Friday, June 07, 2013

25 Years Ago Today: The NeverEnding Tour Begins

It's been a while. Sorry about that, folks. I'll to be back more regularly. Here, to mark the 25th anniversary of the NET, is the "local" newspaper review of that opening concert. Not the most enthusiastic review, of course. But things got better quickly. There were two photos with this article when it ran in the paper, but I haven't been able to turn them up. Review is copyright 1988 San Francisco Chronicle

Bob Dylan Goes Through the Poses
Joel Selvin, The San Francisco Chronicle, June 9, 1988

Bob Dylan makes attitude part of his artwork. From the studied insolence of "Bringing It All Back Home" to the harsh romanticism of "Blood on the Tracks," he always gets across more with a flowing undercurrent, a tension beneath the specifics, than anything explicit.

But Tuesday at the Concord Pavilion, what Dylan displayed most of all was a nonchalant indifference that expressed very little other than that the magic is wearing mighty thin these days, perhaps even for Dylan himself.

Certainly the popular appeal no longer remains what it once was. Not only did little better than a half house turn up at Concord, but plenty of seats remain unsold for shows tomorrow at UC Berkeley's Greek Theater and Saturday at Mountain View's Shoreline Amphitheatre.

None of his albums during the '80s has hit the Top 10 and, where the release of a new Dylan album once qualified as major event, his latest, "Down in the Groove," slipped into the stores in the past couple of weeks with a barely a whimper.

The performance he gave, hardly more than a dozen songs in the 70-minute set at Concord, was no more than cursory. Not even the appearance throughout the brief concert of guest guitarist Neil Young could whip up any excitement. The crowd only took to their feet at the final moments of "Like a Rolling Stone," just before Dylan left the stage to return with an encore of "Maggie's Farm."

Backed by a quartet that included Young, guitarist G. E. Smith from the Hall and Oates band, bassist Kenny Aaronson (who looked like a refugee from the Stray Cats in his slicked-back pompadour) and veteran session drummer Christopher Parker, Dylan stumbled through the music. There were ragged endings, a sloppy mix and a tentative, uncertain ensemble sound not helped at all, undoubtedly, by carrying an unrehearsed guitarist like Young. Smith shouted out chord changes and directed the band with constant hand signals, but chaos nonetheless prevailed.

Dylan, for his part, mumbled lyrics, never dug into his songs with any kind of feeling and generally tossed off the tunes like he could hardly wait to get out of there. He spoke nary a word to the audience other than a quick introduction of Young and one thank you when he returned for the encore.

His anti-show business sentiments notwithstanding, Dylan also did himself serious injustice in the program selection. Outside of an opening pair of "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and "Absolutely Sweet Marie" and the two closers, he stuck to an undistinguished lot of songs drawn from throughout his career.

He trotted out "Man of Constant Sorrow" from the first of his more than 30 albums during a three-song acoustic segment in the middle of the show, reworked "Gates of Eden" toward the end and offered "Gotta Serve Somebody" from his gospel period, just before playing "In the Garden," one of his most biblically drenched songs from his obscure second Christian album, "Saved." He handled "You're a Big Girl Now" from "Blood on the Tracks." And as for recent material, he tried "Driftin' a Little Too Far From Shore" from his 1986 album, "Empire Burlesque," but little else.

Standing pigeon-toed and knock-kneed, his wooly mane tousled by the breeze, he strummed guitar, looking confident and relatively poised but failed utterly to appear as if he cared in the slightest about what he was doing. Smith and Young scurried around behind him, holding frequent consultations during songs and trying mightily to keep things together, while the booming bass and busy drumming took the forefront of the instrumental sound. One meager spotlight served to dim the shadows created by the heavy-handed back lighting, but Dylan still managed to perform the entire set in relative darkness.

It may have been a personal appearance by one of rock's immortals, but the show offered nothing more than his physical presence. He boasts one of the deepest repertoires of great songs anybody could claim but roundly ignored the cornerstones, other than the obligatory "Like a Rolling Stone" (John Cougar Mellencamp gave a far more intense and heartfelt reading at his recent Bay Area concerts). There were no particular highlights or dramatic moments, just a flat, uninspired - almost rote - recitation of inconsequential selections.

