Friday, November 14, 2014

Rock nostalgia ain't what it used to be

After many years of following Dylan and going to see him every time he plays Toronto I have come to an important watershed. I am getting older and I am not in touch with the living and breathing music scene. I recently looked at the “just announced” section for concerts in NOW magazine and noticed that I haven’t heard of a single band. My need for new music recently prompted me to randomly pick up an album called “Salad Days” by Mac Demarco, after listening to it on headphones at HMV. I liked the sound. It was unique and cool, and every track on the album was good. I started getting into it, watched a bunch of videos on youtube and then went to the show at the NXNE festival last June.  The show was fantastic. It had an energy and humour, an edginess and unpredictability that is not typical of any of the aging classic rock bands that have canalized their way into our collective pop culture psyches. His stage presence is different from many of the bands that we take for granted as fixtures in the music industry establishment. It exists. As a rising young artist, he is driven and he shows gratitude and generosity to his audience. By comparison, the kind of gratitude that I have seen from many of the successful major label artists, such as Tom Petty or Dave Grohl seems feigned. No matter how big their heads and egos have become, it is impossible for their level of gratitude to possibly reflect the degree of accolades that they have received from their herds of blind minions. They seem to be going through the motions. In Bob’s case he seems to hover on the stage like a god, untouchable and out of touch with his fans. There even seems to be a sense of disdain. I don’t blame him. After sixty years of having to maintain a public persona as a living legend some ennui must set in, and yet there is no pretense. His stage presence is an honest mask. Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?

I’m not saying that the aging bands don’t put on a good show, however they tend to rely on audience nostalgia and big light shows instead of the capacity for direct communication of the human spirit. Last week I went to see Mac Demarco again at the Danforth Music Hall. It was a raucous and energetic performance. Complete with copious drug and alcohol consumption, crowd surfing and other unruly behaviours. The following link demonstrates some of his outrageous offstage antics. Mac Demarco - Crowd surfing. As the encore they played a twenty minute version of the Top Gun Anthem on three electric guitars and a synth, that was the musical equivalent of a Mark Rothko painting, and had most of the audience baffled. Epic. It was a very young crowd, mostly kids barely out of high school. I realized that music is still percolating the way it was when I was in high school with bands like Nirvana, The Smashing Pumpkins, Weezer, etc.. There are up and coming bands now, some of whom will go on to enjoy legendary status and to define THIS generation. These are the Led Zeppelins, the David Bowies of now. I have resolved to discover some of these bands, who are just now peaking, brimming with youthful and rebellious energy, just like the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix or the Doors were in their time.

I think it is a shame that many young and talented artists are relatively unnoticed, while large stadium tours for geriatric rock bands are selling out. The problem is, we can’t go back and see The Beatles or Pink Floyd in their heyday, so we go see Paul McCartney or Roger Waters out of a desire for the next best thing, nostalgia. I find myself wanting to see Leonard Cohen or Gordon Lightfoot just so that I can say I saw them before they died. Don’t get me wrong these guys are still good, and Dylan is the prime example of a geriatric case that is ironically still in his prime. But it’s not a scene anymore. I’ve been to so many Dylan shows and I refuse to admit to myself that it’s not doing for me what it once did. It’s become a habit. I do think Dylan might have another big shake-up in reserve, like his late nineties comeback, which he will spring upon us when we finally give up all hope that it might happen. This could be as simple as him coming out and playing a few solo acoustic songs (oh how our expectations have lagged). In the meantime there are acts out now that are making history and breaking new boundaries in real time, and people in the over twenty set are not in the cognoscenti. Besides we’re too busy trying to relive our youth. Ask the most rebellious 17 year old punk kid you can find for the names of the most important current bands, and he’ll probably try to throw you off the scent. If a bunch of old timers started showing up at these shows whatever scene there is would soon dry up anyhow. Truthfully, I’m just assuming there are other great new young artists out there and I am just beginning my search. But for now I can say for certain that Mac DeMarco puts on an unpredictable, slightly unsettling performance that could serve to awaken some of us from our fossilized state. Mac Demarco’s newest album is shortlisted for the 2014 Polaris Music Prize.

Mac Demarco - Pepperoni playboy

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

In anticipation of the Bootlegs Volume 11: The Basement Tapes

After exploring most of the Dylan catalogue, I finally got around to the Basement Tapes, almost as an afterthought. I knew about its legendary status from my aunt Monnie, who had given me an LP copy of hers when I was just getting into Dylan back in high school. However, I was confused by the material because of the Band songs, which stand out in stark contrast to the unassuming basement recordings. It was so inappropriate to put them on the same album, much less intercalating every other song. It is especially difficult to listen to on an LP because you have to manually skip every other track. When I finally downloaded the album years later and created a playlist of just the Dylan songs it was a joyful moment. The laid back vocal delivery, the surreal nature of the lyrics and the band's tight, in the cut, accompaniment were everything I could have hoped for.

His vocals were what really hooked me. After trying, unsuccessfully, to get into his 80's stuff, I needed something where his voice lacked that annoying quality. His voice is very plain and natural on the basement tapes. It almost didn't sound like him at first listen. And yet maybe this is the REAL voice, without all the hillbilly stuff and without the act. This is him in his most relaxed and natural state. Just hanging out in the basement with his buddies, playing random tunes with no pressure (the record company people were not coming after him because of his motorcycle accident), and having fun with it. And, as legend has it, smoking lots of wacky tabacky. It stands out as unique among the Dylan oeuvre.

Later, I got my hands on the "complete" bootlegs of the sessions through a torrent. 104 tracks! I couldn't believe it. It was too much to absorb. So many songs with such varying sound quality. It sat on my ipod for seven years before I really dug into it. Last summer I purchased the book "Invisible Republic" (which has been updated as: "The Old, Weird America") by Greil Marcus. After reading the book, I listened to the bootlegs while reading the description of each song in the appendix of the book. It was an education and a music history lesson. It was research, it was work. The document, meaning the complete bootleg recordings, is a window on Dylan and an artifact of some strange world.

138 tracks on the official release. With excellent sound quality and mastering of course it will be much easier to digest. Also, I was unaware until now that Robbie Robertson had done some overdubs on the original release of the basement tapes, which will not be here, so we can hear the original stripped down recordings in good quality! This release will not be as revealing as the Self Portrait release from last summer, since that stuff had never actually been bootlegged and was previously unheard. However, for anyone who has not heard the complete basement tapes bootleg, this will be as much, if not more of a revelation.

Odds and Ends promo: