Tag Archives: Live albums

More Live Gonzos, Part 4 – Dream Letter: Live in London 1968 by Tim Buckley

I suppose any reasonable review of Dream Letter: Live in London 1968 should begin with this. By the time Tim Buckley played at the Queen Elizabeth Hall with Lee Underwood, Dave Friedman and a hired-for-the-occasion Danny Thompson, he’d made two albums already, he was just weeks away from recording his first masterpiece, Happy Sad, and he was only 21 years old.

Of course, prodigies occur in all forms of music. But within pop music, even those who show great songwriting talent at an early age tend to be writing to a formula, whether it’s Chuck Berry-influenced surf songs or Brill Building girl-group pop. Tim Buckley’s songs could scarcely be further from formula. From Goodbye and Hello‘s pseudo-medieval prog-folk-epic title track or Happy Sad‘s brooding multi-part Love from Room 109 at the Islander (On the Pacific Coast Highway), Buckley’s music usually eschewed simple ABAB verses and choruses, and they had been more or less expunged by the time of Happy Sad.

He stood on stage at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, then, a young man in a hurry: ambitious both professionally and artistically, with a voice that had never failed to carry him anywhere his imagination wanted to go. He was in the midst of throwing off the rather wet medievalisms of his first two records, had divested himself of lyricist Larry Beckett’s services, and was in a state of grace most musicians will never know.

The gig begins with Buzzin’ Fly, which was yet to be released and the majority of his audience would never have heard. The ringing suspended fourths and sixths of the intro, played by Buckley on his Guild 12-string acoustic, sound like the sun coming out. This is music of uncommon joy and wonder, as the lovestruck Buckley pleads to know everything about his new lover. Guitarist Lee Underwood, so crucial to Buckley’s fusion of folk and exploratory jazz, extemporises off melodic ideas that will reappear in the finished recording, while Danny Thompson, hired to stand in for Buckley’s regular bassist John Miller, sounds immediately at home playing this music.

Buzzin’ Fly would likely have been the first time that this audience had heard Buckley’s new folk-jazz music, on which he used his voice to explore and improvise within melodies, frequently over extended, loose structures. As if to reassure his fans, then, Buckley’s next song is from Goodbye and Hello. This reading of Phantasmagoria in Two for me crushes the more rock-influenced studio recording. Not simply because Buckley’s voice sounds richer, more adult and more wracked, but simply because the slower tempo allows greater nuance of phrasing. Underwood really burrows under the skin of this one; his needling outburst of tremolo picking after the first bridge is spine-tingling.

Buckley sticks with Goodbye and Hello material for the next song. Morning Glory was probably the best-known song from the album thanks to covers by Blood, Sweat & Tears (a bit of a horror show), Fairport Convention (wet, as you’d expect from first-album Fairport, but Richard Thompson’s on good form) and the Stone Poneys (wholly creditable, though Linda Ronstadt’s psuedo-British accent is odd), and the audience applaud in recognition after the first line. Again, this live version seems superior to the studio recording to me. Larry Beckett’s lyrics have never been my cup of tea, but Buckley wrings real poignancy out of them here, and the sparser arrangement suits the song and drains it of its preciousness. Danny Thompson wisely lays back, but Friedman’s vibes are particularly crucial.

In December 1966, Capitol released Fred Neil’s magnificent self-titled album, his second solo record. Its first song, The Dolphins, is one of the absolute pinnacles of 1960s folk rock. Tim Buckley covered it on stage in London, and would record it (as simply “Dolphins”) five years later for Sefronia. I don’t like that version much at all: the rhythm section stomps all over it, especially the bass player, and the backing vocals were a very bad idea. But Buckley could sure sing this song, so Dream Letter is much the best place to hear him do it. Underwood’s mid-song solo is particularly fine, and at other times in the song he seems to pick up on some of the ideas Pete Childs played on Neil’s recording, while Thompson underpins things with some inventive triplet patterns.

I’ve Been Out Walking begins by quoting Jackson Browne’s These Days (“Well I’ve been out walking; I don’t do too much talkinn these days”), which first surfaced the year before Dream Letter was recorded, on Nico’s 1967 debut solo album Chelsea Girl. I think we can assume Buckley was familiar with Nico’s recording and the quote is intentional, and was just a means of getting him started with his own song, as the rest of it bears little resemblance to Browne’s work. It’s loose and semi-improvised sounding, in the vein of his Happy Sad material. Buckley pushes his voice hard, at times sounding like Robert Plant, and the mid-song scat workout sees him reach up to the highest extremes of his incredibly wide vocal range*.

Like I’ve Been Out Walking, the delicate The Earth is Broken, which Buckley sings with just his own guitar as accompaniment, never appeared on a studio record. It’s said that the song is Buckley’s response to Larry Beckett being drafted, and he does seem genuinely bereft. Buckley’s vibrato, always extravagant but usually so assured, sounds vulnerable and halting, as if he’s not fully in control. It’s just a handful of chords over seven minutes, and almost uncomfortably naked, but it’s riveting, one of the best things in the whole set, and my favourite among the tracks played here that Buckley never released on a studio album.

He begins the improvised-sounding, mono-chordal Who Do You Love as if anxious to break the spell he’d spent the last seven minutes casting. He’s exuberant, but his voice has an edge to it. It’s jumpy, rather than joyful. Mostly, Buckley is playing with blues- and folk-song cliches. The playing by Friedman, Underwood and Thompson is fine, but it’s one of the gig’s less essential moments, and at nine and a half minutes it’s one of the few songs that outstay their welcome.

Returning to the Goodbye and Hello songbook, Buckley strikes up the dour, descending chord sequence of Pleasant Street. He takes it at a much slower tempo than the album cut, and in a lower key too, turning a dark fantasia into something much more obviously foreboding. It’s goosebump stuff, especially when nearly six minutes in he picks up the tempo and springs a surprise by launching into a verse and chorus of the Supremes’ You Keep Me Hangin’ On. Vanilla Fudge’s heavy-metal-bummer cover of the song had appeared the previous year, and while I can’t imagine Buckley having all that much time its melodrama, it’s impossible not to hear the two readings as at least somewhat spiritually akin, even if Buckley’s reading of the lyrics (“set me free why don’t you, babe” etc.) may have more to do with his relationship with drugs than romantic entrapment, when we consider the song from which he segued into it.

Love from Room 109 (at the Islander) is Happy Sad‘s 11-minute centrepiece, a stark, achingly atmospheric medley composed of three distinct but musically sympathetic songs, stitched together so naturally that you hardly notice the joins. On stage at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Buckley plays the first two thirds of the piece – songs originally demoed as Ashbury Park and Danang (available on the compilation Works in Progress**). The album recording of these songs is astonishing, but this reading is just as good. In the opening section, Thompson shows just what he can do with a nice chewy chord sequence to work with, and Underwood and Friedman play as if possessed of a shared mind.

Five minutes or so in, Buckley switches to the opening chords of Strange Feelin’. Now, the intro of this song on Happy Sad, as Buckley’s 12-string strums gradually emerge from the Miles Davis-quoting vibes, is one of the most magical passages of music I know, and Strange Feelin’ without its intro is a fundamentally different piece of music, even putting to one side the fact that Buckley is at this point still working the song out, trying on lyrics and melodies to see how they fit. It’s probably only 50% of the song it would become, but that’s still quite a song, and hearing it as part of a medley with the first two thirds of Love from Room 109 recasts it entirely. Buckley’s half-finished lyrics are much goofier than the finished piece would be (“Ah darlin’, don’t you marry, don’t you marry the milkman/’Cos he’s always making the rounds”), much more unguarded, and after the darkness of Ashbury Park and Danang, the goofing around is a joy.

After a jokey introduction about New York’s lack of carnivals, Buckley and Friedman begins a mash-up of Carnival Song from Goodbye and Hello and Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo, from the 1953 film Lili. Pauline Kael despised the film’s “sickly whimsy”, and something of that quality exists in Bronisław Kaper’s and Helen Deutsch’s quasi title song. The material is, at any rate, stretched rather thin over its seven minutes, and with Buckley’s guitar out of tune and his voice straining a little, this is the concert’s twee-est (and for me its weakest) moment.

