Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Sonic's Rendezvous Band box set redux

Brit label Easy Action is reissuing its six-disc Sonic's Rendezvous Band box set -- the most comprehensive collection of recordings by the '70s Detroit supergroup extant, with liner notes by your humble chronicler o' events. Only 500 will be made, 200 of which will be available via the label's website. In addition, the reissue will include the no-fooling 1.14.1978 Masonic Hall performance, in place of another Detroit show that was so labeled in the original release. I've heard the recently-surfaced Masonic tape, and it kills. If you missed this the first time around, you owe it to yourself. It'll cost you 45 bucks and change American, but it's well worth the price. Rockaroll gets no better.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Pssst! Hey, kid! Wanna download a 1919 Hemphill compilation?

You can get both of 'em here via Bandcamp. Help support FTW's own DIY punk dump, now over a decade old (millennia in venue years). Hooray!

Friday, March 22, 2013

A trifecta of goodness from Prefecture

Prefecture Records is the Seattle-based label run by drummer Paul Kikuchi and pianist Tiffany Lin. Their interests encompass jazz, contemporary classical, and experimental musics, all of which are represented in their latest release.

Reedman Jason Mears plays with Kikuchi in the Empty Cage Quartet. On Book of Changes: Part I, Mears leads his Electric Quintet in a program of compositions based on a notation system -- free of bar lines and time signatures -- that he learned from trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. As the musicians discover in the moment how to integrate their parts, an engaging conversation ensues. The results are '70s Milesian in a manner reminiscent of Smith's Golden Quartet, with important contributions from Angela Sanchez's searching Wurlitzer electric piano and Kevin Farrell's stabbing electric bass. Guitarist Jonathan Goldberger sounds like he's listened to Destroy All-era Nels Cline. His strongest statements appear on the lengthy closer "Receptive," on which Sanchez fairly swarms all over her keys. "The Creative" invites comparisons to Eric Dolphy's Out To Lunch, with the leader playfully pointillistic on alto and clarinet, and drummer Harris Eisenstadt echoing Tony Williams' sweet thunder. 

The digital-only Here Now by the quartet Crosstalk (which includes Lin on piano) showcases the chamber jazz side of the label. The instrumentation -- clarinet, piano, bass, and drums -- recalls in equal measure the sound of Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time" and the kind of pastoral rumination for which ECM Records was known in the '70s. The recordings, from a live performance and a radio broadcast, capture the instruments in intimate detail; you can hear the sound of Kikuchi's brushes like baby's breath on cymbals. Lin and clarinetist-composer Jesse Canterbury are both lyrical improvisers, but not averse to occasional dissonance, while in the rhythm section, bassist Brian Cobb is an able accompanist, and Kikuchi the most sympathetic of percussionists.

The three pieces on Somewhere Beyond or Behind, the latest offering from Open Graves -- Kikuchi's collaboration with sound artist Jesse Olsen Bay -- unfold like the seasons. On "Sirocco," recorded in a disused cistern, the space gives the natural sounds of their percussion instruments preternatural depth and resonance, with haunting harmonics. On "Blues for Morton," from a 2011 California performance, tonal elements are introduced, but function more rhythmically than melodically. Back in the cistern for the title track, Kikuchi and Bay play echolalic minimalist melodies on guitar and prepared piano that reverberate in the space, a soul-soothing sound.

ADDENDUM: My bad, Paul informs me that the Crosstalk album isn't on Prefecture. But anyway...

Monday, March 18, 2013

Pssst! Hey, kid! Wanna read an interview with the #1 Stooges fan?

Natalie "Stoogeling" Schlossman talks to perpetual coolest-guy-in-the-room Danny Fields for the Please Kill Me website. Natalie was president of the Stooges fan club and instrumental in Easy Action Records' Popped/A Thousand Lights archival Stooge release. Myself, I think she needs to write a book. Danny himself is the topic of a documentary film currently in the works that should be a kick if it ever makes it out.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Deniz Tek, Donovan's Brain

Deniz Tek made his mark in rock 'n' roll history by founding Radio Birdman in 1974, while attending medical school in Australia, and helping launch punk-rock -- a label he disavows -- in the Antipodes. Birdman drew on the high-energy heritage of Tek's native Michigan (MC5, Stooges, Sonic's Rendezvous Band -- Stooge Ron Asheton co-wrote a song on their debut album, and Tek guested with SRB on visits home), the dark mystery of Blue Oyster Cult and the Doors, and the party spirit of soul and surf music. They built a fanatical following in Oz without music biz support, based around a residency at an inner city tavern they dubbed the Oxford Funhouse, released one album that was released internationally and another that only appeared in Australia after they'd disintegrated while touring Europe in '78.

