Culture & Criticism From the Far Distant Realms
In early 1961 in New York City, “Harry Jackson, a cowboy singer and a painter,” told Nat Hentoff after listening to Bob Dylan in a small club that “He’s so goddamned real, it’s unbelievable!” Nat, a prominent music critic at the time, went to see Dylan shortly thereafter. Bob had the same effect on him and Nat quickly became friends with the young singer. Hentoff’s marvelous line in the liner notes of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” bears repeating: “The irrepressible reality of Bob Dylan is a compound of spontaneity, candor, slicing wit and an uncommonly perceptive eye and ear for the way many of us constrict our capacity for living while a few of us don’t.” After listening to the recent Columbia Bob Dylan release, “The Philharmonic Hall Concert,” Nat’s words reentered my mind. They sum up the heart of this precious live 2-CD package. Nothing seems to have changed: this musical document is as pure, as honest, as fresh, as real, and as timely as it was when Bob created it.
I have followed Dylan’s career since his debut album, “Bob Dylan”, in 1962. What we have here in “The Philharmonic Concert” is Bob at his early best and in many of his moods. During the concert, he tells the audience “I’m wearing my Bob Dylan mask tonight.” On the contrary, Bob has taken his mask off. The authentic Dylan has always been revealed while performing on stage. It is easy to hear on these CDs that Bob wants his audience to have a good time and to learn and discern. I have always felt that Bob’s sense of humor is one of his greatest assets. He’s a funny man and it is prevalent throughout this show. Was he really putting us on when he said he was a song and dance man in “Don’t Look Back?”
This performance represents an artist who is the personification of originality and purity of expression. This is the young Shaman ready to explode and expand the horizons of all who listen to him, a major, creative revolutionary who, with the Beatles, would change the face of music throughout the world.
There have been many Bob Dylans. He is the chief chameleon. Very capricious. We all know this. “The Philharmonic Concert” presents my favorite Bob Dylan: the poet, the seer, the humorist, the social critic, the political observer, the wordsmith who assimilated and synthesized all the great existential themes found in history, philosophy, and literature, and crafted them into magnificent songs.
Yes, the music: many of the classic young Bob Dylan songs are here. Among them we find: “A Hard Rain’s A-gonna Fall”, his first epic, his first novel in lyrical form, and it is a complete novel in song. Each line is written and sung as if it would be his last. “The Times They Are A-changing” is an anthem for a generation. “To Ramona” is a transcendent love song never before realized by any other author. “Gates of Eden and “Mr. Tambourine Man” are poems that inspired millions of admirers and writers. “With God on our Side” is an incredibly powerful, ironic insight into our brief history and into the abuse of power. “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Corroll” is an incisive perception of racial and class structure that still abounds in our country today. “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” is a genuine American poem that Allen Ginsberg loved and that opened my young eyes to the illusions and lies that condition us from being truly free. Dylan saw the bondage we inherited from birth and was able to delineate it through his art.
The changing styles in Bob’s singing over the years have been recognized by all his fans. These pieces are all sung with the ache of beauty and of loss; they are all sung with the triumph of spirit and of soul; and they are all sung with the force, faith, and commitment to that which is ever eternal: truth.
“The Philharmonic Concert” ultimately displays the immense humanity, dignity, poetic vision, and reality of America’s greatest 20th century songwriter.
Paolo Carmassi is an expert on the work of Bob Dylan. He lives in California.
This self-titled debut album by the legendary Johnny Winter has recently been re-mastered and re-released by Columbia, bringing Winter’s fiery cool classic brand of the Blues to a whole new generation of fans. First released in 1969 as America wrestled with the issue of the Vietnam war, Winter burns ripe with that classic smell of the Blues – the ache of echo captured perfectly between the turning strings of guitar and voice.
This record should open up a lot of young ears to what music was like in the 1960s, the purity and spontaneity of the moment growing like roots through the eyes of each of these songs. Winter’s Texas-based approach is polished from the beginning, drawing from the deep history of the Delta, drunk on the ancient spirit of Robert Johnson, there on the trail of the devil glazed with freneticism and chaos, there in the shadows running down the old roads of Mississippi hour of the dawn.
Make no mistake, these are the songs of desperate men and hungry children and grave-diggers, the songs of the soul imprisoned by its own sick heart. Back in the days when Johnny Winter recorded these cuts, music served as a refuge for the youth of a torn and divided country. And this record offers perfect evidence of that fact: the music driven by the tension of the times, strangled by passion, groaning against the Kingdoms of the world.