The opening act, U2-ish Welsh rockers The Alarm, gave a more emotional performance during an opening set of Dylan-derived, new wave rock that was hardly anything out of the ordinary. At least they put their heart into their part of the show, more than Dylan could say for himself.

Dylan used to matter. His records all made personal artistic statements that had a kind of integrity rare in the pop music field. Even as he began to churn out a steady stream of minor albums, he could be counted on for the occasional gem. His concert Tuesday seemed to say that he himself can no longer tell what is special about his work.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Townes Van Zandt, March 7, 1944 - January 1, 1997

  Dead Flowers (Townes)

"To Live Is To Fly" (Guy Clark)

"If I Needed You" (Emmylou Harris)

"Buckskin Stallion" (Jimmie Dale Gilmore)

"Tecumseh Valley" (Nanci Griffith)

"Pancho and Lefty" (Willie and Bob)

"The Tower Song" (Alejandro Escovedo)


"Waiting Around To Die" (Evan Dando)

"Lungs" (Lyle Lovett/Steve Earle)

"Flying Shoes" (Robert Earl Keen)

"White Freightliner Blues" (Gillian Welch/David Rawlings)

"For the Sake of the Song" (Townes)

"Snowin' on Raton" (Townes w/Blaze Foley)

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Day Bob Dylan Played
"George Jackson" Live

John Prine, Steve Goodman

Bob Dylan didn't perform at any dates of his own in 1971. He played short sets at the two Bangla Desh benefit concerts, went almost unrecognized as a sideman for an Allen Ginsberg TV performance, and dropped in at the Band's New Year's show at year's end (probably after midnight). But he also played informally on a few other occasions, mostly unnoticed (or misreported) in the standard Dylan chronicles.
Two of these apparently took place on November 4, 1971, the day Dylan went into Columbia's Studio B in Manhattan and recorded his just-written "George Jackson." One of these, a short harmonica-and-backing-vocals walk-on with John Prine is fairly well-known, but usually (and quite inaccurately) reported as taking place a year or two later. Both Clinton Heylin and Michael Gray report it as a September 9, 1972 performance; Robert Shelton had it in 1973; and none of them could identify the first of the three songs Dylan played on. Let's clear that up now.

Prine and his fellow Chicago singer-songwriter Steve Goodman came to Manhattan in the fall of 1971 for a showcase gig at the Bitter End, opening on November 3. Prine's debut album was about to hit the stores, while Goodman's had appeared a few months earlier. Billboard reviewed the stint in its November 20, 1971 issue, with comments that they might have applied to Dylan a decade earlier: "Prine is an essentially functional singer who throws away his songs in a deceptively offhand, head-scratching manner. His songs though are exceptional, enabling him to put across some strong ideas in a simple format often taking refuge in humor." (Unfortunately, the anonymous reviewer identified him as "Tom" Prine.) The New York Times review on November 5 noted a heavy Dylan influence, and declared him "a cut above the new generation of folksingers." It got his name right, too.

"I played my first gig ever outside of Chicago," Prine remembered in 1981. "I needed a harmonica player. I asked if there was anyone around.  Now, this is only my second night, and Dylan comes up.  He had brought a harmonica and learned the words to all the choruses of my songs.  I introduced Dylan and about two people were clapping.  No one believed it. They thought Dylan was either dead or on Mount Fuji." Dylan played harp and sang backing vocals on three Prine compositions: "Far From Me," "Donald and Lydia." and "Sam Stone." 

When Dylan leaves the Bitter End, he returns to Columbia Studio B for a post-midnight session to finish work on "George Jackson," which required more than a dozen takes to complete. It's often reported that he also recorded a cover of Prine's "Donald and Lydia" at one of the day's sessions.

Dylan turned up for Prine's second set of the evening.  There's a pretty nice tape floating around of Prine's first set. The late show apparently went unrecorded.

