Friday, March 24, 2017

Bob Dylan: Unplugged

Released, May 2 1995
The MTV concert show Unplugged was at the apex of its popularity in the mid 1990s, drawing in some of the biggest names in music.  Dylan's appearance introduced him to Generation X and proved to be his highest selling album in years. Originally Dylan planned to perform material from his two previous albums of folk music Good As I've Been to You and World Gone Wrong, but at the suggestion of the MTV producer decided to perform more of a "greatest hits" setlist, with a few rarities thrown in.  With the The Never-ending Tour in full swing, Dylan and his band played an exuberant set of 12 songs ("Love Minus Zero/No Limit" was left off the CD).

With Dylan donning a classic polka dot shirt he lead things off with a rollicking version of "Tombstone Blues." Then a soulful rendition of "Shooting Star" from his 1989 album Oh Mercy.  Next Dylan played a more epic version of "All Along the Watchtower," one of the few examples of Dylan being upstaged in his career (by the 1968 cover version recorded by Jimi Hendrix).  Dylan dove deeper into his catalog with "The Times They Are-A-Changin" from 1963, a modern arrangement that retains the power of the song.  He even revived "John Brown," an anti-war composition from the 1960s that never appeared on an official album. "Rainy Day Women #12 & #35" remains an eternal crowd pleaser.

A truncated version of "Desolation Row" is a highlight of the concert. Then a full version of "Dignity," an outtake from Oh Mercy.  "Knockin" on Heaven's Door" sounds stately and heroic.  "Like A Rolling Stone" gets a great arrangement in a soaring take on the 1965 classic. After a brief encore, Dylan ended the concert with another classic being kept alive for modern times, 'With God On Our Side."

Despite the mixed reviews the official release received, the album sold well and got some airplay on MTV.  Dylan appears relaxed and cheerful during the performance, proudly showcasing his band.  

Monday, March 20, 2017

World Gone Wrong: Lead Me Through Seas Most Severe

Released October 26, 1993
In 1994 Bob Dylan released an album of traditional songs that earned a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album.  More intense and darker than Good As I've Been to You from 1992, World Gone Wrong takes a deep dive into the subconscious of the American mythos. Dylan also wrote his own liner notes.

The first track "World Gone Wrong" is a highlight, the most straightforward song on the album.  The tune is credited to the Mississippi Sheiks, a song Dylan describes as going "against cultural policy." Dylan sounds like he means it on this one, a raging epic on a dysfunctional relationship entering the end times. The narrator rages at the woman and himself, confessing "he can't be good anymore, once, like I did before." Dylan's driving guitar and grizzled vocal makes it clear he's not playing games, if you can't take the heat here you're best to stick with FM radio or Pearl Jam.

"Love Henry" tells a Gothic tale of avarice in the form of a woman who murders Henry because he prefers another woman.  Henry succumbs in the third verse "with a penny knife she held in her hand/she murdered mortal he." Then she disposes of him in the well and imagines the girl he left behind weeping over him with a sense of glee.  Dylan suggests "Love Henry" is about blindness, not being in tune with our instincts in the barrage of distractions life throws at us.

"Ragged and Dirty" is a desperate plea for salvation from the confines of a one room country shack. A rascal makes a plea for understanding. 

Then "Blood In My Eyes," another Mississippi Sheiks song that according to Dylan is about "revolt against routine." The narrator's enamored with a lady of the night "I went back home, put on my tie/Gonna get that girl that money will buy." Dylan paints a vivid picture.

"Broke Down Engine" chronicles another lost soul looking for grace anywhere it can be found. Beneath all the anxiety about mortality there's a driving insanity for meaning, people will fight for it and march to the ends of the earth (if they are wide awake).

The tragic "Delia" tells another dark love story from the viewpoint of a rejected suitor. He repeats throughout the song "all the friends I ever had are gone" and then relates the tale of his beloved Delia getting gunned down by a scoundrel. So the murderer sits in the jailhouse and Delia rests in the ground and life goes on. Meanwhile the narrator laments "You loved all them rounders, you never did love me."

