Review: Bob Dylan, ‘Rough And Rowdy Ways’ – The Spell-Binding 1st LP of All Originals In Eight Years

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“I fuss with my hair and I fight blood feuds…” – Bob Dylan summing up my life on “I Contain Multitudes”

What a week it’s been for music fans or perhaps more accurately for classic rock music fans. Not only did Neil Young pull Homegrown his “lost album” from 1975 out of the vaults (Review: Neil Young’s ‘Homegrown’ – The Lost Masterpiece, In The Vaults 45 Years), but Bob Dylan also released his first album of all originals in eight years. I read somewhere that Dylan and Young are number 1 & 2 on the UK charts right now. Those Brits have always had better taste in rock n roll than anybody else, cheers mates! I locked myself down in the B&V labs and have been blissed out on this great music for about a week now… it might be time to take a shower… maybe eat something.

I’m on record as being a huge Dylan fan. One of my first posts was about Dylan’s Bootleg Series, Dylan’s Bootleg Series – A User’s Guide. It’s hard to believe there’s been three or four new Bootleg releases since I wrote that guide. Looking back on my Dylan fandom, it is perhaps odd that I became so enamored with his work. I always had a sense that he was “important.” And truth be told, I’ve always been intensely focused on lyrics. But when I had my rock and roll awakening, it was the late 70s. I actually discovered Dylan when he was in his Christian period. I thought “Blowing In The Wind” was a Peter, Paul and Mary song. Those were the “Puff The Magic Dragon” group for fucks sake. The first Dylan album I ever purchased was Slow Train Coming. I had no idea it was religious music. I just thought “Gotta Serve Somebody” was a great track with a lot of wisdom. Because in the end, everybody does have to serve somebody…”and it may be the Devil, and it may be the Lord…” although in my case it’s probably the Rock Chick. I’m not a religious person. At best I could be described as a hippy pagan dancing naked in deserted fields in the moonlight. But that album just clicked for me… well, maybe not “Man Gave Names to All the Animals.” How that led me to a lifelong love of Dylan is a mystery.

From Slow Train Coming (the title track is just as relevant today if you push out the religious implications), once I got to college and became “serious,” I started working backward through Dylan’s catalog. I bought the iconic Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits the single album compilation… as if his “hits” could be contained on one thin volume. After working backwards through his catalog I eventually sold that album because I didn’t realize “Positively 4th Street” wasn’t on Blonde On Blonde. Youth, sigh. It’s probably good that I was so backward focused in my collecting because the late 80’s and early 90s were perhaps Dylan’s weakest period. I was just getting into him and pretty much everything after Empire Burlesque was… terrible. I bought and actually still have a fondness for Knocked Out Loaded, his album released to try and cash in on his tour with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers backing him up. “You Wanna Ramble” is a great bluesy cover. I bought and promptly sold Down In the Groove. Other than “Silvio” cowritten by Robert Hunter and played with the Grateful Dead, that album was aaaaawful. Other than Oh Mercy there weren’t many albums that caught my interest in those dark Dylan days. And yet despite weathering a Christian period and Dylan’s creative nadir, I remained a devoted fan. I even told someone in the late 80s that only Dylan could save music. That might’ve been the vodka talking.

At that point I just figured Dylan’s career was over. He was one of those catalog guys, like the Beatles, whose old LPs would have to suffice. I completely lost track of Dylan. But then an interesting thing happened. Dylan recorded two albums of traditional folk tunes, Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong. When things get weird for Bob he always goes back to his folky roots. Jimi Hendrix was the same way but with the blues. Folk was Dylan’s foundation. That reconnection with his roots sparked something in Dylan. His next LP was the Daniel Lanois produced Time Out of Mind. After almost 10 years in the wilderness Dylan pulls off the biggest comeback in rock n roll history (with the exception of perhaps the King, Review: Elvis Presley – ‘The Complete ’68 Comeback Special: 50th Anniversary Edition’ – The Return Of The King). “Love Sick” from that album ended up on a Victoria Secrets’ ad which caused a lot of heartburn for some people. I just thought he was lucky to be there…

Dylan put out a string of phenomenal records in what can only be described as a late career renaissance. Time Out of Mind (97), Love & Theft (01), and Modern Times (06) were the best trio of albums he’d released since the late 60s. Together Through Life incorporated Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo’s accordion and Heartbreaker Mike Campbell’s guitar to wonderful effect. I particularly like the bluesy “My Wife’s Hometown.” In 2012 Dylan released Tempest another triumph but it was rumored to be his last LP. ‘The Tempest’ was Shakespeare’s last play. People have been reading stuff into Dylan’s stuff since The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. 

After Tempest, Dylan took another left turn in a career of left turns. He released Shadows In the Night, a collection of pre-rock tracks that are all associated with Frank Sinatra. I bought and really liked that album. It was like listening to a bar band at 2 a.m. in a seedy joint down by the border in Laredo or maybe El Paso. This wasn’t a Rod Stewart Great American Songbook exercise. Sinatra always had a boozy, late night, heartbreak group of tracks and Dylan fully inhabited those songs. But then he put out a second Sinatra-themed LP, Fallen Angel. And then another – a three disc album – Triplicate. I have to admit, I got off the train after the first one. I dig it, but not literally four discs worth.

I had begun to wonder if we’d ever get any original stuff from Dylan. Van Morrison has had quite a run doing mostly blues and jazz covers over the last few years. He finally put out an LP of originals last year to great success, LP Review: Van Morrison’s New, All Originals, ‘Three Chords & The Truth’ – A Laid Back Groove. A month or so ago, Dylan dropped a surprise almost 17-minute masterpiece, “Murder Most Foul” (Bob Dylan: The Dark, Mesmerizing 17- Minute New Single, “Murder Most Foul” My antennae immediately shot up. I quickly found out a new album was coming!

