Zimmerman in Zaragoza — June 23, 2008

Bob Dylan’s live set at the Expo with the Modern Times band proves that he really does get better with age… and his concerts are still full of groovy sublimity and musical surprises

Dylan gave the audience at Zaragoza, Spain a great two-hour set of old and new songs, June 23, 2008.
We crossed the desert to see Dylan play a car park, my wife Ester and me.

Zaragoza, Spain lies just on the edge of the Monegros Desert. Dylan was booked to play as part of the Expo, “Hard Rain” being the official theme song of the event. The venue, according to the tickets, was ‘la feria de muestras’, a trade-fair. I had something like the Birmingham NEC in mind, but no: the stage was set up outside — in the car park!

June 23 is an important date in the Spanish calendar: San Juan, the commencement of summer. Coincidentally, it was the first anniversary of my seeing the Stones in San Sebastian, but that’s another story…

It had been nigh on two decades since my last live encounter with His Bobness, and I confess to being more than a little nervous. He’d been lookin’ so frail in recent photos, just didn’t know what to expect. You never do with Dylan at the best of times! He took to the stage at ’round 9.30, resplendent in black, a silver stripe down his pants — and a bigger, whiter hat than even the Desire model (often in danger of blowing in the wind). His two literary honour medals, Spanish and French, proudly dangled from either side of his equally shiny buttons. The five piece Modern Times band, predominantly in black, with a variety of headgear:

George Recile: drums and kangol cap
Tony Garnier: bass, double bass, cowboy
Donnie Herron: steel guitars, banjo, violin, electric mandolin, silver suit, no hat
Denny Freeman: lead guitar, cowboy
Stu Kimball: rhythm guitars and pork-pie

As tight ‘n’ loose as you’d expect after more than two years as a unit, and havin’ a real good time one ‘n’ all!

El Se or treated us to a trip upon the magic swirling ship of his career (just over 2 hours with the encores), with many super-radical reworkings. They played a bit of everything: from country-blues to blues-country, a touch of jazz to boot, but the key feel was some of the kickingest rock ‘n’ roll boogie I’ve ever witnessed live. Hadn’t known what to expect, but didn’t expect that!

Smack-on sound system — and no matter how hard the band pumped, Bob’s perfectly phrased croakin’ and growlin’ never got lost in the mix. Despite my calling “Play us some geetar, Bob!” a coupla times, he remained firmly planted behind his electric piano the whole night.

With the big desert sky as their backcurtain, the band kicked in with an elaborate country intro. Took me a while to work out what it was: “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” — an arrangement as intricate as the original is simple. Bob havin’ a lot of fun with the lyric: “Why dontcha just bring that bottle over here?” A sign of things to come…

“Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” The rib-rattling stand-up bass makes its debut, and a mighty cheer when Bob’s harp does too. Great poppin’ vocal to keep up with the pickin’ — and a masterful tempo change to finish, Vegas cabaret style!

Another one that you couldn’t really suss till the first vocal. “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”, remodeled as a full-on funky blues, with enormous drums and no less than three blistering guitar solos.

“The Levee’s Gonna Break” Bringing us up to more ‘modern times’ (thanks Wook!) with an absolutely mental swamp-stomp rendition: all the players — Boppin’ Bob most of all — were well off it! Electric mandolins are cool things, man…

It was just getting dark enough to lift the lighters for a mellowed-down ballad version of “Shelter From The Storm” (Spanish punters love doing that!). Very lovely, bit more harmonica too: came across something like “Lay Lady Lay”. Clouds were gathering on the desert-sky backdrop, the air getting stickier by the minute.

“Cry A While” Considerably beefed-up from Love And Theft, almost encroaching upon leopard-skin pillbox territory at times. Some truly excellent near-straight blues harp from The Man for good measure. Banjos are cool things too…

Lapsteel and cymbals, joined by acoustic guitar, provide a long rolling intro which dropped sweetly into “Just Like A Woman”. A heartfelt creaky talk-through, with the audience more than happy to help out with the refrain. And more butane.

“Things Have Changed” The Oscar winner got taken apart and put back together like some kind of surreal Tom Waits/Beefheart construction. Electric fiddle in the cocktail this time. Got Bob’s ass movin’ and it sure as hell got ours, but there was ‘mucha gente’ not quite sure what to make of it…

“Beyond The Horizon” A country waltz to calm things down a little, the double bass and drums not being able to resist some incongruous twangs and snaps, however. Bob’s cheesy organ and husky Harry Nilsson phrasing worked a treat!

