Culture & Criticism From the Far Distant Realms
Susan Lacy, the creator and executive producer of PBS’ acclaimed American Masters series from Channel Thirteen/WNET New York, has produced many films over a career that has spanned nearly 30 years.
In the course of creating American Masters (famous for documentaries that propel their subjects into new dimensions of reality), Lacy has presented many music-based features (including the acclaimed Martin Scorsese-directed “No Direction Home” which chronicled Bob Dylan’s meteoric ascent to the top of the rock-and-roll world, as well as the sharply nuanced “Lou Reed: Rock and Roll Heart”).
And now, on May 2, AMERICAN MASTERS Atlantic Records: The House That Ahmet Built is slated to premiere on PBS stations throughout the country: This stunning film-record of Ahmet Ertegun, whose Atlantic Records changed the course of popular music by providing a platoon of R&B artists a firm stage from which they could refine their craft and embrace their audience.
In keeping with Lacy’s other work, The House That Ahmet Built is notable for its pacing and for the thread of its narrative – this film that churns forward like some great wheel of wind, throbbing sweet new melodies, sweeping us up in its story until we find a actual pieces of ourselves hidden there.
Well, the idea for the film came about while I was working on a project with Phil Carson at Suns Records. At the time, Carson was producing an album with Ahmet – an album of contemporary musicians doing famous Sun Records hits. For example, Paul McCartney did a great version of “That’s Alright Mama” for that album. And American Masters filmed the recording process and created a documentary based on it. In the process of doing this film on Sun, I got to know Ahmet very well and that’s where the idea for a film on his life and work was born.
As you can imagine, it’s quite a daunting task trying to tell the story of 60 years of music through the story of one man. However, Ertegun has had such an enormous influence on culture and on many different forms of music that we were able to do it. I think what was most impressive about Ahmet was that he both loved and recognized the African American contribution to music, and his work helped these contributions to flourish. People sometimes forget that when Ahmet entered the business there was a lot of racism and prejudice, and what he accomplished at Atlantic helped to combat this. Plus, Ahmet was a hands-on producer, by this I mean that he got into the studio and rolled up his sleeves and made these records with the musicians. And that was unusual for the times. Also, Ahmet had an unerring belief in what he was doing. He had an amazing ear and had the talent to recognize talent in others – which is a rare ability in itself. But more than anything, Ahmet was a true gentlemen in a rough and tumble business. Record people are not known for being gentlemen. But Ahmet had impeccable manners. He treated people with respect. Here was a guy who could have dinner with the Queen one night and go clubbing with Mick Jagger the next. A rare man indeed…
The movie was shot over a period of 4 years, but it actually took about 9 months to produce once all the interviews were done. It took so long to finish the interviews because it was so hard to schedule time with the many working musicians who are featured. Actually, when we launched into the idea, we didn’t have the full budget in hand, yet we were very aware of the fact that we needed to keep going with the interviews. We knew Ahmet’s age was a factor, and we didn’t want to lose the chance to make this movie. Really, this was quite a difficult film to make. It’s not easy to cover this much time and history in two just hours….
I think he was ecstatic about the opportunity to reconnect with his friends and with people he worked with in the past. And I think he was also flattered that American Masters wanted to memorialize his legacy, to create a record of his legacy that future generations could look back on. It’s the ultimate recognition to the value of his work.
I think, again, it comes down to Ahmet’s effort to bring recognition and respect to African American musicians. This should not be understated, as what Ahmet did at Atlantic in this regard helped the work of these R&B players to flourish, and in turn, it forever changed music. I don’t think this will ever be forgotten. Ahmet’s life is a wonderful story: The story of an immigrant who took his love for jazz and the Blues and turned that love into the most important record label in America. His story is about progression, starting with the Blues and ending with Rock and Roll — changing the face of music in the process…
Well, all of these artists grew up on the music of Atlantic Records, on the music that Ertegun helped make. As I said, there were two very distinct lives at Atlantic: One devoted to Blues and one devoted to Rock and Roll. The label changed with the times because it had to change in order to survive. And I think all of these musicians who you mentioned really wanted to be a part of Atlantic and the history of its music. Plus, Atlantic treated artists well. Ertegun had a reputation of treating musicians with respect and not as some commodity to exploit. There was a love of music at Atlantic. And artists who recorded there knew Ahmet would not second-guess them or interfere with their creative vision. Ertegun recognized talent and uniqueness and allowed it to flourish. That’s what brought musicians to Atlantic….
Ben E. King of the Drifters and Solomon Burke are legends in their own right – -singers of amazing depth who possess a command of language and voice and the ability to reach an audience through stage-driven performance. And even though they are often categorized as R&B performers, they cannot be pigeon-holed. Instead, Kingand Burke (like Ertegun himself) are students of song and sound, men compelled by nuances of melody, men driven to give identity and cadence to the secret music that plays on behind the severed walls of the mind. Looking back, it seems that Ertegun gravitated toward these kinds of players: Men who had a firm idea of who they were and what they wanted to say, men who had stage-presence and brimmed with emotion and empathy, who overflowed a sweet mix of sorrow and unquenchable joy. Ben E. King and Solomon Burke are two of the great voices of modern music and they found a home in the studios of Atlantic Records: This holy garden without boundaries where so many music-makers plied their craft. The memories of King and Burke provide great insight into both the rebirth of the blues and the international take-over of rock-and-roll. In addition, their memories grant insight into the immortal legend of Ahmet Ertegun: Music-mogul and maverick iconoclast whose mission was to bring this world the everlasting gift of song.
I still remember that day vividly: I met Ahmet in the lobby of Atlantic Records. He was standing with Jerry Wexler [the famed Atlantic producer], and Jerry introduced us. Without even taking a breath, Ahmet said: “You’re Solomon Burke? You’re signed to Atlantic.” And that was that. It was literally that fast. Imagine what I was thinking: There I was in the lobby surrounded by photographs of the likes of Big Joe Turner and Ray Charles, in the midst of all this history. I just stood in amazement, lost in the thought that I had just become a part of a label where all this ingenious music was being made….
(Laughing) Well, as soon as he did, he asked me – “So what kinda sandwich do you want? Pastrami or corned beef?” Now here I was, a dude from Philadelphia – I knew about cheese-steaks and sausage, but not about corned beef (with big brimming laughter)….So I ordered myself a pastrami sandwich with hot chocolate. Just like that, I was a star on Atlantic Records….You see, things literally happened instantly with Ahmet…
I’m telling you, I left Atlantic that day with a contract and some mayonnaise from my pastrami sandwich on my sleeve (laughing).
Well, Ahmet was very diplomatic and he had the talent to relate to all different kinds of people on their level. He was high class. Really, Wexler looked like a school boy, and Ahmet – he looked like the teacher. But Ahmet, man, he really knew music. Jazz. Blues. Gospel. He recognized sounds almost instantly. Wexler could feel the music in his bones, but Ahmet – he knew it on an intellectual level, and he was a true master in the studio. Ahmet and Jerry [Wexler] were a special team and they were able to blend their genius into a special kind of magic. And it comes through those records and through the years: In the final days, that music is still going to be standing….
Oh yes, oh yes…Ahmet didn’t decide to leave us, the angels decided he was going to go to a Rolling Stones concert and then roll on out with them. The angels decided it was time for him to sign some bigger acts and book some far bigger shows. I don’t believe Ahmet’s gone. I think he’s on one of those big-time tours and we have no idea who he’s booking, we just know, like everything he did, that it’s a big deal. I feel that in my heart. If anyone is ever going to find Noah’s Ark, it’s got to be Ahmet – he was that kind of master.
Every moment I ever spent with the guy was fascinating, it was intensely educational. One of our last meetings was in Switzerland, and it was filled with conversation about the music we’d made together, and it was filled with a lot of laughter. Ahmet had an impeccable personality and an impeccable memory and an impeccable sense of humor, he had a knack for making you laugh. And he was a natural storyteller – told me stories about myself that I didn’t even know (roaring with laughter). He was a one-of-a-kind man, and no one is ever going to imitate him, or duplicate him, or replace him. This was a man whose presence said: ‘I am who I am and I believe in what I believe.’ I mean, you have to respect that…
With Ahmet – there was no color barrier and no language barrier. He believed only in the music and the artist. He didn’t care what color you were as long as you had the talent to make meaningful music. If you had the talent –and away we go! Ahmet was a rare man who could look you dead in the eye and tell you what was going to work and what was not going to work. And you believed him. Simple as that.
He was happy! He was happy at home and that reflected in the rest of his life. Also, as I said – he was a guy who told it like it was, he was happy to make that final decision and then stick to it. That’s something that demands respect. I always thought that if Ahmet had had a son born in his exact image, there would have still been something different about the kid. Ahmet was that unique.
I was part of the story and of the time – I was there when the label and the music were both developing, and I wanted to be able to help tell the story. Atlantic had a unique vision, mixing different markets, bringing the music to the people and the people to the music. So much great music; for a time, we thought it was never going to stop. Turn on the radio in those days, and it was all about Atlantic Records. Think about it now, and it brings your memory into clear focus…
Him….You see, Ahmet was the impact. Everything that came about came about because of him. His history. His background. His heritage. His joy. His love. His life. Just him. Let’s take the show to heaven now, and keep those shows cool – please…. (Poignant laughter)
His vision will always live on within me. It comes down to something he said to me once after I gave him a record of mine to preview. He said – “Keep on keeping on…” And how those few words inspired me! He was telling me – you can make it if you really try. He was saying, don’t give up on yourself – ever! He was saying, you can make it if you want it…
What can you say about the man that would not be incredible? He had such an incredible way of looking at life. He never blinked. He never said I’m different. Instead, he said –‘I’m me. Accept me for me.’ He never blinked and he never stopped thinking. Instead, he made action and movement a part of his thinking. He’s an act you just can’t follow. All you can do — trace the years with tears and joy…
Sounds good! We’ll see of us old men are thinking alike (laughter)
My first meeting with Ahmet was back in 1958, at the Atlantic Studios. I was part of the second formation of the Drifters. Immediately, Ahmet made sure we all felt comfortable. He was obviously aware that we were five guys from Harlem who really didn’t know anything about the big leagues of the recording industry. Ahmet seemed to realize that as a band we had a huge responsibility in taking over for the original Drifters, and he had empathy for us — he understood that what were about to do was going to be difficult. Really, looking back, it was as if he was adopting all of us, he made us feel that secure.
Really John, it has. I knew Ahmet for almost 50 years, and we developed a deep friendship. He cared for me not only as an artist, but also as a person. He helped me on both creative and personal levels, and losing him is really a hard thing to talk about, a hard thing to explain. The best I can do is to compare it to losing a close family member. (long pause): In the past on many occasions I told my wife and kids that, if anything ever happened to me, the first person they should call was Ahmet. I trusted him not only in business, but with my family as well.
I last saw him at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2006. Actually, Ahmet had invited me there to perform. I remember we were sitting together one day, talking, and Kid Rock appeared and approached Ahmet. First off, Ahmet introduced Kid Rock to me and it was hilarious to hear him try to describe my music to Rock. But that was Ahmet in a nutshell: The guy would never leave you to be a stranger to anyone.
I think we lost someone who really cared about the music – the music that was created in the past and the music that is being created in the present. He was a true creative genius who had an understanding of blues and jazz and R&B – really, there are not too many men around like that. Now days, producers are in it only for the money and not for the music. It’s a totally different world now…
Really, when you meet somebody you know in your heart if they’re legitimate and sincere. As for me, I decided to watch and observe him and I believed in what I saw and decided to tread water with him. More than anything, Ahmet lived up to his promises – and beyond. He was very open and very real; plus, he was not shy about telling you what was right with your sound and what was wrong with it. He was the kind of guy you could do business with — and right after, sit down and have a ham sandwich with him. He was real and honest, and that’s why I loved him…
The way he cared for me as a person. As I grew up and grew older and learned more about the business, I learned that he really did care for me a lot. For example, one day I was at Atlantic and I was approached by two guys who said they were going to manage me. I was stunned, because I didn’t know who these men were. After a time, these two fellows went into Ahmet’s office. They stayed awhile, and then left without saying another word to me. When they left I went to speak with Ahmet and I told him what these guys had said. He shook his head no: ‘Those guys are not right for you Ben E.’ You see, he was always looking out for me and my best interests. I knew I was in good hands after that, and that little exchange cemented our friendship forever.
He had the ability to see things through. Whatever he came to be involved with, he would see it through – from start to finish. And he had a total love and respect for American music, whatever color it was: You could be purple, or black, or red, or blue — and that didn’t matter to him. He was only interested in your talent and seeing what you could do together. He taught me to respect music and he taught me the business, but really what stands out about him is his honesty: His handshake was money in the bank.
See, the old men do think alike!
Well, it wasn’t about saying good-bye to a friend, because he will never leave me. Personally, I wanted to let the world know what he did for me. There would have been no Ben E. King without Ahmet Ertegun. He gave me this life [in music]. And I wanted to participate in this film to let the world know what he did for me and what he meant to me (and to a lot of other musicians just like me)…
“It’s not dark yet. But it’s getting there…”
– Bob Dylan, 1997
Quite simply, this is the best music documentary that has ever been made — a tour de force of image and sound that leaves the fewer paralyzed and spellbound, a graceful and poetic journey into the personal history of a man who embodies the spiritual history of American music during the last century.
No Direction Home premiered on the award-winning AMERICAN MASTERS series on PBS last month. The film was co-produced by Susan Lacy (AMERICAN MASTERS‘ creator and executive producer), in collaboration with Director Martin Scorsese, Jeff Rosen of Grey Water Park, Nigel Sinclair of Spitfire, and Anthony Wall of the BBC’s Arena series.
As documentaries go, what Scorsese has accomplished here is remarkable: by juxtaposing threads of music borne from Bob Dylan’s’ historical 1966 world tour (when he went “electric” and performed songs packaged with rock-and-roll beat) with interviews, we are led through a half-open door and allowed an intimate glimpse into Bob Dylan’s heart and mind.
In short, this production is what Dylan fans have been anticipating for decades. And it surpasses all expectations by leaps and bounds.
