Tag Archives: Joan Baez

One More Cup of Coffee – Bob Dylan

Desire, the album Bob Dylan made after Blood on the Tracks, is his newly-single-in-New-York-City record. After he and his wife Sara split up, he moved back to New York, living in the Village and carousing at night with a mix of buddies old and new. One night he saw Patti Smith play at The Bitter End and, impressed by the chemistry she had with her band, decided that he should work with a regular band himself in order to get something similar.

He pulled together a motley selection of old pros and youngsters to be in his group (violinist Scarlett Rivera he picked up while he was being driven through the Village in a limousine and she was walking down the road carrying a violin case, which seems borderline predatory today) and went in the studio with a view to recording a new album. At the first session, he had 21 musicians in his band. Nothing usable was recorded, and nothing would be until he took the advice proffered by every experienced musician on the session and attempted the songs again with a much smaller band.

The album was notable in many ways. The lyrics for the songs were written by playwright Jacques Levy rather than Dylan himself; Bob scholar Yo Zushi hypothesises that Dylan had gone to the well so deeply for Blood on the Tracks that he had nothing left to say (at least, nothing about his failing marriage), and was comfortable with the idea of singing someone else’s words. It broke with the studio orthodoxy of the era in its reverberant, big-room sound, and the prominence of Howie Wyeth’s drums in the mix (compare these songs to the very controlled, small-sounding mixes on Blood on the Tracks). Its come-join-the-party beginnings, with 21 musicians on hand for the first session, presaged Dylan’s next wheeze, the Rolling Thunder Revue, which saw him gather everyone from Joan Baez to Mick Ronson (from David Bowie’s Spiders from Mars) to barnstorm up and down the East Coast, playing impromptu gigs in whatever theatre or gymnasium would accommodate them, and bringing famous friends up on stage to join in when playing their home city or if they happened to be in town. A recording of Isis from Montreal begins with Dylan roaring “This is for Leonard if he’s still here” – the “Leonard” in question was indeed that Leonard.

However, the album (and the music from that era of Dylan’s career generally) was only successful in parts. One More Cup of Coffee, which featured Emmylou Harris, was one of the better ones, succeeding on atmosphere and the exotic vocal melody. Allen Ginsberg, whom I assume recognises Jewish singing when he hears it, spoke of Dylan’s “Hebraic cantillation” on this song; to me it sounds more like a muezzin’s call to prayer. But either way, it sets a mysterious and compelling mood that as Ginsberg noted is distinctly non-American – a rare and notable thing in Dylan’s music, considering that he began his career as an impersonator of wandering Okie Woody Guthrie.

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Day of the Dead, Disc Three – some thoughts

Pretty Peggy-O is a song that has been tortured beyond all endurance by Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel. I speak as a fan of both Dylan and S&G, and so take no pleasure in bashing them, but really, both versions are intolerable: Dylan’s Woody Guthrie-isms on his 1962 reading are laughable, when not actually painful. S&G’s is just undescribably wet.  The Grateful Dead‘s interpretation of the song is superior in every way.

The National’s take on the Dead’s take doesn’t reach the same place theirs did, but it’s very nice all the same. Matt Berninger’s doleful croon suits the song well, and I like the picking at the start and the fact that the band resists the urge to inflate the song with a backbeat drum part, keeping it to pattering brushes instead (those big held piano chords on the changes are a National cliché, though. I guess they couldn’t help themselves).

Garcia Counterpoint is a piece by Bryce Dessner based on a transcription of a Garcia solo, to which he then gives a Steve Reich treatment. My patience for Reich (and minimalism generally) being zero, my patience for this is zero also. On and on it goes, for eight minutes. Yawn.

Terrapin Station is not your usual Grateful Dead song: a tightly composed 16-minute suite with orchestra and choir, it’s as epic and prog as the band ever got. It was not a text that lent itself to deconstruction or extended improvisation, and so, while they did play it live, they didn’t often play it in full, and it lost more in live performance through the lack of a choir and orchestra than the band could put back in instrumentally through guitar and keyboard solos. To this day, it divides fans; some think it among the best things the group ever did, and others dismiss it as overproduced and fundamentally un-Dead-like.