For the past 35 years, Tek's alternated musical activities with a medical career that included service as a U.S. Navy flight surgeon and pilot, and an emergency surgeon in Montana. For my money, his best music appears on two albums that appeared in the late '90s and are now out of catalog. On 1996's Le Bonne Route and 1998's Equinox, recorded with producer/former Hendrix/Neil Young amp tech Dave Weyer, Tek blended hard rock with studio experiment in a manner that recalled the Hendrix of Electric Ladyland.

His fan base's rejection of Equinox -- whether been based on hostility to innovation or indifference to the featured contributions of Les Claypoolish bassist Todd Eagle -- caused Tek to abandon experimentalism. Since reacquiring the rights to these albums, he's toyed with the idea of re-releasing them in new versions, using alternate mixes, outtakes, and demo recordings. There's precedent for this in Birdman's Radios Appear, which was revamped for international release, utilizing remixed and re-recorded versions of some of the songs. Myself, I'd like to see the new material released in addition to, rather than instead of, the original albums; we'll see what eventuates.

In 2002, Tek founded Career Records in partnership with a fellow Montana resident, Bay Area expat/DJ Ron Sanchez, and also began to collaborate musically with Sanchez as a member of the psychedelic collective Donovan's Brain. In the last decade, he's played on the last three Brain albums, as well as touring and recording with a reformed Birdman (in what sounds like the last chapter in that band's saga, due to irreconcilable differences between other band members), collaborating with the Haltom City born/West Coast-based skating/tattooing/punk rocking Godoy twins (in the Golden Breed and Last of the Bad Men), and continuing to carry the Detroit flag, joining forces on different occasions with the surviving MC5 members, Rationals/Sonic's Rendezvous Band blue-eyed soul brother supreme Scott Morgan, and even the Stooges (the latter at a tribute concert to Ron Asheton which is soon to be DVD available).

On Income Tax Day, Career releases a new Tek solo album, Detroit, as well as the seventh Donovan's Brain opus, Turned Up Later, which features Tek alongside Brain principals Sanchez and Bobby Sutliff.

Detroit, inspired by the Motor City's sad decline, shows a previously unseen side of Tek -- one seemingly preoccupied by a vision of a world devoid of hope (although he's always been a wordsmith of somber mien). A quick glance at the songs' titles gives you a clue, which is borne out by their lyrics. "Empty factories / Taken over by the trees / A broken window's cool breeze / Death has the city on its knees," Tek sings in "Pine Box," over music that's Stones-like in the same way as Equinox's "Shellback." On "Fate, Not Amenable To Change," he paints a somber picture: "Tears and grief we try to mend / Knowing we're going that way again."

"Twilight of the Modern Age" provides momentary relief in the form of a balls-out rocker reminiscent of the title track from Outside (the benchmark by which all other Tek albums are judged), before "Can of Soup" lands in your lap with its depiction of life on society's margins. In "Growing Dim," the narrator imagines his own demise ("The light inside of me is fading...Keep me warm a little longer"), while in "Falling," he reaches across the Great Divide to a departed friend ("It's looking dark on the other side / Before you take off on your last ride / Just talk to me one more time"). Even the upbeat closer "I'm All Right" includes the line "Don't look at the cough 'cause you're going to find the cancer" and the caveat "...for now" appended to the title.

Tek isn't always so deep and dark. "Let Him Pay For That" recalls the Aftermath Stones in its unflattering portrait of an old flame that has a "new old man." "Perfect World" roars out of the gate, its Who-like dynamic buildup ringing with promise, ex-Atomic Rooster/Spinal Tap thumper Ric Parnell fairly exploding all over the traps. But the big lyrical payoff to "In a perfect world" turns out to be "...you'd be my girl" -- fairly anticlimactic in light of all that's come before.

