Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Together Through Life: Shadows and Doors

Release Date: April 28, 2009
After recording three albums with enough depth for countless doctoral dissertations, Bob Dylan's 2009 LP Together Through Life appears a smaller scale effort at first, yet carries more heft almost a decade later. There's a satisfaction in its existential despair, a despair assuaged through earthly joys and staying low when things get out of control. Working with The Grateful Dead's lyricist Robert Hunter on nine of the ten tracks, the locale shifts to the fringes of American civilization. The first verse of "Beyond Here Lies Nothin" captures this spirit:

Oh Well I love you pretty baby
You're the Only Love I've ever known
Just as long as you stay with me
The whole world is my thrown
Beyond Here Lies Nothin'
Nothin' we can call our own

The world may be cruel and meaningless, but love makes it worth saving. 

Together Through Life sounds more contemporary in theme and content than Love and Theft and Modern Times, Dylan's addressing the current state of the nation. Released a few months after the inauguration of President Obama, at the height of the bruising Great Recession, these songs allude to the decline of Middle America, something Dylan witnessed firsthand during his tours through the decades, playing venues most of his status would not play. 

The closing track "It's All Good" revels in gallows humor, hinting at a dormant populism pining not for a savior, but a destroyer:

Big politician telling lies
Restaurant kitchen are full of flies
Don't make a bit of difference, don't see why it should
But it's all right, cause it's all good
It's All Good
It's All Good

A later verse projects visions of cities on the down slide:

People on the country, people on the land
Some of them so sick they can hardly stand
Everybody would move away if they could
It's Hard to Believe, but it's all good
Yeah

Hidden in plain sight by a myopic media and pop culture, the middle of the country is suffering innumerable economic and social ills. The land has always been hard and torn between forging newer, better communities or devolving into conflict, a tension running throughout the Together Through Life.

"Life is Hard" was written for the 2010 film My Own Love Song in which post-Katrina New Orleans plays a peripheral role. "My Wife's Hometown" provides comic relief, but taps into the angry mood cascading the world, "State's gone broke, the county's dry/Don't be lookin' at me with that evil eye." "If you ever Go To Houston" hits the nostalgic sweet spot, a play on Leadbelly's "The Midnight Special" as an aging desperado recalls the Mexican War as he searches for his gal through Texas. "Forgetful Heart" continues the intense woe of "Life is Hard" with one of Dylan's bleakest closing verses:

Forgetful Heart
Like I Walk in Shadow in My Way
All Night Long
I lay awake and listen to the sound of pain
The door has closed thru forever more
If indeed there ever was a door

"Jolene" lightens the mood with a bluesy ride through Beale Street. "This Dream of You" is  a Mexican influenced love song, melancholy and eloquent. "Shake Shake Mama" reverts back to swaggering blues. 

"I Feel a Change Comin' On" is a highlight of Together Through Life. For years I thought Dylan sang his baby was walking with the "village priest," but it's beast! Dylan's vocal performance is top notch, channeling Fats Domino. 

The dystopian tone of Together Through Life stays rooted in the blues, the form Dylan returns to again and again. Carlos Hidalgo and Mike Campbell were a welcome addition to Dylan's studio band, each bringing their musical ingenuity to the album. 




Friday, June 8, 2018

The Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs: Rare and Unreleased 1989-2006

Release Date October 6, 2008
With Tell Tale Signs Bob Dylan released a wealth of material recorded from 1989-2006, one of the most productive periods of his career. 

Disc 1

A stripped down version of "Mississippi" opens the disc, a song first recorded during the Time Out of Mind Sessions. Dylan later gave the song to Sheryl Crow for her 1998 album The Globe Sessions. "Most of the Time" is more upbeat than the "swampy" production that appeared the official release on Oh Mercy. An early version of "Dignity" features Dylan on piano with some early lyrics, my favorite being, "soul of the nation is under the knife." A far more effective song without the snappy production that appeared on Greatest Hits Vol. III. "Someday Baby" is more restrained than the straight blues entry on Modern Times. "Red River Shore" was another outtake from Time Out Of Mind, a Western epic within the folk tradition, that tale of an elusive muse.