Rough And Rowdy Ways dropped last Friday and I’m simply blown away by Dylan’s continued late career genius. One can only compare him to perhaps Bowie for great music this far down the line. I read Jagger say in an interview once that the Stones’ latter work will never “acquire the patina” of their older stuff… and sadly he’s right. Although I think music fans will be talking about this album in 50 years. Dylan is backed by his road band and I was thrilled to see that guitarist Charlie Sexton has returned… he’s perhaps Dylan’s most sympathetic guitarist since Robbie Robertson. With Sexton in the band: drummer Matt Chamberlin, longtime bassist Tony Garnier, multi-instrumentalist Donnie Herron, and Bob Britt on guitar. Listed under the “additional musicians” list were among others, Heartbreaker keyboardist Benmont Tench, jazz pianist Alan Pasqua and Fiona Apple (!) who must be playing piano as we don’t hear her voice on the LP… seems like a squandered opportunity. I loved her duet with Johnny Cash on the American Recordings box.

The album’s first track “I Contain Multitudes” is a hushed affair. I get the vibe of a village elder sitting down to drop wisdom on me. The title is drawn from a Walt Whitman poem and it has the feeling of literary genius to it. The song, like the album is overflowing with cultural references. I found the track hypnotic… “I’m just like Anne Frank, like Indiana Jones and those British bad boys the Rolling Stones.” He goes on in the same stanza to name-drop William Blake. Every song on this album is like an onion… so many layers.

The soul of this album – and I don’t mean the musical genre soul, I mean the soul – are two epic tracks. “Murder Most Foul” has been reviewed here. I won’t go back into that but it’s just grown and grown in my estimation. It’s one of the most important tracks Dylan has ever done and that says a lot. The other “epic” track is “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” a nine and half minute deep rumination on death. Key West seems to be a metaphor for the end of the road. You can’t go any farther. “Key West is fine and fair,
If you lost your mind, you will find it there, Key West is on the horizon line.” As we all get older, death appears on the horizon line… As a side note, I’ve been to Key West and uh, I’ve lost my mind there, but never really found it. Both tracks, “Murder Most Foul” and “Key West” are pretty amazing statements by Dylan.

If those two tracks are the “soul” of the album, the beating heart of this thing are a trio of blues based tracks that I loved immediately. “False Prophet” is a blues stomper that has been stuck in my head since I heard it. Dylan was so different from most folk artists in the 60s who were all doing “We Shall Overcome.” Dylan was doing acoustic country blues… on his first album he did “In My Time of Dying.” “False Prophet” is one of his best blues tunes to date. “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” is a great tribute to the blues artist. It’s the most rocking moment on the album. “I can’t play the record ‘cuz my needle got stuck,” is maybe my favorite lyric here… “Crossing the Rubicon” is a wonderful snarling blues number and statement of purpose.

The other tracks here are all knockouts. “My Own Version of You” is a ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ treatise on love. He references gangster characters of Brando and Pacino (The Godfather and Scarface) all the way to Freud and Karl Marx. It’s a great lilting track. “I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You” is a lovely track that may have been influenced by eight years of singing Sinatra covers. “Black Rider” is a hidden little gem here…

This is another in a string of great original LPs from Dylan. At this stage of the game this all feels like hard won wisdom gained and now shared. The album, like the first single “Murder Most Foul,” is brimming with cultural references. It’s got elements that feel like commentary on the American situation and experience. Mortality is all over this record. “Black Rider” sounds like an argument with Death itself. This is a great, great album at a time when the world needed a great Bob Dylan album.

Perhaps, back in the 80s, sitting a bar called Auntie Mae’s, I was right when I said only Dylan can save music… “Black rider, black rider, all dressed in black, I’m walkin’ away, try and make me look back.” It’s a dark ride. Take care of each other out there…

Review: Neil Young’s ‘Homegrown’ – The Lost Masterpiece, In The Vaults 45 Years

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It was a little too personal…it scared me.” – Neil Young on not releasing Homegrown

While I’m like most of you out there – a huge music fan – there is something about the inner music geek in me that gets really pumped for the release of a “lost album.” By lost album I mean a record that an artist has recorded and for whatever reason decided to keep in the vault instead of release to the public. There’s a lot of reasons for shelving an album that’s already “in the can,” as the saying goes. Usually it’s the record company… the dreaded suits. It almost always gives the unreleased record an enormous amount of mystique. Ryan Adams completed Love Is Hell and when his record company refused to release it the word on the street was that it was “too dark.” Naturally that led the music geeks and Ryan Adams’ fans to clamor for its release…too dark, yes please! The record company finally relented and it was released. It’s a really good record… but uh, I’ve heard darker albums. Put on Big Star’s third album if you want bleak.

Typically an artist (or a band) will gather to write and record a group of songs. When they have enough tunes or perhaps better said, a cohesive group of songs, they release an album and go on tour. Rinse, repeat. There are those artists who are so prolific they record more than enough songs for the album. They record until the creative well is dry before stopping and going on tour. They pick the best tracks and leave the rest in the vault or save them for the next album. The aforementioned Ryan Adams is merely one of those type of artists. There are several others like Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Neil Young who had such an overflowing creative font that they have vast amounts of unreleased music. All of that unheard music leaves the music geek in me wondering… what’s going on in that vault and how do I get in there to listen? I’ll bring my own beer… These deep and full vaults are what bootleggers live for.

While there are many artists with a ton of unreleased tracks in their vaults it’s still a bit more rare for an artist to go through the entire creative process to record a full album – finished production and completed down to the track listing – and then rescind the record. Springsteen sent a single disc version of The River to the record company and changed his mind and pulled it back. While most of those songs got on the final 2-LP album, the original single disc version was still of interest because of the unreleased track “Cindy” and the rockabilly version of “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch).” Prince pulled The Black Album and released the tepid Lovesexy. The Black Album, which was eventually released, was purportedly too X-rated to be released. It was widely bootlegged and finally saw release.

