirty-danced with the Edge. Quite a collaboration.

Will.I.Am moved over to the piano and Fergie strolled over to drummer Larry Mullin, Jr. while the lyrics to the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” came up on the teleprompter. Those of us behind the stage gave a collective intake of breath. There was a rumor of course, but…no. It cou
ldn’t be... Surely he wouldn’t…

But yes, Sir Mick Jagger strolled onstage to applause like I’ve never heard. Perhaps the only man alive who Springsteen was an appropriate lead-in to (well, him and McCartney), Jagger belted out “Gimme Shelter” like it was Altamont all over again (video). Fergie took on Merry Clayton’s female part, belting out such fierce high notes I can’t have been the only one wondering if this was lip-synced. But her trills and scales seemed so spontaneous and idiosyncratic, perhaps Fergie is the most underrated vocalist in music. Either way though, she couldn't fake that stage presence. Fergie and Mick: best onstage chemistry I've ever seen. If those two ever tour together, go.

Mick stuck around for U2’s treacle-fest “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of.” Like Springsteen before him, Jagger brought new vitality to this alt-contemporary dirge in a duet with Bono, his face glowing with excitement. Jagger strutted offstage with the quartet, who returned sans-Stone for the entirely appropriate “A Beautiful Day.”

Five hours after we entered, the dazed crowd stumbled out into the streets, numb to everything we had just witnessed. Aretha, Sting, Ozzy, Lou Reed, Springsteen, Patti Smith, Bono, Mick Effing Jagger. Even now, it’s hard to wrap your mind around.


Jerry Lee Lewis:

Great Balls of Fire

Aretha Franklin:

Baby, I Love You

Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)

Make Them Hear You

Chain of Fools (w/ Annie Lennox)

New York, New York
Think (w/ Lenny Kravitz)

Jeff Beck:

Drown in My Own Tears
People Get Ready (w/ Sting)
Freeway Boogie
Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers

Rock Me Baby (w/ Buddy Guy)
Big Block
Rice Pudding
Rough Boy (w/ Billy Gibbons)

Foxy Lady (w/ Billy Gibbons)

A Day in the Life

For Whom the Bell Tolls


Turn the Page

Sweet Jane (w/ Lou Reed)

White Light/White Heat (w/ Lou Reed)

Iron Man (w/ Ozzy Osbourne)

Paranoid (w/ Ozzy Osbourne)
You Really Got Me (w/ Ray Davies)

All Day and All of the Night (w/ Ray Davies)

Stone Cold Crazy

Enter Sandman

Because the Night #1 (w/ Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith)
Because the Night #2 (w/ Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith)

I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (w/ Bruce Springsteen)
Mysterious Ways
Where Is the Love (w/ Black Eyed Peas)
Gimme Shelter (w/ Mick Jagger, Fergie, Will.I.Am)
Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of (w/ Mick Jagger)
Beautiful Day