Sunday, November 23, 2014

Bob Dylan Redux (Again!)

Before there were music phenomenons like Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber, there was Bob Dylan. But wait. He is still here. Most likely he’ll be going your way and then mine real soon. Tuesday he is coming to Washington, DC, his 29th visit to the area in the last 26 years, in what many call the Never Ending Tour.

Dylan’s on stage visibility today is in sharp contrast to the disappearing act  he did in the late 60’s after his motorcycle accident. That period, when he holed up with The Band in Woodstock, NY, is back in the news with the release of yet another version of The Basement Tapes. This six-CD set comes with a title like a PBS documentary: “The Basement Tapes Complete: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 11” and a $93 price tag. The 139 songs were recorded back in 1967, released as a double album in 1975 and have been bootlegged for years as the “secret” sessions have been analyzed by critics and fans for years. Greil Marcus devoted a 2011 book to the recording sessions, Old Weird America.

The questions raised about the sessions have often overshadowed the music. Was Dylan hiding out to lick his wounds after the turbulence created by the switch from acoustic to electric in 1966? Were they designed as a ploy in a battle with record labels? Was he trying to reinvent himself? Or return to his roots? Or just goofing around with the boys?

As always with Dylan (and with other great bodies of work like The Talmud or The Bible) there are more questions than answers and an army of interpreters ready to jump on the train and ride it as far as possible.

John Howells writing his dissertation for called this Dylan’s “greatest body of work.” Sasha Frere-Jones, in The New Yorker (Nov. 3), wrote, “Better to approach it as a toolbox than as a serial listening experience…For every moment of revelation there are five throwaways.” He noted that the 1975 album showed that Robbie Robertson (who produced it), “with some exceptions knew which the good songs were.”

Football has its fantasy leagues, baseball has the hot stove league and Dylan keeps dishing out old audio recordings for us to dissect and debate. For holiday shoppers, it is a perfect marketing tool. For music mavens it is the gift that keeps on giving as they chart the tributaries of the Americana music catalog.

And finally, this revival gives well-deserved credit to the boys from Canada who represented the power behind the throne. Robbie Robertson co-wrote “Tears of Rage” and Rick Danko co-wrote “This Wheel’s On Fire.” They went into these sessions as “The Hawks” and after Levon Helm joined them, emerged with “Music From Big Pink” and the start of a Hall of Fame career.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

James Brown: Super(music)man

One of my favorite uses of faint praise to damn a mediocre performance is “He don’t stop no show.”  That could never be used against James Brown as the new documentary, “Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown,” demonstrates on HBO.

From the first time he slides onto the stage by wiggling one patent leather shoe back and forth, you are reminded that this is the man who created it all. As the film unfolds, it becomes clear how the threads of the blues, R & B, soul, jazz, funk and rock are all tied together by the cord connected to his microphone and by the life he led.

Director Alex Gibney does a masterful job of using Brown’s performances and hit songs as a soundtrack to his life and our times.  Brown croons “Georgia” as the narration reveals his hardscrabble early life  when both parents abandoned him and he was sent to live with an aunt who ran a whorehouse.

Later “It’s A Man’s World” underpins the story of how Brown flew to Jackson, Mississippi to perform after James Meredith was shot. He sings “If I Ruled The World,” as the film tells how his show in Boston after Martin Luther King was assassinated was broadcast live on public television and kept the city calm. “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” is credited with changing the consciousness of an entire generation of young people.

While Brown is the star, the rich anecdotes from Bobby Byrd and the backing musicians (Maceo Parker, Pee Wee Ellis, Clyde Stubblefield, Fred Wesley, Melvin Parker, John Jabo Stark) and his Cape Man, Danny Ray, offer insights into the man and his music.

Ellis talks about how Brown came in with a song idea but all he did was grunt. “My job was to take those grunts and make music.”  The result was “Cold Sweat.”  Melvin Parker talks about pulling a gun on Brown to keep him from hitting Maceo in the mouth. They all talk about how tightfisted he was but recalled fondly how his ruthless discipline (he would flash fines for missed notes live on stage) made them into the amazing band they became.

The historic footage from “The Tammy Show,” “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “The Mike Douglas Show” and “Soul Train” is worth the price of admission (or the monthly HBO fee).  As is the duet he does with Hubert Humphrey at a campaign rally in 1968 or the performance at the Nixon inaugural ball.

At one point, Brown talked about shining shoes as a kid for pennies in front of a radio station in Augusta, Georgia. “Now I own it.” For Brown it was about the show and the business.