While pulling back an entire LP is rare, I would have to say the king of recording an entire album only to put it on the shelf is Neil Young. He’s got more unreleased full albums than any artist you can name: Chrome Dreams, Toast with Crazy Horse, Homefires, and Oceanside Countryside to mention but a few. Finally, through his superb Neil Young Archives, he’s started releasing some of these albums. The famous Hitchhiker recorded in 1976 just came out in 2017 (LP Review: Neil Young’s Album From His Vault, ‘Hitchhiker’). It seems at long last one of Neil’s most famous unreleased albums, 1975’s Homegrown has been released after 45 years of sitting in the vault. It was worth the wait.

Now as a “warning label” I have to echo a comment I got a few weeks ago on my post on the first single “Try” (New Single: Neil Young’s “Try” From the Long Awaited Vault LP, ‘Homegrown’), from a reader, “Introgroove.” Neil is about to release his second box set of vault material, Archives, Vol. 2 in late summer/early fall. He’s teased the release of this follow-up to 2009’s Archives, Vol 1 for quite a while, so we’ll see if it comes out… As a warning, some of these archival releases are probably going to be included in Archive Vol 2. During the build up to Vol 1, Neil released a series of previously unreleased live LPs which I snapped up. When Vol 1 came out I was crestfallen to find that all 3 LPs I’d purchased (including Live At Massey Hall, Live At the Fillmore East with Crazy Horse, and Sugar Mountain: Live At Canterbury Hall) were all in there. I wasn’t going to buy them twice. We’re 11 years down the line and I’m willing to take the leap for the studio stuff, but I wanted everyone to know these will probably be in the box set if you want to wait. The inner music geek in me won this current argument and I’ve been turning up Homegrown since last Thursday.

Homegrown has a storied history. It was recorded toward the end of Young’s darkest period marked by the three albums known as “the Ditch Trilogy.” Hearing Homegrown makes me wonder if we’re going to need to recalibrate that to The Ditch Foursome. Neil became a world wide superstar after the release of his landmark country-rock album Harvest. Neil didn’t react very well to his new found fame. He hired a band of mostly session musicians who he didn’t get along with, took them on the road, turned it up loud and recorded his next album, the first of the Ditch Trilogy, Time Fades Away (Neil Young: The Elusive 1973 “Time Fades Away” LP). Prior to the tour, he had to fire guitarist Danny Whitten, his only friend in the band, because Whitten’s drug use was out of control. A day later, Whitten was dead from a lethal combination of drugs and booze. Young was guilt-ridden and depressed… and he did what artists do, he turned his grief and anger into music… while drinking a ton of tequila. I avoid tequila. I’m either gonna fight you or kiss you when I’m on tequila… and possibly both at the same time…

It’s been said that the Ditch Trilogy was a reaction to his new found fame and his inability to deal with that success. It was certainly also a chronicle of the personal problems he was going through including but not exclusive to Whitten’s death. In many ways the music could also be seen as a metaphor for the angst felt by the 60s generation as they watched their ideals and idealism slowly die away as the greed and narcissism of the 70s took over. The greatest artists always seem to be an antenna for what’s going on in the world (subconsciously or not) and one has to wonder if Young was just overly tuned into that.

In ’73 Young recorded the masterpiece Tonight’s the Night but the record company didn’t want to release it. It is a truly bleak record but I love it. In early 1974 he released On the Beach which isn’t much more cheerful. That summer he went on tour with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young for a stadium reunion tour. At the end of ’74 and early ’75 he recorded what would become Homegrown. The album is all about the end of his relationship with Carrie Snodgress who’d inspired many of his great songs including “A Man Needs A Maid.” They’d had a child together, Zeke. But things had finally ended and Neil recorded Homegrown to chronicle his heartbreak. At the last minute, Young pulled Homegrown and decided to release Tonight’s the Night instead. I’ve heard two stories on why he made that decision: a) he had a listening party and people liked Tonight’s the Night better or b) Rick Danko of the Band told him he should release Tonight’s the Night instead of Homegrown. I can’t imagine a group of people at a listening party picking the former so my money is on the Danko story. Neil has always said Homegrown was “too personal” to be released.

Homegrown then sat in the vaults for 45 years. For once we can say that Neil was holding on to a true masterpiece. Even on the first listen this record had the feeling of an instant classic. That may be because we’ve heard some of these tracks before as Neil put many of them out on other records “as is” or slightly altered. “Homegrown” rerecorded with Crazy Horse and “Star of Bethlehem” (as is) both came out on American Stars N Bars. “Love Is a Rose” came out on the compilation album Decade. “Little Wing” came out on Hawks And Doves. I really like hearing these songs in this album setting which is what Neil originally intended. Making Homegrown, for me, an essential Neil Young album.

The break up theme is established immediately on the opening track “Separate Ways.” It’s a mellow, acoustic track that reminds me of “Out On the Weekend.” Levon Helm of the Band plays drums on this track and he’s just extraordinary. “We go our separate ways lookin’ for better days sharin’ our little boy who grew from joy back then…” Heartrending stuff. The next track, “Try” strikes a more hopeful tone and has quotes from Snodgress’ quirky mother throughout. “Mexico” is a stark ballad set to piano, where Neil tells his son goodbye as now he’s a “travelin’ man.” “Love Is A Rose” sounds like a sweet ballad but really is a “swearing off love” song. “Little Wing” and “Star of Bethlehem” make more sense as the last two tracks on this album vs the way they were sort of tossed onto other LPs. “Kansas” is a short, acoustic song where Neil seems to be singing to a groupie with whom he’s sought some comfort. As someone who was a fool for love and suffered through more than what I consider my fair share of breakups, I’m knocked out that Neil could put almost a full album worth of heartbreak together and make it so emotionally affecting. (Or is it effecting? I never know…)

There are lighter moments. The title track, an ode to growing your own pot isn’t as heavy as the version on Stars N Bars and has a more rustic feel here. “We Don’t Smoke It” is a bluesy vamp of a track… I’m sure it’s fun to hear live. “Vacancy” is probably the heaviest rockin’ tune on the album but it does carry that break up theme. It’s the one angry moment in a collection of classic Neil laments. “I look in your eyes and I don’t know what’s there.” He goes on to sing, “You come through in the weirdest ways.” True frustration seeps into the core of that song. “White Line” a track that was rerecorded with electric guitars by Crazy Horse is acoustic here with a fantastic bit of guitar work by the Band’s Robbie Robertson. You forget how virtuoso all those guys in the Band were. I love this quieter version of the track.