Fortunately, the next track is Hallucinations, a setting for Thompson’s, Underwood’s and Friedman’s most adventurous playing. Thompson, who had gone toe to toe with John Renbourn, Bert Jansch and John Martyn, was in his element playing this music, mixing jazz and folk so completely that they become a whole new thing, a true alloy of both. Underwood’s long mid-song solo, which mixes dextrous legato passages with a descending melody lines harmonised in thirds, is maybe his best passage of playing in the whole gig.

Troubadour is another one of the songs that never appeared on a studio album. Marred slightly by Buckley’s out-of-tune 12 string, it nevertheless takes off in its wordless la-la-la middle section, particularly when Buckley starts scat-singing, three and half minutes in. Underwood, Friedman are again crucial, creating a sympathetic tapestry behind Buckley’s guitar and vocal.

The despondent heart of Happy Sad, Dream Letter sees Buckley sifting through his wrecked marriage to Mary Guibert and wondering about his son (“Is he mama’s little man/Does he help you when he can? Does he ask about me? […] oh, what I’d give to hold him”). It’s heartbreakingly raw and tender, and on both Happy Sad and on stage in London it inspired wonderful playing from his collaborators. Thompson’s bowed bass is more often felt than heard, but provides a mournful foundation for Underwood’s needling Telecaster and Friedman’s vibes.

As the song finishes, Buckley goes straight into Happy Time from Blue Afternoon, though taken a lot faster and in a higher key than the studio version, once again seeking to shake off the darkness as quickly as possible. Friedman’s vibes bubble over, but Buckley’s own vocal improvisations are as notable in their invention as anything his instrumentalists play.

The heavily rhythmic, raga-like strumming that begins Wayfaring Stranger suggests an interest in Indian music (an interest he was far from alone in holding in 1968. You Got Me Runnin’, the apparently improvised piece Buckley segues into, is, like Who Do You Love, a little drawn out for me, despite his impressive vocal pyrotechnics. In the opening and closing versions of Wayfaring Stranger, though, his explorations are more successful and breathe new life into a text that even fifty years ago was probably a little too familiar to many.

Once I Was is a gorgeous closer. The Dream Letter version, shorn of its Goodbye and Hello arrangement of brushed drums and cowboy harmonica, sounds even closer to Fred Neil’s style than it does on the album. It has one of Buckley’s simplest and loveliest melodies, and brings the concert to a wistful end. At its conclusion, Buckley says simply “Thank you very much”, and the the applause fades.

Dream Letter is an astonishing record. It’s axiomatic that Buckley’s studio albums contain snapshots of songs that found their truest expressions in live performance. In this respect, Buckley was more akin to a jazz instrumentalist – or a jam-oriented band like the Grateful Dead – than he was to most singer-songwriters. It’s the songs from Goodbye and Hello that benefit most from being reinterpreted on the stage. In the couple of years since that album’s release, Buckley’s voice and matured and deepened, and was more elastic, but more fundamentally than that, he brought greater emotion and maturity to his performances. There’s also the matter of Underwood, Friedman and Thompson, whose collective ability to follow Buckley wherever he went is astonishing; it’s worth reiterating that Thompson was a stand-in who’d had minimal rehearsal time. The way he integrates with the other players is incredibly impressive.

Serious Tim Buckley fans won’t need telling that Dream Letter (and Live at the Troubadour 1969) are as crucial to Buckley’s discography as the run of studio albums from Goodbye and Hello to Starsailor. But if you’re a casual Buckley fan, or a fan of jazz-inflected folk generally, this is must-listen, a marvel.

tim-buckley

*He claimed he had five and a half octaves, but that seems a tall story that’s been accepted and passed down among fans. The lowest note I can think of in on one of his songs is the low B he sings in the first line of Happy Sad‘s Strange Feelin’. It’s quiet and quite thin sounding, so I don’t think he could go much lower than that and hit a strong note. The highest comes in that extraordinary outburst at the end of Gypsy Woman from Live at the Troubadour, recorded in 1969 (“Gypsy woman, ca-a-a-a-a-ast a spell on Timmy”), which is four octaves above his low B from Strange Feelin’. It’s possible he could hit higher than that, but I can’t imagine he could go an octave and a half above it.

**Thanks to James McKean for pointing me in the direction of the demo versions.

 

 

More Live Gonzos, Part 3 – Live at the Paramount by Nirvana

Here’s one I really go back a long way with. Don’t worry – I do have a couple of posts planned on artists I didn’t write about this time last year.

Shortly before the release of Nevermind in September 1991, Nirvana began a tour of theatres and clubs in North America, culminating in three West Coast shows with Mudhoney in Portland, Vancouver and their hometown of Seattle, where they were joined by Bikini Kill. They played their homecoming show at the Paramount Theater in Seattle on Halloween, Thursday 31 October.

The show was filmed (on 16mm cameras) and recorded for possible future release, and the audio was bootlegged for years. I swapped my old Nintendo Gameboy for a copy in, I don’t know, 1996 maybe, which tells you a) how old I am, and b) how long the bootlegs were doing the rounds before Interscope Geffen A&M finally released it on DVD, Blu-Ray and CD in 2011, on the DGC imprint for old time’s sake.

Of course, bootlegs of the other shows from the tour are probably available if you look hard enough, but the Paramount show was a special one for the band, who were still having a blast and hadn’t yet hit a level of fame that they couldn’t deal with, and it’s the only one that was recorded properly with high-budget gear and mixed by Andy Wallace. Whether the band were in such transcendent form as this in Portland and Vancouver, I couldn’t tell you. But at the Paramount, they were really something else.

As the gig begins, Cobain seems in an unusually good mood. He wishes the crowd happy Halloween, before introducing the first song as being by a band from Edinburgh, Scotland, who are “very punk rock” (in Cobain’s world, the highest praise that can be bestowed).

I’ve written before about my impatience with Nirvana’s cover of The Vaselines’ Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam, and the electric arrangement the band were playing in 1991 does even less for me than the Unplugged version, which at least had the novelty of Krist Novoselic playing accordion. What you can hear, though, is a throat-tearing intensity from Cobain from the off, a really good guitar sound (not always the case for Cobain live – sometimes his guitar sounded a bit rubbish. Here, especially, when playing his humbucker-equipped Fender Jaguar, it sounds amazing) and excellent sound quality. This is what good gear and a pro mixer can do for you.

Dave Grohl’s last cymbal crash hasn’t died away before Cobain breaks into the opening riff of Aneurysm. This is one of the greatest live versions of the B-side and fan favourite, and the intensity is palpable. Grohl is clearly giving the drums a mighty pounding (dig the way he smacks both his crash cymbals and keeps time with huge smacking quarter notes as Cobain plays the ascending part at the end of the intro; he addresses the brass like a boxer working the speed bag), and if you watch the video, you’ll see Cobain and Novoselic throwing themselves around the stage like marionettes being pulled by their strings. It’s as if the music’s playing them, not the other way round.

Then there’s the sound of Cobain’s voice during this era, before the constant screaming took it’s toll on his throat. Jayson Greene wrote well about the Cobain’s vocals in his review of the album for Pitchfork:

He sang in a way that was obviously unsustainable, even with the aid of heavy cough syrup, and there’s a thrill, although a slightly selfish one, of hearing his voice rip the air before he had begun to scream it down to the threads. His peculiar, yowling phrasing may have been a deliberate choice, or it might have been the only way he managed to wrangle those notes from a constricted voice box, but there is a terrible, riveting intensity to it: Words feel torn from him, bearing fishhooks on their way out. “Aneurysm”‘s “Love you so much/ It makes me sick” becomes “Laahve yeww sowl much et makes me SECK.” It physically hurts to hear, as it always has, but it gives you some of the most committed, clear performances of Nirvana’s canonical songs as you’re likely to get.