Almost under the radar, Dylan wrote many songs for films during this period, even winning an Oscar for "Things Have Changed" from the 2000 movie Wonder Boys. "Tell Ol' Bill" was written for North Country starring Charlize Theron. A smoothed out version of "Born in Time" from his 1990 album Under the Red Sky is another highlight. An alternate version of "Can't Wait" minus the Daniel Lanois production lacks the sense of existential dread of the album version. "Everything is Broken" sounds similar to what appeared on Oh Mercy, only less intense and angry. "Dreamin' of You" was recorded in during the Time Out of Mind period, snippets of the lyrics would appear on "Standing by the Doorway" and "Can't Wait," providing a brief glimpse into Dylan's songwriting process. "Huck's Tune" was another one written for filmmaker Curtis Hanson, in this case the forgettable 2006 film Lucky You. The gospel tinged blues of "Marchin to the City" is a throwback to the Christian era with an updated sound. Disc One ends with a live version of "High Water (for Charley Patton)" displaying Dylan's ability to chisel his songs during the never-ending tour.

Disc 2

Another version of "Mississippi" kicks off the bonus disc in an effective mid tempo performance. "32-30 blues" from the World Gone Wrong sessions pays tribute to Robert Johnson. "Series of Dreams" sounds similar to the version on Bootlegs Vol. 1,2, and 3. "God Knows" also appears, although I wish they had included the stunning live version Bob and his Band performed at Woodstock '94. "Can't Escape From You" is a masterful song (written for a film that was never made) from Modern Times is melancholy and beautiful, more akin to the songs that would appear on Tempest a few years later. Then a finished version of "Dignity," that lacks the urgency of the piano demo on Disc 1. A stirring performance of "Ring Them Bells" from the legendary New York Supper Club shows Nov. 16-17 1993. The murder ballad "Cocaine Blues" was recorded for a 1997 show. A guitar driven version of "Ain't Talkin" made me think the song would be right at home on a Metal album. "The Girl on the Greenbrier Shore" and "Miss the Mississippi" from the Good As I've Been To You illustrate Dylan's re-engagement with folk during the 1990s. A blistering version of "Lonesome Day Blues" follows. A jaunty duet of "The Lonesome River" with bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley is another highlight. "Cross the Green Mountain" was written for the Civil War film Gods and Generals, an era that's long fascinated Dylan. A live performance of "Love Sick" closes the second disc. 

Tell Tale Signs is comprehensive yet at the same time feels like the tip of the iceberg. While it's compelling to hear these songs develop in the studio, as Dylan has said many times, it's in the live performances where they take shape. On a more profound level, the collection places Dylan's evolution in some perspective: culture hero of the 1960s, searching for meaning in the 1970s with obsessions ranging from I Ching to The Late Great Planet Earth, adrift in the 1980s, and, finally, a wistful seeker into the New Millennium. 





Friday, June 1, 2018

Modern Times: The Writing's on the Wall

Release Date: August 29, 2006
Recorded over a few weeks in early 2006, Bob Dylan's Modern Times stands as a worthy follow up to "Love and Theft" from 2001, building and expanding upon the themes of the latter album. Replete with historical references and nods to ancient poets, Dylan also inserted commentary on the 21st Century and where it's going. As the title suggests, Dylan took inspiration from Charlie Chaplin's 1936 film Modern Times, Dylan despairs and revels at life in the 21st Century. 

"Thunder on the Mountain" gets things off to a rousing start, featuring a retro intro that invokes the birth of rock and roll. The first verse heralds the coming of end times, then the second pays tribute Alicia Keys. The final lyrics may be a direct reference to Chaplin's 1918 short A Dog's Life. The attitude, sound, and imagery of "Thunder on the Mountain" suggest an alternate way of looking at the modern world, one for staying sane.  

"Spirit in the Water" is an epic love ballad. An epic tale of unrequited love that's been going on for centuries that's much akin to Dante's Beatrice. Each verse packs a punch that alternates between humor, violence, desire, hope, loss, and melancholia. 