Nearly every cut here is a classic — but “Dallas” is simply riveting, displaying Winter’s range as a player. “I’ll Drown in My Own Tears” is also a stand-out, stained with the grief that brings the Blues. And note the great band that flanks Winter — with none other that the master and legend himself, Willie Dixon, featured. Added to the original set list are three bonus tracks, including the impeccable “Country Girl.”
Old fans will want to grab this record for their collection because the digital remastering done by Columbia has added an extra layer of sound to the original mix – which is now so much more cleaner and resonant. Meanwhile, younger kids keen on the Blues will want to check out Johnny Winter for its purity of passion and its starkness of vision: in this era of throw-away CDs and disposable art, this album shows us what real music can do.
It seems every label these days has a World Music line – if nothing else, the idea’s invogue, and sure to bring some young listeners to the genre. However, try as they might, record companies never seem to reach the bar that Putumayo has set, for it truly is the class of the World Music scene – a label full of varied artists who are deeply dedicated to promoting true social awareness.
As I noted in a column last year, Putumayo World Music is a shining example of the alternatives that exist beyond the Rock/Jazz sound that America has grown up on. The Putumayo World Music label (featured prominently on many radio stations throughout the country), offers adventurous listeners the opportunity to expand their consciousness, exposing both old and young record buyers to the rich musical histories of Africa, Latin American and Europe.
One brief sampling of this material reveals an original vision that has stepped past the “profits first” bottom line, reconnecting us with the true idea of art. Current standouts include:
LATIN PLAYGROUND. A collection of Latin American songs aimed at exposing children to the history of Latin music. Featuring selections by Omara Portuondo, Flaco Jimenez and Carmen Gonzalez. This wonderfully diverse record is part of Putumayo’s WORLD PLAYGROUND series that introduces children to music from the four corners of the world. The album boasts impassioned singing in a wide array of styles that will appeal to the young and old alike.
CONGO TO CUBA. A sampling of Cuban music and Cuban-influenced African music. These two areas of the world are linked by similar rhythms, the cultures deeply rooted in personal expression through the ritual of dance; CONGO TO CUBA allows us to experience the connection first-hand. Featuring Chico Alvarez, Monte Adentro, Laba Sosseh among others.
VHUNZE MOTO. Oliver Mtukudzi. This new record by Mtukudzi brings the music of Zimbabwe to America. This legendary South African musician captivates his listeners here, bridging the gulf between the continents with his soft cool supple melodies and piercing vocals. A five star performance.
ITALIAN ODYSSEY. Featuring contemporary folk music from both the Southern and Northern regions of Italy. This music has risen from an underground community and is slowly making its way across Europe to the United States. Vibrant, rich with social awareness, ITALIAN ODYSSEY calls to mind a 20-year-old Bob Dylan strolling the snow-crusted streets of New York’s Lower East Side at dawn.
REGGAE AROUND THE WORLD. A compilation that presents Reggae music from different parts of the world, including Brazil, Jamaica, South Africa and Nigeria. This wild explosion of rhythm documents the far-reaching influence Reggae has had on countless generations. Artists include Lucky Dube, Zeca Baleiro, Peter Rowan and Rocky Dawuni.
CARIBBEAN PLAYGROUND. Another installment in the Putumayo Kid’s series, this selection features a wonderful array of Caribbean flavored music with the youngster in mind. True Caribbean music blends Native American, African and European influences to create its own distinct sound — a true amalgamation of the best music of these regions stirred into one glass. Playground is a joy to listen to: Here you’ll find some cooking pieces that you can share with your child. Literally every cut is notable, but “Great Big Boat” by Taj Mahal and Hula Blues is amazing, and will cause you to hit the replay button a few times before you explore things further. Also the Trinidad-based “Little Anancy” by Asheba will prove uplifting and inspiring to even the most calloused and cold Metal fan.
WOMEN OF LATIN AMERICA. Due for release on September 21, 2004, Women is a fascinating compilation of the most captivating female singers of Latin America (representing the regions of Mexico, Peru, Chile, Brazil and Columbia). The variety of music and musicianship here is simply phenomenal, and will cause the listener to take pause: Here, Putumayo has captured the hottest and most magical woman voices in the Latin world – -their sound sexy and smoky, subtle and edgy, barking out from the soul these lost wolves at dawn. Highlights are many, but Tania Libertad’s “Anada Mareado” smolders — delicate voiced and deft, circulating around the lips of the room like an invisible wing. Libertad has great vocal range, and this cut shows that she’s on the threshold of breaking out into the mainstream. Also stunning is “Toda Sexta-Feira” by Belo Velloso of Brazil. A great fun record perfect for late summer parties and dancing under the stars.