In addition to seeing Dylan discuss himself and his work against the context of world history, we witness first-hand the power of his performances in Europe in 1966. And the journey is absolutely incredible. Much of this old footage (shot as Dylan battled with audiences who wanted to hear “Blowin’ In The Wind” and not Jagger-inflected blues) has never been seen before (only rumored to have existed). And it makes for a fresh and truly breathless ride.
Viewers will be kicked in the face as Dylan leads the Hawks through bone-cutting versions of his classic catalog: Catch Dylan’s phraseology as he performs “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Tom’s Thumb’s Blues” — the howl of vowel intersecting consonant, biting through syllables, devouring the rancid essence of the silence.
More than music, this is a picture of poetry being borne, words coming to life, ideas finding their way back to the sacred and holy light (evidenced by Dylan using a road-side sign to build several different poems on the spot and before the camera). More than concerts, these shows were revelatory experiences meant to enlighten and drive the audience to personal introspection — snapshots of an artist in the midst of his process growing by the second through the energy of his listeners.
And in No Direction Home, Scorsese delicately captures it all in the fingertip-whisper of an instant.
What is remarkable about the Scorsese’s work here is that the director is careful to remove himself from the equation; instead of adding layers through the film-maker’s perceptions, he is wise enough to just sit back and let it all unspool across the web-laced eye of the viewer. Obviously, the material is so strong it needs no other “voice” but Bob Dylan’s to carry it. And instead of piling more on, Scorsese only helps to shape the picture through masterful edits and cuts — interspersing song with narrative until the picture finds its full, whole and supple glory.
The high-lights abound: among the many memorable interviews that are conducted for this picture, none stand out more than the comments of Dylan’s long-time producer, Bob Johnston, who says that Dylan’s “got the holy spirit about him” — drawing a quick metaphor to the man’s immense talent as both writer and musician.
Also notable are the segments with Al Kooper (the organ player on “Rolling Stone” who recounts how he came to play for Bob Dylan) and the interviews done with Suze Rotolo (Dylan’s “Ramona”) and Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who speaks to Dylan’s work in the broad context of post-20th century poetics. Finally, the sometimes-pissy-moments in the interviews that were conducted with Joan Baez demonstrate that Dylan was both a lovable and irritating companion who, once he burrowed his way under your skin, became truly impossible to rinse away.
At 3.5 hours running time, there is literally a mountain of music and history to swallow, and viewers will need to look at this material 3 or 4 times to begin to digest it all — rest assured, there’s something new around the twist of every corner.
However, the one constant here is Dylan himself: shy and unassuming, piercing and comical — a reserved and sure-footed poet looking at the world through the lips of a candle. What he sees in the crystal eye of that flame we will hear breathe through every single song he plays.
The Soundtrack for No Direction Home, meanwhile, is a must-have companion to this DVD, and it includes a lot of the music that’s in the movie, albeit in different forms. There are some wonderful treats to savor, indeed: a bare-bones version of “Stuck Inside of Memphis” allows us to see how Dylan was writing at the time, building the words of his songs around the riff, true to the great and spontaneous spirit of Kerouac. Another gem takes the form of a blues-drenched alternate take of “Visions of Johanna” that shows just how many gowns that song has worn in the chambers of Dylan’s mind: a song almost like a human face changing with the changing light of the landscape. In addition, note the kick-ass live performances of “Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” and When The Ship Comes In” (as well as the take of “Tambourine Man” withJack Elliot): these cuts (along with the poignant rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”) capture the voice of an American legend in its infancy. Like all great music (like the concertos that grew from the breathless skin of Bach’s hand, like the blues-cut belly howl of the great John Lee Hooker), each of these moments lives on in the subconscious mind of our history: bridging the vacant divide, shattering musty shackles, living on forever.
Susan Lacy, the creator of PBS’ acclaimed American Masters series on Channel Thirteen/WNET New York (which produced the Scorsese-directed Dylan documentary), spoke to us recently about the role she played in bringing No Direction Home to fruition. Without her guiding hand, it seems unlikely that this lasting portrait of the then-and-now Dylan would have enjoyed such a classy and engrossing frame. Lacy, whose productions are known throughout the world for their depth and resonance, is a living example of how meaningful the television medium can be: After 20 years, her work remains a multi-layered inspiration to hearts and eyes and minds from around the globe.
Well, American Masters goes back almost two decades. We’re entering our 20th season and our 160th film. I first had the idea to do it back in 1984. Actually it was all quite simple. I wanted to create a series that would be based on the giants of 20th-century culture. I wanted to bring their lives and work together under one umbrella. It was a hard sell really. The same question kept cropping up: “Who wants to watch stories about artists?” It’s like it was so hard for some to see that stories about artists can be full of drama – -artists have demons and they always seem to be in processes of overcoming something. You see, American Masters was never about being some “Sunday morning biography show,” but instead, a vital series on many different levels. We started out in 1986, and the critics loved it. And in these last 20 years, we’ve had a great deal of success; for example, we’ve won Emmys in 5 out of the last 6 years. [pauses] American Masters is not about filling television time. Instead, it’s meant to be as textured and layered and nuanced — as interesting — as the people we’re making movies about.
Yes, they are; and I wear quite a lot of hats in the production process. One of my major roles is to make sure we have secured the rights to material and to insure we have access to the things we need. My central motivation is to make first-rate films and be original and inventive in the process. And this can be quite complicated and quite expensive. Many places are competing to do these projects, but they are not always as concerned with attaining the same quality and originality that we are. A lot of my work is centered around giving us access to all the material that we need to be able to create these movies.
I actually have a Masters Degree in American Studies, and I came to PBS shortly after graduate school. I had been living in Rome at the time with my first husband, having just written an article for American Studies Magazine on how television could impact the arts. A short time after it was published, my then-husband and I eventually moved to New York, and I was able to get an interview at Channel Thirteen[WNET New York]. To make a long story short, I got the job and began exploring some arts and performance programming ideas. Soon after, we launched The American Playhouse series [among some other productions]. That was all 26 years ago! As I said, we started the American Masters series in ‘86, and I’ve been working on it ever since…
Well, Jeff Rosen [one of Dylan’s long-time managers and one of the producers for this film] was sitting on a wonderful archive of material, footage from Dylan’s 1960s’ world tours, some really magnificent stuff. In addition, he was doing all of these interviews on his own, trying to capture information about that time from all the people who were there, trying to get it all down while these people were still alive. Yet, even though Jeff had this great archive of material, I don’t think he really thought he had the makings of a film until Bob Dylan agreed to do an interview with him [Rosen]. That tied the threads of the narrative together.
Yes, definitely — I had wanted to make this movie forever, and I think I called Jeff about it once a week for 10 years! I definitely wasn’t the only one who wanted to make the film, and when I actually got the call about doing it, I felt incredibly lucky and privileged — there’s just was so much to say with it. I also really feel fortunate that Scorsese agreed to direct it. He’s just amazing in so many ways, and the film truly took on a life of its own when Marty came aboard.
Certainly not with Dylan – nobody did. But with Marty, yes. Especially during the last six months of production, as the story was coming together. Most viewers don’t realize that directing is a very private experience. The whole process [in the beginning] is about finding your feet and finding the story and making it your own. It’s a very private thing. And directors, including myself [Lacy has written and directed several of the American Masters installments], don’t let anyone in until they’re absolutely ready.
Marty, of course! And the material, it came together in a very natural way. First, there was the immense archive that Jeff had been collecting and compiling which he made available for the film. In the process of editing and shaping it, Marty had specific things he wanted to see. For example, he might say, ‘get me all the music you can find from Hibbing [Minnesota] from the 50s’ — and we would try to get him as much of those kinds of things as we could find. The editing itself took 2 full years to complete. You must realize that the directing process is a decision-making process: every frame is a new decision. And when you have such a wealth of material like we had for “No Direction Home,” it becomes very difficult. You see, the director’s process is the creative process itself.
No, absolutely not. I’ve been told Dylan won’t ever look at this film. He’s more about looking forward, not looking back. But getting back to your question — there were no limits. We wouldn’t allow that. We just don’t work that way. To the contrary, it was very free. There were no limitations or boundaries, and Marty was able to focus completely on the material. [short pause] I guess the only real ‘limit’ we had [to adhere to] was to keep the film to these five specific years [61-66], ending it in 1966 at the point of Dylan’s motorcycle accident. I think that’s probably where Dylan felt comfortable ending it. But in actuality, that was the absolute right decision. Centering the story at this point allowed us to show the tremendous impact Dylan had on the culture [as it was happening].
Marty reached a great arc with the story, certainly. But I don’t think there has ever been as interesting a portrait of an artist in the process of ‘becoming’ as what we were able to accomplish here. Dylan was in a period of white heat creatively, and even though he was making some amazing music, the world seemed to want him to be something more. And he never bargains with that. Not once. In the end, the story becomes a cautionary tale about the artist struggling against his own fame.
The reaction has been fabulous. I don’t think we’ve had one negative review, which is quite amazing. The film really was an ‘event’ — a happening. And we’d never quite experienced anything to that degree before. Remember, there were four different companies promoting pieces of the show [Sony; PBS; Simon and Schuster; and Paramount], so there was a buzz and an awareness to the whole thing. So naturally, you’d think that that kind of attention would spark some cranky negative reaction, but it didn’t happen here.
We have a lot of projects we’re moving forward on. Right now we’re in production on several films — [pieces] on Woody Guthrie, Nat King Cole, the John Wayne/John Ford story, Marilyn Monroe, and a three-hour epic on Andy Warhol. We also have a big film on the Grateful Dead upcoming. And that’s just for next season.
People ask me that question all the time — and I can’t do it! I can’t pick. I’ve done so many wonderful pictures, and I can’t pick from my ‘babies’ that way…
This is the 65 Tour Deluxe Edition of the seminal rock and roll documentary that gave the public its first celluloid glimpse into the music and mystery of Bob Dylan. Without a doubt, Don’t Look Back is one of top two music films ever made (paling only in comparison to Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home, which continues the Dylan story where Don’t Look Back leaves off).
For the second time in the last 40 years, Don’t Look Back is the music release of the year, a film capturing the young Dylan at his finest hour, on the road in Europe circa 1965, performing impeccable acoustic versions of “Tambourine Man,” “Don’t Think Twice” and “To Ramona” (among others).
Don’t Look Back, which intersperses concert footage with “scenes from the road,” is an absolutely riveting display of the young master’s depth, humor and poetic presence, while Pennebaker’s direction remains a thing of utter and striking beauty: Confident in his material, the director just sits back and lets the story unfold before our collective Eye.
As many know, this in-concert-documentary has countless hallmark moments, including one special scene where Dylan is flanked by the shadowy image of a bearded and dark-eyed Allen Ginsberg – a picture symbolic of the way he was able to blend the vision of the Beats with music to create a sparkling new wheel of poetry.
And even though most music fans know the story of how Dylan’s evolution into rock and roll changed the cultural landscape, this cinematic masterpiece now known as 65 Tour Deluxe is very much a vital new work of art.
Here, Pennebaker (in collaboration with Docurama) has taken the spectacular advances in digital transfer and applied them to Dylan’s whirlwind tour of 1960s Europe. The result is a picture that resonates with depth and clarity, as many of those once hazy hand-held shots have been sharpened and honed to bring out every edge of Dylan’s magnificent stage presence.
Yes, many of us have seen this footage tens of times, but that does not detract from the way the digitization makes it all seem so fresh and original again – crystalline and cool, colored with infinite contour, allowing us to peer into the essence of the mirror and find this series of heretofore undiscovered layers.
In addition, viewers are allowed into the Pennebaker vaults and given a whole new film to savor: Bob Dylan 65 Revisited (the companion disc) offers another look at the young Dylan, as we embark on this fascinating journey into the director’s out-takes, many never-before-seen snippets of footage painting a picture of the film behind the film. Suddenly, we come to see that the idea for Don’t Look Back was borne in a Dylan gig: Born here in the spur of the moment in the blood-dirty rawness of song, born here in the sweetness of breath flowing like poetry off the torn tips of the tongue.
65 Tour Deluxe is a real treat for long-time Dylan fans who will be able to re-connect with a piece of music history that forever changed the way the world perceived the role of the songwriter in relation to popular culture. This particular release features insightful and incisive commentary from Pennebaker himself, as well as comment from Dylan’s former road manager, Bob Neuwirth (in addition to several more pristine and uncut live performances from the tour).
Although Don’t Look Back has deep meaning for Dylan freaks and sixties flower children, this movie will also have broad appeal to rock and roll fans of all ages: Along with Elvis and the Beatles’ invasion of America, this was a defining musical moment. And as Dylan’s vocal comes to be juxtaposed with the director’s ‘blow-by-blow’ review of the film-record he so artfully created, we come to taste each and every reason why Don’t Look Back remains atop so many top-five lists.
A lot of people are pissed off at the news that Bob Dylan’s new album (the widely bootlegged Gaslight Tape which reportedly features an early version of the classic “Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”) is being sold through Starbucks coffee stores instead of in the general market place.
Opponents to this decision decry Dylan as a sellout because he’s chosen what they think is an overtly Capitalist venue in which to sell his record. Personally, I don’t buy the argument. In the poet’s own words, “the times they are a-changing.” And so is the way an artist has to market himself.
In times past, folks would wait with bated breath for a band’s new record to hit the bins. We were addicted to the romance of it all: the jacket art; the liner notes; the complimentary concert posters that came with so many albums. But no more now.
Today, kids aren’t going into record stores the same way previous generations did. Instead, they huddle together in coffee shops like Starbucks and use these cafes as sanctuaries in which to hear music, buy music, share stories, and talk among themselves. Like it or not, Starbucks are the cornerstones of the new urban community – and they are here to stay.
I mean, take a firm look around: Go to the movies or the baseball game, and Starbucks is there. As are Coke and Pepsi and Nike. And so many other corporate giants. These entities are simply a part of our culture now and there is no escaping it.
Actually, Dylan’s smart enough to see this. He’s actually opened his eyes to the fact that you have to bring the music pools to the places where the people gather. And in 2005, that place is Starbucks. Truthfully, how many other artists — if they had the commercial juice to pull it off — wouldn’t try to cut a similar deal?
Finally, it’s time to let the false nostalgia go. It’s not 1965 anymore, and too many of this man’s old fans have become necromancers feeding off the idea of what they think his songs mean in much the same way that parasites feed off living walls of flesh. It’s one thing to admire a poet’s work and find personal meaning in his vision. It’s quite another thing to believe that your standards and beliefs co-mingle with his.
