Saturday, December 3, 2016

Bob Dylan – The Real Royal Albert Hall 1966 Concert

The Real Royal Albert Hall 1966 Concert

Last month saw the release of Bob Dylan: The 1966 Live Recordings, a 36-CD box set documenting Bob Dylan’s 1966 tour of Australia and Europe with The Hawks, the band that would later be known as The Band (although with Mickey Jones, rather than Levon Helm on drums) – essentially multiple versions of the same show: an acoustic set of Dylan solo and an electric set with The Hawks.

One of the concerts from that tour, the May 17 show at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall was a widely circulated bootleg for many years incorrectly labeled as the Royal Albert Hall Concert (which took place on May 26). In 1998, the Manchester concert was officially released as Volume 4 of Dylan’s Bootleg Series. Now, both shows are part of the huge box set.

Personally, I don’t feel a need to hear every concert from that tour. I was actually quite satisfied with the 1998 release of the Manchester concert. But, The Real Royal Albert Hall 1966 Concert was released yesterday on its own, and I have listened.

Make no mistake, it is great. The acoustic set is superb – solo Dylan at his best – and the electric set was intense and fierce. If anything, Dylan and The Hawks sound like they’d gelled even more as a unit in the days since Manchester. And you don’t hear the hostility that some in the audience had during the electric set in Manchester. There was no idiot in the audience yelling “Judas,” this time around.

But, the songs are the same songs played at the earlier show, and in the same order. So, I would say either The Real Royal Albert Hall 1966 Concert or The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert is an essential part of any Dylan collection.

Here is my review of The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert written in 1998 for Sing Out! magazine.

The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966: The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert

Over the course of a long career, Bob Dylan has released many live-concert albums. Oddly enough, until the official 1998 release of these 32-year-old recordings, none of those live albums date from the 1960s, the decade in which Dylan was at the forefront of redefining how we make, listen to, and think about folk music, popular music and rock ‘n’ roll, and how those strands collide, intersect and combine with each other. This 2-CD set is a vital addition to any list of Dylan’s most important albums.

In the summer of 1965, Dylan stunned and polarized the Newport Folk Festival with the loud electrification of his music. Not long after, he hooked up with a Toronto bar band called The Hawks (later rechristened The Band) and began a long tour that eventually brought them to Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in May of 1966 (not London’s Royal Albert Hall as was marked on the bootlegged tapes, although they would play at the Royal Albert a week or so later). On each stop, Dylan would play a solo acoustic set followed by an electric band set. These sets are represented by the album’s two different CDs.

Dylan’s performance of the seven songs on the acoustic disc are absolutely stunning. He opens with “She Belongs to Me,” a beautiful and already familiar love song. Other songs that would have been familiar to the audience include “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” widely interpreted at the time as Dylan’s farewell to protest music, the epic and surrealistic portrait of urban isolation “Desolation Row,” and “Mr. Tambourine Man,” heard here in a glorious nine-minute version.

He also turns in versions of three extraordinary songs – “Just Like a Woman,” “Fourth Time Around” and “Visions of Johanna” – from Blonde On Blonde which had just been released in the U.S. but was not yet available in England.

Throughout the acoustic set, the audience is quiet and reverential. Things changed after the intermission.

The electric set presented an artist intent on breaking new ground facing off against an audience that included many who did not want to accept those changes. Often openly hostile, the audience seemed to spur Dylan and the Hawks into playing with a rock ‘n’ roll intensity that seemed to reach 15 on a scale of one to 10. As he already had with folk music, Dylan was expanding what was possible in rock music.

Near the end of the concert, Dylan snarls his way through his accusatory “Ballad of a Thin Man” with its refrain of “Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is/Do you, Mr. Jones?”  The audience might as well be the Mr. Jones Dylan was addressing. And, true to form, someone in the audience yells out “Judas” to a smattering of applause. “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar,” Dylan responds. He can then be heard off-mike telling The Hawks to “play fucking loud” as they launch into a powerful rendition of “Like a Rolling Stone.”

From today’s perspective, it’s hard to imagine the controversy that raged over Dylan’s music in his early-electric period. But Dylan’s insistence on breaking new ground in those years expanded the possibilities for all who followed after him. The only thing I find hard to understand now is why he sat on the official release of this album for more than 30 years. Without doubt, it is THE live album of his career.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Rory Block – Keepin’ Outta Trouble: A Tribute to Bukka White

Keepin’ Outta Trouble: A Tribute to Bukka White
Stony Plain Records

In 1974, when I was 20-years-old, I was a stage manager (area co-ordinator) at the Mariposa Folk Festival and one of the artists I got to work with that year at Mariposa was Booker “Bukka” White, a 68-year-old legend of the Delta blues. I wasn’t yet familiar with White’s recordings, but I knew some of his songs via recordings by Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk and Tom Rush. What I remember most, more than 40 years later, was White’s imposing presence sitting on stage with his steel-bodied National guitar, and the authority and power in his singing and slide playing. That June weekend in Toronto was the only time I got to see him play live. He died less than three years later.

