Bob Dylan: Love & Theft

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, the same year that Leon Redbone played. Redbone was a singer and guitarist who was mining an eccentric seam of music from the 30s and 40s, mixing Fats Waller, show tunes 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 he met Bob Dylan.

Well, on Love and Theft it sure sounds like he remembers Leon. On some songs, it sounds like he’s channelling 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 Nightfrom 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, although they’re 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, and 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.

Bob Dylan: Water From A Deeper Well

There are five men on stage in a variety of western-wear. The drummer wears a big white stetson, the bassist a menacing leer, a pencil moustache and a black hat (very Charlton Heston in Touch of Evil). Stage left is Antonio Banderas, stage right—Matt Dillon (well, it looks like them, but it’s dark in here), both armed with acoustic guitars. The fellow in the middle is no film star. In fact, in the white spotlight he resembles a ghost, or a character from Dickens, dusted in talcum powder, and looking distractedly into the middle distance. He’s wearing a dark western suit with white piping, Tom Mix crossed with Hank Williams.

They light into the opening song, a bluegrass gospel number called Somebody Touched Me, and their voices swoop into the air on the refrain “It must be the hand of the Lord,” in true Louvin Brothers style. They finish to whoops and hollers from the crowd, and launch straight into a gorgeously dreamy romantic waltz, with a Mexicali feel. Antonio plays delicate filagree lines, Matt plays self-effacing rhythm guitar and the backroom boys swirl the beat around like a carny ride. The funny little guy seems to be the lead singer, and he wheezes into the opening lines in a sly fashion, imparting the words sideways from his mouth. The song’s a timeless marvel called To Ramona and the next one that they ease into is even better. Mama You Bin on my Mind has a melody both Moby and Mariah Carey would kill for, and it is so gorgeously played and sung that for the time it lasts you’d die and go to Boot Hill, happily.

The band then swing into a groovy vamp, the singer twitches and shrugs, and the audience roars its approval. “Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks/When you’re tryin’ to be quiet.” This is hip-swinging stuff, and the audience is almost forced into dancing along. Antonio rips off another fine solo and then the funny guy starts playing. He plays like his fingernails are too long, and the jerkyness makes the audience blink from their reverie. He pays no heed if he hits a bum note, instead searching for a kind of repetitive intensity—a Chicago Blues version of Philip Glass. But it’s an intriguing approach and it keeps the band on their toes as they try and figure out where he’s taking the song. Antonio in particular wears a look somewhere between terror and joy.

Then a song called Tangled Up In Blue, stage lights dramatically throwing the band’s shadows onto the wall on the title line, which builds up to a crazily intense climax that leaves the audience exhausted. They revert to the style of the opener for one more song (about standing on a soldier’s grave, it seems) and, in an atmosphere so intense that it’s hard to see where it can go from here, the front line ditch their acoustics, and choose electric guitars from racks at the side of the stage.

First up is a jagged slice of country funk, Country Pie, with the guitarists going hell for leather, one moment Clarence White, the next Jerry Reed, sweat flying from the dashing brow of Matt Dillon as his fingers claw their way up and down the frets. But the party-time mood is just a distraction, as the show turns a dark corner in the road for the anguished blues of Can’t Wait. Blistering vocals, blistering guitars, the wail and thump of a Howling Wolf band in the early sixties brought to life in this municipal hall on the south coast of England…

The menacing strut of the next song, Gotta Serve Somebody—featuring an intense, preaching vocal—keeps the energy level high before the gentle coming down of a country strumalong on If Not For You. This innocuous song features an extraordinary moment: after playing his solo right at the third attempt (nobody minded, you understand), the singer looks down into the audience with a piercing stare, a hint of a smile at the corners of his lips, and sings the middle eight straight at them —“If not for you, My sky would fall, Rain would gather too. Without your love I’d be nowhere at all, I’d be lost if not for you…” And you feel it’s true. Playing live seems to give the singer a powerful reason to keep going.

Wicked Messenger and Leopardskin Pill Box Hat keep the high-voltage approach going, although the downside of pounding into the songs like this is the danger of coming off more Foghat than ZZ Top, which happens in Leopardskin. Messenger, however, is apocalyptic tonight, and possibly a definitive version—the combination of the whiplash guitar playing and a stunning harp solo is simply overwhelming.

An hour has passed and the band line up and face the audience, and stare at them. That’s right – they don’t bow, and they don’t wave, they just stare out from the stage. They resemble a Brady photograph of captured Confederate troops. It’s deeply spooky. The hall goes wild, the band disappear for five minutes and then launch into part 2—it lasts forty-five minutes, too long to call an encore. Love Sick is next and its weary fatalism rebounds around the room. The singer hunches and swivels, for all the world like a moody Chuck Berry, driving the band with his Freelance Guitar Stylings™. They all seem to be enjoying it, digging deep into the music. Even Like A Rolling Stone is energised.

Appropriately for a concert hall that last looks like it was last refurbished in 1966, the singer chooses a song called Fourth Time Around and sounds like no-one else on planet earth. He grimaces his way through the storyline, savouring the gnomic lyrics. A swift canter through I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight and Forever Young lead into a coruscating Highway 61 with a fabulous T-Bone Walker-drenched solo by Matt dropped into the Allmans groove, before a reverential reading of old-as-the-hills Blowing In The Wind, where the voices rise up as they did at the beginning, mountain music for the mind and body.