Next comes the traditional "Stack-a-Lee," another sordid tale of a tavern dispute over a stetson hat.  The Stack-a-Lee character is a brutal killer who shrugs at moral conventions and kills without remorse. He murders Billy Lynn in cold blood, a father of three.  Dylan wrote of the song "Billy didn't have an insurance plan, didn't get airsick yet his ghost is more real & genuine than all the dead souls on the boob tube."

Dylan tells a Civil War tale without the romance on "Two Soldiers," they perish in battle and leave the women who love them burdened with grief.  It's terrain Dylan covered before in the anti-war talking song "John Brown." No one who perishes in war as an expendable person, yet history has a way of seeing to it anyways.  

The penultimate track "Jack-A-Roe" promises meaning and joy are a possibility on the temporal plain. A lovely daughter of a wealthy merchant disguises herself as a man to be with Jack the Sailor.  Somehow they both survive the war, Jack-A-Roe nurses Jack back to health and they get married.  Dylan's guitar playing features a ghostly reverb putting the song out of time, floating it into the ether.

In "Lone Pilgrim" a man visits a grave and something miraculous occurs.  Dylan's own musings on the song are like a futuristic telegram:

 . . . what's essentially true is virtual reality. technology to wipe out truth is now available. not everybody can afford it but it's available. when the cost comes down look out!  there won't be songs like these anymore.  factually there aren't any now .

Thus ends World Gone Wrong.  A few years later Dylan would revisit the existential themes in a more intimate way on another Grammy Award winning LP Time Out of Mind, the one critics would hail as Dylan's late masterpiece. More were to follow.

Work Cited

Dylan, Bob. "About the Songs (what they're about)." Liner Notes. World Gone Wrong. LP. Columbia, 1993.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

30 Years Down the Line: Good As I Been To You

Released November 3, 1992
Thirty years after Bob Dylan's debut LP of mostly traditional covers he returned to his folk roots on Good As I Been to You. The record is a one man show featuring Dylan on acoustic guitar, harmonica, and vocals - showcasing his picking skills and increasingly gravel voice. 

"Frankie and Albert" tells the story of a love triangle that ends in murder, the twist being the scorned woman Frankie shoots her man Albert. "Jim Jones" takes direct inspiration from an Australian folk song about a tragedy at sea. "Black Jack Davey" tells the story of an innocent beauty with a "lily-white hand" who runs off with a rogue. More intrigue at sea happens on "Canadee-I-O", a Canadian ballad of a woman disguising herself as a sailor to be with her beloved on his sea voyage only to be rejected and eventually courted by the Captain!

Dylan revisits the blues standard "Sittin' on Top of the World" recorded in 1930 by the Mississippi Sheiks. Many greats including Doc Watson, Ray Charles, Howlin' Wolf, and Cream have all covered the song, an expression of defiance and swagger in the face of misfortune. Dylan's snarling performance pours water on the fire as he gleefully watches the smoke rise.  

Unrequited love eats away at the narrator in "Little Maggie" as he angrily watches the woman drink away her troubles "over courtin' some other man." Next comes a Stephen Foster tune "Hard Times." The title says it all. "Step It Up And Go" brings a rock and roll vibe, a rollicking tune better known as "Bottle Up and Go" recorded by the Memphis Jug Band. The romantic ode "Tomorrow Night" was written in 1939 by Sam Coslow and Will Grosz, a standard for Sun Record artists in the 1950s including Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis.  

"Arthur McBride" originates from the British Isles, an "anti-recruiting" song telling the tale of a recruiter's attempt to persuade McBride and his cousin to join the army.  On "You're Gonna Quit Me" Dylan offers a playful take on a blues traditional. The penultimate track "Diamond Joe" was a cowboy tune popularized by Dylan's old buddy "Ramblin"Jack Elliot. The closer "Froggie Went A Courtin" originates from Scotland, 19 verses of fairy tale intrigue between Froggie and Miss Mousey that ends in macabre tragedy.