Rory Block, who grew up in the folk music community in Greenwich Village, met White there in 1965, when she was about 15. “Watching him perform was transformative. Bukka had absolutely no mercy on the guitar and slammed it like Paul Bunyan wielding an axe,” she writes in the notes to Keepin’ Outta Trouble: A Tribute to Bukka White, the latest in her series of tribute albums to legendary blues artists she had the opportunity to know and learn from as a kid. Earlier releases in the series include tributes to Son House, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Reverend Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James.

While Rory has often included a song or two she wrote about those artists on these Mentor Series tribute albums, along with her versions of their classic songs, she brings many more of her own songs to this project than ever before. Of the 10 tracks, half are Bukka White classics and half are Rory’s original songs inspired, in some way by him.

She opens the album with a pair of original tracks. In “Keepin’ Outta Trouble,” she gives us a couple of scenes from (or imagined from) White’s life: a fight in a Mississippi barroom that gets him in trouble and a prison term at Parchman Farm that ends when he impresses the governor with his music. Then, in the gospel-influenced “Bukka’s Day,” we hear about his hard life of work growing up, the influence of the church, his becoming a musician and again, of that fight that put him in prison. Ultimately, it’s a piece of blues philosophy about the saint and the sinner in all of us.

Rory’s songs later in the album include “Spooky Rhythm,” in which she pictures White as an itinerant musician, “Gonna Be Some Walkin’ Done,” which was inspired by White’s guitar part to his song “Jitterbug Swing,” and by an off-hand comment he made on a record, and “Back to Memphis,” a tribute to the music White played in Memphis so many decades ago.

Booker "Bukka" White
Bukka White’s songs – covered with equal doses of respect for his original versions and Rory’s own creativity – include “Aberdeen Mississippi Blues,” “Parchman Farm,” and the often-covered “Fixin’ to Die Blues.”

My favorites of White’s songs in the set are the train songs, “New Frisco Train” and “Panama Limited,” a description of a train trip with the slide guitar duplicating the various sounds of the train as it makes it journey through the south.

Rory is the only musician and singer on the album but she sometimes fills out the sound by overdubbing more guitar parts, harmony vocals and creatively improvised percussion effects.

Like she had with the other albums in her Mentor Series tribute, Rory inspired me to pull Bukka White’s own recording off the shelf and listen again to that powerful musician I encountered at Mariposa so many years ago.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Orit Shimoni – Soft Like Snow

Soft Like Snow
MW Music

One of my favorite times and ways to listen to music is late at night, in a quiet dark room, via headphones. And it is quiet, sad, poetic, thought-provoking songs that I particularly like to listen to late at night, in a quiet dark room, via headphones. Some of Leonard Cohen’s albums – like Songs of Leonard Cohen or Songs from a Room – are filled with those kinds of songs. So is Soft Like Snow, the new 10-song collection by Orit Shimoni, the artist once known as Little Birdie.

Soft Like Snow is an album that speaks of love, loss of love, memory and the futility of war. One of the best songs, “Playing Chelsea Hotel,” is a direct nod to Leonard Cohen, which was made ever more poignant because I listened to the album for the first time on the same day I learned that Leonard had died.

“Playing Chelsea Hotel” describes a brief encounter with a busking accordion player singing Leonard’s “Chelsea Hotel,” a fleeting moment of harmony when she added her voice to his, and her lingering thoughts about the busker after she’d moved on.

Another highlight is the title song, “Soft Like Snow,” which conjures wintertime images as the narrator describes searching for comfort as she contemplates carrying on after the end of an affair of the heart.

While Orit wrote and plays most of the songs on guitar, she is at the piano – playing and singing quietly but intensely – for some of the album’s most interesting songs. Among them is “Room to Myself,” set in a hotel room late at night, the television on but without sound, as she again contemplates an ended relationship and a life spent largely moving from place to place.

Another of the piano songs is “Fool,” the most thought-provoking song on Soft Like Snow. In “Fool,” Orit addresses a soldier enjoying a day at the beach, a day on which the soldier is able to escape conflict. But while the soldier is not physically at the front, she is not able to escape the thoughts of an innocent child, or innocent children, caught up in the conflict. Orit spent much of her life in Israel – a country that has known much conflict and where there is compulsory military service – and while I don’t know if Orit served in the Israeli army before moving to Canada as a young woman, I can’t help but think that she, herself, is the soldier being addressed in the song.

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--Mike Regenstreif