There’s a thing I value in some recordings that seems to me somewhat overlooked by many music fans. I suspect it’s something that musicians themselves value more than fans and it’s probably controversial idea anyway, because it takes us into the realms of an individual’s own subjective experiences, memories and perceptions, but I love when a recording really truly sounds like the thing being recorded. It’s much rarer than you might think. I love drum sounds that sound and feel like my own experience of having sat behind a drum kit, listening to myself give a snare drum a good solid clonk, with my ears maybe two feet away. Or what it sounds like to be in a rehearsal room with a drummer, my ears at about the level of the cymbals and have them swirling around me. I love recordings of electric guitars that capture the full frequency range, that slight sag of a tube amp being pushed hard. These types of recordings feel alive to me.

Live recordings are more likely to convey some of this sense memory than studio recordings, at least since the late 1970s. I once heard Ron Saint Germain say that once production gets beyond the initial bass and drums tracking, it’s the beginning of the shrinking process. A really well produced record, like for example Nevermind, may sound great, but it will have lost at least some of the power that was there when the band played in the room. You sacrifice size for detail.

Live at the Paramount retains a lot of size, a lot of power – more than even most live albums – and it can make you hear songs as if for the first time again. Drain You, the third song in the set, is like that for me. It’s not a song I tend to seek out much these days, and not one of my favourites on Nevermind. But here it’s such a thrilling mix of rawness – the force of Grohl’s kick drum, the dynamics of the noise section in the middle as Grohl plays those 8th-note build-ups and Cobain wrestles with his Jaguar – and sheer melodic and harmonic craft (the way the unconventional chord changes are totally justified and reinforced by the vocal melodies and Grohl’s harmonies) that it connects me back to how I felt about this band at the age of 12 or 13. It also shows that, if we needed reminding, the band’s members were craftsmen, not the primitives they liked to paint themselves as in interviews.

But, as if to show the crowd that they still enjoy playing up that image, the band follows Drain You with two cuts from Bleach, School and Floyd the Barber, the former getting a huge sweaty roar of approval as soon as Cobain plays the intro. Grohl is a pretty good double for Melvins drummer Dale Crover on the latter (though why he didn’t sing the prominent harmonies on the song’s chorus is a bit of a mystery – sure he had a lot on his plate already learning his predecessers’ parts on the early material, but they’re really quite obvious and do improve the song), and if he doesn’t replicate the double-kick-powered groove that Chad Channing played on School, he is a lot more steady, and the song doesn’t quite threaten to come apart at any moment as it does on the Bleach recording.

On later tours, Nirvana could play Smells Like Teen Spirit as if it were a painful duty, or not play it at all, but in autumn 1991 they were still giving their performances of it everything they had. They take it a quick tempo, with Grohl smashing the life out of his cymbals and playing every fill with authority and power. Cobain’s voice gets increasingly ragged with every chorus, and on the final held “a denial” it gives way entirely. While the studio recording works so well because of the tension between the song’s message and the polished presentation of that message, live versions from this era strip that gloss away, leaving edges jagged enough to cut yourself on. You hear it as the alien interloper within mainstream rock that it always was.

About a Girl is also taken briskly, so much so that Grohl pulls them back to a more workable tempo after he comes in. Listened to in conjunction with Teen Spirit, the two songs seem to end up in a similar place via different routes: on Teen Spirit, the band strip the song down to its rawest essentials, spotlighting the adrenalized, punky side of themselves; on About a Girl, they inject into it an energy and spirit that wasn’t there on Bleach, giving it greater edge and making it sit naturally with songs like Teen Spirit.

Polly is an extraordinary song, if you can strip away your familiarity with it to hear it as if for the first time. Sung from the point of view of a man abducting and raping a teenage girl, it’s a harrowing listen – the more so because it’s one of the softest pieces Cobain ever wrote. Yet, playing it straight, without going into a big rock ‘n’ roll chorus, Cobain keeps the crowd completely engaged. His willingness to explore these kinds of subjects, to speak up for causes that mainstream rock musicians wouldn’t go near, is an inextricable part of Nirvana’s greatness and importance, and you could easily make a case that he didn’t write a more important song than Polly. As Bob Dylan remarked after hearing it, the kid had heart.

Breed is a series of explosions, a frenzy of drum rolls and power chords, but with a pin-sharp melody that won’t leave you alone. The band play it with precision. Like In Bloom, which Dave Grohl has explained is him playing drum parts devised by Chad Channing, Breed was first demoed before Grohl joined the band. While Grohl’s drumming on the song is its most crucial musical feature, it’s worth remember that the parts he’s playing are Channing’s, and that he deserves a lot of the credit.

Sliver has an important place in the band’s history. Released in 1990, and the only song in the Nirvana canon to feature Mudhoney’s Dan Peters on drums, Sliver was self-consciously written as a break with the band’s Bleach-era songs, said Cobain: “I decided I wanted to write the most ridiculous pop song I had ever written to prepare people for the next album.” Thing is, that places more weight on the song than, for me, it can bear. It’s a trifle, paling next to even the least of Nevermind‘s songs. Whether on Incesticide or in a live performance, it never feels substantial to me, and coming between the casual brilliance of Breed and the band’s genuinely thrilling update of Shocking Blue’s Love Buzz doesn’t help it.

The studio recording of Love Buzz is mostly about the bass and guitar, and features possibly Cobain’s finest solos on record. Live, his playing was always scrappier, and he tended to adapt the pull-off riff to make it simpler to play. This version, it’s Novoselic and Grohl who impress most. Novoselic gets plenty of space during the mono-chordal solo to explore the upper reaches of his fretboard, while Grohl playing Channing’s parts is, again, a revelation. There was always something of the funk drummer in Grohl – a propensity to absolutely explode on the one, with huge cymbal crashes and a mighty kick drum. You can hear that – and on the DVD or Blu-Ray see it – here. A particular Grohl tic is to hit both his crashes simultaneously on the one for added power and excitement, and it sounds so right here: every huge open A chord reinforced by an explosion from Grohl’s cymbals. It’s so much fun.

Lithium is a mixed bag. The choruses sound great, but the verses are a bit messy, with Novoselic’s bass feeling like it’s behind the beat, or at least behind the guitar. It’s a bit of a shame. I’m not sure who the guilty party is but it does undermine the performance a bit if you’re listening at home; the folks in the audience may not have been aware of it.

Been a Son is one of Nirvana’s best minor works. Recorded by Steve Fisk for the Blew EP with Chad Channing on drums, then re-recorded with Grohl at a faster tempo for a BBC session (the version that’s on Incesticide), it has great mid-sixties John Lennon harmonies, here supplied by Grohl, and a really cool semi-distorted and flanged bass guitar sound. Written in 1987, it may have been Cobain’s earliest feminist statement, but its pithiness is still effective. Its verses are a laundry list of things the unnamed girl “should” have done but didn’t, before her disappointed parents simply state in the chorus that she should have been a son. This ability that Cobain had to distil a message is still underrated, as some of his lyrics work essentially as collage and resist line-by-line readings of them. When he wanted to make a simple point, he could do it as well as anyone.

(Sidenote: why is it that the similarly melodically simple Sliver kind of annoys me, while I think Been a Son is great? I wish I could expain it. The harmonies maybe.)

Next, after some screaming feedback, Cobain launches into Negative Creep. This is a fascinating one. There’s a quality to the original that I love: it’s incredibly claustrophobic and heavy, but as with so much early Nirvana, the band (especially Channing) are barely in control. That increasing sense that they are only just hanging together is mirrored in Cobain’s vocal, which gets more hysterical and ragged with every verse. It’s great, but it’s so over the top it’s a little comedic.

Live, Cobain’s vocal doesn’t have the same mounting hysteria. He sort of manages to get the notes out, but the effort is clear, and by this point in the gig his voice is starting to get a little thin and tired-sounding. So while the song gains a lot from Grohl’s brutal but very controlled performance, it suffers a little in comparison with the studio cut, which is basically made by Cobain’s crazy vocal.