The musical settings here create a unity of mood that harks back to Radio Birdman's underrated swan song Living Eyes and the aforementioned Outside, with a difference. Sonically speaking, Detroit has an intimate feel that's new to the Tek canon, and its creator revels in the pure sounds of guitars, both electric and acoustic, in a way he hasn't since his debut solo outing Take It To the Vertical. There are solid riffs, richly rumbling chords, and double-stop leads that reverberate with the heritage of Berry-to-Richards-to-High Time MC5. Backing is solid and supportive, with Daddy Long Legs' blues harp being a particularly fine addition. Sure, Tek's a limited singer, and more like a modern bluesman than a tunesmith -- in that regard, he's not unlike Iggy. But until he retools Le Bonne Route and Equinox, Detroit can serve as a fine port of entry to his work for the uninitiated, and old fans will find much to like here, as well.

In this age where no genre ever dies, the longevity of psychedelia as a musical style is only slightly less surprising than the durability of punk and metal; witness the recent emergence of Tame Impala. Psych tends to come in one of two flavors: the kind that's produced by people who are "experienced," emphasizing chaos and dementia (think The Piper At the Gates of Dawn, Free Your Mind and Your Ass Will Follow, or In A Priest Driven Ambulance), or the kind that's designed to sound good to people who are "experienced," and is often elegantly crafted (Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Dark Side of the Moon, or The Soft Bulletin). On early releases like Carelessly Restored Art and Tiny Crustacean Light Show, Donovan's Brain started out on the Piper/Ambulance side of the equation, but with the advent of Career, they've both increased their output and gravitated toward the Dark Side/Soft Bulletin zone.

This trend continues with Turned Up Later, recorded during the same 2010-2012 time period as Detroit with many of the same musicians. Many of the tracks unfold with stately majestic leisure, and Sanchez's keyboards and mellotron are key to the sound of this record -- something different for the usually guitar-oriented Brain. Sanchez also has the perfect voice for this kind of material; he sounds like he's coming out of a lysergic haze, in the manner of Syd Barrett or Wayne Coyne, and Donovan's Brain sounds most like itself when he's behind the mic. (For a good example of this, get lost in "As the Crows Fly"'s languid spacey dreamscape.) There was some turbulence during the sessions, when Sanchez's main foil, guitarist-singer Sutliff, was severely injured in a car crash and spent six weeks in a coma. (Thankfully, he's since recovered and even returned to the stage.) Vocalist-mellotronist Tony Miller stepped in to fill the gap, bringing some Forever Changes-style orchestral pop touches to the proceedings.

Sutliff contributes several of the record's highlights, starting with the opening "Take Me With You When You Go," which  combines a garage rock edge (think Electric Prunes) with vocal harmonies and guitar obbligatos that recall Blue Oyster Cult during their money-making period. "My Own Skin" is a commentary on the difficulties in communicating human experience ("I can't tell you where I've been / But I'm not at home in my own skin") that had me mentally picturing Mad Men's Don Draper telling Roger Sterling, "Oh, come on, Roger -- lots of people know that who have never taken LSD!" "Restless Nights, Many Dreams," with its electric 12-string jangle, sounds (of all things) like Brendan Benson channeling the Byrds via Tom Petty -- a stunning surprise. "Morning Side Dream" almost veers into prog territory.

In many ways, the hero of the piece is drummer Ric Parnell, the Atomic Rooster veteran who portrayed the spontaneously combusting Mick Shrimpton in This Is Spinal Tap. Parnell also drummed on TAMI Show choreographer Toni Basil's '80s dance hit "Mickey," turned down an offer to replace Aynsley Dunbar in Journey, and logged time with Wayne Kramer and the Deviants in the '90s. Here, he plays almost orchestrally, lending the slow pieces the requisite grandeur, and providing crisp, snappy punctuation on the uptempo numbers. All of the participants in Turned Up Later are clearly saturated with knowledge and love for this style of music, and it emanates from the sounds they make together.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Pssst! Hey, kid! Wanna see the Nervebreakers live at Zero's in 1980?

This band is partly responsible for my moving to Texas. True story. (Details are here along with an interview I did with three of the fellas back in 2001.) Finding this video at the end of a challenging day made me happy beyond all reason.