"Rollin and Tumblin" returns to the blues, a tribute to Muddy Waters. "Someday Baby" continues along in the same vein of classic blues. 

"When the Deal Goes Down" and "Beyond the Horizon" are theological laments on mortality, produced in the style of 1930s Cole Porter, foreshadowing Dylan's work in the next decade.  

"Workingman's Blues #2" encapsulates the class struggle, a preoccupation of Dylan's going back the early Woody Guthrie influenced material.The first verse proclaims "the buying power of the proletariat gone down" refers back to old left 1930s politics. Along with "Thunder on the Mountain" there are numerous references to the tragicomic adventures of Chaplin. 

I always find "Nettie Moore" to be the most impenetrable song on Modern Times, perhaps due to Dylan's repetitive delivery. The imagery is bleak, full of regret, betrayal, and tragedy. 

"The Levee's Gonna Break" was recorded with Hurricane Katrina fresh on everyone's mind, another track about a flood and tragedy on a biblical scale in a call back to "High Water" on "Love and Theft", here the tone is less defiant and more resigned to fate. The last lyric, "some people are still sleeping; some people are wide awake" reads like a warning.

"Ain't Talkin" revels in apocalyptic imagery, seemingly a continuation of the motif set up in "Thunder on the Mountain." A spiritual warrior walks through a desolate landscape and reflects on many things and speaking of "practicing a faith long abandoned." The past was glorious, the present is depressing, and the future lays in the balance. 

Although Modern Times lacks the electric swagger of "Love and Theft" and borders on being derivative at times, it contains some of Dylan's best work . "Thunder on the Mountain," "Spirit on the Water," and "Workingman's Blues #2" are all diamonds in his catalog. All ten songs would sustain Dylan's live concerts in the years to come, an impressive feat in itself. 

The old world perspective, feelings of loss and faint hope, and a sense of the mythical American landscape all define Modern Times.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Bob Dylan Live At Carnegie Hall 1963

Released November 15, 2005
In 2005, Columbia Records released a six song EP composed of songs from Dylan's Carnegie Hall concert that took place on October 26, 1963. The year had witnessed Dylan's meteoric rise with the release of the The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and his historic debut at the Newport Folk Festival. "The Times They Are-A-Changin'" opens the disc in a sedate, but earnest, call to arms for the new generation. "Ballad of Hollis Brown" followed; a version that matched the stark intensity that would appear on the LP The Times They Are-A-Changin. Dylan introduced the melancholy "Boots of Spanish Leather" as a song about "settling for less." Next "Lay Down Your Weary Tune", which according to Dylan's official website is the sole live performance. The version here is slower and more meditative than the studio recordings available on the Bootleg Series. It's deeply moving and effective. Then "North Country Blues," a song that paints a portrait of the mining industry's decline in Dylan's hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota. Interestingly, Dylan wrote the song from the perspective of a miner's wife who watches her family come apart after the company decides to close the mine because in South America people "work for almost nothing." An intriguing song to compare with Dylan's 2006 track from Modern Times "Workingman's Blues #2" as a foreshadowing of globalization. The EP concludes on "With God On Our Side." War's always been a fascination with Dylan, in his memoir he credited Von Clauswitz's On War as an influence on his songwriting. Few songs better encapsulated the horror of 20th Century conflict (and the scourge of Cold War propaganda). Overall, a worthwhile record of Dylan performing his early songs as he was finding his voice as an artist.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Bootleg Series Vol. 7: No Direction Home: The Soundtrack

Released August 30, 2005
The Documentary

Martin Scorsese was called into service to edit the documentary that would cover the first 25 years of Dylan's life. No Direction Home is arguably the best documentary made about Dylan and offers an excellent introduction to anyone unfamiliar with his work. Dylan granted over ten hours of interviews with his manager Jeff Rosen, adding compelling commentary to his own life story. Many who knew him in the early days also appear: friends from Minnesota, Suze Rotolo, Dave Von Ronk, Liam Clancy, Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg, and many others. The true magic in No Direction Home is Scorsese's impeccable editing skills. The film begins with footage of Dylan performing in 1966 with the Band at the height of his powers, then shifts back to the early years. The effect builds a suspense and significance to the narrative. Access to Dylan's archive allowed for lots of rare footage never seen by the public.