The fact of the matter is that Dylan owns his songs. He owns the mind that made them. And he’s free to circulate them where he wants to in any form he chooses. So, if hearing Bob Dylan’s bare-boned growl inside a Starbucks offends you so deeply, well – you’re perfectly free not to buy coffee there.
Recently, Mickey Jones, who played drums for Bob Dylan during Dylan’s famous 1966 world-tour, said something in his own “home-movie” of that tour that profoundly defines the reason why people buy records and go to concerts.
In sum, Jones said that people don’t listen to music – they experience it. And that experience of sound is just what Van Morrison’s first-ever DVD, Live at Montreux, is all about.
According to the DVD’s distributor, Eagle Rock, Morrison hand-picked these performances from his vast catalog of work, ostensibly because they transcend the confines of human time and allow for a brand-new generation of listeners to experience the power of his early and middle-period work (in the same way so many small congregations of eyes and ears experienced these songs as he sang them from the holy altars of the stage in the half-lit darkness of some still-born hour).
Live at Montreux provides an absolute record of how energetic and vital those early Van Morrison shows were. As the DVD shows, here was a guy driven by the same passions that drove Elvis and James Brown and Little Richard – these men driven by the invisible rhythms of the music, these men driven by the need to talk to their audiences through the ghostly spirit-voice of an indefinable Muse.
From the first strains of “Wavelength” (track one of disk one recorded July 10, 1980) we become part of a magnificent ride. In “Wavelength,” Morrison is able to unite himself with his audience in a spiritual pursuit: The simple idea of the song is to inspire us to communicate via the ‘wavelength’ of dream-mind and memory, inspiring us to communicate through the breathless echo of song and melody, inspiring us to communicate with the living and the dead through the transparent magic of music.
Basically, this is the same kind of journey we go on when we sit and read one of Shakespeare’s plays or one of Blake’s “Songs of Innocence.” Simply, even though Blake’s been dead for hundreds of years, his poems endure, bringing the power to place us outside the sacred window of time: Suddenly, we are riding with the poet now riding with him breath-for-breath though the dark skeleton kingdoms of his heartbeat, tasting the very same images he tasted as he sent each chain of words burning down the blank-brows of the page.
In essence, this process is about the cycle of light coming full circle, enveloping sky and wind, devouring river and storm in a single spasm of reflex. Now, as we watch Morrison play (almost playing to himself in front of the mirrors of an invisible crowd), we have been invited into his secret world where clear-crystal strands of words catch fire and burn into great new ash-piles of song.
Via this perspective, pieces like “Kingdom Hall,” “Moondance,” and “Wild Night” are much more than tokens of nostalgia twisted by the tear-stained passage of too many years. To the contrary, these songs serve as testaments to the life of a man whose only mission was to enlighten a generation with his gift – the gift of being able to perfectly marry the essence of a poem to some swelling Blues-arrangement that could us fill us with rapture (as we prayed for the song to just swirl on forever and swallow us up).
Yet, as great as the literary content of these pieces are, the fact that we are watching one of the great living Rhythm and Blues singers in the relative infancy of his career should not be lost. Disk two (recorded June 30, 1974) truly spotlights Morrison’s voice, his ability to take a song and kill it and then strangle the melody right back to life before our eyes has never been more stunning than in this rendition of “Naked in the Jungle” (a little-known classic that marks the unbelievable range of both the singer and poet who is Van Morrison).
These mentions, however, serve only as random highlights – the brilliant surprises coming in rapid succession. For example, the recitation of “Tupelo Honey” features magnificent keyboard work from veteran Jeff Labes and some spine-chilling saxophone bleats from Pee Wee Ellis, while “Troubadours” blooms into the whole heart of a poem: This holy moment now captured on film as musician cues band with a single nuanced glance, this holy moment capturing Morrison in half-trance, bending at the waist, shooting arrows at the moon with the broken altars of his eyes.
In the end, Live at Montreux will thrill long-time fans who finally get that pristine Van video for which they have been searching. In addition, younger fans get a chance to see first-hand why so many continue to hold Morrison in such reverence. Going back to “Wavelength,” we see him now: Bare-naked on stage, heart the shape of a new-born flower, heart the shape of a perfect open wound, crying out to God, beckoning the stars for a cup of food.
For music fans, going to the Montreux Jazz Festival is like a pilgrimage to see the Pope – this stage where seminal acts have gathered for over 40 years in a grand ritual of entertainment and art. In 1978, a kick-ass jazz-fusion band from Georgia called the Dixie Dregs descended on the legendary Montreux stage and presented the audience with a blended sound that they hadn’t heard before. The Dregs (formed by Steve Morse and Andy West) are known as a band that, simply, cannot be classified. Instead, their particular sound is branded in original tones that build through a delicate amalgamation of jazz and rock and classical (framed around mid-South bluegrass). Unique and pure, the Dixie’s style paints a living definition to the idea of fusion. This DVD, just released by Eagle Rock, offers a brilliant film-record of a band that is often forgotten when fans think of ‘classic’ players. However, the pieces collected here serve as a permanent reminder that the Dixie Dregs, fueled by those unrelenting guitar lines that rise off the gnarled branches of Morse’s fingers, were cutting through virgin territory: More than anything, the Dixies are about braiding textures and tones into supple new melodies as we come to see how one distinct thread of style can segue into another (jazz-cool into rock-and-roll thump) in a seamless transition. In Live at Montreux, we are able to taste and touch and feel the best of the band’s ‘stage face,’ as songs like “Patchwork,” “The Bash” and “Kathreen” capture some truly gorgeous moments in a lasting testament to the cutting-edge genius of this band. In addition, Allan Sloan’s violin work stuns us: At once, Sloan’s sound is ethereal, depthless and haunting, the tear-swept tear-whispered echo of his instrument as enormous as the beauty of the Montreux experience itself.
Foreigner was one of the quintessential muscle bands of the 1980s – together with Journey, Foreigner set the standard for the era’s power-rock movement. In retrospect, the band’s layered crash of guitar against drum helped to return top-forty from disco back to its Haley-Holly roots (updating Spector’s famed ‘wall of sound’ in the process). Alive and Rockin’ finally gives us a film-record of both the depth and energy that continues to make Foreigner such a draw across the world. Simply, anybody who was high school in the early 80s likely danced to a Mick Jones/Kelly Hansen piece, devoured by the unbridled power of the band’s melody line that always took a song to its furthest point – driving the audience to delirium, refusing to let go until everyone had fallen limp and breathless. Indeed, Alive and Rockin’ shows the world just how accomplished a band Foreigner is; this particular concert, recorded in Germany in 2006, hits the ground running and doesn’t stop until the final strains of the final piece. Featured cuts include a tremendous version of “Head Games” (dueling guitars and impassioned vocals challenge all comers and shows that 30 years into the game Foreigner is still a force to be reckoned with) and a murky diesel-stained “Hot Blooded” (with Hansen’s voice rising through the memories of our collective youth). In addition, interview segments with Jones, Hansen and drummer Jason Bonham serve to fill in the historical gaps between songs, painting a lasting picture of a band whose music has stood the test of time to take its final place in the pantheon of rock and roll.
This DVD just released by Eagle Vision showcases the huge talent of Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry, while simultaneously furthering the legend of Bob Dylan. Here, Ferry is as bold as he has ever been – using a collection of Dylan covers as the subject matter for a full-length DVD.
Simply, this is a stunning and surprising work that will hold the attention of the most ardent Dylan fans. In Dylanesque Live, Ferry does the unthinkable – he actually makes some of Dylan’s most classic and penetrating pieces sound new, infusing them with a hot vibrant energy that captivates both heart and ear.
Sadly, the idiom of the music-video is typically premised on giving the audience what it wants (usually limited versions of classic top-forty pieces) rather than in cutting across unplowed territory.
And that’s just where this DVD separates itself from the rest of pack: Ferry has taken some of Dylan’s most enigmatic and personal works and made them his own by attacking these pieces at their cores – wringing the words in between the fists of his lips until the poetry reappears in long shiny spools. Moreover, because this is a film-record, we are have the chance to actually witness the process unfold before our collective eye.
Dylanesque Live includes some riveting performances of some truly great songs. Listeners will immediate gravitate to the thump and grind of “Tom Thumb’s Blues” as Ferry decapitates the lines at the vowels, drawing blood from their musty blackened hearts. In addition, his version of “The Times They Are A-Changin’” is nuanced in its waltz-like melody, the back-up singers filling in the empty spaces between the bridges, building a cool and breathless ‘wall of sound’ (similar to The Byrds cover of “Times” which didn’t come close to the stark razor-sharp power of this recording).
However, the centerpiece of the film blossoms in Ferry’s performance of “Simple Twist of Fate” (from Dylan’s 1975 album Blood on the Tracks). Ferry’s “Twist of Fate” is faster than Dylan’s and serves to capture the chaos in the heart of the narrator who struggles to find a love gone away. Here, Ferry’s vision as a singer is completely revealed – each breathless mouthful of words creating the face of another ghost in the mirrored mind of the listener.
Finally, the band that’s been assembled for these sessions is flawless – with Colin Good’s piano and Oliver Thomson’s guitar stealing the show. Also note the incredible ‘Dyalnesque’ harmonica lines by Ferry and the backing vocals by Anna McDonald, Me’sha Bryan, Sarah Brown and Tara McDonald (Doo-Wop cut with back-alley growl fusing together into a single elegant swatch of cloth).
Interspersed throughout the film are interesting interview segments with Ferry, who explains what forces drove him to attempt the near-impossible – painting a clear new perspective of one of the most mysterious and varied artists of the last century.
Basically, I think the greatest praise one could give this DVD is to say that Bob Dylan, himself, would likely find many of these performances interesting and worthy of a long and dedicated look. What more, then, is there left to add?
Tina Turner is the true Queen of Soul, and in the 1980s, she had such a string of hits that she literally owned the airwaves. In this long awaited compilation featuring 18 cuts, Turner’s strongest work is revisited – the music bristling with passion as the steamy rhythms recollect the best of the MTV era. In addition, two new tracks are included among the time-tested hits (“It Would Be A Crime” and “I’m Ready”). These songs reflect a depth and a true maturity of voice that will captivate the listener, testifying to the fact that even thoughQueen Tina has aged, she has not lost the vitality that drove her great stage shows. To remind us just how scintillating Tina can be on stage, four in-concert recordings serve as the centerpiece of the package – with the gentle hushed pensive “I Can’t Stand The Rain” (from Amsterdam in 1996) and the nasty shuffle of “Addicted to Love (from London in 1986) compelling repeated spins. Also notable here are the studio cuts that made Tina Turner an international hero (“Proud Mary,” “Better Be Good To Me,” “Private Dancer” and “What’s Love Got To Do With It”) are as good a body of work as any female vocalist created during the era. Basically, for any Greatest Hits collection to matter it must truly capture the flavor and sound of a singer, collecting seminal pieces and then weaving them together in a way that tells us why the artist is worth a ‘second look.’ And that’s just what Tina! manages to accomplish – this snapshot of the inimitable Tina Turner at her most vibrant and glorious.
Tina Turner fans will delight in this video-chronicle which documents the diva’s rise to international stardom. Here, we witness in real time each of Turner’s inimitable vocal styles (the raging wolverine, the solitary blues wailer, the sensual midnight crooner) in a concert for the ages. At the height of her ascent (in the 80s) Turner could amaze even the most calloused of critics – it was all in the way she jumped from raunchy blues to restrained whisper in the course of the same 4 minute song. Yes, set against the blankness of 1980s copy-cat rock, a Tina Turner performance brimmed with soul, captivating audiences both young and old alike. This particular concert was taped in Rio de Janeiro in 1988 at the apex of Turner mania – and viewers will immediately come to see that the uproar that accompanied those shows was truly warranted. Rio 88 captures most of the hits from her 80s’ catalog – these riveting snapshots of a band and singer standing naked in their prime. Versions of “Help” and “We Don’t Need Another Hero” spotlight a band that defines the essence of R&B. Note Jack Bruno’s drum work and James Ralston on guitar (astride the impeccable Deric Dyer on Saxophone) – the ensemble driving Turner’s heels across the many mirrors of the stage. Many will naturally salivate at the raucous version of “Proud Mary,” but in many ways it’s Turner’s elegant delivery on “I Can’t Stand the Rain” that steals the show, evincing the fact that for several decades Tina Turner was truly one of the most versatile and evocative singers to ever dance down the lost lands of the American frontier.
John Lennon was the heart and soul of the Beatles. Simply, it was Lennon’s vision that guided the band and gave it true depth. In this latest installment of MVD’s Rare and Unseen collection, fans are allowed an intimate glimpse into one of rock’s true heavyweights. Through an assemblage of archival film footage, videos, newsreels and private photographs, we are allowed to view Lennon outside the idea of ‘the band’ – looking at him here not as a ‘Beatle’ but as an artist who was on a personal mission to enlighten the eyes and ears of the world. For Lennon, art had a simple and singular purpose – to teach people that it is perfectly fine to be yourself and speak through the individualized heart-sound of your own song. And that’s just what you’ll see in Rare and Unseen: Lennon in the midst of all his faces, caught in both public and private moments, awash in the music, walking to the cadence of his own perfect melody. More than anything else, this film is notable because it forces the audience to recognize Lennon not as a member of the Fab Four, but instead, as an artist whose voice transcended the narrow confines of rock and pop: Dancing down this ethereal tightrope with the ghosts of long-dead poets, creating for the holy sake of creation.
I first discovered the music of the Beatles some 30 years ago, during my childhood, while growing up in Cuernavaca (central Mexico).
When I first heard the high-arcing sound that typifies the Beatles best moments, it stopped me dead in my tracks – it was like discovering a bright new world of alternatives, the sweet sounds of this new language (which I did not even understand at the time) opened up infinite possibilities, taking me to untold places where I could escape the pain of my own tiny world.
Looking back, I remember that I could not wait for my older brother to leave the house so I could play his records over and over again (you see, I was his little sister and I was forbidden to touch his records). Yet, as soon as he left the house for work, my time to “create” along side John and Paul and George and Ringo was only beginning.
