Enid (played by Thora Birch): “Yeah, it took a while before I got a chance to play it, but when I heard that song it was like –”
Seymour (played by Steve Buscemi): “So you really liked it? Yeah, there’s some really rare performances. You liked that Memphis Minnie, huh?”
Enid: “Yeah, that’s good too… the whole record was good, but that one song, ‘Devil Got My Woman’ – I mostly just keep playing that one over and over… Do you have any other records like that?”
Seymour: “The Skip James record? Yeah, that’s a masterpiece. There are no other records like that!”
Bob Dylan turned up unannounced at the Mariposa Folk Festival in Toronto in 1972, looking for Leon Redbone. Redbone was a singer and guitarist who was mining an eccentric seam of music from the 30s and 40s, mixing Fats Waller, showtunes and songs like May The Bird Of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose. He was famous in a small way for his mysterious demeanour—no-one knew what his real name was or where he came from, or even how old he was. He was just there, in his dark glasses and bowler hat and moustache, and Bob Dylan was looking for him.
Well, on Love and Theft it sure sounds like he’s found him. On some songs it sounds like he’s channeling him (if, of course, Leon is now on The Other Side—who knows?). Quite what this album means in the pop marketplace of today is hard to fathom. Bob’s understanding of pre-rock ’n’ roll music has always been pretty deep, but now he has a band that enables him to play the kind of music that previously he’s only played solo (Tomorrow Night from World Gone Wrong, or Bing Crosby’s You Belong To Me from the Natural Born Killers soundtrack).
The question is—is that a good thing? Well, yes and no. Using tall stories and gnomic couplets that are reminiscent of the basement tapes, the albums alternates two basic styles pretty much track-by-track. First up is the blues—ranging from Chicago (Little Walter) to Texas (Bob Wills). When it’s good it’s awesome, but there are weaker moments, especially on the opener Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, punchy riff notwithstanding. Summer Days is as authentic a jump blues as you’ll hear (listen to David Kemper’s drums!) sounding like it was recorded at King Records San Antonio Studios.
The other is patterned on Mr Redbone—30s dance music, love songs, and Django Reinhardt runs. A little Bye and Bye or Moonlight go a long way, but there’s some nice playing and cute melodies, although sometimes sabotaged by Dylan’s slightly lumpen way with their melodies. One song doesn’t fit into either camp. That’s Mississippi, and it’s a treat. Left off Time Out of Mind, here re-recorded, Tony Garnier’s taut bass defines the rhythm and the tune, and Dylan sings his tale of leaving town right up against it. The ascending chorus is glorious, as is the repeated payoff line Only thing/I did wrong/was to stay in Mississippi a day too long, moaned only the way Dylan can.
However, two songs really head and shoulders above the solid surroundings, one from each camp. High Water (For Charley Patton) is a meditation on old spooky music, taking in Charles Darwin and Big Joe Turner, among others. It’s carried by Larry Campbell’s insistent banjo, punctuated by Kemper’s rolling thunder, Dock Boggs by way of the 1812 Overture. It’s more Crash on the Levee than Blind Willie McTell—a gnarled and threatening invocation.
The other is the closer, Sugar Baby, Gershwin-like in construction, and Dylan’s best vocal on the album. High in the mix, he sings like time is standing still. He’s surrounded by gorgeous guitars, Charlie Sexton on one side, all chiming sonics and reverb, Larry Campbell on the other, slicing out precise chords and fills. Dead-centre, Tony Garnier’s big bass paces Dylan word-for-word. A song about how hard it is to make love work, it’s a monumental performance—incredibly moving.
So maybe it’s best to approach Love and Theft as a jukebox in a diner in Illinois as the 50s shade into the 60s. There’s a lot of selections to chose from as you order your pie a la mode—dance music, sweet love songs, raucous blues, some country, a little hillbilly weirdness, all waiting to be heard. Punch in tracks 7 and 12 for me—no-one’s making music like this anywhere else in the world.