The Soundtrack

Overall, a worthy addition to the Bootleg Series. Although a few of the tracks had appeared on previous releases (and would appear on future ones), there's a wonderful collection rare recordings and alternate versions. Highlights on the first disk include "When I Got Troubles," one of the earliest Dylan recordings. A live version of Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" is another highlight, with Dylan beginning the performance sounding melancholy, but gradually adding a majesty to each verse. "Dink's Song" is another stirring early performance. An early version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" with Ramblin' Jack Elliot providing on backup vocals. Several live tracks are included, including an early performance of "Chimes of Freedom," with Dylan delivering a soulful vocal.

The second disk illustrate's Dylan transition into folk rock, symbolized by the performance of "Maggie's Farm" at the Newport Folk Festival. An alternate version of "Desolation Row," played with electrical instruments adds a psychedelic quality. "Visions of Johanna" is also supported by the Band, casting light on the early version of Blonde on Blonde. Much more would come on the 2015 release The Cutting Edge, but the No Direction Home soundtrack is a worthy companion piece to the series and its narrative arc. 




Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Bootleg Series Volume 6: Bob Dylan Live 1964, Concert At Philharmonic Hall

Released March 30, 2004
One of my personal favorites in the Bootleg Series is Bob Dylan's Halloween Concert at the Philharmonic Hall. A pivot point in his early career, the show showcases his early songs and suggested what was to come. The concert, performed in two sets, featured songs from his first four albums and new material that would appear on Bringing It All Back Home. On this particular evening he appeared relaxed and good natured before a packed house, joking "I'm wearing my Bob Dylan mask tonight."

Dylan began the show with "The Times They Are A-Changin" in an almost jaunty heralding of a new age. Next came the only live version on record of "Spanish Harlem Incident." "Talkin John Birch Paranoid Blues" was a staple of Dylan's early live shows, still a crowd pleaser in 1964 (once again relevant in the current climate). "To Ramona" displayed Dylan's interest in writing daring love songs that were also political. "Who Killed Davey Moore" was another early effort that never appeared on an album, a song about a boxer who tragically died after a fight. 

The next three songs offered something new, even revolutionary, for the audience. What on earth did they make of "Gates of Eden"? Was it a protest song? Beat inspired poetry? Dark and mysterious lyrics suggested abstract art as folk song. "If You Gotta Go, Go Now (or else you gotta stay all night) could be a Top 40 pop song with its playful lyrics, a possible Beatles parody. And then another showstopper with "It's All Right Ma (I'm Only Bleeding), a terrifying secular sermon that was a different from anything Dylan had written up to that point.

The first set closed with more familiar songs. Dylan forgot the lyrics to "I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Met) and got some help from the audience. "Mr Tambourine Man" and "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" were performed with precision and passion.

After a brief break Dylan began the second set with some familiar favorites. "Talkin' World War III Blues" got a thunderous applause. Then stirring performances of "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" and "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll." 

Joan Baez joined Dylan for "Mama, You've Been On My Mind," one of their favorite songs to sing together. Baez took lead vocals on the traditional "Silver Dagger" with Bob on harmonica. "With God On Our Side" was another duet they performed together many times. An exuberant "It Ain't Me Babe" could almost be a dialogue between Baez and Dylan at that particular moment in time. Dylan closed the evening on a light note with "All I Really Want to Do."

The Dylan of late 1964 would be vastly different than the Dylan of 1965, the Dylan of 1966. The Philharmonic Hall concert showcases the artist coming into his own, signaling a new direction.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Bootleg Series Vol. 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975, The Rolling Thunder Revue

Released November 26, 2002
During the autumn of 1975 Bob Dylan embarked on an impromptu tour known as the Rolling Thunder Revue. Each show was designed to be a theatrical extravaganza, going against the grain of the arena rock that dominated the decade. This edition in the Bootleg Series features performances from the autumn of 1975. 