Even though I did not know a scant word of English, I would nonetheless follow the lyrics with precise urgency, following the poignant prongs of John’s mercurial voice. As I closed my eyes, my imagination sprouted wings and flew off – flying to new places, meeting new people, escaping my own stagnate reality.
Like so many other kids across the grand expanse of this universe, the Beatles taught me that there are indeed many ways to express one’s self – with music the universal language that allows us to come together as people and share our own creations.
Obviously, Chris Cowey’s video has brought back a lot of personal memories for me (while presenting long-time fans with scads of never-before-seen footage).
Here Cowey (with producer Paul Clark) present an “unofficial” record of the most influential rock band of all time. Through an array of home movies, personal pictures and recently unearthed film clips, Cowey rebuilds the timeline and gives us the complete “history” of the Beatles in a new and thought-provoking form.
For those of us who were there at the beginning, the real ‘find’ here is footage of the Beatles performing in Liverpool in 1962. This is reportedly the earliest known clip of the band and it catches the Fab-Four on center-stage, grinding the holy energies of the moment into a brand new song.
Also notable is an interview with rocker Phil Collins. The Collins interview is unique because it puts the singer in the place of “fan” instead of “star” – the viewer able to see how the Beatles’ sound influenced a generation of players from across the globe. In addition, commentary from former roadie Tony Bramwell and press secretary Tony Barrow (1962-1968) give the film its depth and body, recreating the timeline and filling us in on the behind-the-scenes stories.
However, viewers should also expect to get some deep insight into John Lennon from Rare and Unseen. As noted, the film gives a complete history of the band, and viewers will no doubt be challenged to review the factors that led to the Fab-Four’s dissolution.
As time has passed, it has become mod for most of us to peg Yoko as the “outsider” who tore John from Paul; yet, in reality (and as Cowey’s film shows), John was pulled away from the Beatles by himself. Simply, his work with the band had concluded and it was time for him to spread his wings and independently discover his own artistic self (or, as Lennon himself is heard saying on screen in a French TV interview: “I am not saying anything, I am just living my life…”).
Above all else, this film teaches us that the Beatles were never trying to make any statement or be the “greatest rock-and-roll band” in the world. Instead, they were only trying to “live their lives” and make music – because that was their calling. Basically, Lennon was telling us that it is only each person’s essence that counts – the ultimate idea to express yourself in everything you do with every breath you take.
Accordingly, the Beatles initiated the beginning of my own self-discovery, helping me to accept myself, giving me the guts to say “it is OK to be the who that I am.” And as Rare and Unseen proves, beyond all those great songs and all those historical concerts, this remains the Beatles’ true legacy.
Feli Mercado, who was born in Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico, is a freelance writer versed in food, travel and the arts; she now resides in Northern California.
This box is a major event in music: 206 Beatles songs growing out of the band’s original 13 albums (stitched together with an assortment of outtakes) have been repackaged – these completely re-mastered tracks that update the band’s sound and give it a suppleness and depth that was technologically impossible in the 1960s. The project, which took seven years to realize, was completed at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios in London by a cadre of meticulous engineers who obviously have a true sense of the Fab Four’s vision. Accordingly, The Beatles Box brings us back in time to the birth of the British Invasion, reuniting us with the essence of McCartney and Lennon. From “Help!” to “Rubber Soul,” from “Sergeant Pepper” to Revolver,” this collection of albums implores us to hear the blood in the thirsty lines of the voices, imploring us to see each melody sparkle and throb and shine. Above all else, The Beatles Box is about recognizing the power of four young men whose art changed the way the world perceived itself and its music. Suddenly, as Lennon’s long wail attacks the closed doors of the heart, we realize that we’re taking a magical ride beyond the half-hidden skirts of heaven.
Note: The records are available individually or in this hallmark box set (retailing for $260).
Beatles fans interested in learning more about the enigmatic Lennon should make a beeline to their favorite bookstore and grab this audio by Philip Norman, a noted music writer from London. In John Lennon – The Life, Newman digs through the myth surrounding the iconoclastic rocker, providing us with an indelible portrait of Lennon that comes based in fact rather than presupposition. To this end, Norman interviews both Sir Paul McCartney and Sir George Martin; the two share their thoughts in a stark and candid tone that speaks to Lennon’s immense presence and fragility. However, the real meat of the book is found in Yoko Ono’s comments which frankly describe what Lennon was like as both an artist and a husband. For any music fan interested in knowing just who John Lennon was off-stage, this book proves indispensible.
For a rock musician, there could be no greater offer than being invited to play in Bob Dylan’s touring band; quite simply, the job puts the proverbial ‘cherry on the cake’ while serving as the crowning achievement of any player’s career. And that fairy-tale scenario is just what happened to Winston Watson, a little known drummer who burst upon the national scene after being told to “show up” for a Dylan gig in Kansa City. Amid many a second thought, Watson showed up for that K.C. concert in September 1992 – a decision that resulted in a five-year job in which Watson would travel the world some ten times over, providing the backbeat for the mercurial poet for 400 shows. In this documentary written and directed by Joel Gilbert, Watson narrates the story of just what it’s like to be a part of the Dylan machine, painting a picture of the daily life of a musician who’s working for the most influential performer of our generation. In Tour Diaries, Watson creates a captivating story-line that offers a real glimpse into Dylan’s human side (in addition to shedding more light on his blank business face). For example, one of the most engaging moments in the movie comes when Watson recounts Dylan’s soft words of encouragement – the old bard prodding the gun-shy Watson to just play what he feels. Additionally, the segment in the last chapter of the film wherein Watson tells us how he lost his magical job jabs with stark realism, as viewers experience just how cold and cruel big time stars with big-time egos can be. Of all the music videos I’ve seen over the years, Watson’s story proves particularly riveting – full of energy and wit, drenched in dark harsh honesty. Ultimately, Tour Diaries sets out to teach us something about our heroes. And it does so sincerely and eloquently.
Highly recommended to all Dylan fans for its honesty and for the wealth of new material it presents from the perspective of an ‘insider.’
Bob Dylan’s Jesus Years comprises the singer’s most underappreciated phase, as well as his most inspired – with the three records that grew out of this period (Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot of Love) layered with a half dozen classics that resonate with passion and clarity.
However, back in 1979, when Dylan first unveiled his ‘Christian’ songs and Gospel band, he endured the wrath of both long-time fans and international music critics. Simply, everybody was put-off by the fact their ‘spokesman’ had abandoned writing social pieces in order to pay homage to the ‘King called Christ.’
It is only now, some 3 decades later, that fans are able to look back on this period with some sense of softness and objectivity. And objectively, Dylan put out some damn fine Gospel music during this time (the Jerry Wexler-produced Slow Train Coming rife with smoldering R&B arrangements that seethe like no other Dylan record).
Here, filmmaker Joel Gilbert has written a documentary that sets out to explain Dylan’s motivations, illuminating just how deeply the man was moved by his connection to Christ.
And to accomplish his mission, Gilbert speaks to the very people who were a part of the process; interviews with Wexler, back-up singer Regina McCrary and keyboardist Spooner Oldham serve to paint a vibrant picture of what it was like to work around Dylan in the midst of this vast controversy. The segments with McCrary prove particularly enlightening, as she seems to have connected with Dylan on a deep spiritual level, her comments helping to humanize the poet on myriad levels.
Additionally, Gilbert’s interview with Joel Selvin (veteran Pop Music critic from the San Francisco Chronicle) is a treasure. Back in 1979, when Dylan’s tour hit San Francisco, Selvin savaged him in a column – and the singer was less than pleased. In fact, Dylan was so riled that he actually called Selvin’s house to tell the rock-and-roll reporter that he’d “lost his license to review” his music.
Entertaining and well-paced, Joel Gilbert’s Jesus Years is a worthwhile film that sheds valuable light on a key period in the spiritual growth of one America’s greatest voices. In the end, it educates serious fans and curious by-standers alike.
Augmented by several bonus features, including a photo gallery (spanning the years 1978 through 1981), in addition to a spot on Dylan’s 1978 world tour.
Bob Dylan never ceases to amaze or captivate us, as decades-old segments of his career come to be memorialized on film in sleek and shiny packages. To this end, Dylan 1978-1989 marks a brand new video-glimpse into the poet’s Christian period (and post-Christian period).
To the casual fan, the years 78-89 were a barren farm, since Dylan failed to re-write “Like A Rolling Stone” or discover another “Band.” However, these people have truly missed the point – drunk on nostalgia, unable to accept that artists grow and evolve (evolving beyond their former selves into brand new beings).
And that’s really the point behind this film: It’s about telling a piece of Dylan’s story as he evolved beyond the mask of his early years into the meadows of these “middle” years. And in the midst of this process, he was able to create some truly stunning work – passionate and bloody and raw with emotion, this writer on a quest to remarry the muse of the soul and reconnect with the naked impulse of salvation.
Here, the viewer is offered a deep and introspective look into the period that produced records like “Infidels” and “Shot of Love.” Accordingly, the people who were working beside him at the time (producer Chuck Plotkin; engineer Toby Scott; musician Ira Ingber; masters of rhythm Sly and Robbie; guitarist Mark Howard) discuss the essence of Dylan in relation to the way his studio-work seeks to capture the spontaneity of the moment on record.
Plotkin (who has also worked with Bruce Springsteen) is thoroughly engaging in his interview; listen close and you will learn bits and pieces about the demons that drive Dylan and keep him moving forward…asking questions and pursuing some higher plane of spiritual enlightenment.
Still, the most compelling segment of 1978-1989 comes by-way of Dylan’s own words, as a snippet of an interview that was done with the poet in 1979 sheds light on his deep belief in Christ.
Make no mistake, Bob Dylan’s Christian period wasn’t some passing fancy or whimsical foray into gospel music. To the contrary, these years are as much a part of his artistic self as the trance-like poems “Chimes of Freedom” or “Tambourine Man” – this eloquent shard of his personal history that serious students of music ought not ignore. Running time: 127 minutes.
Van the Man is a musical institution – the Irish poet having risen from the ranks of the unknown into international stardom, this phenomenon based not so much on hype and marketing as on the fact that Van Morrison is the greatest living soul-singer of his era (in addition to being an ingenious writer who’s been able to codify the random-ness of poetry into soft perfect frames of ‘song’). In Under Review (1964-1974), Morrison’s formative years are given a long look in an unauthorized documentary that’s likely to hold both long-time fans and curious listeners spellbound. The film is important because it examines Morrison’s biggest records (Astral Weeks and Moondance) in relation to his evolution as both a writer and singer. Moreover, rather than waxing nostalgic and disregarding all the work that follows these near-perfect albums, the producers instead use them as a vehicle to peer into singer’s penchant for taking risks in quest of personal artistic fulfillment. Accordingly, interviews with the likes of Jim Rothermel (who played in the Caledonia Soul Orchestra) and music writer John Wilde allow the viewer a deep glimpse into the complex consciousness of a performer who is often unjustly jabbed by a media that has mostly missed the point behind Morrison’s ultimate mission – which is to attain some level of spiritual enlightenment via poetry and music. In the end, this film shows us that instead of analyzing him to death, perhaps all that he wants (and all that should happen) is for us to sit back and listen to the sweet songs unfurl. In this respect, Under Review (1964-1974) offers a fine starting point.
Bonus: Live and studio recordings of Morrison classics, including a mesmerizing waltz down the heels of “Madame George.”
The recent release of Dylan’s “Modern Times” has seen a deluge of critical analysis re-proclaiming the reclusive poet as genius, unparalleled in his ability to synthesize the history of American popular song and then personalize it with his unique interpretation and biting lines.
Yet, no musician reaches the peaks of a “Modern Times” without hard traveling down countless roads (stops along the moonlit seaboard, tours through the outer edges of storm-black skies, stops along the muddy shoulder, eyes catching tale of the moon in these tear-sick stains of smoke and rain).
In essence, “Modern Times” is a record about where Dylan’s journey has led him, while the wonderful new DVD, After the Crash, is about the middle years of that journey and all that he encountered. After Dylan’s motorcycle crash in 1966, time seemingly stood still for his fans as they waited for him to come back to a “Blonde on Blonde” sound that would be no more.
Even though Dylan’s aura was not as kinetic in the 70s, his music was still as meaningful – maybe even more meaningful. Accordingly, After The Crash covers the years 1966-1978 and ushers us into the kingdom of one of Bob Dylan’s most introspective, spiritual and creative periods, bringing us face-to-face with the many writers and players who crossed Dylan’s path during this decade.
Crash recounts the story of the period by interspersing footage with interviews to create a film-document of this sometimes forgotten period in the context of Dylan lore. Writers Clinton Heylin and Nigel Williamson provide insightful segments, analyzing the bigger picture of the Dylan myth in relation to the direction that his work went subsequent to the crash.
In addition, some of the many players who supported Dylan (Rob Stoner, Bruce Langhorne, Scarlet Rivera) speak to what is was like working with a guy whose typical method-of-operation was to blow into the studio, lay down the tracks and then blow out again – no spare time for rehearsal or polish. Further, Rob Stoner’s remarks about Phil Ochs bring forth a new perspective on the circumstances surrounding Ochs’ tragic suicide.
However, the centerpiece of the production comes in the segment that features playwright Jacques Levy in his last-ever interview. Levy, who co-wrote much of the “Desire” record with Dylan, is sharp and searching in his comments; in retrospect, Levy is probably the one who helped reconnect Dylan with the depth of imagination that led him to the door of the “Rolling Thunder Revue.”
Dylan and the Stones are notable not only for the mark they have left on Rock and Roll, but also because they are also two of Rock’s most enduring acts: Sustaining the creative flame for nearly 5 decades while touring and making records that continue to move listeners from around the world. In this DVD, the legend of the Rolling Stones is examined byway of their first decade of work (when that classic sharp-sawed R&B slap was being honed into its present state). Through interviews, footage and obscure photographs, viewers come to witness first-hand how the band formed, tasting the undercurrents of madness and motion that have fueled our endless ride. Performance footage includes “Satisfaction,” “The Last Time” and a truly kick-ass version of Holly’s “Not Fade Away’ (which alone is worth the price of the film). Also notable for commentary by Tom Keylock, who traveled with the band as a bodyguard in the 1960s.