ADDENDUM: Improved video. Barry Kooda edited out the between-sets break.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Pssst! Hey, kid! Wanna see a rare film of Dylan's '66 tour?

Catch it while you can!

Friday, March 08, 2013

Another bunch of new shiny silver discs

On Kris Davis' website, there's a quote from fellow ivory tickler Jason Moran hailing her as "an honorary descendant of Cecil Taylor," and indeed, her 2011 solo disc Aeriol Piano has the heft and gravitas of one of CT's solo exorcisms. Her latest Clean Feed release, Capricorn Climber, is one of the few albums in recent memory to withstand comparisons with Taylor's epochal '60s band albums for Blue Note. On it, she leads a forward-looking quintet that includes violist Mat Maneri, saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock (her bandmate in the trio Paradoxical Frog), bassist Trevor Dunn, and percussionist Tom Rainey. Together, they create a program of music that's dark, abstract, moody, and mysterious. Like Taylor, Davis' playing is such a force of nature -- roiling like a raging river here, placid as a quiet lake there -- that it's easy to overlook her virtuosity.

Also on Clean Feed is Hammered, on which drummer Ches Smith leads an all-star, bassless quintet (These Arches) that includes Tim Berne and Tony Malaby on reeds, Mary Halverson on guitar, and Andrea Parkins on accordion and electronics. Together, they occupy a space where free improvisation, rock, and contemporary classical music intersect. The pieces Smith composes work off of hypnotic vamps and haunting melodies, and the net effect is not unlike King Crimson running amuck in Lower Manhattan ca. 1980.

From closer to home come a couple of entries in 2013's RPM Challenge, in which musicians create ten songs or 35 minutes worth of music during the month of February. On Inside the Box: Solo Improvisations on Cigarbox Guitar, Kavin Allenson spins webs of bluesy slide extemporization, sounding like a belladonna-dazed Robert Johnson stumbling his way out of a foggy swamp. It's back porch picking from the spaciest back porch you can imagine. Besides having effectively supplanted your humble chronicler o' events in Hentai Improvising Orchestra, Mark Kitchens is an architect, visual artist, instrument builder, and multifaceted muso. On I Kill You Architecture, his RPM entry under his derwooka pseudonym, he uses silence, space, and dynamic variation to create a series of evocative moods with only the most limited of tonal materials -- proof positive, as if any more were needed, that often, harmonic movement is superfluous.

Kitchens also drums in Stone Machine Electric, a doom metal outfit fronted by guitarist-singer William "Dub" Irwin. On their self-titled sophomore CD, they lay down a nice line in detuned Sturm und Drang, Kitchens' thumping tubs locking in with Irwin's chordal thunder, shadowed by guest bassist Kent Stump's rumbling unisons. (Stump, from Wo Fat, has since been replaced by Mark Cook.) Besides laying down the heavy rifferama, Irwin also wrestles lead lines that shudder like a soul in terror from his axe. If heavy makes you happy, SME could be just your meat.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

GR's "A Reverse Age"

GR is the nomme de disque of Gregory Raimo, who exploded into our consciousness in 2008 fronting the Gunslingers, a power trio that combined the sonic impact of the Velvet Underground's "guitar amp tape" with the noise and sheer momentum of Les Rallizes Denudes at their most anarchic -- a sound that, in its way, was as quintessentially rock as the Stooges' raw wails on Funhouse, Sleep's tectonic plate shifting on Dopesmoker, and the Monks' bluesless mutant garage grunt on Black Monk Time. Their debut LP, No More Invention, arrived on a tidal wave of hype from Julian Cope that it not only lived up to, but actually surpassed.

When Raimo -- whose Pinocchio lid is as appropriate attire for a fella from the Alpine environs of his native Grenoble as a gimme cap would be for a midwesterner -- arrived in my town the following year, along with his Parisian bassplayer and drummer, they fairly leveled the Chat Room, churning up more almighty racket than one would have thought possible from three guys playing on borrowed gear. Offstage, they were just nice cats, blown away to be seeing America from a rented van: every European rock 'n' roll kid's dream.