The only track here that should have been left off is “Florida.” It’s a weird fever dream of a song. Its a spoken word piece where Neil rambles about hang gliders in a downtown area of a city in Florida… maybe Miami? As he’s speaking someone is dragging a wet finger over the rim of a glass. While I don’t dig it, my wife’s cat got up, meowed at me and left the room when it came on… I think he hates it and he’s pretty open-minded. I can’t imagine dogs liking that track either. Including “Florida” here just gives us a snapshot of where Neil’s head was at back then. He would soon come out of his funk with the release of Zuma in 1975. Although with tracks like “Stupid Girl” and “Drive Back” perhaps by Zuma his grief had merely morphed to anger.

I’m certainly glad we got this important document from one of Neil’s darkest and yet most interesting periods. Somehow as we all face these current heavy times, it makes me feel better to get this dark little postcard from Neil…like the post office just discovered it and finally all these years later delivered it. It’s as if it’s saying to me, it was dark back then but it got better. It always gets better… it can’t get worse?

Be safe out there. Wear your masks. Cheers!

 

 

Review: Norah Jones ‘Pick Me Up Off The Floor’ – Yet Another Brilliant LP

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“I sing my songs, I hope someone sings along…” – Norah Jones, “I’m Alive”

When I was just beginning my rock and roll journey as a middle-teenager, maybe all of thirteen years old, it was sort of an unwritten rule that you didn’t buy music that didn’t “rock.” It was all Zeppelin, Sabbath, Rush and Van Halen back then. Anything outside of that was considered weak. It was all about the power and majesty of the guitar solo. Guys my age wouldn’t even admit to liking Elton John back then because he played piano. You didn’t want to appear “soft” or a worse fate, to be branded as an admitted pop music fan. It was all about street “cred” back then. And sadly, I don’t know if it was some sort of nascent sexism but as a young teenage boy you generally didn’t buy music by women artists.

By the 70s there were plenty of cool women artists out there. Janis certainly was cool but other than “Mercedes Benz” you didn’t hear much of her on the radio, which was odd because you heard plenty of Hendrix and Doors from that same era on rock stations. Pat Benetar had some credibility in the rock and roll circles. I bought one of her albums at the mall but I had to wear a fake mustache and glasses to feel comfortable doing so. Fleetwood Mac was cool and by extension Stevie Nicks won us over with Bella Donna. Of course with Stevie there may have been more… visceral reasons we were drawn to her, one can never tell about teenage boys. Of course in middle America you never heard of Patti Smith or the Runaways… well, not when you were in high school at least. Nobody knew what to make of Blondie.

It wasn’t until college that any of us had the confidence to walk into the record store and come out with Horses or a Joni Mitchell album. Naturally, we were all still buying Stevie Nicks albums… I think as you grow from, literally, boys to men you just become more confident in who you are and what you like. As a friend once said to me, “Fuck ’em.” From college I’ve branched out in all sorts of different directions and to different artists. I’ve even discovered (and really like) jazz. I’m not sure what 13 year old me would say about my music collection these days… I think jazz would have made my 13-year old head explode. If I know my teenage self, I’d probably call me a lurid name. I was not a nice kid.

As many long time readers here now know, I am past that teen-machismo-angst and openly embrace a lot of music and artists, including (yes, 13-year old me) women (Women In Rock: My Search For Female Singers Leads to the Rock Chick’s Top 10). Almost from the earliest days of B&V I’ve been on the record as a Norah Jones fan. Her voice is, in my opinion, an all time great. She’s up there with Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday or Joni Mitchell in my opinion. One of our earliest pieces was to laud her great 2016 LP Day Breaks, LP Review: Norah Jones’ “Day Breaks,” The Piano Strikes Back!I was thrilled to see last Friday her new album was out, Pick Me Up Off The Floor. 

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to have a career like Norah Jones? Her first album was an immediate classic and sold 11 million copies in the U.S. alone… I think it sold over 27 million copies world wide (per Wikipedia). Many established bands struggle with success like that (Artists Who Changed Their Music to Escape Fame). The massive success of Hotel California or Rumours fundamentally knocked the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac off their trajectories. It’s hard to be that big. But for Norah, it was on her first album! One could argue the same thing happened to Guns N Roses, and that didn’t turn out exactly great. Of course, Norah was a solo artist vs a band with all the egos that entails.

Norah has responded by simply putting out a string of superb albums. Instead of trying to please people she clearly took the momentous early success for what it was: Freedom. She’s often experimented and has taken her music in different directions. She’s collaborated with a lot of different artists and really done it her way. But her way ended up being a perfect course for her. She branched out and changed to a more “pop” sound on The Fall. From there, she really expanded upon that pop direction on the Danger Mouse produced …Little Broken Hearts. She’s formed a country-rock side project with other liked minded musicians called the Little Willies (apparently named for Willie Nelson, in case you’re wondering). I especially loved her duets album of Everly Brothers’ covers with Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day fame, Foreverly. Well, in truth I’ve followed her through all the twists and turns. In the middle of it all is that spectacular voice.

