Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Dylan Annihilates Audiences at Toronto show

I recently missed my first Dylan show in Toronto since the first time I saw him at the concert hall on April 28, 1996. At that time I was only really familiar with his greatest hits and a few of his early albums. His setlist was so diverse that I only knew four songs.


The set included two Grateful Dead covers, presumably in homage to Jerry Garcia who's ashes had, unbeknownst to me, just recently been dispersed into the Ganges river. I remember Dylan's face being eerily lit up in red during the performance of "Friend of the devil". It was remarkable to me that the man, who was only just crystallizing as an idol in my mind, seemed to pander so little to his audience, by playing so few of the songs for which he is well known. He was obviously many thousands of miles ahead of his audience, and it took me more than 10 years to "catch up". I am now familiar with his entire catalog including most of his bootlegs, and I have memorized the lyrics to more than a few of his songs, which I play on guitar and piano.

Having missed the show last week, I still feel that I am in a better position to write a review than any of the critics that I read in the local media. So here goes.

Last night at the air Canada centre, Dylan once again confounded his audience by giving them what they didn't know they needed to hear. He once again confused them by altering the melody, phrasing, delivery and arrangement of all the songs, with the notable exception of "ballad of a Thin Man". He once again frustrated them by singing his songs like an aging blues man, channeling Charlie Patton or Howling' Wolf, with a highly guttural inflection. His vocal delivery is even different from how he currently sounds on record. Many of his aging fans could be seen leaving before the show had even finished, dumbfounded that Dylan was not singing an acoustic duet of "we shall overcome" with Joan Baez. 

I can imagine that his new vocal style might be tough to swallow for some fans, especially those that are hanging on to the hope that he's gonna go back to singing the way he did 50 years ago.  However, I have found that overcoming what to some might seem like a mildly annoying vocal (Tom Waits, Dave Matthews, the guy from the Decemberists) can lead to whole new worlds of enjoyment in music. In fact Dylan's live vocals are one of his greatest qualities. He has developed an entirely new and unique improvisational approach, which is somewhat akin to rap or jazz. Although I personally don't have the stomach for jazz. There is a certain warmth and honesty there also. He takes risks. He makes himself vulnerable. Not many artists can pull this off, or think to try. At his age and stature he could play it safe and boring and we would still love him, but he chooses to challenge himself and his audiences. 

A friend of mine recently challenged me on this assessment. He commented that Dylan could fart into a mic and fans would be gushing over his new artistic expression. There could actually be some truth to this. I recently read a review of a Dylan show in vice magazine. The author was off base about much of what he said, but after listening to the clips I realized Dylan did indeed sound like he was channeling Scooby Doo.


The only thing that disappointed me about the Toronto show is that he only played one song from the new album, "Early Roman Kings". However, I was impressed that he followed it immediately by his other song about New York gangsters, "Joey", off Desire, which I had never heard live before.

All in all, a fantastic show!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

A Teapot in a Tempest

He's still got it! Dylan fans can rejoice at the arrival of his best album since 2001's "Love and Theft". That album did not receive the media recognition that it deserved because it was released on, and over-shadowed by, the events of September 11th. I love L&T so much that I refer to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre as the second most important historical event that occurred on that day. Of course the album surprises and fascinates in part because it builds upon and refines what Dylan had started to accomplish with his seminal come-back album from 1997, Time Out of Mind, which won him three Grammys that year, including album of the year. His next two albums were highly successful commercially, but to me it seemed that he had lost the thread, and maybe it was just not possible for him to make a better album than "Love and Theft". Modern Times and Together Through Life are both great albums, and are undoubtedly of the same vintage as his other post-comeback output, but these albums don't have the same depth and intricacy that we expect from a true Dylan classic.

From this perspective, Tempest is a triumphant return to form and a thumb-in-the-eye to critics and naysayers everywhere. I like to think that, in typical Dylan fashion, he has been mocking and lulling the yes-men and critics alike to beguile us, only to catch us unawares and defy our expectations anew by releasing a potent and intricate masterpiece. Anyone who follows Dylan can see his pattern of sneering abuse over the decades. His will to re-invent himself and come at us with something we didn't expect, and didn't know we wanted, is what makes him so unique and powerful.

The lyrical content of Tempest is outstanding, and laced with vulgar and gritty imagery and themes that seem to spiral from the songs, and outward into the great massive and empty world. The album is packed with allegories, allusions, and blunt facts. It is steeped and rooted in history and also timeless. The lyrical content is a kaleidoscope of connections to outside influences and to his own output. Although Dylan has used vulgar and explicit imagery previously, his use of sexual and lascivious language is much more prominent here. "I ain't afraid to make love to a bitch or a hag".

My only complaint about Tempest is that, although the lyrics are profound, and the music and delivery are brilliant, Dylan's vocals sometimes feel a bit distant or detached. Like the real Dylan is not there, only the trapeze artist. Although he can still craft a tune and make it look easy, I sometimes long for the emotionally invested Dylan of Blood on the Tracks. Ironically, this is what he has been putting to us so plain and clear in every lyric, his heart is just not in it anymore. Maybe chronicles volume two will give us a better understanding of exactly what has maimed him so. Not likely.

A very superficial song-by-song analysis follows:

1) Duquesne Whistle
Very satisfying intro. Unassuming and subtle.