A second Gunslingers album was less impactful, not because it was bad, but because it had such a hard act to follow that it was almost bound to suffer by comparison. A self-released solo effort by Raimo, GR and Full Blown Expansion, added some new influences to the mix -- early Funkadelic, swamp blues Beefheart, some Krautrock -- but was still more of an adjunct to the Gunslingers' legacy than a step beyond it. On A Reverse Age, released on sweet, sweet vinyl (with download) by Brookyn-based Mexican Summer, Raimo proves definitively that he was the Gunslinger (in the same way that Prince was, uh, the Time), playing all the instruments the way he did on Full Blown Expansion, but this time with an integrated and edgy sound that could fool an unsuspecting listener into thinking it was a live band.

Not only does Raimo play his ass off on a full array of axes, he also manipulates tapes to create a head-spinning sonic canvas, like a noise-rock version of Electric Ladyland or some of Deniz Tek's more experimental '90s works. Opening track "Low-Born" echoes the frenetic forward motion of Tek's '70s band Radio Birdman and their Aussie countrymen/rivals the Saints in the same way Parisians Holy Curse did a decade ago. Here, though, Raimo uses crazy tempo shifts and tape speed changes to give the impression that some cosmic DJ is fiddling with the speed control. His malevolent monotone sounds like a Francophone's distortion of an American accent.

"Vapours Invisible" and the title track blend seamlessly together, starting out as a mutant boogie recalling Pink Floyd's "One of These Days," becoming a guitar tour de force as Raimo uses a lysergic echoplex to overlay dissonant double-stops, then kicking on the fuzz and wah for some staccato strumming. Underneath the sonic assault hides a gift for melodic invention, closer to Tom Verlaine than Takashi Mizutani. The jam comes to an abrupt halt after a clattering drum solo and is quickly followed by "Hymn of Pan," an acoustic piece that's no less forceful. Raimo intones verse by Percy Shelley in the manner of a warlock casting a spell, his obsessively repeated guitar patterns building intensity as they go.

Flipping the record over, one finds more variations to the basic approach. After the backward-masked blast of "Spectre of the Brocken," "Bradtenehend" gallops away, its relentlessly insistent beat anchored by a recurring bass figure, with more megaphonic vocals and bruising fuzz and wah damage. "The Primitive Hoodoo" is based on bass and drum clatter that could have been sampled from Lick My Decals Off, Baby, setting the stage for guitar riffage that's aggressive in an almost offhanded way. The notes Raimo tosses off are almost incidental; it's the feeling he conveys (or the spleen he vents) that's of importance here. "Action Vision" ends the outing with a manic hoedown that leaves the listener breathless.

While it'd be ace if GR could get a band together and visit these United States again, we'll keep an ear cocked for his communiques, as long as they remain as righteously raw and raucous as thisun.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Drew Phelps @ Arts Fifth Avenue, 4.6.2013

Veteran bassist Drew Phelps has been a fixture on the North Texas jazz scene since the '80s, when he performed with saxophonists James Clay and Nuradeen Fameen. More recently, he's toured with the Western Swing fiddlin' Quebe Sisters and gigged with guitar fireball Clint Strong. On April 6th, he'll play his first solo concert at Arts Fifth Avenue, presenting two sets of mostly original music that covers a spectrum of styles including jazz, rock, country, contemporary classical, and avant-garde.

Arts Fifth Avenue is located at 1628 5th Avenue in Fort Worth. Tickets are $15 and the performance starts at 8pm.

Pssst! Hey, kid! Wanna hear some indigenous Thai psych?

Thanks 'n' a tip o' the hat to Sunward's Doug Kershaw for sharing.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Gutterth Compilation Four

The busy elves at Gutterth Productions gots a new compilation out on March 8th. Because it apparently amuses them to read my reviews (in which I attempt to encapsulate each and every track in just three words), label honcho Michael Briggs asked me to take a shot at it. How could I refuse? Difficulty: There are 55 tracks on this sucker. More work for me, more value for money for you. (It'd be interesting to see if I've ever repeated myself since I started doing this, but that'd be more effort than I'm willing to expend.) Here goes.