Good As I Been To You feels like a work of scholarship at times, but in retrospect the album set the course of Dylan's future. Attempts to keep up with the music scene in the 1980s met with mixed results so Dylan decided to go his own way in the 1990s by getting back to basics, keeping the folk tradition vibrant for the new millennium on the horizon.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

A Look Back At The Bootleg Series: Vols. 1, 2, and 3 (rare and unreleased) 1961-1991

Released March 26, 1991
As Bob Dylan approached the 30 year milestone of his recording career, he began to open up his massive archive of unreleased material.  Most of the tracks on this initial release of the Bootleg Series had appeared on actual bootlegs before, but never got the official stamp of approval from the artist.  Many of these songs were good enough to appear on an album and they also shed some light on Dylan's creative process.  A groundbreaking release and perhaps the most valuable edition of the ongoing Bootleg Series the, an outstanding introduction to Dylan's expansive catalog.

Dylan in the early 1960s at the height of his protest music phase
The first disc features recordings from Dylan's early years in the folk scene.  Some of the early songs included are "Hard Times in New York Town", "He was a Friend of Mine," and "Man on the Street" all capturing Dylan at the height of creative kinship with Woody Guthrie.  Dylan's earth shaking second LP The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan had enough material for two records.  Early tunes like the hilarious "Talkin' Bear Mountain Picnic Massacre Blues" and defiant Cold War anthem "Let Me Die in My Footsteps" hint at Dylan's growing power as a songwriter.  Topical "protest songs" dominated Dylan's output from 1962-63, everything from the reform school ballad "Walls of Red Wing" to the always relevant "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues" (Dylan walked off Ed Sullivan when they disallowed him to play it in front of a TV audience). A few selections from his Carnegie Hall Concert on October 26, 1963 also appear, including brilliant "Who Killed Davey Moore." As 1963 closed out The Times They Are A Changin' LP was about to be released with some of the greatest protest songs ever recorded on vinyl.  Appropriately, the first disc ends with Dylan's prose poem tribute "Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie."

Dylan expands his sound during the making of Highway 61 Revisited (1965)

The second volume covers quite a bit of ground, spanning ten years 1964-1974.  Further acoustic outtakes reveal a more introspective streak, especially on "Mama, You Been on My Mind," a song Dylan loved to sing with Joan Baez.  Dylan's transition to "electric" music on Bringing it all Back Home (1965) with an early demo of "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and the exuberant rocker "If You Gotta Go, Go Now (Or Else You Gotta Stay All Night)". Only a few selections are included from Highway 61 Revisited, with possibly his first attempt at "Like A Rolling Stone."  On "She's Your Lover Now," an early outtake from Blonde on Blonde, you can possibly hear Dylan's creative breakthrough that led to those magical sessions in Nashville, a special moment for sure. Then the disc jumps ahead, a highlight being Dylan's duet with George Harrison on "If Not For You."

Dylan joins friend George Harrison onstage at the Concert For Bangladesh (1971)

The highlight of the second disc are the amazing alternate cuts from the 1974 New York sessions of Blood on the Tracks, which were ready for release until Dylan decided to start over with a group of Minneapolis musicians on the advice of his brother. Early versions of "Tangled Up in Blue," "Idiot Wind," and "If You See Her, Say Hello" are much quieter and melancholy than the songs that appeared on the official release. Also, don't miss "Call Letter Blues" a far more viscous version of what became "Meet Me in the Morning." 
Dylan continued to tour throughout the 1980s, here Tom Petty joins him onstage.
Dylan's post Blood on the Tracks career spans most of the third volume.  Some of these are mere curiosities like "Catfish."  A live version "Seven Days," a song Dylan wrote with Eric Clapton and performed during the Rolling Thunder Revue Tour in 1975-76 hints at the unique spirit of those concerts.  Material from the Christian albums from 1979-1981 gets some coverage with an emphasis on Shot Of Love from 1981. Five outtakes from Dylan's 1983 LP Infidels sound underdeveloped with the exception of "Blind Willie McTell," a foreshadowing of where Dylan would be going creatively as he entered the late stage of his career.  Even the infamous Empire Burlesque album from 1985 gets resurrected with a more upbeat performance of "When The Night Comes Falling From the Sky." Then an appropriate conclusion with "Series of Dreams" from 1989, one of Dylan's more interesting efforts towards achieving a modern rock sound. 