The CD opens with a rocking version of "Tonight I'll Be Staying Home With You," from the 1969 album Nashville Skyline. The guitars of Mick Ronson and T-Bone Burnett combined with Dylan's excitable vocal brought new life to the song. In fact pretty much every song Dylan performed on the tour got a major reboot, no longer recording stuck in amber on a record, but live bytes of creativity being rediscovered and redefined. "It Ain't Me Babe," is a defiant song of lament from the the 1964 LP Another Side of Bob Dylan that gets converted into a rally cry of personal liberation. The solemn poetics of "A Hard Rain's A- Gonna Fall" is now driving rock and roll song with dizzying apocalyptic imagery. "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" reminded audiences Dylan still cared about social justice (detractors still took him to task for not writing protest music).

Next followed two from the yet to come Desire album: "Romance in Durango" and "Isis." Then two acoustic numbers the classic "Mr. Tambourine Man" and the moving "Simple Twist of Fate" from Blood on the Tracks. Joan Baez joined Dylan for "Blowin' in the Wind" and then one they performed many times a decade earlier, "Mama, You've Been on My Mind." The first CD concludes with Dylan and Baez doing a duet of "I Shall Be Released" with a country music twang.

The second CD starts with two more acoustic numbers, both songs from Bringing It All Back Home, "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" and "Love Minus Zero/No Limit." Then "Tangled Up in Blue" an instant classic with some slightly revised lyrics. Baez joined Dylan again for the traditional song, "The Water is Wide." An impassioned version of "It Takes a Lot to Laugh (It Takes a Train to Cry)" captured the spirit of Highway 61 Revisited. When someone from the crowd demanded a protest song Dylan responded with "Oh Sister." A lawsuit settlement prevented Dylan from performing "Hurricane" so this particular bootleg is one of few live versions out there (although it doesn't come close to the stirring version on Desire). "One More Cup of Coffee" and "Sara" would also both appear on Desire. Dylan even took audience requests and played "Just Like A Woman." The CD appropriately closes with "Knockin' on Heaven's Door."

At best, this volume in the Bootleg series captures a sense of the excitement of the Rolling Thunder Revue. The tour produced two immediate albums Desire and a live album that caught the tail end of the tour entitled Hard Rain. The 1978 film Renaldo and Clara, Dylan's lone directorial effort, also resulted from the tour. 

These shows were a Dylan no had ever seen before: interactive, political, theatrical, and completely possessed with the spirit of the music. 


Monday, October 2, 2017

Love and Theft: A House of Mortar and Brick

Released September 11, 2001
Everyone of the records I’ve made has emanated from the entire panorama of what America is to me.  America, to me, is a rising tide that lifts all ships, and I’ve never really sought inspiration from other types of music.


-Bob Dylan quote from Interview with Rolling Stone, 12/21/2001


"Love and Theft" glides through the past, present, and future in alternating timelines. Like Highway 61 Revisited, the album boldly traverses through vast landscapes; shifting terrains and existential cul-de-sacs.  Historical eras flip on a dime: one line in the civil war, the next the Great Depression, then uncertain futures.


"Tweedledum and Tweedledee" tells of two disreputable characters who leave wreckage and chaos everywhere they go. As Dylan relates their dubious adventures that range from running a brick and tile company to stealing pecan pies - it's clear they are amoral opportunists. There's a Gothic touch to the song, hints of Flannery O'Connor, as the duo swindle their way through a vapid existence (Robert Johnson and Tennessee Williams are also referenced). Despite their dubious enterprises; their stupidity and cruelty win out in the end; welcome to the new century, says Bob.


If life teaches us anything, it’s that there’s nothing that men and women won’t do to get power. The album deals with power, wealth, knowledge and salvation . . . Rolling Stone Interview 12/21/2001


"Mississippi" had a long recording history, originally intended for the 1997 LP Time Out Of Mind. Dylan gave the song to Sheryl Crow for her 1998 LP The Globe Sessions. One of the central tracks of Love and Theft, "Mississippi" celebrates wondrous landscapes and individuality. A love song of sorts of well with line like, "All my powers of expression and thoughts so sublime/Could never do you justice in reason or rhyme." "Mississippi" hints at autobiography with its themes of time passing and endless traveling.