Eccotone - Fuzzball bolero apocalypse.
The Angelus - Sleepy buzz drone.
Hares On the Mountain - Gasoline Alley bound.
New Fumes - Droll psych whimsy.
Doug Burr - Haunted piano ballad.
Innards - Short sharp shriek.
Shiny Around the Edges - Skronky, pugnacious punk.
Terminator 2 - Lugubrious rumbling rant.
Summer of Glaciers - Incandescent dream pop.
Delmore Pilcrow - Meet Conor Fogerty.
Bad Design - But well executed.
David Liebe Hart Band - Clipped glam echo.
New Science Projects - Barroom inebriate declaims.
Bludded Head - Slow sludgy grind.
Morsza Records - Sad syncopated songster.
Botany - Celestial aether beat.
Glen Farris - Morose mountain music.
Square Business - Melodic bass dominates.
More States - Fiddle-de-doom.
Dust Congress - Seasick drankin' song.
Hate Your Friends - Muffled X simulacrum.
Pinkish Black - Throbbing discordant pounding.
Balmorea - Echolalic pulsing interlude.
Danny Rush and the Designated Drivers - Lapidary lysergic lilt.
Juve - Horror flick soundtrack.
Becoming... - Minimalist mandolin waltz.
Fishboy - Accordion folk punk.
Hawk vs Dove - Quaalude Thin Lizzy.
Peopleodeon - Poisoned children's music.
Daniel Francis Doyle - Backward Talking Heads.
Amo Joy - Cabaret rock spectacular.
Melting Season - Electronica with crickets!
Star Commander - Thunderous crashing angst.
Burntsienna Trio - Maynard Krebs repellant.
Def Rain - Icy futurist soundscape.
Ryan Thomas Becker & Last Joke - Gangling shambling man.
Ulnae - Fire depth charges.
Nervous Curtains - Somber synth pop.
Cerulean Giallo - Polyrhythmic feedback maelstrom.
Lord Buffalo - Lachrymose lycantrophic lament.
RTB2 - Texas vampire blues.
Datahowler - Computer app soul.
Special Guest - Frisky punk blast.
My Education - Spectral sing along.
Spooky Folk - DIY garage Motown.
Forever Home - Sad happy sounds.
Drink To Victory - Emo scream metal.
Sans Soleil - Hammer Films dirge.
Baruch the Scribe - Mutant insect pop.
Two Knights - Acrid soul spillage.
Diamond Age - Cascading electric balloons.
Secret Cakes - Is this Soundgarden?
Babar - Crimson meets Beefheart.
Satans of Soft Rock - Satans? Satin? Santana!
PD Wilder - Layered feedback drone.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Mo' Bob -- Basement Tapes; in print


For reasons that are unimportant to this discussion, I find myself house bound and unemployed. While my heart is full, there's a hole in my soul, and I've given up on my customary means of filling it. Absent those, I'm reading more now than I have in 30 years, and I'm using this opportunity to catch up on some musical things I've missed in the past five decades. Like all the performers Allen Lowe writes about in his books. And Bob Dylan.


I got the Columbia 2CD of The Basement Tapes and listened to it late at night, when I was alone and free of distractions, per my pal Phil's recommendation, and was overwhelmed by how much I could be affected by music I'd managed to avoid since their "official" release in '75. By then, they'd already been a rumor for eight years, unless you were one of the musos or industry people who'd heard one of the acetates Bob's British publishers circulated, or one of the bootlegs that started appearing in '69. (One of my friends has the 4CD A Tree With Roots -- great title, from a line in "You Ain't Going Nowhere" -- while another has the 5CD Genuine Basement Tapes. There are lots more.) Bob and the ex-Hawks sound like they're inventing a new kind of music.

The way we got here was my remark to Phil that I found the Hawks more obtrusive than other bands of Bob's, probably because they have a stronger identity. I'm not a fan of the Band per se, although I'm not as anti-Band as a muso I used to play with, who claims to hate "that fucking 'take a load off Fanny' song" more than anything on Earth. In fact, I have an abiding fondness for their second, self-titled album, which my seventh grade science teacher, who was also a friend of my parents', gave me when I was 13 because her son, who was also a Who fan (and wound up spending 30 years in Africa with the Peace Corps) dug it.

I got a vinyl copy of The Band a couple of years ago, in the same textured gatefold I remember, and was reassured to find it still casts the same spell. The cover photo looked like it should have been taken by Matthew Brady; who'd a thunk that 40 years down the line, the guys in the Band, with their rustic clothes and facial hair, would be the most influential act from their time, sartorially speaking?