A valuable collection for any serious Dylan fan, these discs are a worthwhile overview of Dylan's first three decades as a recording artist.

Dylan's peers pay tribute at the 30th Anniversary Concert on October 16, 1992.

Some must listens on Vols. 1,2,3

"He Was a Friend of Mine"
"Let Me Die in My Footsteps"
"Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues"
"Eternal Circle"
"Mama, You Been on My Mind"
"Farewell Angelina"
"She's Your Lover Now"
'Tangled Up in Blue"
"Idiot Wind"
"Blind Willie McTell"
"Series of Dreams"

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Under the Red Sky/Traveling Wilbury's Vol. III: Dylan in 1990

Released September 10, 1990
The spring of 1990 proved a busy one for Bob Dylan, recording two albums simultaneously: Under the Red Sky and Traveling Wilbury's Vol. III.

Released a year after the well received Oh Mercy, Under the Red Sky failed to impress most fans and critics.  Recorded in Los Angeles and produced by the Was brothers, the album featured guest appearances from some of the biggest names in the music industry including Elton John, Bruce Hornsby, George Harrison, Slash, and many others. 

I like to think of Under the Red Sky as a coda to Oh Mercy in terms of tone. The former looks at life with an honest, serious, and ultimately tragic outlook. While the latter goes for a more child like wisdom, making the two albums suitable companion pieces.  

"Wiggle Wiggle" may be the most despised song ever to open a Dylan album, a children's ditty with nonsensical lyrics.  Easy now, the Beatles could get away with "Piggies" and "Wild Honey Pie" on The White Album.

The title track features excellent guitar from Harrison and some poignant lyrics, a dark retelling of Hansel and Gretel.  "Unbelievable" was made into an amusing music video starring 80s icon Molly Ringwald. "Born in Time" provides some seasoned reflection on life and loss. "T.V. Talkin Song" reads like a lost passage from Tarantula.

"10,000 Men" offers up some leisurely blues with Dylan sounding like he's making it up on the spot. It's a fun jam.  "2 X 2" continues the nursery rhyme theme. "God Knows" recalls on the Christian Rock on the Shot of Love LP. Dylan refined "God Knows" into an epic rock song for his live shows in the 90s.  "Handy Dandy" introduces another eccentric character with "Like A Rolling Stone" evident in the melody.  The closing track, "Cat's in the Well," became a mainstay of Dylan's live repertoire throughout the 2000s.

A collection of odds and ends lacking in memorable moments or high points, Under the Red Sky works strictly as a curio.

Released October 29, 1990

After the unexpected passing of Roy Orbison, The Traveling Wilbury's continued on as a quartet for one more album. Orbison's absence left a melancholy shadow over the proceedings that made the original so magical. Nevertheless the songs on Vol. III hold up and are defiantly retro in style and tone. 

Dylan took a leadership role and his material dominates the album. 

"She's My Baby" is an uptempo rocker and "Inside Out" features the Wilbury's working on all cylinders.  

"7 Deadly Sins" and "Where Were You Last Night" bring some punch that the tracks on Under The Red Sky lacked.  "New Blue Moon" belongs on every jukebox.

"Wilbury Twist" ends things on a playful note.

Unfortunately the Wilbury's never got back together and their music went out of circulation throughout the 90s and early 2000's.  Both are now widely available. Great albums to get out on a rainy day!