"Summer Days" sounds like a jukebox hit from the early 1950s, a gumbo of blues, rockabilly, and swing. The sense of abandonment and malaise in Time Out Of Mind seems a distant memory; the mojo is back. "Bye and Bye" is the album's most placid song, a romantic ballad that recalls the 1930s.


"Lonesome Day Blues" burns down the house in a blistering onslaught of blues fury. Despair and defiance come in form of blunt declarations from a world weary character. "Lonesome Day Blues" could the basis of a lost film with Warren Oates.  The mention of the Captain always makes me think of the Civil War battle in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, sending his troops to die with an indifferent fatalism. A lyric confesses, "I tell myself something's comin', but it never does." It's a Beckett play set in some God forsaken space in anytown America (where everyday gets more absurd).


"Floater (Too Much To Ask)" may be the most perplexing song on "Love and Theft." Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg. Ohio comes to mind. The opening stanza speaks of "another endless day" of banality. Once again we're in Main street USA with all its exhausting power struggles, unrequited love, violent outbursts. Even Romeo and Juliet are bickering in a surreal aside. The narrator wonders if his pioneer grandparents had hopes or dreams and confesses he dreamed of "going with all the ring-dancin' Christmas carols on all the Christmas Eves." Well, Bob would release a Christmas album with a cover suggesting such imagery.  


Then magisterial "High Water (for Charley Patton)" plays with Southern mythology: the Mississippi River flooding, the emotional toll of looming apocalyptic threat, and a gallows humor that careens into social commentary. The verses weave from the tragic to the absurd:


High water risin’, the shacks are slidin’ down
Folks lose their possessions—folks are leaving town
Bertha Mason shook it—broke it
Then she hung it on a wall
Says, “You’re dancin’ with whom they tell you to
Or you don’t dance at all”
It’s tough out there
High water everywhere


And the lyrics get even darker, taking on a new resonance considering the fateful day it was released:


High water risin’, six inches ’bove my head
Coffins droppin’ in the street
Like balloons made out of lead
Water pourin’ into Vicksburg, don’t know what I’m goin' to do
“Don’t reach out for me,” she said
“Can’t you see I’m drownin’ too?”
It’s rough out there
High water everywhere


With a lynch mob ready to pounce on Charles Darwin and angry preachers threatening to put out your eyes, it's indeed getting rough out there.  The fade out is one of my favorite moments on the record; the banjos are the only defense against tomorrow.


"Moonlight" is the most romantic song on Love and Theft, a throwback to Cole Porter and foreshadowing Dylan's recent interest in American standards.


Basically, the songs deal with what many of my songs deal with - which is business politics, and war, and maybe love interest on the side. Rolling Stone Interview, 12/21/2001


"Honest with Me" is the closest "Love and Theft" comes to a modern rock sound, the pre-rock and roll influence gives way to a more industrial arrangement with the aggressive guitars that open the track. Each stanza is addressed to a woman and includes asides hinting at a never ending power struggle:


I’m here to create the new imperial empire
I’m going to do whatever circumstances require
I care so much for you—didn’t think that I could
I can’t tell my heart that you’re no good


The tenth track "Po Boy" bristles with a quiet, elegiac tone. The song follows the nameless "Po Boy" through many misadventures as he traverses the South, "Been workin' on the mainline-workin'  like the devil/The game is the same- it's just on a different level." He survives by traveling here, there, and everywhere, taking wage labor where and when he can, occasionally fomenting trouble, and tries to find peace. Despite it's short length, there's an epic scope to the Homeric travels chronicles in "Po Boy."


But it is time now for great men to come forward. With small men, no great thing can be accomplished . . . Rolling Stone Interview, 12/21/2001


In "Cry A While" Dylan returns to the blues, with zany one liners, verbal salvos fired into the void. The opening verse sets the tone:


Well, I had to go down and see a guy named Mr. Goldsmith
A nasty, dirty, double-crossin’, backstabbin’ phony I didn’t wanna have to be dealin’ with
But I did it for you and all you gave me was a smile
Well, I cried for you—now it’s your turn to cry awhile
"Sugar Baby" concludes "Love and Theft" on a subdued note, a song filled with mysterious visions and meditations on existence.There's a sense of finality; Gabriel's about to blow his horn to announce the Second Coming.  The themes of the album get boiled down to their DNA.