No such issues exist with On a Plain, one of Nevermind‘s most uncomplicatedly pop songs, complete with middle eight and prominent harmonies. It’s basically a piece of rather meta (lyrics about writing lyrics, and in-jokes between the band members) power pop, buoyed by a bouncy bass line from Novoselic and a brilliant, very composed drum performance from Grohl – every fill is just so, all repeated until they become just as much a part of the song as the chord changes and melody. The band are perfect, and give the impression they could do this in their sleep. It’s really impressive.

The set ends with Blew.  The first track off Bleach, it can’t help but sound a little rudimentary next to On a Plain, but the crowd clearly love it, and the band, particularly Cobain, invest it with a lot of fire – his solo is nicely squonky, with loads of energy.

The encore begins with an early version of Rape Me. “This song is about hairy, sweaty, macho redneck men,” Cobain explains, before adding, “who rape.” Some critics (Michael Azzerad in his book Come as You Are, for example) have seen the song as a comment on his own media notoriety, but given that he’d already written it in late 1991, before he had become a household name and before any unflattering press coverage, that reading should be resisted. It is what it appears to be – a condemnation of rape culture. What’s striking, hearing it in 2020, is the lyric Cobain sings in the chorus: “I’m not the only one”. In other words, “me too”. Cobain’s repeated cries of “rape me” at the end of the song are hair-raising.

Territorial Pissings is taken at an absolutely furious tempo, before collapsing into a version of Endless Nameless to finish the gig off. If the encore is a little anticlimactic, it’s only because the band have blown through 16 of their best songs in the set proper and don’t have much left except a noise jam, a new song and a punky thrash. It’s fine, but the magic has already happened.

And what magic it is. Live at the Paramount captures Nirvana at the early peak of their powers. You could argue that the Reading set from 1992 is as good or better – I wouldn’t want to take sides – but this one’s my favourite. I first heard it in full when I was about 14, and didn’t hear the Reading set in full until much later, so I’m more sentimentally tied to this one.

The energy throughout the whole thing is so infectious that the album totally transcends the issues that sometimes negatively affect live albums, especially rock records. When you’re not there in the room with the band and the audience, flubs and missed notes and the rawness of the moment are obviously all more noticeable, and they can distance you from the song. The Paramount gig is raw: over the course of the show, Cobain’s voice becomes tired; in the loudest sections, his and Novoselics’s propensity to throw themselves around means they make mistakes and are not as tight as on record.

None of that matters. Tehcnical proficiency was never what the band were about anyway. What matters is the fire, the passion, with which they played their songs, the connection they forged with their fans by being so human up there, and the way melody and power were welded together by Cobain’s white-hot guitar.

Paramount_Theater_in_Seattle

The Paramount Theatre. Last September, Mel and I spent four nights in Seattle. We had a packed itinerary and didn’t have time for me to go looking for venues, but in the course of our wanderings we chanced upon The Crocodile, the Tractor Tavern, the Showbox, the Comet Tavern, Neumos – maybe more that I’m forgetting. Seeing the Paramount on our way to dinner at Quinn’s Pub in Capitol Hill was a genuine “oh it’s you!” moment.

More Live Gonzos, part 2: Live 1966: The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert – Bob Dylan & the Hawks

So much about our reactions to this record – or, at least, my reaction to it, but I suspect yours, too – comes down to its place in the history, the mythology, of rock ‘n’ roll. This is one of those albums where not knowing anything about the circumstances in which it was recorded really does put you at a disadvantage when trying to understand what you’re hearing. So I need to begin by going over some of the context in which Dylan and the Hawks toured. Many of you will know this all already. My apologies. I’ll try to be brief.

At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, Bob Dylan played a short acoustic set on the Saturday night and decided that he wanted to play electric the next night, with members of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Alan Lomax – festival organiser, esteemed song collector and son of the even more esteemed song collector John Lomax – had been disparaging about them when introducing them*, angering Dylan and many younger musicians present. Perhaps Dylan just wanted to be provocative. He was certainly that. Dylan and his pick-up band played primitive, barely rehearsed versions of Maggie’s Farm, Like a Rolling Stone and Phantom Engineer. Some cheered, some booed, Lomax was enraged, Pete Seeger said he wanted to cut the power cable with an axe, and Dylan left the stage after three songs, only returning to play It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue after he was practically begged to by Peter Yarrow.

See? So much mythology already, and we’ve not even got to England yet.

Mary Martin was assistant to Albert Grossman, Dylan’s manager. She was born in Toronto, and on her trips back home would head to Yonge Street to watch matinee performances by her favourite band, Levon & the Hawks. They’d previous backed up rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins, but had struck out on their own, looking to extend themselves. When she heard that Dylan was looking for a band, she recommended the Hawks. Duly impressed, Dylan invited Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm to play with him, bassist Harvey Brooks and organist Al Kooper, and they did a couple of shows together, prior to a full tour: Forest Hills, the Hollywood Bowl. Soon, Bob got to know the rest of the Hawks, then took them all on the road when Kooper and Brooks dropped out of the tour after two shows, citing safety concerns.

The gigs were stressful, with Dylan’s electric music not always going down well with audiences. Helm was soon out, too. He later said it was the only time he found he couldn’t follow his own maxim and whistle while he worked. It was one thing to be booed at home, he told Richard Manuel. Quite another to go thousands of miles from home just to be booed there, too. He was replaced by Bobby Gregg, then Sandy Konikoff and then Mickey Jones.

Jones was an interesting fit for Dylan. Formerly Trini Lopez’s drummer, Jones had a degree in business administration, was pudgy and not all that hip: a slightly oafish guy with a slightly oafish style behind the drum kit. Compared to the graceful Levon Helm, Jones played like a caveman. Yet, for the increasingly cantankerous Dylan, fed up with booing crowds and keen to just drown them out with sheer noise, Jones was perfect. So what if he only had two drum fills in his locker? He hit hard and played them with authority. Dylan and a band that was no longer really the Hawks (and certainly wasn’t yet the Band) went to Europe.

The gigs there were a mixed bag. Some towns seemed more receptive to Dylan’s electric music than others. Legend long had it – a legend kept alive for decades by bootleggers – that everything came to a head on the final night of the tour at London’s Royal Albert Hall, where, near the close of a particularly spirited and aggressive electric set, someone in the audience called Dylan “Judas”, and Dylan responded with a furious Like a Rolling Stone – the last song of the last night of the tour. Mike drop.

As I keep saying, so much myth. The incident did happen, but earlier in the tour, in Manchester, at the Free Trade Hall. (Audio of the Royal Albert Hall show does exist; by then, Dylan and the Hawks sound tired. Some of the aggression has gone from the music, and Dylan struggles to hit notes).

In 1998, the Manchester gig – long bootlegged – was released officially by EMI as Live 1966: The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert. And that, finally, is what we’ll be talking about today.

Like all the shows on the tour, the Manchester Free Trade Hall gig was split into two sets. The first was played by Dylan alone, just guitar, voice and harmonica, the second with the Hawks: Robbie Robertson on lead guitar, Garth Hudson on organ, Richard Manuel on piano, Rick Danko on bass and Mickey Jones on drums.

Two albums and five singles since Dylan started incorporating electric instruments and full-band arrangements into his recorded music, it seems unlikely that audience members would have expected The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, Oxford Town or even something like It’s a Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall, which while fitting in to Dylan’s protest-song oeurve is full of subjective, poetic imagery. But, if anyone had been expecting those songs, they’d have been disappointed – even by his acoustic set. Dylan played seven songs, of which three were from the still-to-be-released Blonde on Blonde. Most were solo renditions of songs whose studio recordings featured a band. All were deeply personal, gnomic and surreal – songs that defied any imposition on them of a narrative. As much as he would during the electric set, Dylan pleased himself when playing acoustic.

There’s an uncanny quality to Dylan’s performances throughout the acoustic set: his voice is slurred, thick, tired, as if in slow motion compared to his guitar. His harmonica playing is something else again: riveting, filled with tension and melodic surprises. It’s consistently the best thing about the acoustic set in Manchester. He does a creditable job on all the songs (the idea, raised by Robert Christgau and some others that, in Christgau’s words, “the folk set stinks” is nonsense on two fronts; it’s not folk, and it doesn’t stink), but inevitably songs like Visions of Johanna feel like preparatory sketches compared to the oil-painting masterpieces that are the recorded versions.