A ripping intro into “Honest With Me”. Full-tilt get-down boogie, open savagery on the drum kit in particular. Even raised a smile from Don Zimmerman: there were just a few, and — aside from introducing his “friends” a little later — not a spoken word. Par for the course!

The double bass got bowed for “When The Deal Goes Down”, perfectly complementing the lapsteel and a genuinely warm and mellow delivery from Dylan.

Bob Dylan concert ticket stub from Zaragoza, Spain (June 2, 2008)
Now almost too dark to even see my notebook, wamm! “Highway 61 Revisited”, reconstructed over a mental jungle rhythm, with a creamy lick of “Crossroads” thrown in for good measure, closing with Classic Rock Ending #235: Enorme! We came to dance, and dance we did.

“Hard Rain” Inevitable outing for the Expo’s anthem. Much more faithful to last year’s country re-make than the feisty folk of the original, electric mandolin included. Beguiling backing, hypnotic vocal — a different way to address the “blue-eyed son” each time.

Back to the boogie: the appropriate “Summer Days” had Bob bobbin’ round again. One of those smiles between drummer and bass that says “Look: The Man’s enjoyin’ himself!” And lo: he too flashed a smirk while snappin’ out the vocal. At times I was convinced they were gonna medley into “Shake, Rattle an’ Roll” or somesuchlike: wild!

“All Along The Watchtower” Acoustic levels owing more to JMH than JWH: an immense, loping, menacing vision! Dylan in great voice: actually singing, albeit with a wildcat growl. Shimmery tremolo guitar solo before repeating the first verse at the end. And off they walked…

A goodly wait for the encores: Bob in particular looking suitably ‘relaxed and refreshed’ as they slammed into “Thunder On The Mountain”. A last-ditch attempt to call down the rain. The heavens fortunately remained intact, though not for lack of effort on the band’s part (an almost Who-like intensity), nor for Bob’s — thundering the keyboard like Jerry-Lee!

“Like A Rolling Stone” You can imagine how it felt! That snare crack, His Bobness Himself actually laughing as he re-kooperated the classic organ refrain and continued to ‘wiggle wiggle’. Amazing vocal: he hit every note he went for, and twisted a different inflection into each “How does it feel?” while the audience carried the original cascading melody. A gleamingly clean guitar solo brought to mind Randy and Frisky.

There’s a good quality floating around on Youtube, probably from the guy stood next to us. Big finish, wordless gestures of thanks, and away…

Showing no signs of gathering moss at 67, we saw his bus roll out less than 10 mins later. Next stop Pamplona: same show very probably, but no repeat performances fer sure.

The paltry 5,000 who were at this show had witnessed, without a doubt, a legendary performance from the legend. Many of them didn’t seem to’ve entirely appreciated the fact, but hell man, Bob’s used to that! (I didn’t hear any ‘Judassing’, at least…)

Me and Ester? We got our €25-worth… Thanks Bob: may you stay forever young!

¡Viva Bosselona!

Three and a half hours of Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band at Camp Nou Stadium, Barcelona on Sunday, July 20, 2008

Bruce Springsteen in concert
Me, Ester and 70-odd thousand other tramps like us were participants in the party which was the last gig of the Magic European Tour. On a stiflingly sticky Barcelona night, Boss & Co kept us waiting for well over half an hour before finally making their appearance (though they compensated with a full-on show, lasting close on 3 1/2 hours). Having played the same venue the night before — the first act to sell the place out two days running — only half of the setlist was repeated.

As previously mentioned, it was partytime. “No gig tomorrow night, so let’s make the most of it!” Furthermore, Barcelona is a very special city for Bruce. Steve Van Zandt affirmed in the Avui newspaper the following day that it has the wildest audience in the world, and is the best place on the planet to finish a tour. They first played here on The River Tour in ’81, for 900 pesetas [€1.50!] and 6,000 people — Ester being one of them.

Spain was still emerging from 30 years of ‘Francismo’ and it was less than 2 months after a failed military coup. Bruce gave some kind of freedom back to the Catalans, and has never forgotten the thanks they gave him! The Stars and Stripes hung from one side of the stage, with the Catalan ‘Senyera’ from the other. It should also be recalled that he also first publicly proclaimed his love for Patti Scialfa in the same city some years later. Viva Bosselona!