Back when it was new, their music sounded really old to me, but then again, I'd only recently been obsessed with Live At Leeds. Years later, I realized that the 19th century echoes I imagined I was hearing on The Band were actually the refracted voices of Ray Charles and Bobby Bland: Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, and Levon Helm were actually soul singers, although Levon's voice had the twang of Appalachia in it. Danko's the best high harmony there is, and when his unison shadows Manuel on "Bessie Smith," the effect is haunting.

The rollicking roll in the Band's music, particularly Danko's bass, was actually rooted in New Orleans second line. I heard the same sound in Little Feat, who should also have paid royalties to Professor Longhair, the Meters, and the Wild Tchopitoulas. On The Basement Tapes, that second line strut is present on Dylan's "Open the Door, Homer" and the Band's "Yazoo Street Scandal" and "Don't Ya Tell Henry" (both sung by Levon after he returned to the fold; he'd quit the Hawks in '66 because he didn't dig getting booed by Dylan's folk-purist fans, yielding the drum seat to a guy who wound up on the TV show Home Improvement in the '90s).

I've always found Garth Hudson's swirling, carnivalesque organ to be one of the most easily recognizable instrumental sounds, but hearing The Basement Tapes has given me a new respect for Robbie Robertson as a guitarist. On many of these tracks, he synthesizes what was best about Steve Cropper's and Hubert Sumlin's styles, and gives an inkling of what Dylan was talking about when he called Robertson "the only mathematical guitar genius I’ve ever run into who doesn’t offend my intestinal nervousness with his rearguard sound." You still can't imagine him playing a long solo, but his little decorative fills and short, punchy statements are immaculate.

Part of what's so striking about The Basement Tapes is hearing Dylan invent a new voice (or two) for himself, and to these feedback-scorched ears, the secret influence is Manuel, who could sound robust and plaintive, virile and vulnerable at the same time. Gone is the nasal stridency of the early folk period and the "thin, wild Mercury sound" of the '65-'66 epoch, when Bob was reinventing everyone's consciousness. In its place is something more resonant that you can hear evolving into Nashville Skyline's rounded tenor; listen to "Please, Mrs. Henry" ("I'm down on my knees, and I ain't got a dime"), the great "Yea! Heavy and a Bottle of Bread," and "Tiny Montgomery," in which Dylan's sleepy, slurred inflection is redolent of the bayou. Then again, on "This Wheel's On Fire," co-written with Danko, Dylan's voice is virtually indistinguishable from Manuel's. And contrary to my earlier perception, Bob's beautifully integrated into the group, without fear of his lead being overshadowed by backing singers who, man for man, are stronger vocalists than he is.

On "Too Much of Nothing," with its crazy ascending melody, Dylan sounds as if he's been infected by the Band's melodic adventurousness. Elsewhere, he relies on classic forms in the same way he did in his folk period. "Odds and Ends" is straight ahead blues and "Apple Suckling Tree" uses gospel changes, while "Nothing Was Delivered" echoes Bobby Marchan's "There Is Something On Your Mind." Throughout, there's a sense of ease here, a marked contrast with the urgency of Dylan's earlier work, where words and ideas flowed out of him as though he couldn't wait to get them out.

In his book Bob Dylan: Performing Artist, 1960-1963 (the first volume of a trilogy), Paul Williams refers to the time following Dylan's '66 motorcycle crash, when The Basement Tapes and John Wesley Harding were recorded, as a time of "great healing," and wonders "why this creative flowering didn't last." Myself, I think of The Basement Tapes as the supernova that followed Dylan's '65-'66 drug-fueled zenith of creativity -- a peak that wasn't sustainable, as Dylan realized while it was happening and bailed out of as quickly as he could. In a way, perhaps his Woodstock idyll was a way of repaying the musicians for enduring the slings and arrows of the tempestuous '66 tour -- an opportunity to commingle their creative streams for a moment, after the Hawks had spent three months playing a set drawn from Dylan's catalog under the most suboptimal conditions imaginable.