So the folk purists (we’ll come back to them) wouldn’t have gotten what they wanted from either half of the show. At no point in any of these songs does Dylan make any political point other than assert his right to perceive his world his way. What, then, was different about the acoustic set, other than the method of presentation gesturing at folk/protest? Why was that half of the gig received equitably enough, but not the second? And anyway, isn’t asserting the validity of your own perception a form of protest?

Dylan reappeared for the second half of the concert with the Hawks, and after tuning up, the band kicked into Tell Me, Momma – a song that Dylan never recorded in the studio and that never reappeared in his set after the 1966 tour.

On this song, Mickey Jones could almost pass as Levon Helm – all cantering kick drum and triplet fills. Dylan sounds like a different person to the world-weary soul who’d trudged through the acoustic set: listen to him deliver the “ohhhh” that begins the third verse: he sounds ready to helicopter off into the rafters. Robertson’s lead lines are, of course, at the fore, but Hudson, Danko and Manuel are doing great support work, too (a note for fans of Manuel’s underrated soul- and R&B-inflected piano: this is one of the few songs where he’s particularly audible).

The audience don’t sound delighted by the performance, but there’s no booing or slow handclaps either. Which makes Dylan’s drawled – and clearly pre-rehearsed – intro to the next song (“This is called I Don’t Believe You. It used to be like that, and now it goes like this”) sound like a provocation. If he had been aggrieved at the response his new music drew from some quarters, he didn’t always help himself with his on-stage demeanour.

Originally one of my favourites, this performance is one I’ve come to feel differently about over the years. Yeah, there’s a power to Dylan’s vocal (this is the Dylan of a thousand parodies: hitting the last word of every line ludicrously hard, seemingly making his mind up about which note to go for at the very last second), and the band, particularly Danko, rock viciously hard. But nowadays, even given the undeniable vigour, I find that Dylan’s squalling harmonica gets wearying, particularly as he plays over Robertson constantly. And something about the song has paled for me. Perhaps it’s just not that strong as a piece of writing. As theatre, though, it’s quite something, and Dylan’s delivery is incredibly intense. He was clearly working through something with the song: with one obvious exception that we’ll come to, no other song in the set has the same level of spit and vitriol.

The first wave of slow handclaps break out after this song, so perhaps the audience could feel Dylan’s hostility and decided to feed it back to him. While the set was likely preplanned, Dylan’s electric adaptation of Baby, Let Me Follow You Down, the traditional song he’d recorded on his first album, once again seemed to be making a point. It’s pretty great, though. Robertson gets to do something other than claw angular noise out of his guitar, and Manuel’s solo (his only one of the whole gig) has some very cool R&B licks in it.

An excellent Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues follows. Danko is, again, crucial and his rumbling bass underpins the whole thing as Dylan’s at-the-end-of-my-rope vocal (the shudder he injects into “I don’t have the strength to get up and take another shot” is goosebump stuff) and turns the R&B-flavoured Highway 61 Revisited cut into something desperate and sick-sounding.

Afterwards, someone in the audience shouts something as Dylan begins to introduce the next song, and a slow handclap breaks out but just as quickly dies away again, but there’s clearly some disquiet: hecklers call things out (none of which I can hear quite clearly enough to identify) and others seem to answer them in disagreement. Eventually someone says something that raises a large cheer and a fast handclap, but Dylan and the Hawks just roll over them with what must surely be the best version ever of Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat; so alive, so powerful, so funny – it makes the Blonde on Blonde recording sound like it was played on toy instruments by a group of matchstick men.

On One Too Many Mornings, I find myself wishing for a subtler drummer than Mickey Jones, but it’s nice to hear Danko harmonising with Dylan on the word “behind” at the end of each chorus (the only backing vocal in the whole gig, I think, unless I’ve missed one). Ultimately, though, One Too Many Mornings sounds a bit insubstantial in the company of the Tom Thumb’s Blues, Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat, et al. Many have speculated that Dylan included it because the line “you’re right from your side and I’m right from mine” could be repurposed as another comment on his going-electric controversy. Could well be, but speculating on the motivations of someone as mercurial (and, it should be said, as drug addled) as mid-1960s Bob Dylan is a fool’s game.

Again, the slow handclaps break out after the song finishes, and what sure sounds like abuse and invective is hurled at the stage. Which is when Dylan sat down at the piano to play Ballad of a Thin Man – his “furious, sneering, dressing-down of a hapless bourgeois intruder into the hipster world of freaks and weirdoes” (to borrow Andy Gill’s useful phrase).

It is, as drummer Bobby Gregg commented to Dylan, a nasty song, and this is a particularly nasty version of it, especially as Dylan’s piano mike is, for whatever reason, a lot quieter than his front-of-stage mike, especially in the opening verse. The buried vocal only seems to make it more vicious. Mickey Jones gives the drums a ferocious pounding – those snare flams before the start of the second verse just leap out of the speakers – and Garth Hudson provides creepy-as-hell organ commentaries on Dylan’s bizarre scenarios. It’s possible that Hudson never played better; this is lightning-in-a-bottle stuff.

Then somebody shouts “Judas” at Dylan.

This moment, one heckle near the end of the gig, is as much as anything the reason why we’re still listening to it nearly 55 years after it happened: one comment from an angry, disillusioned fan that hit Dylan particularly hard.

Obvious things first. Dylan is Jewish. The majority of his fans presumably knew that. His real name was common knowledge. Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus has been used for centuries by antisemitic Christians to justify their bigotry. It still is; Mel Gibson, unforgiveably rehabilitated by Hollywood, provides only the most famous recent example of Catholic anti-Jewish bigotry.

To have called Dylan a traitor would have been one thing; to call him a traitor in such a racially aggravated fashion was something else again, and Dylan’s hurt and anger is palpable. If we assume the best of the man in question – that he wasn’t actually trying to be racist – it was still a colossally stupid thing to say, and the fury of the following version of Like a Rolling Stone is completely understandable, and to the extent that Dylan’s ire is aimed at this one man, it’s deserved.**

Anyhow, Dylan is so stung that after replying “I don’t believe you” (the amount of time he spends delivering the word “believe” suggests he really doesn’t; this isn’t Dylan going for rhetorical effect), it takes him another 10 seconds or so to deliver a riposte. All he can manage – this man, so famously quick and biting in his wit – is “You’re a liar”. After which, he tells the Hawks to “play fucking loud”, and they do.

Probably no rock group had played louder at that point, in Britain at least. Cordwell’s contention in later life was that the volume was what bothered him. Dylan and the Hawks were so loud you couldn’t hear the words, and for a folkie, that was an unforgiveable transgression. He also contends that the sound in the room was nothing like as clear as the recording taken from the mixing desk. These are both plausible arguments, not that that excuses the language used to express his displeasure.

If Dylan did break the fragile covenant that exists between folk musician and audience (musician is not a performer or a star; musician is not separate to or more important than the audience; musician is merely servant of the song, etc.) by plugging in and turning up, this is the moment where there’s no going back. Righteously furious, the version of Like a Rolling Stone that followed the “Judas” incident threatens to come apart all the way through. Dylan doesn’t so much sing as yell. Mickey Jones plays the same violent eight-stroke (or sometimes 16-stroke) snare fill at the end of nearly every line of the song and hits his cymbals so hard it’s a miracle they survived the assault. It has none of the R&B underpinnings of the studio cut. It’s just a solid block of force; heavy metal avant la lettre. If you’re not into it, it’s completely intolerable. It’s magnificent, it’s righteous but it’s also a line being crossed.

When I first heard this record, I was completely gobsmacked by it. I’d heard nothing as intense. I listened to it over and over for months. But of course, the music derives a large part of its power from the context – the myth – that surrounds it, and once that’s familiar and taken for granted, some of that power does dissipate, and it’s a hard recording to fit into your life unless you’re going to it wanting to engage in the mythology surrounding it. Really, part of the reason I chose it for this series was to see if writing about it made me engage with all the extra-musical stuff the way I did when I first heard it.