La gran festa began with a galaxy of twinkling point-lights and a crazy Bavarian Beerhouse theme. The band duly trooped up the ramp to assume their positions onstage — except for Bruce, who dived directly into the crowd… Never have I seen anyone do that at the beginning of a gig! And there he remained as the E-Streets launched into “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”. I lost count of how many more times he hurled himself that way; to spit or throw water, collect request placards, share the mike, or just to simply be with the people. I have to confess to never having being an unconditional fan of the man — much of the set was terra incognito for me — but his sheer force and overwhelming enthusiasm throughout the entire show slammed me with an eternally indelible impact.

Bruce Springsteen ticket
When he did take to the stage, it was flat on his back on a wave of ecstatic adrenalin, already drenched with sweat. Though not unknown for his affinity with the fan family, this was an extra-special night and absolutely no holds were barred. Throwing himself around like a teenager, song fused into song with the 1-2-3-4 intros generally cutting across the endings. The band never missed a twist of course, each E-Street element showing all the precision and flair you’d expect, though at times there was a fair bit of sound distortion. From the crowd requests came, amongst others: “Tougher Than the Rest” (a kiss for Patti), “This Hard Land”, “Livin’ in the Future” and — the most original, on a battery-powered LED scroll — “I’m Goin’ Down” (with the moon goin’ up behind the stage).

“Badlands” concluded the main set, but there was hardly time for him to’ve necked a coffee before storming back on with “Thunder Road”, the stadium floodlights coming on to reveal the full extent of the singalong, dancealong party on the pitch. The “Detroit Medley” was especially stomping, and following it directly with “Born To Run” a stroke of genius! “American Land” had both keyboardists switch to accordion and new-girl Soozie Tyrell’s violin once more giving an extra dimension to the band.

For the fiesta’s final finale, a 9 1/2 minute fusion of ‘Twist & Shout/La Bamba’, Evan Springsteen joined dad on guitar, with mama co-ordinating the rest of the brood on maracas, tambourines, et cetera. And so it ended, with Bruce vowing to come back soon. He certainly will — and I’ll certainly do my best to be there when he does. Just hope it’s not a Sunday night when the Metro’s closed so we can avoid the “Long Walk Home”, halfway across Barcelona to find a taxi, after the long night’s dancing! Ah well, what else can you expect from tramps like us?!!

The Band

Bruce Springsteen — guitar, harmonica, vocals
Patti Scialfa — guitar, percussion, vocals
Steve Van Zandt — guitar, mandolin, vocals
Nils Lofgren — guitar, vocals
Garry Tallent — bass guitar
Clarence Clemons — saxophone, percussion, vocals
Soozie Tyrell — violin, percussion,vocals
Charles Giordano — keyboards, accordion
Roy Bittan — piano, accordion
Max Weinberg — drums

The Songs

Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
Radio Nowhere
Lonesome Day
Prove It All Night
Darkness on the Edge of Town
Spirit in the Night
Light of Day
Working on the Highway
Tougher Than the Rest
This Hard Land
Murder Incorporated
The Promised Land
Livin’ in the Future
I’m Goin’ Down
Mary’s Place
The Rising
Last to Die
Long Walk Home

Thunder Road
Detroit Medley
Born to Run
American Land
Twist and Shout/La Bamba

Thoughts on Mitch Mitchell

Jimi’s drummer of choice rewrote the rock and roll drumming rulebook

Mitch Mitchell — the last survivor of The Experience — rejoined Jimi, Noel and Chas on November 12th. He was 62 years old, and the first reports suggest that he went peacefully in his sleep, of ‘natural causes’. Coming as it did, just a few days after finishing my review of their debut recording, the news has hit me with all the force the trio habitually exerted.

Quite simply, Mitchell was one of the greatest players to have ever picked up sticks. Why else did Hendrix make him a Rainbow Gypsy as The Experience folded? His dynamic percussion techniques and fusion innovations remain at the core of rock, and — way back then — he was a pioneer of the concept of ‘lead drumming’.

Post-Hendrix, he took a large part of the responsibility for getting most of the posthumously released material into condition. Though he continued to play, on and off, with various formations, he never regained the profile he’d had while sparring with Jimi. He’d recently finished a tribute tour when he died.

Another legend lost, leaving us to marvel over his legacy. Rest in peace.