A pretty huge ensemble (nearly 50 muscians) tackle the song for Day of the Dead: it’s credited to Daniel Rossen, Christopher Bear, the National, Josh Kaufman, Conrad Doucette, Sõ Percussion and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. Terrapin Station is a big song, it flirts with pomposity in a way the Dead so rarely did, but I like it a lot, and I like this version, too; Rossen’s vocal is really good, the Dessners negotiate all the interlocking guitar parts perfectly and the ensemble drumming is great.

The key moment in Orchestra Baobab’s Clementine Jam comes when, having taken the opening of the track in waltz time (the Dead’s version is also waltz time, but OB make it super-explicit with a boom-tap-tap drum part), the band stop dead and recommence in 4/4, relocating the song from a delapidated San Francisco ballroom to a club in Dakar. The band’s playing is beautifully intricate, particularly the percussion in the 4/4 section, and the intimacy of the recording (compared to the big sound the National guys go for on most of the tracks) is a nice change. Definitely a keeper.

China Cat Sunflower/I Know You Rider. Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks. OK. Cards on the table: I hated Pavement. Hated hated hated them. Malkmus has always rubbed me the wrong way. I didn’t think he was funny. I didn’t think he was clever. All I heard was a band that couldn’t play worth a damn and that never had an interesting musical idea, and a songwriter and singer who couldn’t sing and who constructed a wall of abstract hipster bullshit around himself to make it appear like he didn’t care about anything or anyone. (There is an irony here: I’ve made several records with Yo Zushi, who’s a big Malkmus fan, and whose songs often have a Malkmus tinge. Yo’s are a lot better though.)

Of course, Malkmus stuck around in the longer term, so his commitment to indie rock can’t really be doubted, but old hates die hard and he’ll never be my guy. The sound of his voice just sets me on edge. So, I’m not in a good place to be objective about his band’s take on China Cat Sunflower. All I can say is this: it’s 10 minutes long, and I wish it wasn’t, it’s not got any of the lightness of touch I love in the Dead’s Europe ’72 version (or the Lyceum show from 26 May on the same tour) but I don’t hate it.

This is the Kit’s recording of Jack-a-Roe is lovely. Kate Stables’s voice is pure and beautiful, and the simple arrangement gives her voice (and whistling) space to shine. However, the recording does raise an interesting issue. Old folk songs were in the blood of the Grateful Dead, especially Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir, but even when they were playing these songs in an acoustic setting (say, on Reckoning) the band couldn’t help but expand the songs and take them to new places, even if that was just a function of Jerry’s endlessly inventive soloing. This is the Kit’s take on Jack-a-Roe, while very good, doesn’t respond to the song as the Dead played it; it’s simply a reading of the source material as filtered through Joan Baez’s famous 1963 live recording. For all its quality, it’s perhaps not quite in the spirit of the album.

Bill Callahan’s Easy Wind and Ira Kaplan’s Wharf Rat are fairly similar pieces – deep-voiced talk-singing, with lots of echoey atmospherics. I’m not sure how seriously Callahan takes Easy Wind; his phrasing at times sounds like a parody of a bad jazz singer. Leaching all the energy that Pigpen brought to the song is at least an idea, but I’m not sure it’s a successful one. I much prefer Kaplan’s Wharf Rat. Now, even compared to Callahan or Kurt Wagner, Kaplan couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, but he approaches the song with a very winning sincerity, and the band’s patient performance is a lesson in restraint.

Lucinda Williams’s version of Going Down the Road Feeling Bad casts the song as a slow 6/8 country-soul ballad (the Dead usually did it in a brisk 4/4), which suits her cracked, aching voice perfectly; I’ve not been checking in with Williams much recently last, so the raggedness of her voice these days came as a bit of a shock.

It’s appropriate that Disc Three, so heavily touched by traditional folk music, ends with Sam Amidon’s And We Bid You Goodnight. It begins wistfully but soon builds, as more voices join in, to capture something of the same woozy celebratory feeling that the Dead imbued it with.