To my surprise, it did. It made me recall how I felt hearing it at 21, a budding Dylan fanatic, eagerly on the side of questing, visionary Dylan against those unimaginative dullard folkies. Later I became a dullard folkie myself, and began to understand the reservations that some of them had about his electric music and the sinister aspect of crushing resistance to it with sheer brute volume.

While it’s obviously an important record – much more so than many of his studio albums – it’s not one about which I feel unambiguously positive. It doesn’t showcase the best of the Hawks, it’s not subtle, or warm, or friendly, or communitarian. There’s always a nihilistic edge to Dylan’s absurdity that’s juvenile when it’s not just silly. But for all that, its power is undeniable. The effect of Dylan’s collapsing the walls between pop and folk echoes down the decades, and can still be felt today.

bob_dylan_free_trade_hall_electric_judas_manchester_0
Dylan on stage in Manchester (l-r Rick Danko, Dylan, Mickey Jones, Robbie Robertson)

*In Maria Muldaur’s telling, Lomax “introduced the Butterfield band as a group that was purely imitative, asking ‘would we put up with it anyway?’ or something to that effect”. Others, including Joe Boyd, who was working the festival, said Lomax referenced the great blues music that the audience had already heard that day, then said something like “let’s see if these boys can play this hardware at all”, referencing the amplification that was anathema to him and many other folk-blues purists.

**Who was the man? The likeliest subject appears to be John Cordwell, then a trainee teacher living in Manchester, but Keith Butler also claimed to have been the heckler. Butler was shown in Eat the Document, having walked out of the gig, telling a reporter: “Any pop group could do this rubbish. It were a bloody disgrace. He wants shooting. He’s a traitor.”

More Live Gonzos, part 1: Shadows and Light – Joni Mitchell

I titled my 2019 series of posts on live albums after Ted Nugent’s Double Live Gonzos, but not all of them actually were double albums. To start off this year’s batch, here’s one that is. Joni again, to no one’s surprise.

I began listening to Joni Mitchell in 2003. By 2005, I had every record she made in the 1970s, and a couple each from the sixties and eighties, aided by the fact that her entire back catalogue was in the four-CDs-for-£20 section of my local record shop (Fives in Leigh-on-Sea; now I live in London and don’t have a local record shop. Go figure). Shadows and Light was one of the last I got round to. It didn’t seem to have a great rep compared to Miles of Aisles, and it is a very different beast.

Recorded at an outdoor show at the County Bowl, Santa Barbara, in 1979, Shadows and Light is Joni at the tail end of her jazz phase, when her music, at least on record, was the most abstruse it would get; she had moved away from verse-chorus structures around the time of For the Roses, turning instead to stanzaic form, often with no repeated melodic phrases within a stanza.

By the time of the 1979 tour, Mingus, her collaboration with jazz bassist and bandleader Charles Mingus, had been out a few months, and some of its players feature in the band she toured with: Jaco Pastorius is on bass, Don Alias on drums and percussion. Also along for the tour were Pat Metheny on guitar, Lyle Mays on piano and Michael Brecker on saxophone. Even compared to the LA Express guys, this constituted serious, heavy-duty jazz talent. These guys exist in a different world to bozos like me, and sometimes it’s a little difficult to put aside my awe at their collective technique to actually listen to what they play and ask myself, does this work for me as a listener?

And that has always been my chief problem with Shadows and Light. I’ve never found a way to listen to it non-intellectually. I have never trusted my lukewarm reaction to it, so have kept coming back to it as if it must just be that I’ve not put the work in. I’m the kind of person who can very easily turn something fun like listening to music into homework, but Shadows and Light has always felt like homework. I chose it to be one of this series of live-album posts to see if it would click this time.

*

After a brief intro (a verse of Shadows and Light, sung with the vocal group the Persuasions, intercut by snippets of dialogue from Rebel Without a Cause – “you can’t be idealistic all your life” – and Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers singing I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent), the album* begins with In France They Kiss on Main Street. As I wrote here, when I first heard the studio recording of this song, Skunk Baxter’s fizzily disorted lead guitar struck me as horribly cheesy and inappopriate, so this version with Metheny’s chorused guitar not gesturing at all towards the grammar of rock music does have a certain advantage, one reinforced by Don Alias’s drumming. His relaxed, funky feel in the choruses, when he switches to the ride and drops the 16ths he plays in the verses, allows the song to stretch out like a cat awaking from a snooze. If I’m honest, Pastorius’s bass is busy for my taste (we’ll come back to this) and I’m not big on Mitchell’s electric guitar tone (she took to playing a George Benson Ibanez jazz box in the late 1970s, dropping her trusty acoustic), but these are gripes about Joni’s music in the late seventies generally, not something to hold against this particular reading of In France They Kiss on Main Street, which opens the album creditably.

Lyric-led and atmospheric, Edith & the Kingpin (like Main Street, from The Hissing of Summer Lawns) translates better to the stage than you might expect. The whole band, including Jaco, is restrained, and as a unit they’re tasteful and unobtrusive. Next comes Coyote, probably my favourite track from Hejira. Alias (on congas for this one; he was such a brilliant percussionist, even better than he was behind a traps kit, and he was great there too) is excellent on this one, and Mitchell’s long, slowly uncoiling verses weave their magic as surely as they do on the Hejira recording and the spellbinding performance she gave at the Last Waltz.

Next is Mitchell’s adaptation of Mingus’s Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, his tribute to tenor sax great Lester Young, who played with Basie and Billie Holliday. The song is one of the great accomplishments of the Mingus album, and on the album recording Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter are on spine-tingling form on electric piano and soprano sax. Mays does a fine, if less prominent, job on stage at Santa Barbara, but Brecker demonstrates some of what I’m less keen on about his playing: an overbearing tone that says gameshow rather than late-night bar, and an over-eagerness to go for that crowd-pleasing high note or legato run. But again, it’s impressive to get such a composition across at a daytime outdoor show at all.

Jaco’s Solo (that’s the track name, hence the cap S) is, as you’d expect, virtuosic in the extreme. He runs though every technique of which a bass player might avail themselves, inventing some along the way. Did any bass player use a digital delay to provide a loop for themselves to solo over before Pastorius? This was 1979, before there was such a thing as a digital delay pedal, and I believe that Pastorius was using a rackmount system, so if he wasn’t the first, he was certainly among the pioneers.

The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines features possibly the most difficult vocal Mitchell ever wrote for herself. Although she sometimes sounds a little hoarse during the gig (the band were five weeks into a 6-week tour, with few nights off), she clears every bar the tune sets her. The thing is, there’s an oddly funky lope from Peter Erskine’s drums on the studio recording, which is a bit lost on this recording. Alias begins the song and Mitchell sings two verses accompanied only by drums but Alias isn’t replicating Erskine’s beat (he plays pattering, seemingly random snare patterns, rather than two and four with ornamentations as Erskine did). Maybe the song evolved in arrangement over the tour, but I’d have liked to have heard it played straighter.

Spare, atmospheric readings of two highlights from Hejira follow: Amelia and the title track. As I said, I’m not a big fan of Michael Brecker’s tone when playing tenor, but he was in restrained form on Hejira, adding subdued soprano sax. Alias and Pastorius are good one too. Amelia is even sparser, mostly just Mitchell and her guitar, with a little support from Pat Metheny, playing with a volume pedal (or the volume knob on his guitar) in emulation of the lovely, atmospheric touches that Larry Carlton added to the studio recording. For me, it’s the album’s single best moment. Just stunning.

In between Amelia and Hejira comes Metheny’s solo showcase (titled Pat’s Solo on the record sleeve). The strongest passage is the lyrical playing in the central section of the solo (when Mays’ keyboard shifts from providing a drone to adding chordal movement). Until that moment, Metheny plays with some cool rhythmic ideas, but the solo feels to me a little lacking in focus.

Side two begins with Black Crow, Don Alias adding a pattering 16th-note hi-hat and bossa nova-style sidestick to Mitchell’s strummed chords. Mays’ piano works well, as does Metheny’s guitar, but I again find myself yearning for a subtler sax player than Michael Brecker. Pastorius’s bass runs at the end of the song are jaw-dropping.