And in the end, that’s what it all comes down to—the music. It’s not about the history of those on stage, really, or a glib perception of what a ‘dinosaur rock tour’ will be like. It’s about great music in the here-and-now, about its power to move you. It’s about the fact that the next night the singer and his compadres play the same hall and only play five of the same songs, or that when they play Wembley a week later, the set is different again. It’s about the well that this great stuff is drawn from, and the fact that it still hasn’t dried up.

Cast List: Starring in Water From A Deeper Well were: Larry Campbell as Antonio, Charlie Sexton as Matt, David Kemper as The Man in the White Hat, Tony Garnier as The Man in the Black Hat and Bob Dylan as The Singer. It was showing at Portsmouth Guildhall, September 24th, 2000

Credits

The Southwestern Recorders site is designed by me, implemented by the very patient Mark (what’s the letterspacing on that again?) Pringle. Blame me for the fuzziness of small type, I was going for a letterpress effect. Photographs on Poisonville are by the great Bob Gumpert (http://www.robertgumpert.com/). The main photo on the opening page wall, of my uncle Ken with Sister Rosetta Tharpe is by Terry Cryer, great chronicler of the 50s and 60s in British music (see more of his work in Goin’ Home, the book I recently designed about Ken https://martincolyer.wordpress.com/2010/12/05/goin-home-the-ken-book/) The photos of me are by Mark, part of his excellent series of close-up twin lens reflex portraits (see http://www.markpringle.net/photo/portraits/). The idea for the Autobiography section came from this great 60s press release for the Beatles.

Thanks to Graham at Guitar Classics of Webbs Road for the great Fenix telecaster, and Hank’s of Denmark Street for the cute Finnish Landola. Thanks to Leo Fender for the bass.  Thanks to macaudioguy for some great loops, and I also have to thank the Apple Loop Library, without whose great catalogue this would have all been much more difficult to do…

An Evening With Joni Mitchell

Joni

A photograph I took of Joni Mitchell watching Neil Young perform an impromptu set at The Mariposa Folk Festival, Toronto, 1972

It was 1977 and I was at art school in London on a graphics course. To supplement the student grant, some of us were involved with an ill-fated magazine venture. Supposedly a British answer to Billboard, Record & Radio News (or something like that) were keeping costs down by hiring students to do the design and paste-up. This resulted in lucrative evenings and weekends, albeit at a cost to our education, and with some mixed results, layout-wise. A friend who spent a lot of time working there came across two tickets for a Weather Report concert at the Hammersmith Odeon, and attached were two invites to the post-concert party. The attraction was not so much the prospect of seeing Weather Report but the fact that the party was at a club called the Speakeasy. The Speakeasy was one of those legendary London basement rock ‘n’ roll joints, situated in an unprepossessing street north of Oxford Street. It was supposedly the hangout of ‘rock stars’ but in reality probably only played host to Rod Stewart’s roadies. In the heyday of punk, the Speakeasy’s days were numbered…

The invites were, however, for the publisher and editor by name. So, looking rather too fresh-faced for our job titles, Tim and I presented ourselves at the Speakeasy’s door. To our horror we had to pass down a presentation line of record label executives, being introduced by our assumed names to the Managing Director of CBS, the Head of European Sales, and so on. I don’t quite know how we survived this ordeal, and I’m sure I can remember a couple of quizzical looks passing between recipients of our clammy handshakes, but the free bar helped us recover some of our lost cool. In a slight state of relaxation we helped ourselves the lavish spread on offer.

We took a table next to Wayne Shorter, after a failed attempt to congratulate Joe Zawinul on the performance (failed, as he looked straight through me as I spoke. In retrospect, I don’t blame him at all). We were eating and trying to eavesdrop on Wayne’s conversation when a tall, willowy, long-haired woman followed by two men, one in his late fifties, one about our age, swept up to our table and asked if the rest of the seats were vacant. We said they were. They sat down and proceeded to strike up a conversation. Joni Mitchell wanted to ask Wayne Shorter to overdub saxophone on a track she’d recorded in LA, and the men with her were Henry Lewy, her legendary recording engineer, and his assistant.

As Wayne Shorter was deep in conversation, Joni turned to us and asked what we were doing there. We ruefully admitted that we were there under false pretences, but said, in our defence, that it made a change from the generally poverty-stricken art school life. Upon hearing the magic words ‘art student’, Ms Mitchell began animatedly talking about art, artists, paint and all manner of things. We in turn asked about guitar tunings and Jaco Pastorius (Hejira had been released a couple of months before and we had worn down the grooves already). Henry Lewy, who had engineered classic albums by The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, was an extremely courteous man, and looked the spitting image of the film director Sam Fuller, only without the cigar. Suddenly next to our table was the whirling dervish that was Jaco, bobbing maniacally and muttering cryptic phrases such as ‘the nose knows’ and laughing and being accompanied to the men’s room by various party members. The conversation flowed freely for the next two hours, various dignitaries dropped by our table, and Wayne agreed to do the overdub.

There are now only two things that I recall really clearly from the conversation with Joni. One is that she said that I looked like Bud Cort, the actor from Harold And Maude (I was pathetically flattered by this not-obviously-flattering comparison). The other was that I gave her directions to the patisserie that had supplied the beautiful pastries for the party, telling her the buses to catch, which, as was pointed out by incredulous friends, was a fairly huge mis-reading of how Joni Mitchell would travel around town.

So in the early-morning hours we all stumbled out of the club together, saying our fond farewells under the streetlights of the West End. And, needless to say we dined out on the brief encounter, to the point where friends thought twice before mentioning Joni’s name…