How did Dylan know Prine's songs?  Prine had been signed to Atlantic Records by Jerry Wexler, driven by a strong recommendation by Kris Kristofferson. The enthusiastic Wexler sent Dylan an advance copy of Prine's first LP earlier in the fall.

But there was a second, quite informal, live performance by Dylan that day. Earlier in the day, at the rather unDylanesque hour of 10am, he went into the Columbia studios and recorded "Wallflower" and his first efforts at "George Jackson." That session broke around lunchtime, and, it seems, Dylan left for . . . Carly Simon's Greenwich Village apartment.

Simon wasn't there, but Kris Kristofferson was. Kristofferson had invited Prine and Goodman over for the afternoon, promising "a surprise for you guys." As Prine remembered things a few years ago, "There’s a knock on the door and in walks Bob Dylan." The four soon begin passing Kristofferson's (or perhaps Simon's) guitar around, playing their recent songs. When it reaches Dylan, he plays "George Jackson." When he finishes, in Prine's words, "Goodman looked him dead in the eye and took the guitar from him," saying "That’s great, Bob. It’s no 'Masters of War,' though. Man, I’ll tell you. It’s no 'Masters of War.'"

Dylan was "taken aback," but receives Goodman's jibe in good humor. He surprises Prine by singing along as Prine plays "Far From Me." When the guitar comes back to him, he plays "Wallflower." The quartet soon turns to running through Hank Williams songs. When they finish, as the sun sets in the late afternoon, Goodman needs to visit a nearby guitar shop, and Dylan takes him there on his motorcycle.

So, to put the day in more chronological order: 10 am - 1pm, 1st George Jackson session. Afternoon, informal musicmaking with Prine, Goodman, and Kristofferson. Night, guest spot with Prine at the Bitter End. 2-6am, 2nd George Jackson session. A rather interesting 20-hour stretch.

Note on the chronology: I've pieced this together from several sources, and none of them (except the session records) give any specific, accurate date. But Prine was quite specific about Dylan showing up on the second night of his Bitter End gig. The Times reported that Prine opened on November 3, 1971. The Columbia session records then frame the day neatly.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

How Bill Graham Jump-Started
The NeverEnding Tour  

Bill Graham, who died in a helicopter crash 20 years ago this week, was one of rock's great entrepreneurs. His booking and promotion practices transformed the industry. His legendary music showplaces, Winterland and the Fillmores East and West, during their short but storied histories, presented runs of shows rivaled only by the greatest jazz clubs. He was affectionately parodied in the cult favorite film Get Crazy (which also features Lou Reed, in one of his first theatrical roles, as a certain reclusive singer-songwriter known as "Auden").

Graham, of course, had important connections with Bob Dylan. Their first encounter, at a 1965 press conference, is well-documented, and Graham's role as tour organizer (1974, 1984) and promoter (most notably for the 1979 and 1980 Warfield residencies). That he occasionally functioned as an advisor to Dylan is hardly obscure, but his intervention in the early days of the NeverEnding Tour is rarely remarked on and goes unmentioned, so far as I know, in the standard Dylan bios and concert books.

The NET began inauspiciously. Dylan had planned to promote the tour (and his upcoming album) with a performance on the Saturday Night Live season finale, but that was scuttled bu the TV writers' strike. The opening date in Concord featured some energetic work from the band and a lovely 3-song acoustic set, but Dylan's set was surprisingly short, barely stretching beyond the hour mark, and was described in the press as "cursory" despite Neil Young's unannounced appearance. Two days later, the Sacramento concert was nearly a debacle: Perhaps half the seats were sold (more likely only a third), Neil Young failed to show up, and Dylan delivered a short, perfunctory performance. The Sacramento Bee described him as "sleepwalking" and said he "practically spat in the faces of the small but devoted audience."

The next night's performance in Berkeley was a triumph, of course, one of the landmarks in Dylan's career, and a spectacular turnabout from the two desultory shows that preceded it. There's all sorts of speculation about Dylan's return to form, but Bill Graham's almost forgotten intervention likely played a central role.