It’s followed by Alias’s conga solo – easily my favourite of the three featured solos on the record; it sounds like he has four hands – which leads into Dreamland, from Don Juan’s Restless Daughter. For all his virtuosity, Alias can’t quite compensate for the absence of Airto Moreira’s surdo, Alex Acuna’s shakers and Manolo Badrena’s coffee cans. Without those extra layers of percussion, and without Chaka Khan’s wordless backing vocals, Dreamland just isn’t the same experience. It’s good, but it’s markedly less good than the studio recording. A bit of a shame.

Free Man in Paris is probably the album’s breeziest moment, but… OK, lets tackle this head on at last. The problem I have with Jaco Pastorius as a bassist (and, I know, we’re talking about one of the most technically accomplished players of all time, and who am I to judge?) is simply how busy he was. Of course, not every bass line has to just lock in with the kick drum and do nothing more than that, but playing that way at least some of the time allows more space for other musicians to do things too.

Pastorius’s constantly moving lines step all over Mitchell’s vocal on this one, and he and Alias play competing fills at the same time as if they’re not listening to each other. If you compare it with the much more disciplined studio version, on which Wilton Felder sits out entirely for the into and half the first verse, you can hear what I’m grousing about. Mitchell can phrase and have that phrasing be effective as she’s not always competing with a babble of 8th and 16th notes from the bass guitar. For me, I guess, Pastorius’s bass playing is the tax I have to pay to listen to Joni Mitchell from Hejira to Mingus and on Shadows and Light, much of which is magisterially good.

Furry Sings the Blues is a case in point. It’s a wonderful song, a meditation on what had become of Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, since the heyday of WC Handy and bluesmen like Furry Lewis himself, “propped up in his bed with his dentures and his wooden leg removed”. It’s a lyric-heavy song, and is recited as much as sung, but the atmosphere it creates is compelling and totally singular, and the text is so acute. Bringing something that casts such a delicate spell to the stage is a tall order, but (unlike at the Last Waltz), Mitchell pulls it off completely. Metheny’s volume-pedal guitar is chilling, and Alias plays spare, sympathetic accompaniment on snare, toms and cymbals. Pastorius, Brecker and Mays sit it out, leaving space for Mitchell to fully inhabit the vocal. It’s up there with Amelia as one of the best things on the album.

At this point, the a cappella vocal group the Persuasions take the stage and join the band for a version of Frankie Lymon’s Why Do Fools Fall in Love, played with Alias and Brecker. It’s good fun, and probably was even more fun for the audience who were actually there. It’s then a hard gear change into Shadows and Light, the philosophical centrepiece of The Hissing of Summer Lawns. The original has an uncanny aspect to it, created by massed overdubs of Mitchell’s voice and Arp synthesiser. This version is a little warmer, and maybe a little less spooky, but still strong.

I’m not sure how closely the album tracklisting mirrors the set list of the show, but next up the band return for the unlikeliest crowdpleaser in history, God Must Be a Boogie Man, which has the audience clapping and singing along the first time Jaco plays the refrain melody. It’s a more grounded, swinging take on the song than the floating, almost free-form album cut, but I found myself enjoying it as much as the album recording

Finally, Mitchell gives the audience what you suspect they always wanted from the show: an old song from her folkie days, played fairly straight. It’s a version of Woodstock, arranged for guitar. Mitchell’s readings of Woodstock always tended to be more foreboding than, say, CSNY’s more stomping take on the song, but even by her own standards this one is hugely ambivalent about the possibility of getting back to the garden; Mitchell even adds the kicker “to some semblance of a garden” the final time she sings the chorus, as if that’s the very best that can be hoped for. Like Furry Sings the Blues, like Amelia, like Shadows and Light, it has the spook. It’s a troubling but hugely impressive end to the album.

*

After having lived with this record all week, listening to most of the songs upwards of three times, I’m still unsure about it. For all the talent on stage (and there was so much of it), this is just not my favourite Joni Mitchell sound. While the LA Express could be as corny as a talk-show host’s house band, they were exuberant and warm. There’s something clinical about the sound of these guys (the Roland Jazz Chorus amps that Metheny and Mitchell use may be part of it – transistor-based amps designed for jazz guitarists to be run without any distortion at all high volumes, they can be very cold sounding), and Jaco is, well, Jaco. Perhaps Mitchell was happy for him to play as expansively as he did. I feel, as I so often do when listening to Hejira, Don Juan’s and Mingus, that it’s a shame he didn’t lay back more, let the music be driven by the vocal. Brecker, likewise, I only really like in his most restrained moments; the bigger he played, the more oily his tone became.

I wanted Shadows and Light to really click for me this time, and I’m disappointed it still hasn’t. The best of it (Furry Sings the Blues, like Amelia, like Shadows and Light) is so good that I’m sure I’ll return to it again in a couple of years to see whether my reaction has changed. But this is a game I’ve been playing for 15 years now. Perhaps it’s just not meant to be.

MItchell & Metheny
Mitchell & Metheny

So long, 2019

And farewell to the decade, too. It’s been quite the ride for me. I hope everyone who reads this has made it to the end of the year unscathed.

I’m still finding it hard after the election results here to muster any optimism about our country’s short-term future, and the longer-term picture is apocalyptic. Yet, what choice do we have but to carry on in our daily lives? And eight years (nearly) since I started it, doing this remains a big part of my life. In the next few weeks, I’ll probably do what I did at the start of last year, and think of a few themed posts to give structure to my output. Maybe more live records, maybe something else (debut albums, comebacks by reformed bands – a few ideas come to mind).

In the meantime, to see out the year, here are some links to my favourite pieces from this year, including my first proper crack at film reviewing (The Kindergarten Teacher) and a couple of TV things.

Take care now, and see you in 2020.

Live – Donny Hathaway

Never Any Clapton: Hello – Lionel Richie

I’ve Never Heard… Talking Book by Stevie Wonder

The Kindergarten Teacher

Genrefication, yacht rock & the BBC’s I Can’t Go For That: The Smooth World of Yacht Rock

Things We Lost in the Fire – The Masters Lost in 2008’s Universal Backlot Fire

Mix Techniques

Franco Building – Jonathan Meades

Miss America – Mary Margaret O’Hara

Alternate Tunings

 

 

Double Live Gonzos, part 1: MTV Unplugged in New York – Nirvana

On 18 November 1993, Nirvana taped an acoustic performance for MTV’s Unplugged strand. I’ve been meaning to post something about the resulting show/album since I saw someone post something on Facebook about the 25th anniversary of the recording last month. Other writing commitments and general seasonal business got in the way. I decided to write about the record as the first in a series of posts about live albums (all old staples of my record collection).

So here we go, the first of them (which as we shall see isn’t a double album and is generally not very gonzo).

*

They obviously had a very clear vision of what they wanted to do. And they were secure in that, and it turned out to be incredibly right.

Joel Stillerman, Executive Producer, MTV Unplugged

MTV Unplugged in New York was recorded at Sony Music Studios, Hell’s Kitchen, on 18 November 1993. The show’s production team had been after Nirvana for a while, although quite what they had expected the band to do in such a setting is a little mystifying. Nirvana had included a couple of acoustic songs on Nevermind, but essentially they were a rock band, and an unusually raw and ragged one at that. Whatever it is that MTV producer Alex Coletti had wanted them to do at the outset, Nirvana’s performance turned out to be one of the absolute signature moments of the show. In the annals of MTV Unplugged, it’s Nirvana, Clapton and then everyone else.

The first problem the band had when approaching the show, other than Kurt Cobain’s basic unreliability due to his drug use, was material. That old saw about a song not being a good song if you can’t play it with one acoustic guitar or a piano is actually a vast oversimplification. Would Strawberry Fields Forever sound like Lennon’s best work played on one guitar? Would, say, I Feel Love sound like a classic that needed to be heard over 12 minutes to get the full impact if played by one earnest guitar player? Cobain was a first-rate songwriter, but that didn’t mean that all of his songs sounded their best played on an acoustic guitar and a brushed snare drum. They relied on the intensity of a full-bore rock band to put them in their proper context. Shorn of the power of volume, which of their songs would work?