Too many times, music compilations will try and fill space with interviews and introductions – endless talk meant to do little more than use up time between the three or so fragmented songs interspersed in between. Not so with East Coast Jazz Shots Volumes 2 & 3, recently released by MVD. These disks are about the music (sans talk!), and they provide a great look back at the East’s influence on Jazz – an astounding glimpse into the players from the Atlantic-side of the country who so heavily influenced the “be-bop” rhythms of Jack Kerouac’s spontaneous prose circa 1956. In essence, Kerouac and many other literary masters were drawn to Jazz because it sought to strike a delicate balance between the intellectual and the emotional – a music of deep breadth and introspection that is able to communicate without a dependency on words. In this respect, the players whose roots are in the Eastern states were pioneers and innovators, and their compositions have come to truly define the meaning of the genre – their sound worming its way into the many distant layers of our flesh, becoming these hallowed parts of our histories and memories. Listeners will be drawn to the Miles Davis Quintet and to Charlie Parker’s “Hothouse” (from Volume 2), in addition to John Coltrane’s “Alabama” (from Volume 3) — among so many other highlights.
Ellington was a genius whose lilt and juke influenced the musical heart-beat of the world. Early Tracks From The Master Of Swing collects 21 of Ellington’s early songs, featuring stirring renditions of “Satin Doll,” “Mood Indigo,” and “Fly Me To The Moon.” For those youngsters who wonder what the era of Swing was all about, this DVD is a college course in-and-of-itself: 80 minutes of music that speaks to a century of history speaking to the life of one of the founding fathers of popular song.
At first glance, the slipcase of this forthcoming DVD will disappoint hard-core Dylan freaks who no doubt will quickly note that there are no Bob Dylan songs included in the production.
However, that sentiment quickly dissolves once you get this one in your player: Even though Bob Dylan is an unauthorized documentary that’s been produced with no input from Dylan or his camp, this film is an exceptional ride that contains heretofore unknown facts about one of the singer-songwriter’s most pivotal and creative periods.
When Dylan took his now famous “Rolling Thunder Revue” on the road in ‘75 he sought to bring the spirit of Jack Kerouac’s spontaneous prose to his fans, preaching from the altars of the rock and roll stage. It was a magnificent tour that wound its way through the silent tongues and tangled gut of the Americas; going on for a year, its likes would never be duplicated.
Bob Dylan begins with a chronicle of this seminal roadshow, taking us on a ride through a half-decade period in the poet’s life which would see him write three records and go on another huge world tour (finally culminating in a complete revision of his religious an artistic focus). The years 75-81 were huge for Dylan, and huge for his fans as well. It’s an alluring era when we witnessed the chameleon Dylan transform himself time and again in search of a door to the sweet purity of self-expression and self-knowledge.
Gilbert’s Bob Dylan is a bold undertaking, and viewers will immediately be struck by how much new information they get here. Framed around interviews with so many of the supporting figures from Dylan’s late 70s work, the film is jump-started by its ability to give us the ‘stories behind the songs.’
Interviews with former boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter are sweeping and intense, as Carter himself paints a vivid picture of the introspective Dylan who came to visit him in prison and then wrote a 10 minute epic about the wrong-way road of Carter’s murder trial and subsequent imprisonment. Carter speaks of a Dylan who had gone directly back to his 1960s’ roots to write a topical song about the black experience– a song that he hoped might somehow help to free a man who was obviously wrongly accused. To hear Rubin Carter speak of Dylan in these personal and human terms is truly startling, and even passing fans will sit enthralled.
In addition, Rob Stoner, who played bass for Dylan on a couple of legendary tours, tells of how the “Street Legal” and “Desire” albums were recorded, also sharing behind-the-scenes details of how the 1978 tour of Japan unfolded. Stoner’s eloquent monologues fill in major holes in the Dylan story, broadening our understanding of what the singer was going through when he embraced Christianity with such passionate fervor. Although these are highlights of the DVD, they are only the tip of the iceberg. Other nuggets include interviews with Jack Elliott and the genius-producer Jerry Wexler, along with inside looks at both Rundown Studios and Muscle Shoals Studio.
With a running time of 4 hours, this DVD is a majestic and very telling look at the creative process of a musician who has both fascinated and mystified us since he took New York by storm in 1962. And in a way, it’s almost better that Dylan and his music are missing from the production: As strange as it sounds, I think it makes the narrative stronger to allow the key “side-players” from the period to build this compelling story that records the steps of a man on an artistic and personal journey to find God in the beauty of his multi-dimensional muse.
CLASSIC RHYTHM AND BLUES. Volume 3. Hosted by Ben Sidran. Produced by Kim Lyon and Gary Peet. Music Video Distributors. This one leaps off the screen with kick-ass R&B from the best of the genre. Pieces like Baby Doo Caston’s “Low Down Dog” and John Lee Hooker’s razor-honed “Boom Boom” are augmented by Sidran’s analysis, these comments create living time-capsules of song and artist and serve to illuminate the greatness behind the music. Good sound. And well formatted design, with artist biographies offered as a special feature. Would make a nice addition to any Blues collectors shelf. Running time: 50 minutes.
BOB DYLAN. WORLD TOURS. THROUGH THE CAMERA OF BARRY FEINSTEIN. 1966-1974. Directed and Produced By Joel Gilbert. Music Video Distributors. Feinstein had rock journalism’s most prized house seat during Bob Dylan’s world tours in both 1966 and 1974 (when the singer returned to the stage after an 8 year hiatus from performing). Here, Dylan’s most talked about stage shows are chronicled through the electric eye of Feinstein’s camera, startling images that capture the musician in mid-growl, center of the ascent, ascending from the icy porches of Hibbing, Minnesota into the world’s greater consciousness. Sexy and haunting, with discussion from drummer Mickey Jones (1966) that serves to narrate the first-ever rock and roll ‘super tour.’ Running time: two hours.
JOHNNY GUITAR WATSON: MUSIC HALL IN CONCERT. Gerd F. Schulze, Executive Producer. Music Video Distributors. This cat’s influence on R&B guitar drips down through the work of Van Morrison, Mike Campbell (Petty’s Heartbreakers) and Eric Clapton — a player of richness and nuance whose style would often be imitated, yet never copied. Here, we have an hour of his best stage work, with great renditions of “Gangster Of Love” and “Mother For Ya” that will rock the house down in a naked swirl of bloody-hot-passion. Kids who like the blues but don’t know of Watson’s high-ranking place should be introduced to Music Hall In Concert: this natural out-growth of the idiom’s layered history. Running time: One hour.
“…how long/can you/hate yourself/for the weakness/you conceal?”
– Bob Dylan, “When He Returns”
“…keep me/set apart/from all/the plans/they do pursue…”
– Bob Dylan, “I Believe In You”
When Bob Dylan “went religious” in 1979, many of his fans were lost, incredulous — rabid with ire; I imagine in their minds they just couldn’t understand how the media-proclaimed prophet of the 60s could abandon them. Yet, because of their own naked prejudices, they missed some of the most passionate, bare-boned music Dylan has ever made.
In Gotta Serve Somebody, director Michael Borofsky presents us with a documentary about this controversial and enthralling segment of Bob Dylan’s storied career. Basically, Serve Somebody documents the making of the 2003 Columbia Records album “Gotta Serve Somebody,” a record which stitched together some of the greatest Gospel voices of our time (Shirley Caesar; Dottie Peoples; Rance Allen; The Fairfield Four) doing vintage interpretations of Dylan’s oft-disregarded Gospel catalog.
However, as this video affirms, there is a reason this record was nominated for a Grammy a couple of seasons ago. And that reason is simple: This is beautiful and timeless music which strikes at the cores of psyche and soul like a triumphant hammer. Simply, this is the music from which legends and poets and seers are brewed.
Borofsky begins his film in stunning form, juxtaposing Arlethia Lindsey’s poignant rendering of “Dylan’s classic “Every Grain Of Sand” with a live performance of Dylan reciting “When He Returns.” This in-concert snapshot was taken in Toronto in 1980 (during one of the “Gospel Tours”); and as the video unfolds, we bear witness to an unforgettable moment. The moving frames capture Dylan at the piano. There, frozen bare at the core, mouthing the words to a hymn to the Christ — a chilling performance that reigns perfect in every single way.
Hit the rewind button and listen again: Dylan’s vocal freezes us, cutting to the bone, chilling and haunting, cutting with the holy vengeance of knives. At once, the listener feels great pangs of hunger and tastes blood on the edge of a memory. At once, the listener folds into the mouths of the words as they crystallize in time and conjure images of the moon as She descends the mountain to weep:
“The iron hand
It ain’t no match
For the iron rod,
The strongest wall
Will crumble and fall
To a mighty God.
For all those
Who have eyes
And all those
Who have ears
It is only He
Who can reduce
Me to tears…”
– Bob Dylan, “When He Returns”
Gotta Serve Somebody would be worth the price of admission for this live Dylan performance alone. Yet, rest assured, there’s much more here to devour your consciousness and your imagination.
As noted, the movie’s mission is to show the motives and motivations that brought these varied artists together to pay homage to a pair of Dylan’s most ignored records (1979’s “Slow Train Coming” and 1980’s “Saved”). Borofsky intersperses artist interviews with studio performances in order to show the passion of the moment, chronicling the hours and minutes that gave birth to the music.
By all means, this is a brave project, as many of Dylan’s long-time fans still aren’t interested in a period they regard as a wayward bump in the great poet’s road. However, the people who were there with Dylan (former band members Jim Keltner, Fred Tackett, Spooner Oldham and Regina McCrary, in addition to producer Jerry Wexler and journalists Paul Williams and Alan Light) staunchly defend his sincerity and focus.
And as each of them speak out, their observations pierce with a perfect allure, serving to humanize a mysterious and reclusive artist whose very being has been driven by the motion of the mind. When I hear McCrary talk of the concerts she did along side Dylan in the early 80s, I taste the archetype of a man who was born only to think and search, this holy exploration into altars and crosses, this journey to define the eye and tongue of the self.
Gotta Serve Somebody swells and bulges with great music. How does one pick centerpieces? No review could ignore Dottie People’s riveting version of “I Believe In You”– a moment is frozen in camera time as a single eye sits alone in a church, trembling in its dawn-lit pew where an angel at the altar talks to God. And then there’s Rance Allen in the studio doing his version of “When He Returns:” this cut is pure organ-driven gospel – a melody meant to move the congregation from its collective chair and steal away old apathy, a song attacking each of the five senses simultaneously (the lines overflowing in the righteous vigor of the light). Finally, The Chicago Mass Choir’s rendition of “Pressing On” (led by Dylan’s former back-up singer Regina McCrary who stops singing momentarily to candidly speak of how the loss of her child forged a deep undying faith) will make you want to cry: McCrary’s vocal teems and soars, her bloody and brazen belief in the aura of the Christ pushing these crystal storms of music to invisible pinnacles -suddenly, it becomes impossible to question a piece of art this multi-dimesional and confessional and pure.
Aside from being about great ‘Gospel’ songs, Gotta Serve Somebody comes to collect a sheaf of great poems which speak to a journey isolated in time, speaking to a quest for Christ amid the personal challenges of being a rock-n-roll star. In short, this film serves as a beautiful testament to the growth of a seminal American artist, and it will no doubt be remembered as an important component to Dylan’s vast body of work.
At first glance, this might seem like an odd pairing – the saucy Latin rhythms of Cuba intermixed with time-honored classical melodies that resonate bright as the face of any sun. Odd? Perhaps – but this oddity really does work. In sum, the Best of Classic Meets Cuba is a vibrant and absolutely daring record that steps out to make the classical idiom universal by flavoring it with the spice of a percussion-driven culture. The idea for Classic Meets Cuba goes back to 2005, merging the work of the classically-trained Klazz Brothers from Germany (concert pianist Tobias Forster, his brother, bassist Killian Forster, and drummer Tim Hahn) with two of the best percussionists on the Havana landscape – master timbales wizard Alexis Herrera Estevez and conguero Elio Rodrigez Luis. Immediately, listeners will be captivated by the chemistry of this ‘marriage’ as the Klazz Brothers classical line melts effortlessly into the rhythmic beat created by Herrera- Estevez and Rodrigez-Luis. The result is a layered melody that pits the best of old-world classic against the sexy and sultry rhythm of Cuba – this elegant dance-beat swirling and writhing, attacking the 5 sides of the senses. Best cuts include “Carmen Cubana” and “Air” (a cut previously featured in the Tom Cruise/Jamie Foxx movie Collateral) and a brand-spanking new version of Mozart’s “Là ci darem la mano” from Don Giovanni which serves as the true personification of this completely original musical union.
Aside from Springsteen, it’s hard to find a rocker with more unbridled energy than George Thorogood and his band of destroyers. Here, fans will be able to bask in Thorogood’s return to the Capitol/EMI label – this record featuring six new studio cuts along with six of his tried-and true classics. In essence, this album is about resurrecting the sacred marriage between blues and rock – Thorogood’s signature guitar sharpening the edges of the presentation into his own definition of symphony. Along the way, Thorogood and the Destroyers cover the greats of the idiom, with pieces made famous by Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Chuck Berry showing just how far this band has come in the last 30 years. “The Dirty Dozen” is jump-started by a thumping version of Dixon’s “Tail Dragger” – the raw emotion of the band driving the cut to black-and-blue heights as we wander the edge of the precipice in step with the ultimate guitar monster. In addition, Muddy Water’s “Born Lover,” Bo Diddley’s “Let Me Pass” and Chuck Berry’s “Hello Little Girl” provide an introspective journey into the of heart of rock-n-roll blues that sired Thorogood and his band. In the end, “The Dirty Dozen” brings us the best in rock and blues both past and present, pushing us to forever lose our souls in the dark swollen waves of its tapestry
As a critic, the biggest challenge to writing any column or review comes in pegging just why a certain book or record is worthy of your reader’s time: What makes this project so special? Just what makes it worth the audience’s money? Just what differentiates this work from the thousands of others hitting the shelves this week?
Bach In Havana, due for release next month from Tiempo Libre, is one of the easiest projects I’ve had to assess in a long while. And the reason why is easy to peg.
For music to be meaningful for me, it has to reek of guts and imagination, the artist stepping out of his comfort zone in order to take a chance at amazing his audience (and himself along the way).