Love Is A Lesson To Learn In Our Time R.I.P. John Martyn 1948—2009

I was deeply saddened to receive news of the passing of another innovative and original artist at the close of last month. John Martyn was one of the most talented guitarists and composers who I ever had the privilege to witness live (on more occasions than I can recall) and, at the same time, one of the humblest and most human performers ever to have walked the boards. Were it the Glastonbury main stage or a tacky student union bar; with a big band behind him, duetting with Danny Thompson’s stand-up bass, or simply all on his ownsome, Johnny Babes would never give less than his all (and usually then some on top!).

He was born Iain McGeachy in Surrey, England, but raised in Scotland. As the old adage goes, “Ye can take the boy outta Glasgow, but ye cannae take Glasgow outta the boy.” From his 60s days as a fingerpickin’ folkie, the first white artist to be signed to Island Records, he constantly strove to explore and expand his instrument’s capabilities to the full. Hooking up his acoustic guitar through an echo box and a barrage of effects pedals, he added jazz, blues and rock sounds and feelings to his playing —- never worrying about the results falling into any particular category. Later incursions, electric and acoustic, would lead him into dub, funk and soul — even hip-hop and dance music.

A couple of albums with his then wife, Beverley, opened the seventies: the decade which saw his most critically acclaimed releases, including Solid Air (1973) — dedicated to Nick Drake — and One World (1977), his experimental collaboration with, amongst other luminaries, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry.

From the former comes one of his best-loved and most enduring songs, “May You Never” (covered by self-avowed admirer and subsequent co-performer Clappy, on Slowhand). The latter, with its ambient sound morphing into the music, pioneered styles which would come to be known as ‘Trip-Hop’ and ‘Chill-Out’. The cathartic Grace And Danger, attempting to deal with his marriage breakdown, was released in 1980, but only following a year of arguments with Island boss Chris Blackwell. The LP, incidentally, features — for me, at least — some of the finest drumwork ever by a certain Phil Collins, who also went on to produce the subsequent LP Glorious Fool for his “infuriating friend.”
An inveterate experimenter in the studio as well as on stage, his Classic John Martyn EP —- revisiting his career and heralding the lushly produced Piece By Piece album (1986) -— is widely acknowledged as the world’s very first CD single. Of course, not enough people had the hardware back then to put it even near the charts. Not that John would’ve given a fig, anyway: he’d already been close enough to the big-time for long enough to know where he was happy.
This was the period when I got into seeing him live. Johnny never sold his soul to the devil, but willingly gave it to his fans every time he performed. Watching him play was a revelation: your ears can deceive you, but actually being able to see that he really was doing all that with a guitar — woah man — something else… And, more to the point, singing at the same time! Were he oozing “Sweet Little Mystery” or “Angeline”, or ranting his way through “John Wayne”, his voice was always another dimension of the music: the lyrics more often than not remaining a “Sweet Little Mystery.” But, my god, you never failed to feel what the man was telling you. And then, when you did finally get round to sitting down with the liner sleeve/CD booklet and worked out what he was actually saying, you’d get totally blown away all over again by his depth.
He loved quipping with the audience between numbers, and was never shy of straight-talking: Maggie and Ronnie and both the Bushes were prime targets for his acid wit. Close-up in a small venue, reeking of Scotch, dripping with sweat, eyes tight shut and straining to get every ounce of his essence into the music and out of his voice: that’s how I’ll remember him. Or, at the other end of the scale, probably the greatest collective act of disbelief suspension in which I’ve ever partaken: “Over The Rainbow” as his 1986 Glastonbury encore — everyone completely and utterly aware of the cheesiness of it all, and nobody more conscious of it than JM himself. Experiences like that have neither price nor sell-by date!
His taste for a drop or ten of the hard stuff (and assorted other traditional rock ‘n’ roll trimmings) was a factor in his departure from Island at the end of the eighties, but didn’t slow him down any, as he went on playing live and releasing new material on various labels. Neither did the amputation of half of his right leg in 2004: he simply swapped his playing stool for a wheelchair… Continuing his eternal rapport with the public, and commenting on his resultant obesity, he’d frequently introduce himself as “the one-legged Sumo wrestler.”
His 40+ years as a recording artist have left us with a score of studio albums and over a dozen live and compilation releases. Not bad for a man who, by his own admission, “Just stumble[d] from one thing to another.” Or, as “Serendipity says, ‘You got to smile and roll the dice…'” Having received a BBC lifetime achievement award in 2006, he was also named ‘OBE’ for his services to music, less than a month before he died.
It was, of course, the booze (et cetera) that got him in the end —- this time in the guise of double pneumonia. And, as he joins that great celestial jam session, somewhere over the rainbow, it can only be hoped that Saint Peter remembered to get a few extra crates in!
And, yes, love is still a message to learn in our time: bear it in mind…