After all of that, in 2016 she released the aforementioned Day Breaks. That album was a return to the rootsy, jazz-based, piano driven sound of her first couple of albums. After the tour for that album I read that Norah was going to collaborate with other artists and just put out singles. Those were finally collected on the EP, Begin Again (EP Review: Back On The Mellow End With Norah Jones’ New ‘Begin Again’). I loved that she was taking a more spontaneous approach, releasing singles as she recorded them. I will say the EP left me wanting a whole album. Apparently during those sessions there were a number of songs that were “left over,” or perhaps, “left on the floor,” so to speak. Norah has collected those songs and fashioned another in a string of superb albums.

I put this album on the first time with the Rock Chick. I wanted her to hear it with me. She does not share my devotion to Norah, although she likes her. This music and this album is a return to that early jazz-based sound from Come Away With Me that Norah returned to so successfully on Day Breaks. The music on this album transports me. I feel like its late at night and I’m on an avenue, perhaps in Paris. This music could be coming out of a cafe where cigarette smoke still fills the air and the ashtrays crowd the tables with empty glasses and bottles. There’s no doubt I’d loosen my tie while listening. There’s an immediate sensual aspect to Norah’s music on this album.

The album starts off with a trio of sexy tracks. “How I Weep” starts slowly but its simple vocals, piano, strings arrangement immediately draws me in. “Flame Twin” is a an aptly named torch song with the vocals and piano underscored with an organ. I love the lyrics, “I’m your twin, I’m on fire, come put me out…” Oh indeed! “Hurts To Be Alone” just chugs along keeping the momentum up.

The heart of the album, for me, was the two tracks in the middle, “This Life” and “To Live.” When she sings “This life as we know it is over,” one has to wonder if she’s talking about a break-up or society at large. “Heartbroken, Day After” has a nice pedal steel and sounds like something a country star could have done or perhaps the Little Willies. “Say No More” has a subtle horn section and I completely relate to her lyrics when she sings, “Maybe I’m deranged.” “Were You Watching” is another stand out track with a haunting violin weaving in and out of the piano/vocals. Another stand out is “Stumble On My Way” which could have fit right in on Come Away With Me. Jeff Tweedy collaborated with her on the acoustic strummer “I’m Alive.” A little subtle electric guitar mixes in perfectly on that track.

There’s so much to like on this album. I heard Tom Petty say once the reason the Heartbreakers and he weren’t “bigger” was because they had such a high quality and consistency on the albums they put out. He said people might have taken them for granted somewhat. He wasn’t bitter, just trying to explain his career. I wonder sometimes if people are taking Norah Jones and the high quality of her music for granted. Don’t be like 13-year old me and do that – Pick Me Up Off The Floor is a great album that everyone should hear. It’s sitting on the couch with someone and a tumbler of whiskey good…

Cheers!

 

 

 

Review: Dion, ‘Blues With Friends’ – He Continues His Hot Blues Winning Streak

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I texted a friend of mine last Saturday, Drummer Blake. I wanted to alert him to a new song “Blues Comin’ On” by Dion that features Joe Bonamassa. Blake and I had seen Bonamassa a few years back (Concert Review: Joe Bonamassa & The 4 Horsemen of the Salinapocalypse Slight Return). I knew he’d like Bonamassa’s guitar work on the track. Blake is nothing if not a big guitar fan, he’s seen Yngwie Malmsteen for God’s sake. He responded the same way I did a few years ago when I heard Dion singing “New York Is My Home” with Paul Simon, “Dion is still alive?” Indeed he is, and he’s got the blues.

New York’s (or more specifically the Bronx’s) Dion DiMucci known simply by his first name was a big star in the late 50s/early 60s. He started off with his doo-wop back-up group the Belmonts but later went solo. He had a string of monster big hits including “Run Around Sue” and “The Wanderer.” He was big in that time period between Elvis Presley’s entrance into the Army and the British Invasion. His music occupies that same era as Sam Cooke’s prime. Since he’s from the Bronx the man is a huge influence for  many of the singers from New York who followed after him. Namely, Lou Reed, Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen have all cited him as an influence. That’s pretty good company.

The guy has quietly had quite a career. It’s like he’s a smart, singing Forrest Gump. As I mentioned, he was big on the doo-wop, pre-British Invasion scene. His career lost some steam and he returned later in the 60s with earnest protest music like “Abraham, Martin and John.” In the 70s he recorded an album with Phil Spector like Leonard Cohen and John Lennon did. He even had a religious period like Bob Dylan. He may have left the white-hot spotlight of stardom, but he has always been around doing rockstar stuff.

My introduction to Dion came when I was a child. I found out about Dion’s music from the most unlikely of places, my mostly non-musical father. When I was a wee lad in grade school I had to share a room with my little brother. My parents weren’t even cool enough to provide bunk beds. We had two single twin beds crammed into different corners in a small room, like boxers in neutral corners. I think back about that now and about my brother and can’t help but think, that poor bastard had to share a room with me. We had a small black-and-white TV that was my dad’s when he was in the Army with the rabbit ears antenna so we could sort of watch snowy television. My brother also had a record player. And at some point, he rescued a small metal-wire rack of singles that my father had collected before he got married. Apparently marriage ended any infatuation with music that he’d had prior.

There were some amazing gems in that pile. He had Elvis’ “Jailhouse Rock.” He had several Ray Charles and Johnny Cash singles. These records didn’t even have the paper dust sleeves on them, just naked vinyl. I don’t know whatever happened to those 45s, they were probably thrown out but there was probably some stuff worth some money in there, but I digress. Hidden in that pile of 45s was none other than Dion’s great song, “The Wanderer.” I don’t remember if dad had “Run Around Sue” but I have a feeling he did. But the song I just fell in love with was “The Wanderer.” I was just a kid but the lyrics just grabbed me, “I’m the type of guy who’ll never settle down, where pretty girls are, you know that I’m around.” Perhaps it was foreshadowing of how I was to live my 20s and early 30s…I should probably have worked that out with a therapist. I mean, I hadn’t even hit puberty and I was dancing around lip-synching “they call me the wanderer, yeah the wanderer, I roam around, around, around.” Emotional gypsies, apply here. Years later as adults my brother bought me that 45 for a birthday present. He had to listen to it every time I did, it was his record player so he knew how much I loved it.