As I write this, Paul Williams is in hospice. Since 1995, he's been suffering from dementia brought on by traumatic brain injury sustained in a bicycle accident, but when he was a teenager back in the '60s, he helped create rock journalism from the whole cloth of his listener's enthusiasm coupled with his experience publishing sci-fi fanzines. His first book, Outlaw Blues (titled after a Dylan song from Bringing It All Back Home) taught me how to listen analytically, but his greatest achievement just might be his Dylan trilogy. It was the first place I went when I was looking for a Dylan companion (Greil Marcus being too obtuse for my taste, Clinton Heylin too insufferably snarky and self-aggrandizing).

The first volume is a fanatic collector's delight; I'm glad I had Bootleg Series Volumes 1-3 when I started, or I'd be, if not frustrated, then certainly tantalized by his descriptions of recordings that didn't see legit release until Sony started "bootlegging the bootleggers" in the '90s. The 1964 Philharmonic Hall concert sounds particularly intriguing, as does the "piano-only" version of "She's Your Lover Now," which Williams conditionally amends to a characteristically quirky list of "masterpieces" that include "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright," "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall," "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Like A Rolling Stone," the seldom seen '78 film Renaldo and Clara, and "Blind Willie McTell."

The '66 tour is the subject of some of Williams' sharpest writing, which will ring true for any reader who's ever been fortunate to experience the thrill of a successful musical performance as a participant. His capacity for empathy makes him the Stephen Crane of rockcrits: "He knew full well he was burning the candle at both ends, that it couldn't go on like this, that he was hurting himself. But he also loved the results he was getting...an unimaginable freedom from self-consciousness, a total willingness to share in each song everything he's feeling and everything each song means to him, to give it all away without any conditions to anyone who happens to be listening."


Or you could go to the man himself. Dylan's Chronicles, Volume One is a quick, easy read that will frustrate fans who are looking for Ugly Things-style detail, but that's not really his job, is it? (A friend of mine groused after reading Pete Townshend's Who I Am that "he didn't say anything about the 'Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere' recording session." Myself, I thought that the bits where Big T describes his stage trip as a comment on the threat of nuclear annihilation, and his Mod constituency buttonholing him after "I Can't Explain" was released and "commissioning" him to "write more songs like that!" were more germane in terms of getting us inside Pete's head. Not to mention the bits about hearing music in a boat's motor as a kid, or being praised by his great aunt for banging on her piano.) At least he doesn't keep veering into the ditch of his current obsessions the way Neil Young did in his memoir.

You won't find anything about The Basement Tapes or the '66 tour in Chronicles. Perversely, Bob mainly focuses on three distinct time periods: his early days in the Village, up to his signing with Columbia; the time leading up to his early '70s reemergence with New Morning; and the writing and recording of the '80s album Oh Mercy, which includes lots of detail on his creative process and is vaguely reminiscent of Young's description of the trials 'n' tribs that resulted in Americana and Psychedelic Pill (the episode begins with Dylan injured and unable to play). In some ways, Chronicles is like a play or movie where the "real action" takes place offstage or off camera. While the cataclysmic years of '65-'66 are alluded to obliquely but never discussed, they hang over the New Morning chapter like a pall, and Dylan does express his feelings on his image, the interpretation of his songs, and the effect of celebrity on his family life.

Dylan's at his worst when talking about the technical side of music-making; there's a five-page description of a guitar technique he learned from bluesman Lonnie Johnson that's fairly unfathomable (perhaps he's trying to get people like me to go back and listen to Oh Mercy?). He's better when he recalls growing up in the midwest, his impressions of New York City, his love of folk music and admiration for his peers (Dave Van Ronk, Joan Baez, Ramblin' Jack Elliott) and influences (Robert Johnson, The Threepenny Opera, and above all, Woody Guthrie). My favorite bits are the unexpected ones: the regard with which he writes of early '60s teen idol Bobby Vee, for whom he once played piano; his description of building furniture for his first New York apartment (Bob the tool man?); his recollection of watching sports and playing ice hockey as a kid in the North Country (the latter something he probably shared with the Canadians in the Hawks/Band).

To be continued...

Pssst! Hey, kid! Wanna hear a new Fungi Girls track?

It's "Old Foamy," from the Lo-Life Recordings/Dreamy Soundz compilation "Group Therapy" Volume One, released on cassette (!) and available digitally via Bandcamp. I love this track so much that if it was a woman, I would marry it (if I wasn't already married).