Something in the Way and Polly from Nevermind were natural fits, of course. As was Dumb from In Utero, and it would have been easy enough for the band to imagine About a Girl being played on acoustic guitars. What else would they do, though? They needed, like, 10 other songs.

In the event, they chose to play acoustic arrangements of a few other Nirvana songs, then filled the rest of the set with works by other songwriters. Cobain, Grohl and bassist Krist Novoselic had always sought to deflect attention away from themselves and on to their peers and influences; it was a big part of how they handled their runaway success, and a very laudable part, too. So naturally, they covered shambling twee-pop duo the Vaselines for the umpteenth time, recorded a song popularised by Lead Belly (a big hero of Cobain’s since Slim Moon had played him Lead Belly’s Last Sessions in the late 1980s), did an obscure David Bowie song (again, a favourite from the early days of the band; this time the man who got Cobain hooked was Chad Channing, Nirvana’s pre-Grohl drummer) and invited their friends the Meat Puppets to sit in with them as they played no fewer than three of the band’s songs.

Having already expanded to a four-piece for the In Utero tour with the addition of former Germs guitarist Pat Smear, the band also incorporated cellist Lori Goldston for the Unplugged show. When Curt and Cris Kirkwood sat in on bass and guitar for the three Meat Puppets songs, Goldston and Smear sat out, Cobain put down his guitar and Novoselic moved to play second guitar.*

They began with About a Girl, sounding a little tentative; Cobain’s tempo in the intro is all over the place. As it progresses, the band seem more at ease, and the song, played acoustically rather than electric, sounds more Lennon-esque than ever (despite, or perhaps because of, its bizarre key change from E minor to C# for the chorus).

Come as You Are, enthusiastically received by the audience, demonstrates the good and the not-so-good of the band as an acoustic ensemble. Cobain is as committed vocally as he was in any rock show, and Grohl’s adaptation to the acoustic environment is impressive for a legendarily hard-hitting drummer. But Novoselic is often ahead of the beat and Smear, whether by lack of imagination or diktat from Cobain, never explores what different voicings or complementary parts could do for the song. Cobain plays the riff; Smear doubles it. Cobain strums open chords; Smear does too. It’s not a bad approach, but it’s noticeable how arranged the next two songs are in comparison.

Jesus Doesn’t Want Me for a Sunbeam (the Vaselines cover misidentified by Cobain as a rendition of a Christian song) sees Novoselic pick up an accordion (his first instrument) while Grohl plays bass and pedals his hi-hat. Immediately, the sound opens out, and the effect is charming even if the song’s snidiness is not as clever as it thinks it is.

The Man Who Sold the World sees Nirvana stretch the Unplugged format. Cobain refused to play unless he could use his usual Fender amp and effects pedals, so Alex Coletti had the set dressers build a box to disguise the amp and make it look like a monitor wedge. His tone was horrible (the result of playing a rare Martin dreadnought, a D18-E, that came outfitted with two large magnetic pickups. It sounded so bad that Martin ceased production after one year). However, if Cobain hadn’t insisted on using his amp and pedals, we’d not have got the gorgeous arrangement the band put together for The Man Who Sold the World, where Cobain’s guitar and Goldston’s cello merge and become one instrument for around a minute in the outro. As for the reading of the song itself, it’s spellbinding, with one of Cobain’s best vocals. In Bowie’s recording, the jolly organ and the let’s-all-play-our-scales chorus distracted the listener somewhat from the song’s unsettling premise; Nirvana cut right to the heart of it, and there is unease (dread, even) in Cobain’s voice as he sings it.

Next were two songs from In Utero. For my money, of Cobain’s material, Pennyroyal Tea was the only song to fall down in its acoustic incarnation, despite his instruction to the band that he would be playing it by himself (he phrases it as a question – “am I going to do this by myself?” – but it’s clearly not a question). The idea of Cobain doing one of his songs solo, all the audience’s attention on Cobain’s voice and lyrics, sounds great. The problem is that, structurally simple and melodically repetitive, Pennyroyal Tea feels like an unfinished first draft without Dave Grohl’s bombastic drums and vocal harmonies. Dumb fares much better – again, its the extra touches (Grohl’s harmonies and Goldston’s cello) make it sing.

Polly and On a Plain were dispatched without fuss, the latter adding a note or two of levity to the performance with a lyric that contained several in-jokes and an admission from Cobain that he didn’t always know what he was trying to say. Grohl later said that he felt Cobain wanted to bring the Unplugged performance “down to just the lowest, most dirge-like, Leonard Cohen level”. If so, Something in the Way succeeded in this aim. The cello is, again, a nice touch.

The three Meat Puppets songs are all great. I’m a particular fan of Oh Me, which has a gorgeous E major riff and a lovely short lead guitar passage by Curt Kirkwood that’s beautifully phrased and possibly the prettiest moment in the whole set. Kirkwood’s guitar playing is impressive throughout, actually, from the fingerpicking riff to Plateau to the pentatonic lead at the end of Lake of Fire.

Looking at the gig as a whole, the Nirvana songs that work best acoustically for me are About a Girl and All Apologies. I genuinely can’t choose which versions I prefer, the acoustic or album versions. That said, there’s something about the version of All Apologies on Unplugged – it’s so naked and vulnerable, and in the end as Cobain and Grohl sing the mantra “All in all is all we are” in harmony, so weirdly celebratory, it may even beat the In Utero recording, which is probably my favourite song on my favourite Nirvana album.

Which just leaves Where Did You Sleep Last Night, Nirvana’s take on Lead Belly’s take on In the Pines. Cobain had history with this song. As we said earlier, he’d been listening to Lead Belly since he was played Lead Belly’s Last Sessions by Slim Moon, founder of the indie label Kill Rock Stars, in the late 1980s while living in Olympia. In Nirvana’s early days, he and Novoselic had a side project with the Screaming Trees’ Mark Lanegan and Mark Pickerel playing electric arrangements of old blues songs: they cut their version for Lanegan’s solo debut album, The Winding Sheet, a record that everyone in the band thought was magical and was consciously trying to emulate in their Unplugged set.

Where Did You Sleep Last Night is hard to write about now, with so much myth-making surrounding it. Suffice it to say, it’s as breathtaking as everyone says it is. Cobain’s vocal in that final verse is unearthly, his screech on the word “shiver” so hair-raising it seems to bring the whole band to a halt, as if they’ve been shocked into silence by what they’re hearing. The band did no encore. As Cobain protested to Coletti when he tried to talk them into doing another song, there was no way they could top what they’d just done.

MTV Unplugged in New York is not a flawless album. It’s full of mistakes and flubs and missed notes. The arrangements are sometimes simplistic, the guitar tones tinny. It is, though, an incredibly human album. A lot of listeners have no use for live records; why hear a rough approximation of a song’s studio incarnation when you could listen to the real thing? But for fans who do love live records, it’s the humanity that we’re drawn to, I think: the subtleties of real-time reaction between musicians, the knife-edge moments where the performance seems dangerously close to coming apart but doesn’t.

Unplugged in New York is full of those moments, and if you’re of the opinion that Nevermind is too slick to be the real Nirvana and In Utero downplays the band’s melodic side too much (I hold neither of these opinions, by the way), I can easily see how Unplugged could be your favourite Nirvana album. Even without electric instrumentation – the serrated edge of Cobain’s distorted Fender, the thrilling power Grohl brought to the snare drum and cymbals – it genuinely captures the spirit of the band, and remains essential.

unplugged

*The mix for the audio released, by Scott Litt, puts Cobain’s guitar a little off centre to the left and Pat Smear’s about halfway over to the right. Curt Kirkwood plays Smear’s guitar, which Litt turns up for the three songs and brings slightly closer to the centre. Novoselic’s guitar on those is about halfway to the left and tends to come in and out of the mix, plainly audible in some sections and all but absent from others.