"Love and Theft" brought Dylan into the new Millennium with a vengeance. The archaic references and hard earned wisdom resonated with audiences - old and new. The sound was unlike anything he put on record, finally hitting the energy of his live shows. As Dylan’s portrait on the album cover suggests, staring at you as he did on Highway 61 Revisited, daring the listener to enter and see where it will take you, it's a call to arms of sorts.  But the journey is more metaphysical that geographical, more questions are raised than are ever answered.


Things will have to change. And one of these things that will have to change: People will have to change their internal world. Rolling Stone Interview, 12/21/2001


Work Cited
Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews. Ed. Jonathan Cott. New York: Warner Books, 2006. Print.
Lyrics from Bobdylan.com

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Live 1966 "The Royal Albert Hall Concert" The Bootleg Series Vol. 4

Released October 13, 1998
On May 17, 1966, exhausted and weary after a grueling tour through Europe, Bob Dylan performed before a hostile audience in Manchester, England.  He performed a solo acoustic set and was then joined by the Hawks for the electric portion of the show. On that night a spectator famously cried "Judas" when Dylan begin to play "Like A Rolling Stone."  Feeling betrayed at Bob's embrace of electric music and abandonment of politically driven songs, fans were divided.  Determined to go his own way, Dylan extolled his band "to play fucking louder" as the boos continued.  A performance of historic importance in the frenzy of the mid 1960s, an unforgettable confrontation between artistic expression and audience expectation.

Acoustic Set:

She Belongs To Me
Fourth Time Around
Visions of Johanna
It's All Over Now, Baby Blue
Desolation Row
Just Like A Woman
Mr. Tambourine Man

The acoustic set is subdued.  Filmed by the same crew that followed Dylan around on Don't Look Back, he sits slouched over as he strums his guitar.  Dylan's performance lacks the passion he brought to them in the studio, here the effect is more hypnotic. He seems to be serving as his own opening act - or expressing his exhaustion with the folk format. 

I wouldn't single out any highlights from the solo set, except that three of the songs were yet to be released: "Fourth Time Around," Visions of Johanna," and "Just Like A Woman." All was prologue to the explosive electric set.

Electric Set:

Tell Me, Momma
I Don't Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Met)
Baby, Let Me Follow You Down
Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues
Leopard-Skin Pillbox-Hat
One Too Many Mornings
Ballad of a Thin Man
Like a Rolling Stone

The second set begins with Dylan's foot stomping as the band launches into "Tell Me, Momma," a song he never recorded for official release.  Dylan slurs the lyrics, sort of Ginsburg meets Jerry Lee Lewis, but the energy of the band gets infectious.  The lazy harmonica intro to "She Acts Like We Never Met" gives way to a psychedelic jam.  An even heavier version of "Baby, Let Me Follow You Down," displays how far Dylan had come since his debut album.  Garth Hudson's swirling organ on "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" and Robbie Robertson's guitar perfectly matches the surreal imagery of the lyrics. 

"Leopard-Skin Pillbox-Hat" goes in a more bluesy direction, much more in the style of Blonde on Blonde.  "One Too Many Mornings" gets a drastic reinterpretation as well, the drowsy musings from the original give way to an epic lament on longing.  "Ballad of Thin Man" is even more blistering than the version on Highway 61 Revisited, as the film shows, Dylan took the negative vibes from the audience and threw it back at them. "Like A Rolling Stone" closes out the concert in one of the best live versions, with Dylan almost breaking his voice as the concert ended. Before leaving he offered a monotone, "Thank you," to the crowd.

The Manchester show is historically relevant for many reasons. The year 1966 witnessed rock and roll evolving into not just a cultural force, but an art form. Performers like Dylan, The Beatles, and The Beach Boys were refusing to give the public what they wanted, they were going into their own individualistic directions.  After completing the tour Dylan would vanish from public view for several years, but continued to record music. 