Personally, I look for risk takers who push the boundaries – expanding the stale idea of consciousness, challenging us to see our world with clear and present eyes.
And that’s just what you get with Bach In Havana.
Here, Tiempo Libre, a Miami-based Latin Jazz group noted for their supple rhythms and layered energy, shed the tried and true and take a big risk on making a big statement. The task? – to infuse the crystalline sheen of Bach’s canon with the spontaneous Afro-Cuban rhythms of their native sound.
On Bach In Havana, listeners are greeted with a record of bold nuance and sweet originality, as Tiempo Libre comes to marry the best riffs of the Cuban-Jazz scene with the shape of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “classical” vision.
And the results are utterly stunning.
We begin with a slow exploration into “Tu Conga Bach” (inspired by C Minor Fugue, The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I) – the piece rising on sweet wings of rhythm, this perfect marriage of instruments that seeks a spiritual union with the listener (as we are called to ascend these golden ladders of melody into heaven).
Another highpoint is found in “Air On A G-String” (from Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major, BWV 964, ll.Fuga-Allegro). This cut, done in the form of a bolero, glistens with passion as Paquito d’Rivera’s alto saxophone dominates the intersecting lines.
Finally, “Minuet in G” (Guaguanco) is a melodic feast for the senses that embodies the soul of the record – Yosvany Terry’s delicate saxophone stabbing and lilting, dancing circles around both the conscious and the subconscious minds.
Sip up the nectar of this record and it becomes apparent that you are not so much being entertained as you are embarking on a great journey: Here, beside a collection of virtuoso musicians as they ford myriad styles and multiple influences to put their own personal stamp on the history of music.
In sum, Bach In Havana is a record that will inspire repeat performances as it sends you back in time to revisit your own cultural roots.
What we hear in the work of most innovative rock and roll piano players – in finger-whipped passages by pianists Ray Manzarek (The Doors) and Roy Bittan (E Street Band) – is owed in part to the great legacy of Art Tatum.
Tatum’s life is indeed one of those mirrored points of history from which jazz merges with swing and swing with rock: This perfect osmosiswhere-by sound becomes a living part of the atmosphere.
On Live at The Shrine, Tatum’s genius comes to full boil as we are presented with one of his virtuoso performances, the full range of Tatum’s magic collected on this brand new CD from Zenph Studios (an imprint of Sony BMG).
On At The Shrine, 13 classic Tatum pieces are featured in two distinct forms, the lilt and grace of Tatum’s vision bursting into being, paralyzing dark paths of time; and suddenly, nothing else exists save the magic of song (graduating into the permanent grandeur of Eternity).
In At The Shrine, Sony and Zenph did the unthinkable and re-recorded Tatum’s 1949 concert at this famed Los Angeles, Californiaauditorium. More precisely, engineers placed a piano at the same spot on stage where Tatum sat when he first performed these pieces and re-recorded the songs on modern equipment in front of a live audience – affording the audience the chance to be the musician and hear the very strains of sound that Tatum heard as his fingers danced down the infinite spine of his instrument.
“There are 13 songs on the record, and they actually appear on the disc twice,” notes John Q. Walker, President of North Carolina’s Zenph Studios. “The first 13 tracks were recorded from an expected perspective in front of the piano – what you’re hearing is what the audience would have heard [on the night of Tatum’s concert]. And then, the 13 tracks are presented again, this time recorded in binaural [a recording technique where 2 microphones are placed in a dummy head, at the exact spot where Tatum’s own head would have been positioned]. Now, if you listen to these second 13 tracks through headphones, you get a sense of ‘being inside Tatum’s head’ as he plays – with the piano laid out in front of you, bass to the left, treble to the right….”
As you listen to this magical record that marries a piece of the past to our modern era, you are indeed hearing a transcendental performance – songs without names without histories are being created in the moment before our eyes (as we sit in witness to an artist at the zenith of his powers).
Listen to the sweet prance of finger over ivory; and listen to the birth of Jazz into as yet unknown idioms: This great amalgamation of styles and genres this great testament to the ever-evolving history of music (as this record affirms, the piano starts here).
If you are even mildly interested in the work of Art Tatum and his place in the pantheon of modern song, then you should track down this CD and spend some long hours in its company.
Going beyond nostalgia far beyond the idea of paying homage to a great player, Live at The Shrine will open doors to how you listen to music in the future. Quite simply, this is the kind of gift that does not come along every day.
New Sinatra is always a story. In this compilation from EMI/Capitol, the amazing contributions Frank Sinatra made to film are recognized in a single CD meant to memorialize the singer’s amazing depth and limitless range.
Amid the stony passage of time, it easy to forget just how many classic movies featured Sinatra’s silky-cool voice and all-encompassing presence (but as this record reminds us, in his day, there was no one bigger than Ol’ Mr. Blue Eyes).
Sinatra At The Movies includes title themes from The Tender Trap, FromHere To Eternity, Young At Heart, Three Coins In The Fountain andNot As A Stranger, as well as “Chicago” and “All The Way” from The Joker Is Wild, “I Could Write A Book” and “The Lady Is A Tramp” fromPal Joey, “How Deep Is The Ocean” and “All Of Me” from Meet Danny Wilson, in addition to “To Love And Be Loved” from Some Came Running.
Sinatra, who won appeared in 58 films and took home 10 Grammies, was known for the way his voice moved, literally wrapping its tentacles around the throat of song and sucking every drop of breath from it (before he suddenly resuscitated the lines and brought them humming back to life, infusing each syllable with warm pearls of blood until they melted into our skin).
And in songs like “All of Me,” the crooner is actually making himself the song, giving his audience pieces of himself through the rabid passion of sound through the holy wonder of music.
Accordingly, this record stands as a true testament to the film-history of an American icon – deep and sultry and passionate, every song synonymous with the shimmering soul of the inimitable Sinatra himself.
Ricky Nelson was a true ‘teen idol’ whose presence on the sublime 1950s’ “Ozzie and Harriet Show” made him an international heart-throb.
However, Nelson was much more than a young actor playing an adolescent. Instead, he was also a musician and singer of great power whose romantic ballads came to define the melancholy innocence of a generation caught between the specter of war and the volatility of the burgeoning free speech and hippie movements.
Think back: Viewers old enough to remember the “Ozzie and Harriet Show” will also likely recall the way each episode ended: Ricky Nelson at the microphone performing a song with impeccable cadence and Sinatra-like charm. It’s a memory most of us savor with great purpose, since it captures a moment in time when the country had hope and its children still believed that compassion could conquer all enemies.
Accordingly, Nelson’s Greatest Love Songs brings us back to those very days, this record serving as a compilation of the Teen Idol’s most enduring songs (featuring renditions of classics like “Hello Mary Lou,” “Dream Lover,” “Unchained Melody” and “Poor Little Fool”). All-in-all, there are 22 cuts here, and 14 of them cracked the top-20 (not an easy feat in any era but especially noteworthy given that this was smack-dab during the golden age of Elvis).
Yet, listeners should not be misled into thinking that this is some nostalgia trip or another stroll down memory lane.
To the contrary, Greatest Love Songs restates the genius of Ricky Nelson by-way of his own spirit, offering this original perspective on one of the seminal voices of folk-rock – with Ricky’s trembling half-whisper memorializing the bittersweet irony of his last trek through “Lonesome Town” (as you will now recall, Nelson died in a plane crash on New Year’s Eve, 1985, while en route to play a show in Dallas, Texas).
In the realms of the recording industry, soundtrack releases seldom cause a big splash or are viewed as ‘events’. However, Lucky You, on Columbia Records, is a stunning exception to the rule, as it features no less than two classics by a couple of veteran masters whose voices will echo in your head like the sweet refrain of the wind.
Lucky You, directed by Curtis Hanson and starring Drew Barrymore and Robert Duvall, is a film about high dollars gambling and the ghosts that drive card players like Huck Cheever (the film’s protagonist).
The music that frames the skin of this film has been carefully picked to accentuate the spirit and consciousness of Cheever, filling in the vacant lines between the dialogue, fleshing out the characters and then building them into actual faces (into the embodiment of spirit and soul).
Many of the songs collected here will be familiar to fans, as “Springsteen’s “Lucky Town” and “The Fever” and George Jones’ “Choices” provide punch and verve, helping the audience to answer the question that is likely on many minds – just what makes a guy want to gamble away his cash like that?
In addition, the brand new Kris Kristofferson recording, “They Ain’t Got ‘Em All” finds the Nashville crooner in top form, his voice salty and introspective, cutting through deep consciousness – this singer who stands naked before us in passionate command of his craft. The record would certainly be worth its sticker price for this piece alone (even if track 12 didn’t exist).
But make no mistake –it’s “Huck’s Tune,” written by Bob Dylan for this film, that is the album’s centerpiece, standing alone asand one of the finest melodies and most brilliant vocal performances Dylan has featured in the last decade.
Simply, “Huck’s Tune” is a stunning achievement – both musically and for its poetry, a song that captures the ache and the essence of growing old, a song that captures the taste of time as it unravels into landscapes and secret lives re-formed into long sweet new memory pools.
In “Huck’s Tune,” Dylan’s voice encases the music as tight as a glove and refuses to let go, compelling us to live through the characters on screen, driving us to put ourselves in Huck’s skin as we answer our own question — just what makes a guy take to this kinda life anyway?
Dylan’s delivery on this piece is reminiscent of the way Johnny Cash used to sing in the latter days of his career – sometimes breathless, sometimes searching, the poet at the edge of himself and the stage, looking for answers in human words, looking for answers that just might not exist at the invisible throes of this threshold:
“The game’s gotten old
The deck’s gone cold
I’m gonna have to
Put you down
– Bob Dylan, “Huck’s Tune”
This package of CDs, just released by Sony/BMG Music Entertainment, serves as the third installment in the widely-acclaimed Red Seal Living Stereoseries — and it may just be the best piece of the puzzle yet.
Basically, these albums have nourished decades of classical fans, since they in fact compile the finest classical records that ever were spun into wax and blasted from a stereo. Moreover, this series does the unthinkable, taking sounds and concertos and symphonies we already know and adore and reviving them into fresh and clean new epics — old pieces suddenly come alive to resonate with original breath, swallowed up in the sweet candlelight of so many unknown discoveries.
Who would have thought this possible 20 years ago?
Make no mistake, this magic ride is the product of superior technology that has allowed the original tapes to be remastered and digitally “restored” into bright and all-encompassing walls of sound (this unique technique of restoration encourages the listener to assume the engineer’s chair, witnessing the music come out of each separate ‘channel’ just as it was heard in the booth when the original tracks were laid down).
There’s no disputing that Sony’s technique of digitalization has set the bar for the industry (look no further than what they did with Bob Dylan’s oft-ignored 1978 classic, “Street Legal”). However, this series is truly something special, blending many different centuries together into a seamless symphony of concerts that is chilling to behold.
As you might guess, highlights abound, and the records that standout will differ based on a listener’s personal tastes and biases. In terms of general critical comment, all are impeccable: statements of art of the highest order, preserved in accordance with the highest musical standards of the era, worthy of endless ovations.
Personal favorites from our end begin with HI-FI FIEDLER. This record memorializes some stunning performances by Arthur Fiedler conducting the Boston Pops Orchestra – the versions of Rimsky Korsakov’s Le Coq d’Or Suite and Rossini’s William Tell Overture will nail you to your chair and keep you there, trembling in anticipation of more music. The experience is simply that rich.
Also notable is BEETHOVEN (Symphony No. 5; Symphony No. 6, “Pastoral”), with Charles Munch conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra . This record is new to the Living Stereo series and the way the tracks have been remastered renders it a haunting effort — brimming with delicate energy, mournful pure evocative, exploding through the senses like the silver knives of stars.
Finally, MAHLER: Symphony No. 4 (with Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; featuring soprano Lisa Della Casa) is a tour de force — a powerful and uplifting storm of sound and poetry and muscular beauty that has the ability to seal closed old wounds and paint away the pain in scenes of velvet. Even if the rest of the records were throw-aways (believe me, they are NOT!), this album alone would justify purchasing the package — a marvel, born dark with wonder, melding the strains of a thousand years of music into a single perfect symphony.
Classical fans will simply be intoxicated by these records, by their sacred freshness, by the way each note resonates with bloody urgency – drunk on the moment, devouring time and space and the vacant mirrors of the distance.
For the true classical music fan, nothing can be better than the experience of hearing a piece of music that pummels you drunk with joy. And multiple listenings of the RCA Red Seal Series will only re-enforce this feeling, now, as the last feeble strands of echo rise into the wake of the moment, rising into the gorgeous naked moonlight hooves of the dawn.
RACHMANINOFF: Piano Concerto No. 3; PROKOFIEV: Piano Concerto No. 3 – Van Cliburn featured on piano, with Kiril Kondrashin conducting the Symphony of the Air & Walter Hendl conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. BRAHMS: Violin Concerto;TCHAIKOVSKY: Violin Concerto – Jascha Heifetz, violin, with Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. FRANCK: Symphony in D Minor; STRAVINSKY: Pétrouchka – Pierre Monteux conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra & Boston Symphony Orchestra (with Bernard Zighera on piano). STRAUSS: Scenes from Elektra and Salome – Inge Borkh, soprano; Paul Schoeffler, baritone; Frances Yeend, soprano, with Fritz Reiner conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra & Chicago Lyric Opera Chorus. CHOPIN: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2 – Arthur Rubinstein, piano, with Stanslaw Skrowaczewski conducting the New Symphony Orchestra of London & Alfred Wallenstein conducting Symphony of the Air. STOKOWSKI Rhapsodies – Leopold Stokowski conducting the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra & the Symphony of the Air. ANNA MOFFO: Opera Arias – Tullio Serafin conducting the Rome Opera Orchestra.
February 2006 saw the release of 10 additional titles as part of RCA’s unparalleled “Red Seal Living Stereo”series, taking up where last year’s stunning effort left off (see the above featured review for specific references to the mission of this historical series of recordings).
Basically, what makesRed Seal so resonant and so sweetly haunting is the way the digitized restoration has enriched the sound of these albums and left them to leap — bouncing from one wall to the other, surrounding the listener in the heart-beat-echoes of holy hands; simply, these are among the finest records of the classical genre ever to be made.