For more information on purchasing Putumayo’s world music CDs, please visit putumayo.com.
re: BACH. Lara St. John. Sony Classical. If there’s one word that might describe Lara St. John — it’s “guts.” How many other classical violinists would dare to invite pedal steel guitar player B.J. Cole and Indian tabla master Trilok Gurtu to play on an album of Bach interpretations? The key to understanding this record is in the answer to that question: Lara St. John is not like other classical performers. Instead, St. John is a daring and bold musician who has infused new life into Bach’s music — filling the subtle lines of these compositions with gentle inflections of jazz and world music — a complete demonstration of her wide ranging influences.
re: Bach marks St. John’s initial release on the Sony label (although she had previously recorded three other albums for other imprints to high critical remarks). St. John, who began playing the violin at the age of two, has toured throughout the world and has played with a number of superb symphonies, including the Tokyo Symphony under the direction of Paavo Jarvi. More than anything else, re: Bach shows that St. John has grown into a seasoned and versatile performer who is able to immediately command her listener’s attention — guiding us through time now delivering us from the dead : it’s a drive through the invisible riding this perfect vehicle of music. Standout cuts are marked by “Echo” (with wonderful cello fills by Robbie Jacobs) and “Bombay Minor,” which features St. John’s throbbing and sensual violin set against the heartbeat rhythms of Gurtu’s hand drum.
In re: Bach St. John has crossed many musical boundaries and bridged the gap between the old world of Bach and America in the 21st century, at once feeding new life into this ancient and timeless music. The result is absolutely riveting.
Well, first of all, my parents are not musicians. The way I understand it (and it’s all hear-say, since I don’t actually remember it) is that it [coming to the violin] was caused by my brother and I being annoying. [Laughing] Apparently after my brother went to his first violin lesson and came home with his violin, I got jealous and wanted one, too. So my parents got me one. I began playing on a 16th size instrument — very small and very squeaky. (laughing)
As I said, my parents are not musicians. There were some recordings around the house when I was growing up — The Great Symphonies of the World on LP. And Dad listened to The Beatles. My brother [Scott St. John] is actually a Professor [in the renowned music department] at the University of Toronto. He played and toured regularly for many years, and then decided he needed to be in one place. Shortly after that, he got this job.
Well, honestly, it was a bit of a team effort. Through Sony, I met Magnus Fiennes [an inventive and masterful composer], and we got along really well. First, we each listened to all of Bach’s work thoroughly – which was a monumental under-taking. I spent a month alone listening to all of Bach’s stuff. We were each searching for tracks that fit well – tracks that inspired a modern sense. After we agreed on the songs, we began recording. Our idea was to take some of Bach’s lesser known works and give them a modern sense and broader audience. We wanted to take these little known pieces and bring them somewhere.
That’s kind of the concept. In this day and age it’s kind of impossible to go and get a dude off the street and have him listen to some of Bach’s suites. And that was one of the challenges. To bring it [Bach’s music] into the modern era. These great pieces are unchanged, but they have been taken into our times. That was the point: to make the music feel familiar to musicians and non-musicians alike.
The tabla was Magnus’ idea. That wouldn’t have been mine. I thought it was amazing though. The instrument is not something I grew up with. It was my first time playing with the tabla. It created a completely different vibe. The pedal steel appears only a couple of times….actually, so many great musicians played on the album. It really was an amazing thing….
Well, I learned a lot from Glenn Gould. And not just because he’s my country man. I kind of grew up under that umbrella. I learned a lot from Gould with regard to thinking ‘horizontally.’ In reality, some of Bach’s chords are not comfortable. Some are very difficult to capture on the violin. And from Gould I learned to think this through differently, I learned to hear every voice at every moment.
That’s hard to say. A lot of things. I guess it would be my background in Bach. I’m the guy’s biggest fan ever. I have so much respect for him as a composer. Bach is the King. And there is no way to make what he wrote better. You could make it worse though. We wanted to make it different. We wanted the listener to hear love and respect come through every track.
I’m pretty eclectic — pretty moody I guess. I listen to a lot of jazz. Monk. Miles Davis. I have 3 copies of Kind of Blue in case one gets scratched. I think I’m somewhat stuck in the 1970s right now — listening to a lot of Doors and Pink Floyd. Really now, you have to be in a certain mood to listen to a classical symphony….
Check larastjohn.com for more information about her music and tour schedule.