My keepers from Disc Three: Pretty Peggy-O, Terrapin Station, Jack-a-Roe, Wharf Rat, And We Bid You Goodnight.

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Bob Weir with super-cool Gibson semi-acoustic

 

I’ll Miss You till I Meet You – Dar Williams

Dar Williams came out of the intersection of several particular geographical (New England coffeehouse), political (feminist, LGBT-friendly) and academic (liberal arts – her website includes a page on “Lectures & Workshops”) spaces in the early-mid-1990s, a time that happened to be  receptive to musicians who played acoustic guitar, made low-budget albums and wrote songs that explored gender and relationship politics.

This Northeast folksinger/coffeehouse circuit existed – thrived, even – as a separate ecosystem to the wider music industry. Occasionally artists crossed over from this folk circuit to the mainstream (Lisa Loeb, for example. But then, she had the good fortune to live in the apartment opposite Ethan Hawke’s), but someone like John Gorka, meanwhile, has spent 25 years as one of the biggest stars within his scene, but remain virtually unknown to a rock and pop audience.

I’d heard Dar Williams’s name long before I heard any of her music, not because I’d made a conscious effort to avoid it, but more because no radio station I ever heard played her stuff, and I wasn’t in a financial position then to lay down money for a record unless I was damn sure I was going to like it. (Now I think of it, that’s a key reason why for several years I went deep into the catalogues of artists I knew I liked rather than letting those be and checking out something else instead.) The song that did get me interested was atypical of her work, and from a recent album. I’ll Miss You till I Meet You, a yearning love song to the idea of someone rather than a specific parter, musically owed more to Aimee Mann than Joan Baez, or even Suzanne Vega (who often seems like New England coffeehouse singer who by some lucky fluke got famous). I think, actually, it was a specific comparison of this song to Mann’s work in a review I read that prompted me to check it out.

I’ll Miss You till I Meet You is built on similar changes and an identical drum pattern to Roxette’s It Must Have Been Love, which is probably a better song, and certainly has a more memorable chorus, but is a regrettable record – the humanity of Marie Fredrikson’s vocal trampled to death under a herd of stampeding elephants banging snare drums. Such was the fate of many a good ballad from about 1984 to 1994. Williams, though, wisely kept her recording intimate, with the sleeve art even suggesting the album was recorded in a cosy living room. In fact, this is a smart piece of misdirection; the record was actually made in Allaire Studios in the Catskills, which is an upscale facility with a client list to match. Nevertheless, Williams still sings like she’s in a small coffeehouse, playing unamplified to 15 people, and she avoids self-consciously stadium-sized moves. Guitars chime and sigh, but they don’t thunder. If you’re going to do a song that has a more than touch of the power ballad about it, it’s a wise idea to underplay it.

Like anyone who manages to make a middle-class career out of music for 20 years while never becoming close to a mainstream figure, Williams is a canny operator, and she surrounded herself with good people on this record: Eric Bazillian and Rob Hyman from the Hooters (the kind of constantly employed industry vets that I have a lot of time for), Steuart Smith who is a member of the Eagles’ touring band and even Marshall Crenshaw, once and future power-pop boy wonder.

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The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan is fifty years old

The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan is fifty years old. May 1963. That’s a hell of a thing. In the next ten years, a lot of my favourite records are going to hit that milestone. That’s a hell of a thing, too, one I’m having a little trouble processing.

So what does Freewheelin’ sound like, fifty years on, on a Saturday morning, in England?

It’s one of those records where my relationship with it has grown more complicated over the years. The first two Dylan records I bought (as an 18 year old, I think) were Freewheelin‘ and Before the Flood (which seemed like a good way to hear a bunch of Dylan’s most famous songs and get to know the music of the Band, too – good plan in theory, but fortunately I gave the Band another chance). Before the Flood sounded flat, uninspired, lacking in power for a record of a tour famed for its energy and force. Freewheelin’, in contrast, seemed marvellous – witty, playful, heavy, alive.