2) Soon After Midnight
Beautiful song! Along with "Long and Wasted Years", the closest thing to a love song on the album. Although not without a tinge of death:

            "They chirp and they chatter
            What does it matter
            they're lyin' there dyin' in their blood.
            Two timin' slim.
            Who ever heard of him?
            I'll drag his corpse through the mud".

Favourite line:
             "Charlotte's a harlot, dresses in scarlet
            Mary dresses in green
            It's soon after midnight
            And I've got a date with the fairy queen" (presumably Mary)

3) Narrow Way
This song made me ask Dr. Google about the British burning down the White House. Call me ignant, but I was not aware that this had occurred during the war of 1812. A straight-ahead rocking blues nugget with religious overtones. Musically descended from "Highway 61 Revisited". The narrator seems to be losing his connection to god and drifting into a life of the flesh as the song progresses.

            "Look down angel, from the skies
            help my weary soul to rise
            I kissed your cheek, I dragged your plow
            you broke my heart, I was your friend till now
            .. If I can't work up to you
            you'll surely have to work down to me someday."

After giving up on the angel on high, he finds an earthly one..
            "I've got a heavy stacked woman
            with a smile on her face
            she has crowned my soul with grace
            I'm still hurtin' from an arrow, that pierced my chest
            I'm gonna have to take my head
            and bury it in your breasts"
Everything comes full circle in the last verse when he hears a voice at the dusk of day saying "be gentle brother, be gentle and pray". Salvation anyone?

4) Long And Wasted Years
"Long And Wasted Years" is an expression of the deep sadness associated with lost love. You wouldn't guess it from Dylan's lilting delivery. Dylan makes every word jump at you through his use of phrasing and emphasis. Listen to how he sings at 0:44, "Last night I heard you talkin' in your sleep, sayin' things you shouldn't say". In this song he is using a pattern of phrasing and melody that is uniquely his and which he has been developing and perfecting in his live performances over the past few years. This song may lead many a Dylan fan, frustrated by his live performances, to finally appreciate the true virtues of his vocal attack style.
            "I wear dark sunglasses to cover my eyes
            There's secrets in em' I can't disguise
            Come back baby
            If I hurt your feelings I apologize"

5) Pay In Blood
Not sure what to think of this song. Murderous and provocative.

6) Scarlet Town
"Scarlet Town" is the centerpiece of the album. A beautifully well put together and poetic vision of darkness and chaos. The landscape he paints of this depraved and forsaken place makes the skin crawl.

            "Set 'em up Joe, play walkin' the floor
            Play it for my flat-chested junkie whore
            If love is a sin, then beauty is a crime
            All things are beautiful in their time
            The black and the white, the yellow and the brown
            It's all right there for you in Scarlet Town"

7) Early Roman Kings
Better than "Joey".

8) Tin Angel
"Tin Angel" is the dark heart of this album. The timeless narrative unfolds around a master coming home to a deserted mansion and throne, his lady having taken off with "old Henry Lee, chief of the clan". The main protagonist, a cross between Heathcliff from "Wuthering Heights" and Daniel Day Lewis's character from "There Will Be Blood" hunts them down in order to kill his wife's lover. After finding the two lovers together the story culminates in a gruesome triple murder-suicide. Musically the song is very sparse and features a riff that is somewhat reminiscent of "Exodus" by Bob Marley. After finding the two lovers in bed together, the protagonist says:

            "Get up, stand up
            you greedy lipped wench
            cover your face or suffer the consequence

            you are makin' my heart feel sick
            put your clothes back on

9) Tempest
An elegant and regal telling of this story. Since it was an iceberg and not a storm that sank the titanic, Dylan's choice of title suggests to me that the song is a metaphor for the current state of the world or a prophecy of its fate. The constant waves of flowing narrative remind me a bit of Dylan's other song about a natural disaster, "Black Diamond Bay". By verse 9 the ship is already sinking and the next 34 verses proceed to describe the carnage that ensues and the perspectives of a seemingly endless cast of doomed passengers. At close to 14 minutes, this is Dylan's first great epic since "Highlands" from Time out of Mind. Eat it Celine!

10) Roll On John
It only took Dylan 32 years to write this tribute to John Lennon. (Much less than the one hundred years it took him to write his tribute to the Titanic.) I don't have much to say about this song, except that Dylan appears to confirm the theory, to which I have always subscribed, that John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Buckley, Kurt Cobain and other prematurely-dead rock stars are actually alive and well on some island. At exactly the half point of the song Dylan sings "Put on your bags and get em' packed... You've been cooped up on an island far too long".

The new album, released 11 years to the day after his previous masterpiece, is a tour de force. With Tempest, Dylan has created an intricate album, full of riddles, mazes and traps. He challenges the listener to enter his world, a pathetically tortured place that is alternately just within and just out of reach of salvation. With every song, every verse, every word, he kicks our crutches out from under us, prodding us deeper into a mysterious world that simultaneously manifests every imaginable good deed and every unforgivable crime. The album is a journey from the heights of glory and morality to the depths of pity and despair. He baits us and then defies us. He gives us all of what we want to hear and combines it with just enough of what we needed to hear but didn't think we wanted to.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Mama, You Been On My Mind

A version of this song that I recorded in Toronto in 2009