Remastered by lead engineer John Newton, each of these CDs thrives, foaming a true clarity of focus, foaming deep purpose and a certainty of vision. And each of these Cds: Cracking through the layers of human consciousness like some vibrant animal claw – at once commanding the complete attention of God, at once bringing breath back to the ancient strains of imagination.
Multiple listening will only re-enforce the magic: These records comprise music for the ages — the depth of passion and desire which rise from these pieces will leave you awe struck and on the verge of tears. Simply, when the first poets contemplated the ethereal potions of music, they were only imagining these very records that were still centuries away from conception.
And multiple listenings will only re-enforce the magic: Every man in every lost corner of the world is blessed to have access to the Red Seal masterpieces.
BEETHOVEN PIANO SONATAS: Moonlight. Pathétique. Appassionata. Les Adieux. Featuring Arthur Rubinstein.
MENDELSSOHN Symphony No. 4: Italian. Symphony No. 5: Reformation. Boston Symphony Orchestra. (Charles Munch).
BERLIOZ Symphonie Fantastique: Love Scene from Romeo & Juliet. Boston Symphony Orchestra. (Charles Munch).
VIRGIL FOXENCORES: Featuring Boyce’s Ye Sweet Retreat and Schumann’s Canon in B Minor.
In Have We Told You All You’d Thought To Know (a live concert performance by the late poet Robert Creeley, backed by musicians Chris Massey, Steve Swallow, David Cast and David Torn), the poet is presented to us in sparse and ephemeral tones – at once captured in the transcendent noise of these graceful jazz players.
Here, we find Creeley (who died unexpectedly earlier this year) in the guise of mythical creature, an icon of our time, holy chronicler of the times we only hear about in fairy tales.
Listen to the opening lines of the first track:
What’s heart to say/as days pass,/what’s a mind to know/after all?
Creeley’s voice – now a reptilian womb bright yearning wheel of desperation. And it glides leathery and warm, guiding the long ribs of music, high and then again low, guiding the piece to its snake-charmed conclusion.
You see, this is the secret place where every poet lives, here amid the writhing violins, among the wandering lines of bass clarinet , here lost in the spattering rain of the hi-hat – immersed in angel’s blood and searching for God.
Separate voice from words now and catch the real rhythm: The music, now torn into storms, hammers driving nails, nail us to a silent cross. You can hear the actual transformation take place in the rolling waves of Jazz, this great restrained control, as Creeley lassoes the rhythm of our breath, directing it toward his own private destination.
Now catch the loping rhythms again, the way the poet comes to grasp the reins, tight at first, then suddenly loosening the slack. And they dance like children in the snow until the master suddenly tightens the chain again, eyes carefully guiding the road, bringing it all back home.
Have we told you all you’d thought to know?
Creeley asks us.
Is where you are enough for all to share?
But he doesn’t answer.
Instead, he leaves us alone within this brief moment of transcendence, one last holy glimpse through the soot-covered window of the poet. In the end, it’s a nice warm place in which to sleep.
It seems every label these days has a World Music line – if nothing else, the idea’s in vogue, 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 scocial 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.
What a find this record is!
Many listeners tend to identify Putumayo with the music of Africa and Asia, since the label has released so many stunning albums steeped in the vibrant music of these cultures.
Celtic music, however, is seldom identified as world music – most probably because of the migration of so many English bands to the States. In this day and age , the Irish and English sound is often seen as an extension of the Americas (so many seem to think that when The Beatles came over the Atlantic they bought their whole countryside to us).
An interesting thought, indeed. Hardly accurate though. In truth, the Irish sound is rich and unique, autonomous as the Blues. And Celtic Crossroads demonstrates this in vast and glowing terms — presenting the history, evolution and magnificent breadth of this music.
Celtic marks the first record of Irish-inflected music that Putumayo has put out in seven years. And it’s a real winner. This CD compiles a collection of traditional Irish mood pieces that have been souped-up and polished, merging the fragmented tastes of these cultures into a single body, constructing an emotional album that over-flows in energy.
At first glance, you might question how these eclectic and different voices (Sinéad O’Conner, Michael McGoldrick, Peatbog Faeries, Cara Dillon) could come together to build a cohesive collection. But somehow they do — a perfect and seamless marriage of passion and poignancy and deep vision.
Many cuts standout here. Capercaillie’s “Hoireann O” is a veritable masterpiece: The synchronized rhythm of the band builds around the layered depth of this ancient Gaelic lyric and paints a series of pictures in the mind of listener, every strand of music enveloping the psyche, opening another door, revealing yet another hidden face.
Next up, a modernized version of the classic “Wild Mountain Thyme” by Keltik Elektrik shows how great this piece really is: even with the electric glaze of sound curdled over the wounds of words, it doesn’t lose any of its sweetness — a song that still has the power to send chills down your spine.
Finally, Sinéad O’Conner’s “Her Mantle So Green” displays the versatility of this controversial rocker — a stunning return to the roots of O’Conner’s inspiration, a delicate and sinewy rendition of a ballad meant to paralyze its prey: hearing this song like watching ghosts from some distant past parade through an endless series of mirrors. (Place this beside Emer Kenny’s wistful “Parting Glass” and you will simply shiver, fading into the webs of words that tell hidden sides to your own story).
This record is quite a find. Like the majority of Putumayo’s catalog, it brims with the life of far-way cultures with rich histories: Every run through the CD player offers a contemporary ride through a new and unseen part of the world.
Other standouts previously reviewed include:
Robbie Robertson might have been the leader of The Band. And Garth Hudson might have been the ensemble’s greatest pure musician, but Rick Danko was the group’s living breathing heart – his delicate tear-stained voice and throbbing bass-line building into the band’s signature sound and elevating it to a higher place in the pantheon of rock and roll.
In Live on Breeze Hill, we get the rare opportunity to reintroduce ourselves to Danko and his sweet stage presence as he performs in concert with this great collection of players (including Hudson on keyboards and horn player Bones Malone, from the Letterman Band).
Simply put, this record is a jewel – a hushed and understated classic that recalls the best moments of The Band, recalling the amazing influence that Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash had on this rag-tag mix of musicians that spontaneously created art the way that Jack Kerouac’s eyes spontaneously kneaded the doughy mess of everyday life into poetry.
Here, Danko performs many Band classics, and in doing so, he succeeds in making them his own. The undeniable standout on the record is “Twilight,” and Danko’s performance will cause your soul to well-up with tears – his tongue twisting around the bare syllables of the lines as it pushes the song’s rhythm into the naked force of wind.
Also notable is “It Makes No Difference;” this version is quite different from the one we heard on The Last Waltz – dark and brooding and introspective, gouging away pieces of our hearts and then refilling the open wounds with fresh blood. Additionally, a new arrangement infuses “Sip The Wine” with brilliant relevance, this in-studio recording as beautiful and haunting as anything Danko did during his years playing Robertson’s sideman.
When Danko died just before Christmas in December 1999, it was truly a sad day for the music world, for it had lost one of its great practitioners and original voices. However, Live On Breeze Hill now presents us a rare second chance to reconnect with Danko’s limitless talent, this rare second chance to hear the mournful whisper of a ghost return from his grave and sing us back to sleep.
Of all the acts to follow famous parents, Jakob Dylan has done it right. Shying away from the legacy of his famous father (Bob Dylan), Jakob has instead looked to forge his own road with his own particular brand of pop-rock-soul (distancing himself from the elder Dylan by allowing his own song to bloom in its own private wilderness).
In Seeing Things (expertly produced by Rick Rubin, who also heads Columbia Records), the younger Dylan makes a truly bold move and goes solo – abandoning the Wallflowers with whom he recorded five albums in favor of creating a sparse sound meant to showcase the meaty depth of his writing and voice.
In essence, this record is comprised of a series of mood pieces which are carried by the dark brooding power of Dylan’s vocal (the singer moving away from the layered walls of sound that mark the Wallflowers best performances; the singer now on stage alone dissolving into this thick barren whisper dissolving into these deep mirrors of the self).
“In a band, you usually use the studio as another instrument, whether an ally or an opponent,” Dylan says about Seeing Things. “But this time, it was if there was no studio beyond documenting the songs. I wanted the studio to be invisible, and to have that lack of sound become the sound of the record.”
As much as Jakob Dylan and the Wallflowers have been about straight-ahead rock-and-roll anthems, Seeing Things owes its soul to the legacy of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and the other singer-songwriter solo-acts who followed them.
On this record, I hear the wistful echo of the late John Stewart (who once played with the Kingston Trio before going on to record 40 solo albums). And in this collection, I hear statements of the American landscape: The dour howl of the war-torn shore taking hold of Dylan, driving his voice, driving the naked rhythm of his heart, driving the solitary path of his eyes.
And he writes in the haunting and ever-so-lyrical “War is Kind:”
Like a lost dog
In the unknown
Like an outlaw
At the foot
There are significant masterpieces on Seeing Things, and veteran fans of the Wallflowers will quickly notice Dylan’s trademark imagery (note: “Up On The Mountain”) – the wild blend of surrealism and melody taking hold of the consciousness, swiftly bending around unborn dimensions, lighting the realms of our collective road.
On the record’s true centerpiece, “Something Good This Way Comes,” the poetry of the piece builds into a lush smoky and transparent rhythm – like the Byrds gone acoustic, the flavor of folk-rock mixing with country-pop mixing the wild passion of William Blake’s Songs of Experience.
And on “This End of the Telescope,” the poet’s eye is the topic – his individual mission to look beyond the windows of the world past the mystical light of the conscious mind; and his only mission to peer into the actual heart of eternity.
Seeing Things is a record that deserves serious attention. Going beyond the fact that it is risky and original (just how many guys enjoying the kind of commercial success that Jakob Dylan had with the Wallflowers would chance upsetting the apple cart with a mostly acoustic set?), this album truly has something to say.
Unlike much of the hollow, bubble-gum, copy-cat dance tracks being produced today, Seeing Things has the balls to confront the fear-sick reflection of its own face and then sing in concert with the ghosts who walk these infinite roads called earth.
Billy Joel ends the playfuland fiery rendition of his classic “Piano Man” by bellowing: “Don’t take any shit from anybody!” And this brief moment shows the essence of Joel: An artist who did it his way, compelling his audience by virtue of a catalog of songs built around intricate melodies and emotionally charged lyrics.
In 12 Gardens Live (recorded live a New York’s Madison Square Garden) we are presented with a Billy Joel who is older and wiser and much more comfortable with the power of his songs and their place in the pantheon of American art.
Basically, this record serves as a live ‘greatest hits’ compilation, and it contains a few of everybody’s favorites: Joel banging out the structure of each piece with his signature piano lines, wrapping us in the deep dark grace of the melody, driving us with the holy force of the music.
Aside from Joel’s’ ability to write a ‘hook’ and sing a hit, we have been captivated by him because of his ‘take no shit’ attitude which captured the discontent of youth and then twisted it into poetry.
12 Gardens provides eloquent evidence of this fact, thesememorableperformances of “She’s Always A Woman,” “Big Shot,” “Innocent Man” and “You May Be Right” brimming with the passion of a lifetime behind the piano. In addition, Joel’s “And So It Goes” is poignant and hushed, so sweet and understated, sending shivers careening at full gallop up both sides of the spine.
As far as live CDS go, this one is a keeper, recording the artist in the midst of a lifetime conversation with his audience.
“What they say/Is always true/What you believe/Is up to you…”
– Shana Morrison/Mike Schermer, “Right Or Wrong”
In terms of being an artist (singer, poet, painter, writer), one has to have enough security in the self to step out and make a statement. Your words. Your face. No artifice. No elegant mask.
Ultimately, the artist must ignore how all the editors want him to say it. Instead, the mission remains to be brave and certain enough to stand up naked out on stage. Just you and your heart beating in the cool open air on stage.
That’s Who I Am is Shana Morrison’s third solo album and her most starkly personal — a record of deep and daring introspection that sets in motion this woman on her focused path. Gracefully — almost defiantly — Morrison has shed all past faces and misinformed preconceptions, triumphantly announcing to the ears of the world where her musical heart beats.
After nearly 15 years touring and making records (she began her career as part of Van Morrison’s Soul Revue in 1993 and has never looked back), Shana Morrison has developed into a singer of great purpose and strength and conviction, of amazing subtly and scope (not so much rock-and-roll diva or darkly haunted Blues-wailer or solitary balladeer as she is an amalgamation of each): This poetess who seeks to move her audience towards the core of the divine through the supple shadow and transparent shade of music.
Morrison’s third record reeks of a lifetime of influences, the influences through which she has stretched the thread of her own personal vision. That’s Who I Am comes to us a slow-paced and loping extravaganza of blues-inflected melodies cut with the glorious sacred power of voice -now eerily reminiscent of the great Bessie Smith (deep proud soul-searching, drowning in the sweet dawn-light of spirit and faith. Deep proud soul-searching, theserenegade voices of ageless wonder).
That’s Who I Am foams and froths with some very fine songs, an album marked with the sharp confidence that only long experience behind the microphone brings.
The record draws its title from a line in the 4th cut, “Right or Wrong,” which is also its true centerpiece: Morrison looking back at a face in her life that is part ghost and part palpable skin, looking back at scattered pieces of herself in mirrors past. Through it all, the singer refuses to apologize for the twists in the road that carried to this very place in time – a beautiful poetic testament to the artist and stubborn rebel alive in so many of us.
However, this is hardly the only stop-you-in-your tracks cut; listeners will also gravitate towards the thunderous ass-kicking guitar lines of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” — Morrison and her band (fueled by brilliant interchanges between the Mighty-Mike Schermer and Chris Collins) soup up this traditional hymn with an intense growl with the unbridled and raucous passion of a new generation’s eyes.
Yet, the journeys of self-discovery don’t stop there. Going still further, that soft and sexy waltz of “Wo Wo Wo” showcases both Morrison’s songwriting and her special sensibilities – the striking honesty of the lines dissect the need each human heart has for community and companionship and sweet connection.
Switching gears a bit, “You Don’t Own Me” features the naked-murky swell of the Blues that her band delivers time and again with such energy, forceand precision, while “Jupiter Jones” (a well-known piece for anyone who has seen her perform in concert) cooks and cries with a devilish certainty. Blowing in like a storm, “Jones” is a song about modern woman on the prowl for a husband, and we are invited to follow along as she fades across the musty stage, watching now as her gown blows up into raised hems amid this bluesy swirl of guitar and drumstick.