It still seems like that, in places. Sometimes. The standout songs on Freewheelin’ – Blowing in the Wind, Girl from the North Country, Masters of War, A hard rain’s a-gonna fall, Don’t Think Twice, it’s All Right – are so much a part of our culture that it’s been a good few years since I sought any of them out to listen to (more than a decade, probably). That leaves us with the rest: the Down the Highways, the I Shall be Frees, and the Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chances. They’re less impressive, and this is where things get more complicated.

‘Authenticity’ in music is itself a tricky notion, one I have less time for with each year that passes. But a sensibility that looks for and delights in ‘the authentic’ can be nuanced rather than boneheadedly literal, and it’s not correct to think that the listener that pursues the ‘authentic’ requires their artists to simply do the same thing over and over. Artists – singers, songwriters, especially bands (since they are a blend of evolving personalities and tastes and sensibilities) – contain multitudes, and their creativity is not going to be one-dimensional. Most listeners get that.

Yet, the early Bob Dylan persona – the wandering Okie hobo, the second coming of Woody Guthrie – is clearly a conscious creation, is clearly for want of a better word inauthentic. Exposure to more Dylan records than simply his New York folk albums will lead you to conclude that Dylan doesn’t sing these songs in his own voice, in the literal sense, and that he didn’t write them in his own voice either. Whatever that may have been at this time (I have a hunch that the voice he uses on Corinna, Corinna is the closest Dylan got to his true vocal self on those early records but that can’t be proven) it’s not the rough, sandpaper timbre he adopts to sound older, to sound tougher, to sound more rural. (As for the voice in which the songs are written, that’s an even more complicated question, but by the time you get to the early acoustic-psychedelic songs like Lay Down Your Weary Tune, Chimes of Freedom and so on, you’re dealing with something for which there were fewer precedents, something that feels more like it sprang from within Bob Dylan himself.)

Listening to these songs, one is continually brought up short when Dylan’s folksinger drag act makes itself too obvious: on each repeat of the line ‘Honey just allow me one more chance’, at the sound of his out-of-tune guitar (what you saying, Bob – real cowboys don’t tune up first?) on Down the Highway, on the vowel sounds of the high notes on Masters of War (‘…build the death planes‘), the studied folksy archaisms and rusticisms (‘it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall’, ‘if’n you don’t know by now’, ‘the light I never knowed’ – and just how many roosters crow at the break of dawn in the Village?). It’s a canny impression, but its falseness slowly dawns on the listener, and once it’s rumbled, it’s hard to hear these songs the same way again.

Dylan himself got sick of playing this character, sick of the demands of his folk audience, and so perhaps the skeletal, big-haired, absurdist speed freak – dandified and somewhat camp – character of the Bringing it All Back HomeHighway 61Blonde on Blonde period was more true to the real Dylan. Or perhaps he’s simply a talented actor with a flair for totally immersive performances who’s never given his audience a glimpse of the real him in over fifty years.

None of this is to say that Freewheelin’ isn’t an essential listen. It is, with three or four timelessly classic songs, songs that transcend their contradictions (and the phoniness of their performances on this album). But for many, the deliberately rough, ‘protest song’-singing Bob Dylan is the only Dylan they know, an endpoint, a Dylan perpetually marching on Washington with Joan Baez, singing Blowing in the wind or The times they are a-changing. But it’s truer to say that this was just the beginning of his journey. It’s worth bearing in mind that he was 21 when he arrived in New York and 23 when he made this record. He was, in other words, a kid – just as full of self-delusion and nonsense as any other kid, unsure of who he was and who he wanted to be, fearful of getting found out, of having to live up to others’ expectations, working more from instinct and hope than experience and knowledge.

Freewheelin’ is the first significant staging post in Dylan’s career, which is not to say that his artistic progress was linear with his work improving in quality at every stop on the way. For me Dylan peaked in 1965–66, with several other major mini-peaks thereafter. So while it’s nice to mark the occasion of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’s fiftieth anniversary, I hope for a bigger celebration in a couple of years’ time when it’s the turn of Highway 61 Revisited to reach that milestone.

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Bob Dylan & Suze Rotolo, New York, 1963