Other than that single my brother bought me, which was placed in the shelves up by my albums, I forgot all about Dion. If asked about him I’d probably have guessed after his career cooled off he’d died of booze and drugs. Or moved back to the Bronx and become an electrician or a contractor or something. Maybe he had some kids and shows up at weddings and nostalgia shows and stuff like that. I figured if alive he probably lived in Florida where he yelled at kids for getting in his yard. I was completely unaware that he’d kept recording and performing music. It wasn’t until approximately four years ago that I rediscovered he was even alive when he released his haunting duet with Paul Simon, “New  York Is My Home.” I figured it was a one-off and never discovered there was an entire album by that name.

A few months ago I started to see advertisements and social media stuff about his upcoming album, Blues With Friends. It’s a guest-star laden album with a who’s who of guitarists and artists joining him. That’s probably why it’s getting the press it does which is great but it’s too bad that as I discovered, starting in 2000, he’s released a string of really great albums, mostly centered on the blues that should have garnered more attention. I really like 2011’s Tank Full of Blues. Its exactly as advertised, laid back blues. When I finally went back and listened to the entire album New York Is My Home I discovered another fabulous album. Hell, I even dug Bronx In Blue where it’s blues stripped down to just acoustic guitar and Dion’s voice, the way Muddy Waters used to play in the early days. I recommend perusing his catalog from Deja Nu forward. Although I will admit his propensity to be photographed w/ a beret on and a guitar in his hand can confuse you as to which album you’re listening to.

As I said this is a guest star laden LP. Usually those can really lack consistency. The guest artists styles tend to overwhelm the guy whose album it is. That’s not the case with Blues With Friends. There’s a couple of reasons this album hangs together so well. First and foremost, is Dion’s voice. He’s in his usual fine vocal form here… the guy has lost nothing vocally. And for the most part Dion is the only one who sings on the record. Since these tracks mostly aren’t duets, the continuity is there. Also, when you stay in the genre of blues you can play with a lot of different people and still maintain a consistent sound throughout.

There’s a ton to like on this record. “Blues Comin’ Down” with Bonamassa kicks things off and it’s great. It has a very tasty guitar solo. I really love the track with Brian Setzer on guitar, “Uptown Number Seven,” it just chugs along like a train and you know how I love train songs, “Playlist: The B&V 50 Favorite Songs About Trains – “that lonesome whistle blows…”). The guy who I’d never heard of who may have my favorite moment on the record is Sonny Landreth the “slydeco” (slide guitar played in the zydeco style) guitar wizard on “I Got the Gun.” Dion vibes on his energy. Dion and Samantha Fish tear the roof off the joint on the most upbeat track here, “What If I Told You.” “Way Down (I Won’t Cry No More)” with Steve Van Zandt on lead guitar is a treat. Van Zandt does so many things it’s easy to forget what a great guitarist he is. Dion conjures additional great moments with John Hammond and Billy Gibbons.

It’s not all electric blues. He does change it up a bit. There’s another duet with Paul Simon that I just loved, “Song For Sam Cooke.” I love Sam and this is a beautiful tribute song, complete with the “Chain Gang” backing vocals. Simon and Dion sing so well together they should form a duo. They could call it Simon and Dion-funkel, they’d make a fortune. “I Got Nothin'” finds Dion duetting with Van Morrison and I love that track too. Van sounds so much more laid back on this track than on his own stuff. Joe Louis Walker plays the lead on that track and it’s just pure blues heaven. “Told You Once In August” is a stripped down acoustic blues number with John Hammond on guitar with Rory Block on a harmony vocal, anther great track. “Hymn To Him” has Springsteen and his wife Patti Scialfa. Springsteen plays acoustic but Scialfa steals the show with her wordless backing vocals. She compliments Dion so well. The track almost has a religious vibe…hence the “Hymn” in the title.

As I’ve confessed before the blues are my Alpha and my Omega. All of the great rock and roll that I love is founded upon the roots of the blues. To see an artist with Dion’s history take up the blues and record yet another in a great string of albums just reaffirms my faith in the blues. Dion has always been a great vocalist. Everyone needs to check this disc out. It’s perfect for all you wanderers out there.

Cheers. Take care of each other!

 

 

Playlist: Songs of Protest And Hope – We Stand With the Protesters, #BLM

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“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” – Martin Luther King,Jr

2020 has been one of the most extremely awful years in my lifetime. It wasn’t enough that a global pandemic is killing people around the world including over 100,000 in the United States. Now, the U.S. has been torn in two by long term, systemic racism. As a white person I can’t begin to assume to know what black people go through in their lives. I can say that watching the news these days has me simply heartbroken. There’s no other word for it. I was too young to remember 1968. I remember the Rodney King riots after the police who beat him senseless were acquitted. It’s hard to believe that was thirty years ago and we’ve made almost no progress. I had hoped Obama’s election was a sign that we’d moved forward but as Depeche Mode sings, “We’re going backward…”

The recent unrest in the U.S. was sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. I don’t care who you are and what you’ve done, no police officer gets to put his knee on your neck, effectively becoming cop, judge and sadly executioner. While the officer in question has been charged with second degree murder and the officers with him were charged with accessory to murder, this is just another in a long line of blacks who have been killed at the hands of the police. Breonna Taylor was recently killed by cops and those men continue to walk free (as of this writing). Ahmaud Arbrey was hunted down by an ex-cop and executed. I keep hearing politicians referring to the Black Community as being “frustrated” with law enforcement in this country. Uh, I think they have every right to be not only frustrated but really pissed.