Graham wasn't at those first two shows, but he heard the negative reports about them. He undoubtedly had his hand in Dylan's upcoming Bay Area appearances, and was concerned about potential weakness in both the ticket sales and the music. He had been disappointed in the Dylan/Grateful Dead shows, saying "I think the lack of attendance [in 1988] can be attributed to the qualitative merits of his recent visits. . . . I'm a big fan, and I'm very concerned about Bob and the merits of his performance. I've had problems with the conviction, the woodenness. . . . But I don't want to be negative about him -- on any given night, he's the best there is."

So Graham confronted Dylan. ""I spoke to him prior to the Greek show (in Berkeley),'' Graham told a reporter a few days later. "I talked to him about conviction and why you walk on stage. It was not an easy conversation. I don't know what it's like to be an entertainer, but I do know that if you buy a ticket, you should be entertained."

Graham was particularly upset over Dylan's refusal to play an encore in Sacramento. "I would have asked him to play more. Artists' feet are touching some other planet sometimes, and they need to be reminded that people love them, that they want another song or two." He remembered an occasion during Dylan's 1984 European tour when he stopped Dylan's departing tour bus and hauled him back onstage for a final song.

"Think of any artist you really enjoy," Graham concluded. "You go to friends and say 'Check this out, when you go you'll see why I love him.' And you go and it's not quite what you remembered. The third, fourth or fifth time, you're not gonna go back. I judge any artist not on how many people came last time, but by how those that came felt when they left."

No doubt the explanation for Dylan's sudden switch from a "sleepwalking" to a galvanizing presence in June 1988 isn't susceptible to an explanation as simplistic as "Bill Graham shook Bob up." But Graham was notoriously, and successfully, demanding with artists. On Dylan's 1974 tour, he managed to up the energy levels, and drive Dylan to connect with his audience, by unilaterally changing the lighting cues. For the legendarily abrasive Graham to acknowledge that the conversation wasn't "easy" signals a very serious concern, and one that even Bob Dylan would have found difficult to put aside.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Bob Dylan's First Art Exhibition: 1971

With all the hubbub over Dylan's paintings and the "Asia Series" at the Gagosian Gallery, it's interesting to take a look back forty years or so (actually, nearly forty years to the day) to the first time Bob Dylan's work made an appearance in an art exhibition, in a show curated by Yoko Ono in, of all places, Syracuse, New York.

In the fall of 1971. in part to commemorate John Lennon's thirty-first birthday, Ono staged her first museum show at the Everson in Syracuse. The Everson Museum, a "bastion of the avant-garde," according to The New York Times and "a famous location for skateboarders" as reported by Wikipedia, hosted her display of "conceptual art" for a three-week run.

The exhibition, titled "This Is Not Here," included more than 80 "works" by Ono, including "Iced Tea," an ice sculpture of the letter T (soon to melt away), "Painting To Let The Evening Light Go Through" (a sheet of clear plastic), and the notorious "Apple" (simply an apple on a pedestal which, inevitably, was eaten during the opening reception, by some accounts at Ono's suggestion). John Lennon contributed a few works, including some edible clothing.

One of Ono's "works," usually known as "Water Gallery," consisted of pieces submitted by 100 invited guest artists, which Ono would, collaboratively, fill with water. Frank Zappa sent a Volkswagen. Peggy Guggenheim, less creatively, sent a vase. Andy Warhol sent a thirty-minute videotape of a water cooler.

Bob Dylan sent a fish tank. But not just any fish tank. This fish tank contained a copy of Nashville Skyline. Just the album, no sleeve or jacket.

The exhibition goes well. Nearly 6000 attend the opening, where Ono sports black velvet hotpants. Dylan reportedly takes in the exhibit during its three-week run. The local press denounces it. It becomes the subject of a PBS TV special. Museum membership grows. Various audio and videotapes made for Lennon are circulating.