A highlight of the Bootleg Series, "The Royal Albert Hall Concert" would be complimented by the release of The Real Royal Albert Hall Concert released in 2016, the concert Dylan performed a few days later in London.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Time Out Of Mind: Prisoner in a World of Mystery

Released September 30, 1997
"I'm walkin' through streets that are dead."

Thus begins Bob Dylan's 1997 magnum opus Time Out Of Mind.  Seven years since his last album of original songs Under the Red Sky, Dylan reunited with his Oh Mercy producer Daniel Lanois in one of his moodiest albums.  Drenched in blues and folk mythology with some of Dylan's most straight forward lyrics to date, words that conjure existential dread and defiance in cascading waves.

Time Out of Mind won the Grammy for Album of the Year - a work many critics and fans viewed as not only Dylan's return to form, but a masterpiece.

Dylan's ghostly façade on the cover speaks to the "out of time" feel of the entire album, a record full of ghosts.  With the Millennium looming, Dylan seems to be in a race against time itself in a desperate search for meaning, refusing to let the listener off the hook with songs about loss sung with raw emotion.

Even though it sounds grim, the listening experience transcends all the gloom that's balanced by a gallows humor, a scorched earth cynicism combined with fin di siècle grace.

"Love Sick" opens the album with a staccato guitar and the haunting organ of Augie Meyers. Dylan's gravelly singing in the style of a 1930s bluesman.  He sings "I'm sick of love, but I'm in the thick of it," sets up the de facto narrative running through the songs.


"Dirt Road Blues" returns to the walking motif in a song that sounds like a lost jukebox standard circa 1957.  With the proper promotion it would've worked as a single, who knows?

"Standing in the Doorway" continues the walking motif works as a companion piece to "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" from Blonde on Blonde

On "Million Miles" Bob sounds a bit mischievous, "You took a part of me that I really miss."  There's a more of a comic quality, especially with the closing stanza:

Well, there’s voices in the night trying to be heard
I’m sitting here listening to every mind-polluting word
I know plenty of people who would put me up for a day or two
Yes, I’m tryin’ to get closer but I’m still a million miles from you


Dylan's growing cragginess and melancholy with the modern world comes out throughout Time Out Of Mind.  Especially on "Tryin to Get to Heaven", a wistful musing on existence through observing others:

People on the platforms
Waiting for the trains
I can hear their hearts a-beatin’
Like pendulums swinging on chains


Loss cannot be avoided, but we are all in the same boat.

"Til I Fell In Love With You" is a swinging jukebox jam with the signature Lanois "swamp sound" on full display.



The majestic "Not Dark Yet," conjures biblical imagery from the Book of Revelation.  He can't even hear the "murmur of a prayer" and his "sense of humanity has gone down the drain," telegraphs despair and a touch of the divine. 




"Cold Irons Bound" offers more blistering blues, as if a hurricane just blew through the studio, one that will engulf the world.  Ragtag turmoil kicks the album up a few gears, futility gives way to rollicking swagger.




Dylan also included his hit single "To Make You Feel My Love," a song he handed off to Billy Joel and Garth Brooks. Adele also recorded a popular version in 2008.

"Can't Wait" delves deeper into the darkness, here Dylan sounds even more conniving. The "end of time" has begun, the question is for who?  It sounds like 4AM.

And finally "Highlands," the final track that runs over 16 minutes, a Chaplinesque by way of Godard chronicle of a day in the life of "Bob Dylan." "Highlands" lifted a stanza from a Robert Burns poem and transposed the setting to 1990s America. Even though life remains the "same ol' rat race" he decides to get out of bed and face the day. A comical encounter with a waitress parodies the themes of the album as a final joke.  And the last verse:

The sun is beginning to shine on me
But it’s not like the sun that used to be
The party’s over and there’s less and less to say
I got new eyes
Everything looks far away


Like the blind man from the Gospels he's "got new eyes" and is determined to keep on living in spite of everything.

Time Out of Mind propelled Dylan's career into the 21st Century not as a dreaded "elder statesman of rock" but an artist continuing to follow the muse wherever it would lead.