When I was in high school a few of us were leaving a keg party… the police had come to break up the rather unruly affair. Tempers were running high. One of my close friends was black. This isn’t one of those, “I have a black friend, I’m not a racist” stories. Anyway, we were getting into the car to get out of there and the cops attacked my black friend as he was about to get in the car. He pushed back and things got ugly. He was highly agitated and I think it was because one of the cops said something shitty to him. I’ve never known what was said, I was already in the car. We grew up in a predominantly white suburb of Kansas City and looking back that had to be very hard on my friend. Nobody hassled me on the way to the car and I’d probably had more beer than anybody involved. We never really talked about it, my friend didn’t want to, but that had to be pretty traumatic. It left me with the sense that you can’t be non-racist in this world, you need to be anti-racist. You have to actively combat it. We aren’t born that way – it’s learned behavior.

Many people in this country feel strongly enough to go out and protest this police aggression. I am in 100% support of all of these people who are out protesting. It’s an American tradition to protest injustice. If it weren’t for Covid, I’d be protesting with them. It’s wonderful that we’re free to do so. Most of these protests have been peaceful. In Kansas City, the protests have been centered in the Midtown area in the Plaza neighborhood. It’s surreal to see my old neighborhood, where I lived for much of my adult life overrun with cops in full riot gear surrounding protestors. I was fried and went to bed early last Saturday night only to wake up to find out that the cops dropped tear gas on the protestors down there… because they were walking in the street. Wow. I realize some of the protesters were throwing some things (water bottles, milk jugs) out of sheer frustration… but the cops were in full riot gear? The reaction seems… harsh? Overblown? Tear gas two blocks from where I used to live…just, wow.

The whole nation is feeling very “Kent State” to me right now. Because everyone has a phone I keep seeing scenes of different cops hitting people or knocking them down. The cops in Buffalo knocked an elderly peaceful protester on his ass and cracked his head open. Even the press has been seemingly targeted for beatings or shot at with rubber bullets by cops. “Protect And Serve” is supposed to include everybody… Curfews have been instigated across the country and even in Kansas City. Maybe if the cops took a lighter touch these peaceful protests wouldn’t erupt… As Martin Luther King, Jr also said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” Maybe a little more empathy and a little less tear gas? I think a lot of people are conflating the protesters with the looters that are taking advantage of the resulting chaos, as inevitably happens. It also appears that white supremacists are infiltrating the protests to insight violence. Don’t let those fuckers confuse you – these are mostly peaceful protesters that are legally exercising their right to assemble. Where was this police reaction when those nut jobs showed up to protest Covid-19 lockdowns?

Where do we look for solace in dark times like these? The current occupant of the White House won’t be offering any, that’s always been obvious. There are no sports yet… Hell, even Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints is out there saying stupid stuff and I used to be a fan of his. For me, the only solace I can find is where I always find it, music. I couldn’t sleep last night, the heartbreak has been washing over me when the sun goes down. As I lay there ruminating on peaceful protestors in Washington D.C. being tear gassed for a photo op, I thought of my favorite line from CSNY’s “Ohio,” written by Neil Young, “Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming, we’re finally on our own.” These days feel eerily similar. Other protest songs began to pop into my head and before I knew it, I was putting together a playlist. Not all of these are classic “protest songs,” but are songs whose theme I feel fit these current troubled songs. And some of these songs have a notably hopeful message. I’m a sucker for hope. These are some of my favorites but per usual it’s not meant to be exhaustive. I mean, Gail Gadot ruined “Imagine” for everyone so I left it off and there was no way I was putting “Ebony and Ivory” on here (I love Paul McCartney but not even I can support that cheesy track).  If you have suggestions, make them in the comments section and I’ll add your song to the playlist on Spotify.

Some things in this world really need to change. I’ll admit, I don’t know what to do about racism but I’m going to do everything I can to educate myself on what I can do to help. And above all I urge everyone hungry for change to do the most effective thing you can do to make it happen – VOTE. If you’re out there protesting, stay safe, be careful. Here are some songs I thought might help get us through. As always you’ll find this playlist on Spotify under the title, “BourbonAndVinyl.net Songs Of Protest And Hope – Black Lives Matter.” And, as usual, I’m all over the map from Bob Dylan to Hip Hop to Jazz. If the music can be diverse, so can we.