Many will want to look for the specter of Van Morrison here, and they should refrain from the impulse. The simple truth is – this music is solely about the strides Shana Morrison makes, paying homage to her father’s work in the passing nod she gives to other heavy-weights like Brownie McGhee, John Lee Hooker, Janis Joplin and Lou Reed (artfully mixing the shiny-golden vocal of the young Dolly Parton with strains of Joplin and Smith and some unknown church-house choir at their altar).
In turn, we are struck at the coiled sinew of spine and heart by so much of this record (the Kerouac-minded “More Than I Need” driven by a deep Buddhist perspective that assures all sorrow culminates in the enlightenment of pathway, while Morrison’s raw musky delivery on “Simple” builds into a true ache rhymed in the Blues).
Beyond the singing and songwriting, also noteworthy is Morrison’s band Caledonia: Chris Collins (guitar and keys); Mike Schermer (guitars); Paul Olguin (bass); Joel Griffin (drums) form a tight-cast group whose edgy and cool rhythms punctuate and drive these subtly nuanced grooves of voice to distant peaks and precipitous depths, driving the smoky-hot boot-heel of the melody line, driving the subconscious power of the music to become a living bloodied part of both memory and future.
Incidentally, That’s Who I Am was co-produced by Morrison and Chris Collins, and the duo has managed to capture elements of Caledonia’s in-concert presence in many of the cuts here. Collins (who along with his brothers founded the band Wake) has worked with Morrison for over a decade and consequently knows the shape of her voice very well – always careful to accentuate the electric hum of the melody instead of burying it away in coffins of inaudible noise. A prime example of this comes in the closing number (“Punchline”) which etches the pair’s signature sound: Definite top-forty groove, as supple and layered-hearty as the first breath of the day.
If That’s Who I Am is attuned to say one thing, I think it implores us to disregard old preconceptions, calling us to disregard all those stories of famous mothers and famous fathers and instead find the artist in the songs now forming as perfect and sheer as icicles at the sea-bottoms of our breath.
In the end, this record is about independence in full flower written and produced by a woman at the holy height of her creative impulse. Go on a vast exploration; give it a long chance and savor the tumult of the ride. At the right moment, in the thirsty shapeless electric autumns of night, it might even lead you a step closer to your own naked revelations.
Zade Dirani is a 26-year-old pianist and composer who hails from Jordan. In the past, he has released two commercially successful albums which ascended the Billboard charts and reconnected many fans to the beauty of piano music.
Here, in Beautiful World, we have Zade at his most emboldened: Not only is he setting out to discover new musical paths, he is also simultaneously tearing down dark walls of prejudice, these songs like great statements of peace in which the artist is asking each of his listeners to forsake preconceptions about people and places and look to the inner tranquillity of the self.
Beautiful World is a very important record on both an artistic and social plane, a record based in part on a haunting poem by the late Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani. In the delicate lines of this CD, Zade is on a sacred journey to make music that touches the souls of people, each piece striving for the same ‘alchemy of the senses’ that the great French poet Arthur Rimbaud captured long ago in his quest to find complete and total spiritual liberation.
However, Zade’s mission is even more vital. Being from the Middle East, he is from a divided world which is linked to terrorism — linked to violent acts of terrorism against Americans. Moreover, in Beautiful World, Zade is not merely seeking artistic liberation, but instead, looking to heal the buried scars of ten thousand empty years of hatred:
“This is to be more than just a can’t we all just get along, touch-feely “Kumbaya’ event,” Zade said in an interview with the Boston Herald (January 2006). “We want to create something truly sincere…cultural ambassadors of [our]own countr[ies] and regions.” And he continued, inspired to motivate us to take an interest in our communities and ourselves: “You need to be prepared to talk about your culture, lead discussions and have knowledge of what’s going on in the world…”
The record is rich with high-points: “Comes To An End” presents poignant and mournful as it swirls with an almost holy mercy, evolving like a prayer. “A World In Silence” is performed as if it’s been recorded for all those poor families that lost soldiers in Iraq — a private and soulful meditation of the highest order. “Musician Of The Night” is truly auto-biographical: Zade in stark bare form, revealing his most inner-most core. And “Your Beauty…My Madness” is daring and dark-eyed — Zade inflecting his piano with the flavor of some Spanish guitar-slinger, improvising breath-by-breath as he goes.
Stepping beyond cold political rhetoric, Beautiful World is truly a record about bringing Democracy to the world at large. Burt rather that hang a flag on his car or honk his horn pointlessly, this young man instead laces his fingers between his piano keys and plays: healing the fetid wounds of generations with beautiful new infinite pearls of music.
Until I heard Mike Schermer as part of the Shana Morrison Band, I was personally down on the guitar sound of this new generation. Even though much of what you hear is technically brilliant, it ends up drowning in stale pools of itself – wholly uninspired, typically boring. Consequently, I felt myself going back to acoustic music and that folk sound of yester-year. Less complicated times. Less artificial means. Less artifice. Less bullshit.
But as I said, that was until I heard Mike Schermer playing opposite Chris Collins (founding member of the band Wake) as they backed Shana Morrison at a gig in San Francisco in late 2003. Anybody who doubts that the ‘youth movement” of the new millennium has something to say needs to catch this group, because they can play it all: raunchy blues, slow ballads inflected with gentle Celtic nuance, steamy sensual rockers and techno-pop with the pure under-taste of funk. A sound commanded by Morrison’s masterful ownership of the stage (her lusty vocal, flanked by the simple rhythms of dual guitars, bass and drums, is something beautiful to behold).
This is no frills music drenched in the history of the American road. It’s punchy Hooker blues filtered through the eyes of old-time rock-n-roll — spontaneous & cold-brewed off-the cuff, feeding on the high holy energy of the audience. Which is exactly the same effect Schermer creates with Next Set, his follow-up album to his very fine debut, First Set (see review here).
Next Set will be stereotyped by many as a blues record – -which won’t do it justice at all, because it’s much more than that. Instead, this CD is a great amalgamation of rock and murky soul strains sifted through the neck of Schermer’s guitar – a unique interpretation of that tried and true R&B sound. But in the end, what’s best about the album is it’s freshness– existing in the newness of the moment, uncontrived, conjuring images of the studio circa 1960. This record brings us back to an era when guys just walked into the hall, plugged in, sat down, and played.
Next Set is steeped in high water marks: “Mama Say” is smoky and sexy as it lopes along, a song born in some midnight candle-lit club, just a few pairs of eyes in the audience, just the singer on stage singing to no one in the night. “Big Fine Girl” (with a playful guest vocal by Shana Morrison) displays the subtle tapestry of Schermer’s guitar style — lilting true melodic, framing the lyrics in this invisible light of dawn. “Rediscovered” is one of the centerpieces of the record — a choice riff built around Austin Delone’s piano groove; it just cooks and burns. “Rain Down Tears” (a natural for the FM playlist), features layered guest vocals by Maria Muldaur and Angela Strehli – coarse and biting, a dark deep growling rendition of a classic. Earl King’s “It All Went Down The Drain” benefits from the Roy Head treatment Schermer gives it here — the way the melody comes to echo Head’s 1965 hit “Treat Her Right” is both subtle and pristine, displaying the full range of Mighty-Mike’s original style. Finally, there’s “One Good Reason”: another smoky-anti-standard blues number, very subtle, very understated, this cut bathed in shadow and shade would have been right at home on Dylan’s “Time Out Of Mind” record that took the 1990s by storm.
When all is said and done, and the next chapter of “The Great American Guitar Players” is written, Mike Schermer should be there – front and center. And Next Set proves why. Until he passes your way with the Shana Morrison Band or with the Maria Muldaur tour, you’d be well-served to pick up this CD. Curious music fans will want to give this record a serious listen — so rich and vital, so pure and unrelenting.
JUDEA EDEN. Judea Eden. Judea Eden is well-known on the San Francisco club circuit for her smoky cool vocals and immense range as a singer — she can belt out R&B and rock and roll numbers in one set, and then happily dissolve into country-jazz crooner in the next. A tremendous talent who, to date, has pretty much gone undiscovered (except for those throngs of clubbers who have caught her show over the last decade-plus).
Still, this self-produced record (actually released in 2003) should bring some serious attention to Eden, finally grabbing the ears of radio jockeys looking for some fresh clear alternatives. Like we found in Norah Jones a few years ago, Eden has all the tools – and the creative drive to keep the wheels turning beautiful in motion.
Judea marks a wonderful debut. In truth, the album caught me off guard, because even though it’s self produced, it’s surprisingly polished – in depth and pure-of-spirit, with many different styles coming together to showcase the vocal dimensions of Judea Eden — singer.
The record boasts three veritable hits among its 10 cuts (seven of which are very strong and captivating). Eden is a rhythmic writer (writing the rhythms of the breath into words weaving words into invisible lines of song in-between breaths as she’s breathing). Accordingly, these songs come to be about the self and the search for the soul. Honest. Pure — forsaking maudlin overtones in favor of self-assurance and passion.
As noted, there are three straight-away hits here. The first comes with “All Sexed Up.” This is a testament to woman coming out of her shell and acknowledging hidden tongues of lust and desire. Nasty and dark-stained as it curls around the tongues of the skull and slithers (Eden using at least 3 different vocal maneuvers to tease and caress – and finally capture – her audience).
“Bone Betty” (with sterling rhythm work by Joan Martin on bass and Dawn Richardson on drums) builds a steady rain-driven thunderstorm of a beat — this is garage-influenced funk-rock in the vein of early Pretenders. “Bone Betty” blooms subterranean and sexy — a piece that at once seems as if it was written for the soundtrack of David Chase’s “Sopranos” – a moaning sleek & slick & sticky back-alley blues.
However, the masterpiece of the record is “Something So Familiar.” This original written by Eden in 2002 is stunning. Simply stunning. The chilling vocal climbs down your spine and devours the senses, eating at the deepness of your soul through the eyes. The melodic line is crafted country-rock (so deftly guided by Martin’s bass and Karen Hellyer’s Dobro), some distant kin of Dylan’s “John Wesley Harding,” some far-away cousin to Van Morrison’s “Piper at The Gates of Dawn.” And we bury our bloody skin in the sweet milk of the music: this soothing and loping graceful waltz that features the best Judea Eden’s voice has to offer.
But more than some song on a CD, “Something So Familiar” proves a beautiful demonstration of how just the right assemblage of words striking just the right melody at just the right moment in time can come to take hold of your heart and own you – body and soul:
“Somebody turned the light on
And opened up my eyes
Somebody felt the wind blow
And kiss my soul alive…
I must have dreamed it
A thousand times
Raining Jane is an Los Angeles-based group comprised of four women with eclectic backgrounds. The band (Mai Bloomfield, vocals/cello/guitar; Becky Gebhardt, bass/guitar/sitar; Chaska Potter, guitar and lead vocals; and Mona Tavakoli, drums/vocal/ percussion) is noted all along the LA club circuit for its silky smooth harmonies that blossom into petals and layers and captivate the subconscious mind, the melodies of these songs wrapping themselves around the silent scarves of the skin like some invisible sequin glove.
On this record, Raining Jane breaks out at full throttle, coming to us via a variety of styles that highlight the ebb and flow of these distinct and balanced voices. What I like most about Jane is that this is a ‘chick band’ with brains — the lyrics of the pieces are incisive and nuanced with intellect, going beyond the surface, delving toward the eye of the core.
During their best moments, these four young women are uplifting while still being able to write in stark and practical terms — love and life are not always bright, but instead, remain as part of some greater journey that gives depth of shape to the mysterious road we are each traveling on:
“Cross the double yellow
Exposed I cannot hide
This road is littered with deceit
Let the truth unwind
I found an emptiness within me…
The burden of the lie inside…”
– From “Diamond Lane”
What is immediately apparent to the listener is that Jane seeks to envelop you with the burning rhythm of four independent voices as they’re restitched and woven together into one seamless veil — the songs swelling and rising within the breath of the audience, perfect in cadence, asking us to sing silently along.
Jane touches on many styles here (Blues, Rock, smooth & mirthful Pop), with something on Diamond Lane to meet the expectations of a broad range of listeners. Like the Indigo Girls or mid-period Judy Collins, the strength of the presentation is in the vocals. “Diamond Jane” is an undeniable high point, a moving ballad which features Potter’s song writing — delicate with universal meaning, ethereal in flight. “Birthday Malaise” is absolute in its honesty as it strikes out at a culture that teaches us young pretty women aren’t ever supposed to feel down. However, Jane’s gutsy and assertive enough to write and sing through their self-doubt, looking for answers among the endless questions of mortality and motion and need. Also notable is the naked Blues-Funk-wail of “Come On.” This piece is a sexy and sultry romp, somehow distantly reminiscent of the melody line of Bob Dylan’s “New Pony,” a song driven by the musty depth of Gebhardt’s bass and Tavakoli’s drums. Accordingly, the unabashed hunger of this ride can’t help but bust you from the graves of old doldrums.
However, the centerpiece of the record is the piano-laced “Wyoming Sky” (with its immediate top forty radio potential). God, this is a hell-of-a-beautiful song written and performed by Mai Bloomfield. Bloomfield (who also plays guitar and cello) has an wonderful vocal delivery, breathless and poetic, dissolving bone into bright and sheer diamonds of ice, dissolving skin into the sweetness of unborn blood. Moreover, as deftly as Chaska Potter handles the lead vocals on so many of these cuts, “Wyoming” makes me want to hear more of Mai Bloomfield, it makes me want to hear pieces where the two split the lead vocals on the same song: imagine Potter’s smoky hot sound melding perfectly into the supple curves of Bloomfield’s intricate phrasing, this complete rebirth of the Peter, Paul and Mary magic of the 1960s.
Spin “Wyoming Sky” repeatedly and you’ll come to see the truth plainly: this song is a living testament to the levels this band can bring an audience – so subtle, and then suddenly foaming blind with passion, rising and sinking, cutting soul to the memory of nerve, rising and sinking, ravaging the delicate marbled mountains of the heart in this complex mirror of beauty:
“You can hold your breath…
Tell your stories,
Lies and glories
Under the ashes,
Like Wyoming Sky…”