Why Nashville Skyline? Was there any other Dylan album, then or later, with fewer references to water (or rain) in its lyrics? Perhaps Bob thought it needed irrigation. Perhaps not.

The things you learn when trying to fill in a few blank spots for a blog post. In a news story I only turned up earlier today, I discovered that someone I knew in college had been an invited guest of Lennon's at the opening (or at least her then-boyfriend was), and had been at his private birthday party later that night. It never came up in our conversations. I'd have remembered that, even after nearly forty years.

Friday, October 07, 2011

50 Years Ago This Week: Dr. Hunter S. Thompson Drops In At Gerdes Folk City

Robert Shelton's review for The New York Times is well-known, of course. There are folks who'll tell you it launched Bob Dylan's career, although the truth is rarely that simple. But Shelton wasn't the only journalist who wrote a review of that booking. 

At the end of the summer of 1961, Hunter Thompson was just beginning his career as a writer. He was facing eviction from his quarters in Big Sur. Somehow he made his way to the east coast, apparently stopping in New York City on his way to Kentucky. And, one Saturday night in the early fall, he found himself in Gerdes Folk City.

What Thompson saw that night stuck in his memory. He wrote about the music in a piece he wrote for Rogue magazine, then an ambitious weak sister to Playboy in the mens' magazine market, edited by the legendary Harlan Ellison. He was so struck by what he saw and heard that he wrote about it again a few weeks later, "on location" in Lexington, in another piece for Rogue about traditional mountain music.

But what the future Raoul Duke couldn't get out of his head was the performance by The Greenbriar Boys.

"Folk City was so dead that even a change of scenery would have been exciting," Thompson wrote. "So I was just about ready to move on when things began happening. What appeared on the tiny bandstand at that moment was one of the strangest sights I’ve ever witnessed in the Village. Three men in farmer’s garb, grinning, tuning their instruments, while a suave MC introduced them as 'the Greenbriar Boys' straight from the Grand Ole Opry."

The Good Doctor was not impressed, to say the least; he thought them "a hideous joke."  "I was dumbfounded, and could hardly believe my ears when the crowd cheered mightily," he continued. "A man next to me grabbed my arm and shouted: 'What the hell’s going on here? I thought this was an Irish bar!'" 

Thompson was annoyed by the band's inauthenticity, calling them "fraudulent farmers." "Here I was, at a 'night spot. in one of the world’s most cultured cities, paying close to a dollar for each beer," Thompson raged, "surrounded by apparently intelligent people who seemed enthralled by each thump and twang of the banjo string–and we were all watching a performance that I could almost certainly see in any roadhouse in rural Kentucky on any given Saturday night. As Pogo once said–back in the days when mossback editors were dropping Walt Kelly like a hot pink potato–'it gives a man paws.'" (Thompson's raging would, of course, become more memorable and more imaginative a few years later.) 

Thompson also noted that the Greenbriar Boys were the first "group of hillbilly singers" to be booked by "a recognized night club" in New York City. As a certain young folksinger noted in those days, the average Village club owner might want folksingers, but would toss you off his stage if you sounded like a hillbilly.

But what did Dr. Thompson think about the Greenbriar Boys' opening act, that young Dylan fellow Shelton had raved about?  It turns out that he didn't bother to even mention him. He never says. Thompson is said to have known Dylan in his Village days, and this would be the most likely time they'd have met, but there's no trace of an actual meeting at this gig.

Thompson wrote the evening up as an item called "New York Bluegrass 1961" and sent it off to Ellison. But while Rogue published two other early Thompson pieces, it rejected this one. It sat unpublished until 1997, when the Good Doctor included it in The Proud Highway: Saga Of A Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967. You can read it here or at Google Books. A few weeks later, in a Rogue-published piece called "Traveler Hears Mountain Music Where It's Sung," about his fall 1961 trip through Kentucky, Thompson has a few more cranky references to the "Bluegrass banjo champs" of New York City. Like Jerry Garcia, who reportedly walked out on Dylan's 1963 Monterey Folk performance because Dylan's acoustic guitar was amplified, Dr. Thompson was quite the purist in those days.