  1. Sam Cooke, “A Change Is Gonna Come” – This song is one of the greatest songs ever. Sam was inspired by Bob Dylan to sit down and write this track. It went on to be a key track for the Civil Rights Movement.
  2. Aretha Franklin, “Respect” – Written by Otis Redding and owned by Aretha, the Queen of Soul. Respect is the name of the game. Respect your fellow man.
  3. Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit” – Haunting song about lynchings. I don’t think I’ll ever get over this track.
  4. The Rolling Stones, “Street Fighting Man” – This one is for all of you out there on the mean streets of the cities and towns around the world. Be careful out there.
  5. The Doors, “Five To One” – “They got the guns, but we got the numbers.”
  6. Aerosmith, “Livin’ On the Edge” – The lyrics on this Aerosmith rocker can sometimes be awkward, but you can’t fault a song that starts with the lyric, “There’s something wrong with the world today…” Indeed there is.
  7. Bob Marley & The Wailers, “No More Trouble” – Isn’t that what we all want, no more trouble? I think we’re all getting a little tired.
  8. Bob Dylan, “Blowin’ In the Wind” – So many have recorded this song, but I like the original. “How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man?”
  9. Nina Simone, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” – I’m just now getting into Nina Simone, but what an amazing, important artist and an amazing, important song. I like her preamble in this live version.
  10. Warren Zevon, “Disorder In the House” – From his final album, The Wind. Springsteen plays a savage lead guitar on this track. The line, “helicopters hover over rough terrain” grabbed my attention as I’ve been watching helicopters hover over Kansas City all week.
  11. The Doobie Brothers, “Takin’ It To The Streets” – Laugh if you want because Michael McDonald sings this song, but it makes me wanna get out in the street.
  12. Grand Master Flash, “The Message” – “Don’t push me cuz I’m close to the edge…”
  13. Buffalo Springfield, “For What It’s Worth” – “There’s a man with a gun over there
    Telling me I got to beware”
  14. Bruce Springsteen, “The Ghost of Tom Joad (Electric Version) – I like the original, but this version from High Hopes features Bruce exchanging verses with guitarist extraordinaire Tom Morello. “Mom, wherever there’s a cop beatin’ a guy… look for me Ma, I’ll be there.”
  15. Lenny Kravitz, “Black And White America” – Title track from another great Lenny Kravitz album.
  16. Stevie Wonder, “Living For the City” – I just felt this playlist needed some Stevie Wonder.
  17. Marvin Gaye, “What’s Goin’ On” – The genius title track from what was known as his “protest” album. I could have put half the record on here… seek that LP out.
  18. Little Steven, “Justice” – This is the crux of why all of the people are out in the streets. “No peace, no justice.”
  19. U2 with The New Voices of Freedom, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (Live)” – I went with the live version from Rattle And Hum since they brought in the New Voices of Freedom a Harlem choir. Beautiful, moving stuff. We’re all searching for justice and freedom.
  20. Depeche Mode, “Where’s the Revolution” – From the amazing record Spirit (LP Review: Depeche Mode’s ‘Spirit’ – Simply Put, An Immediate Classic).
  21. U2, “”40″” – Adapted from the 40th Psalm. A moment of hope.
  22. Bob Dylan, “A Hard Rain Is A-Gonna Fall” – If we don’t solve the problems of racism and an unequal justice system a hard rain will be coming… I almost put “Slow Train” on here because of the chorus, “there’s a slow, slow train comin’ up around the bend.”
  23. James Brown, “Say It Loud (I’m Black I’m Proud)” – Wisdom from the Godfather of Soul.
  24. Pearl Jam, “Can’t Deny Me” – The protesters give me this vibe. They won’t be denied. I love Pearl Jam doing angry music.
  25. CSNY, “Ohio” – The greatest protest song ever. With all the guys in military gear surrounding the protesters I’m getting that Kent State, they’re shooting as us vibe. “We’re finally on our own…”
  26. Bruce Springsteen, “American Skin, (41 Shots)” – Springsteen took a lot of shit from police organizations when this came out. It seems he was right as the song is as relevant today as it was when it came out.
  27. Neil Young, “Southern Man” – Sadly this song about racism in the south now applies everywhere.
  28. Bruce Springsteen, “We Shall Overcome” – I probably should have gone with Pete Seeger’s original version but I just don’t like his voice. Bruce puts a little more oomph into this classic protest hymn.
  29. Elvis Presley, “If I Can Dream” – The King wanted a song with a strong message about racial and national unity to end the “68 Comeback Special.” I’d say he succeeded.
  30. The Clash, “Know Your Rights” – “A public service announcement…with guitars.”
  31. Green Day, “American Idiot” – For the man in charge…
  32. Depeche Mode, “Going Backwards” – Another great track. Can’t believe it’s been four years since Spirit came out.
  33. Elvis Costello, “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love And Understanding” – I’m not a huge Costello fan but I love this one.
  34. Public Enemy, “Fight the Power” – Indeed, fight the power… just be careful out there. I love this song.
  35. John Lennon, “Power To the People” – Lennon was dinged for being too political by his old Beatles fans. His music has transcended time.
  36. U2, “I Threw A Brick Through A Window” – I am in no way condoning violence but I chose this song to acknowledge that due to frustration the urge to throw something can be very strong.
  37. Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are A-Changin'” – I never realized how fond of adding an “A-” to words Dylan was. Title track from his great third album.
  38. Lenny Kravitz, “It’s Enough” – Great track where Lenny channels his inner Marvin Gaye (Lenny Kravitz: New Single, “It’s Enough,” His Inner City Blues Are A Smooth Groove).
  39. The Beatles, “Revolution” – Great rock and roll… turn this one up loud. It hasn’t lost its power and punch in all these years.
  40. The Clash, “Guns On the Roof” – I see cops everywhere. They even had snipers up on the roof of some of the Plaza buildings this last week. I never thought I’d see that.
  41. The Impressions, “People Get Ready” – Curtis Mayfield’s classic has been done by others like Rod Stewart/Jeff Beck but the original was the best fit here.
  42. CSNY, “Find the Cost of Freedom” – “Buried in the ground…” I wish these guys could get along and record some new protest music for us.
  43. Rage Against the Machine, “Killing In the Name” – “Some of those who work forces are the same that burn crosses.” Heavy track. I could have literally put their whole catalog out here… Everyone should be blasting Rage right now.
  44. CSNY, “Stand And Be Counted” – Great David Crosby track. Please do stand but more importantly be counted – VOTE.
  45. Lenny Kravitz, “Mr. Cab Driver” – From Lenny’s debut album. It’s a song about a situation a lot of black people face every day.
  46. Bob Marley and the Wailers, “Get Up Stand Up” – From the original Soul Rebel. Now is the time to get up and stand up for your rights.
  47. Scorpions, “Under the Same Sun” – Odd choice but such a hopeful song. I had to add it… some times the songs are just for me.
  48. U2, “Pride (In the Name of Love)” – For Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
  49. Bob Dylan, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol” – Recounting the story of a rich white man killing a working class black woman.
  50. Sly and the Family Stone, “Everyday People” – A happy song about inclusion. I needed some light.
  51. Tracy Chapman, “Talkin’ About a Revolution” – “Poor people gonna rise up…”
  52. Patti Smith, “People Have the Power” – Poet, rocker, protester.

These are some of my favorite protest tracks. I wasn’t trying to insult anybody’s sensibilities here, political or otherwise. I just think music has an amazing way to bring us together.

These are dark times. Be careful, be good and take care of each other out there.