Friday, June 24, 2016

Oh Mercy - Late Summer 1989

Released September 18, 1989

(From the Journal of Danny)

Late '89, another new Dylan album out only this one had a buzz surrounding it, different from his other recent stuff. Not a redux of the 60s shtick either, hints of a new path forward. I bought the cassette at Encore Records and played it on my stereo three straight times in a dark room in the middle of the afternoon.  I knew a few things about Dylan's new producer, the Canadian Daniel Lanois, young, brash, prodigy not intimidated by anyone, not above pushing Dylan around if the situation called for it. I imagined knife fights in the studio. With no one around in the broken down house, occupied by various other out of grad school malcontents, I put the speakers on full blast. No air conditioning either, windows open with no breeze on a seething Ohio summer afternoon. Rarely saw my old friends those days, still thought of them though. "Political World" came on and I understood what the critics were saying, a song from the swamps with all sorts of chaos in the mix. Sounded as if Dylan took all the frustrations of the 80s and exorcised them in one song. 1989. CEOs walking around like kings. Just what the decade needed, a misanthropic rant. All a stacked deck.  Right on; right on. "Where Teardrops Fall" hints of old jukeboxes, hints of lost love. "Ring Them Bells" could be a sermon from a disgraced preacher, like Jim Casy in The Grapes of Wrath or a jilted convert. Once the exuberance of being born again fades away- I wonder what happens?  Old vices return along with new temptations of every salacious variety.  But the old time faith (the only faith with meaning) never vanishes either, it stays there, and crops up on songs like this. Staring at the unremarkable clutter of my half-empty room made "Everything is Broken" sounds all too appropriate for my less than minor occasion. "Man in the Long Black Coat" forces you to watch evil triumph and renders you powerless. Keen observers learn to accept such unique pain, grapple with it, and maybe learn something, paying/praying as they go. Where better place to record this album than New Orleans?! A special place, my favorite section in On the Road took place there, the part I reread anyway. A new art for the lost pilgrims. Flip to side 2. "Most of the Time" levels you, for we are no longer the observer but the one on the receiving end. The lyrics were simple, direct, the bass lines luminous. Calling it a heartbreak song cheapens it. "What Good Am I" asks the right questions. Enlightened narcissism as the guiding light? The theme continues with "Disease of Conceit" shifting the point of view back to the omnipresent like a lost chapter from the Old Testament.  God knows we need prophets now more than ever. Don't look at me says Dylan. Who is he addressing in "What Was It You Wanted?" Jesus? Judas?? Lucifer??? Fans???? Critics????? Himself?????? The World???????... My thoughts floated back to the Winter of '81, the front end of the decade. Drifting in those days, drifting all day and all night, with Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding on constant rotation.  The two brothers Tim and Jeff frequently stopping by plotting their futures; Empire builders with no armies and complicated motivations. Those records offered poignancy and meaning to banality. "What Was it You Wanted" channeled those old sentiments of mine, late night conversations in a lonely place where dream and reality intermingle. A way station where existential tensions get absolved. The finale "Shooting Star" features arrivals/departures, goodbyes/hellos, something close to a complete circle. Some thoughts on Oh Mercy, late summer 1989.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Dylan and the Dead (1989)

Released February 6, 1989
During the summer of 1987 Bob Dylan joined The Grateful Dead for a stadium tour of six shows.  Nearly two years later, Columbia released a live album with a meager seven selections from those performances.  The confluence between these two gigantic forces in rock and roll/pop culture history promised unlimited potential -unfortunately the live album yielded disappointing results. The two gospel songs, "Slow Train Coming" and "Gotta Serve Somebody" are the only highlights.  The rest leaves much to be desired: "Joey" is a mess and "I Want You" goes all over the map. I'll assume the live album may not be the best representation of their concerts.  Guess you had to be there. In saying that, Dylan reportedly enjoyed his time with the Dead and even considered becoming a full time member.  When Dylan began the so called "Never Ending Tour" in the summer of 1988, I think he took some inspiration from the Grateful Dead - steady touring backed by a full time band willing to reinvent old and new material on a nightly basis.  Unlike most of his contemporaries Dylan emerged as a road warrior late in his career and would build an entirely new audience.