You Just Kinda Wasted All My Precious Time Observations on album filler

We know we don’t live in a perfect musical landscape. Never have. So the interesting question sometimes comes up: If an artist absolutely, positively HAS to include a ‘filler’ song, where should it go?

Certainly not at the beginning of the album, most would agree — then you’d be disappointed outright, and the initial mood would hang over the rest of the album. And not at the end, either — most would agree with that. It’d leave you on a sour note. So where, then?

I contend that the first track of side two is the worst place for a filler song, with the following observations (warning: very long and rambling):

1. It can lull the momentum badly if the last track of side one was particularly engaging (which it often is, provided that it’s an album by a smart artist); in these cases, it’s like a fire that gets quickly fizzled out (examples: “Right On” on Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, “Tears in the Morning” on The Beach Boys’ Sunflower).

2. There are often bad tracks placed at the END of an LP, which is obviously frustrating as hell… but this can often work, seeing as a final track is the place to ‘sum up’ the album. They can be bad tracks, but nevertheless necessary, and hence not ‘filler’ (examples: “Torn Curtain” on Television’s Marquee Moon, “Little America” on R.E.M.’s Reckoning).

3. In some cases, though, a bad track beginning side two can actually be a good thing, provided that your emotions are following the album every step of the way; this usually works best if it’s a track that’s completely different from the rest of it, so that it relaxes you before plunging you back in to the album’s style(s). Thus, they transcend ‘filler,’ because such tracks aren’t just meant to ‘fill up’ an album, despite their weaknesses — they have a purpose (I heard an interesting theory about The Beatles’ “Revolution 9” in this regard — serving a purpose, that is — but that’s another discussion). Examples: “Within You Without You” on The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, “The Bogus Man” on Roxy Music’s For Your Pleasure).

4. Since the vinyl LP format is obviously dead, one would think that these concepts don’t affect the CD age, but they actually can. Example: Radiohead placing “Optimistic” on side two of Kid A was a daring move, since their ‘come-down’ song (“Treefingers”) was placed at the end of side one; artists these days seem to understand this, and the come-down track is usually put just a bit before the middle. It allows you to feel relaxed enough to tackle the second half.

5. On hip-hop LPs, the artists usually go for a more ‘no holds barred’ strategy and either (i) try to keep the momentum going as long as possible, or (ii) place a skit on side two to lull you into whatever mood they want. If they choose option (i), then the CD format is certainly the best thing that ever happened to hip-hop.

6. Artists generally did seem to agree with this ‘side two’ theory, since they recognized that it was like Part II of a two-part book. You’d want to begin it with something that would make you feel energized enough to think that the momentum was not going to falter. Check out most LPs and you’ll note that the first track of side two is usually an album highlight.

7. All of the above is relative to an album’s time period; the Motown artists and early rock ‘n’ roll artists had more of a ‘just throw all the songs in and release the thing’ approach, which may be why nobody bothers to reissue the actual albums of such artist on remastered CD format… because people mostly played albums for a few songs, instead of looking for some kind of ‘journey’ — the ‘journey’ format of albums became prevalent in the 1960s rock era, and it then bled into all the other genres soon after (though jazz records were way ahead of them in this regard, one could argue).

8. The obvious answer as to where filler should ideally be, of course, is ‘nowhere,’ but almost every album in the world has some filler, and everything can’t be perfect. Every album has some sucky spots. I submit that the BEST place to put filler is on the third-last track, assuming it’s about a standard 10-song LP (I know, this is weird). Therefore, it would be late enough to not significantly damage the album’s energy, and early enough not to mar the ending with a ‘well what the hell was the point?’ feeling.

So yes. I understand that this was longer than needed, certainly… and I also realize that this is more a boring lecture on album structure. But that’s my view on the subject, and hopefully you guys’ll chip in your views on album filler — I’m always interested in hearing about it. Feel free to submit your own lists of filler tracks on albums that really, REALLY marginalize the album — that’d be fun.