Now maybe I've taken a few liberties here. Maybe Thompson arrived during the break between Dylan's set and the Greebriar Boys', although he doesn't make it sound that way. Maybe the Greenbriar Boys were rebooked at Gerdes shortly after the gig with Dylan (not so likely if the evening was as dead as Thompson reports). But Thompson's piece pulls a fact or two from Shelton's review, and the Greenbriar Boys were still on his mind in Renfro Valley just a few weeks later. So I think I'm on target here. As missed connections go, this one's near the top.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Bob Dylan, Ralph Rinzler, and Folkways: A Vision Shared

Ralph Rinzler, Bob Dylan, John Herald

Fifty years ago tonight, Bob Dylan played his second major booking in New York City, opening for the Greenbriar Boys at Gerdes Folk City. At that time the Greenbriar Boys were led by singer-guitarist John Herald, with Bob Yellin on banjo and Ralph Rinzler on mandolin.

There are video clips of the Greenbriar Boys floating around, but so far as I can tell, all of them were recorded after Rinzler left the group in 1963. Rinzler was no slouch of a musician, but he was more influential as a folklorist. 

Rinzler published a piece in Sing Out! in 1963 which was a keystone in establishing Bill Monroe's role in the development of bluegrass music, served as Monroe's manager at a key point in Monroe's critical and popular resurgence, and even played as a Blue Grass Boy for a while. (Rinzler has also been credited, on occasion, as the first writer to use the term "bluegrass" in print, though that is likely an exaggeration.) He also brought Doc Watson to the national stage and identified and recruited scores of traditional musicians for the Newport Folk Festival.

In late 1966, Rinzler began working with the Smithsonian Institution, where he would spend the rest of his professional life. Initially recruited simply as a consultant for its planned folk music festival, he successfully pressed to expand its focus to folklife and folk arts generally. By 1976, he organized the Smithsonian's 3-month-long bicentennial folklife festival, then became director of its Office of Folklife Programs. His professional biography is rich in achievement.

In the mid-1980's, Rinzler became determined to acquire the Folkways Records archives from its founder, Mo Asch, and reissue its recordings as part of its successful music program. But the Smithsonian's newly installed chief executive refused to support the plan, forcing Rinzler to try to find business and corporate donations.

On July 5, 1986, accompanied by his son Jesse, Bob Dylan turned up at the Smithsonian's annual Folklife Festival, looking for Rinzler. He introduced Jesse to him, telling his son "This is the guy whose band I played opening act for on my first club date." Their conversation turned to Rinzler's projects, and his setback on the Folkways deal. The next day, Rinzler met with Dylan and his management team to develop the Folkways: A Vision Shared album project. With artists like Bruce Springsteen and U2 enlisted, donating their royalties, the $400,000 guarantee for the benefit disc, half the cost of the acquisition, making the purchase feasible. An unidentified private donor contributed another $200,000, allowing the deal, which also included Woody Guthrie's papers and personal archive, to close in 1987. (The balance was apparently funded by later artist-donated royalties, an HBO TV special and home video, and earnings from the revitalized label.)

After an extended illness, Ralph Rinzler died July 2, 1994. The Washington Post described him as "The man who brought America to the National Mall." The New York Times, citing his efforts to expand the Smithsonian's folklife programs beyond their traditional focus on Anglo-American culture, curiously and incorrectly described him as African-American. The Smithsonian renames a section of its archives in his honor.

Somehow I expect Rinzler would have appreciated what's said and shown here more. The video also includes a much better account of Rinzler's life than I've written here. It also includes a short clip of Rinzler performing (a song Dylan played once with the Dead, coincidentally), comments from the other two Greenbriar Boys who played that night 50 years ago, and various other folks you'll recognize.

Songs for Ralph

Curiously enough, you can't buy the Vision Shared album through Folkways Records (it's on Columbia). But you can buy Folkways: The Original Vision, the Guthrie and Lead Belly recordings of the same songs, from them, and Rinzler might have been more pleased if you bought that, too.